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Louise Mensch's world. Politics

The Rise of the Liberal Conspiracy Theorist

Louise Mensch’s loony Trump fantasies fill a craving the left didn’t know it had.

You may have heard on the internet last week that, according to “multiple sources close to the intelligence, justice, and law enforcement communities,” the marshal of the Supreme Court had commenced the sacred impeachment-notification rite—you know, the one you learned about in civics class, in which the marshal marches to the White House in a cool costume and tells the president that proceedings for his removal have begun. “The notification was given, as part of the formal process of the matter, in order that Mr. Trump knew he was not able to use his powers of pardon against other suspects in Trump-Russia cases,” Louise Mensch explained on her website Patribotics. She added, “Sources have confirmed that the Marshal of the Supreme Court spoke to Mr. Trump.”

Earlier this month, Mensch and Claude Taylor had reported for Patribotics that “separate sources with links to the intelligence and justice communities have stated that a sealed indictment has been granted against Donald Trump.” While the Supremacy Clause of the U.S. Constitution forestalled Trump’s immediate prosecution, Orrin Hatch—the federal government’s “designated survivor”—was already receiving copies of security briefings to ensure “a smooth transition of power.” Meanwhile, Paul Ryan awaited arrest for racketeering.

For those of us who haven’t yet found a great hiding spot behind the gold curtains in the Oval Office, it’s impossible to know with certainty what’s going on in the Trump administration. Mensch’s blog and Twitter feed, larded as they are with double secret indictments, SCOTUS marshals sounding the horn of impeachment, and Russian spies in every desk drawer, invite all of us into the White House through a side door, one that’s accessible only via the 11th dimension. Sources with links to the intelligence, justice, and literary communities tell me that Mensch’s overheated, conspiratorial prose is very easy to mock. After her Supreme Court marshal “scoop” started to crawl across the web, pundits ridiculed it as the “saddest fanfic ever” and “another hot scoop rooted in finely granular knowledge of how the U.S. government does not operate.”

But Louise Mensch shouldn’t be dismissed as a crank with a Wi-Fi connection. In March, she penned a widely publicized piece for the New York Times titled “What to Ask About Russian Hacking.” Her reporting—well, some of her reporting—has been confirmed by the Times and Washington Post, and she gets cited in tweets by celebrities, DNC staffers, and congresspeople. Last month, Keith Olbermann alluded to a bombshell she’d dropped claiming Carter Page had ferried a tape from Washington to Moscow—a recording that allegedly featured Trump reciting a series of promises to shift U.S. policy in a Putin-friendly manner in exchange for Russia’s helpful interference in the 2016 election.

Mensch is the paranoid bard of the age of Trump. While more sober outlets reel from the president’s madness and question whether the sky is blue, she deftly weaves plentiful, narcotic tales about Russian infiltration. She has become a new stock character in this shambolic White House opera: the liberal conspiracy theorist, remaking a certain corner of progressive discourse in the image of Breitbart News and Infowars. She is a mirror for the left’s Hitchcockian fantasies and an avatar of our political dysfunction, a symbol of how far off the deep end one has to travel to reach a land beyond believability. According to the Post, Russian propaganda may have beguiled James Comey into bungling the FBI’s probe of Hillary Clinton’s private email server. If this is the reality of 2017, then where is the fringe? It’s a place where Anthony Weiner is a Russian operative, and where Vladimir Putin pulls the strings of Black Lives Matter.

On Twitter, where Mensch boasts 283,000 followers, her short-form musings flutter in a chamber of looniness alongside those of compatriots John Schindler (a former NSA spy who resigned from his teaching position at the Naval War College after a controversy involving a dick pic) and the aforementioned Claude Taylor (a D.C.­–based photographer with the username @TrueFactsStated). As Zack Beauchamp chronicled in Vox, the members of this febrile amen circle spur and amplify each other, sprinkling their fevered accusations with terms of art from the world of espionage, among them deza (short for dezinformatsiya, or disinformation) and Chekist (the word for former KGB officers who now enjoy political prominence in Putin’s Russia). On Mensch’s own feed, she chops up and remixes handles and hashtags to score her delirious mood music: Romanian hackers, @Yandex, #hostkey. @FBI, @GCHQ. Komprat? Agitprop. GLOMAR! Combative and righteous, she refers to Republican senators like Pat Toomey as “douchebags.” She posted that she hopes Trump will “die in jail, at least stay there til the tertiary syphillis really kicks in :).”

As Beauchamp observes, the through line of these florid conjectures is not so much a single conspiracy (à la birtherism) as a vision of insidious and saturating Russian influence. On the websites Heat Street and Patribotics, Mensch has suggested that Putin had Andrew Breitbart killed so Steve Bannon could take up his mantle, that a nightclub massacre in Istanbul was engineered by Russians posing as ISIS terrorists, and that the Kremlin lurked behind the Boston Marathon attacks. Her tapestry of GOP–Moscow collusion evokes both the Cold War and Mission Impossible. A self-described conservative, Mensch calls herself a “pro–national security partisan” and “a patriot in the service of the intelligence community.” If she despises the Republican Party, it is because she thinks it is abetting a hostile foreign power. Mensch’s rightward tilt doesn’t stop left-wing readers from ingesting her hatred like a drug. The technical language and the “multiple sources” imply that a real doctor prepared the dose.

Mensch, who was born in London in 1971, has a talent for sexy narratives. She first made her name in the mid-1990s as a “chick lit” novelist, publishing steamy (yet “feminist”!) books with titles like Desire and Passion. In 2006, she was recruited to David Cameron’s Conservative bloc as part of an effort to strengthen the political presence of women and minorities. The “glamorous” “fluffy bunny” won election to parliament four years later, becoming a folk hero soon after thanks to her “sharp, precise, coolly scornful” interrogation of global media magnates Rupert and James Murdoch vis-à-vis their tabloid’s phone-hacking scandal. Mensch revealed her flair for the gotcha moment when she asked the elder Murdoch why, when the News of the World’s misdeeds came to light, he didn’t take the fall and resign. She later invoked that moment of glory in the New York Times, proposing questions the House Intelligence Committee might put to witnesses testifying about the Russia scandal. “I have some relevant experience,” she noted.

After leaving parliament and moving to the United States—the former president of Oxford’s rock society, she wed the manager of Metallica and resettled with him in New York—the British expat launched a new career in online journalism. Heat Street, which she founded in April 2016, was touted by the Daily Beast as “Gawker for the right,” a site that slung scoops about, for instance, the alleged financial misdeeds of Bernie Sanders’ wife Jane Sanders. A conspiracy theorist would note here that Heat Street was financed by none other than Rupert Murdoch. (Hey, we’re just asking questions!) The reality is that the hard-charging, publicity-savvy former MP always had the disposition of a U.K.–style tabloid reporter. Her profile rose in the U.S. when she melded that journalistic approach with a flag-waving, America-first mission to smoke out the traitors in our midst.

Mensch, who told the Daily Beast’s Lloyd Grove in May 2016 that she didn’t “fit neatly into the GOP,” predicted at that stage that Ted Cruz would win the Republican nomination. “My personal objection to Donald Trump,” she said in her interview with Grove, “is that he has said very racist things, is lying to the voters, and is a fairly radical left-wing Democrat.” Yet on Heat Street, Mensch offered up a series of tepidly pro-Trump posts, chiding Democrats for puzzling over the TV star’s electoral win and praising several of his Cabinet appointees. She saved her most vehement denunciations of the president for Twitter while churning out furious critiques of Putin on all possible platforms.

The night before Election Day, Mensch published a huge, Trump-related scoop. “Two separate sources with links to the counter-intelligence community have confirmed to Heat Street that the FBI sought, and was granted, a FISA court warrant in October, giving counter-intelligence permission to examine the activities of ‘U.S. persons’ in Donald Trump’s campaign with ties to Russia,” she proclaimed under a headline blaring “EXCLUSIVE.” The Washington Post and New York Times corroborated her reporting months later, revealing that the Justice Department had obtained permission to wiretap Trump adviser Carter Page.

Rather than push her toward Grey Lady–approved fact-finding methods, Mensch’s brush with legitimacy seemed to encourage her to abandon the strictures of traditional journalism. She departed from Heat Street in January to focus on Patribotics, a new venture devoted to unraveling “Vladimir Putin’s war on America.” While her articles grew more monomaniacal in theme and tone, they also drew legitimacy from Mensch’s March piece in the Times and her rising profile as a television pundit. Even as she bathed in the press’s fascination with her own project, Mensch blasted the hidebound Fourth Estate for its slow-footededness and criticized the Times and NBC for stealing her work (via screenshots extravagantly underlined in sensational red).

Meanwhile, as Vox’s Beauchamp describes, political elites like former Democratic National Committee chair Donna Brazile and current DNC communications hand Adrienne Watson were tweeting her “exclusives.” Several Obama staffers, a constitutional law professor at Harvard, and Olbermann also cited Patribotics posts, clotted now more than ever with assurances about “sources close to the intelligence community.” A few weeks ago, Massachusetts Sen. Ed Markey apologized after propagating the Menschian whisper that a New York grand jury was investigating Trump and Russia. (Why, you might be wondering, would sources close to the intelligence community leak to the likes of Louise Mensch rather than a major newspaper? Because, as Mensch recently explained on Twitter, “people linked to intel are impressed when patriot amateurs WORK and try to help.”)

That push-pull between belief and dismissiveness hints at a crossroads for liberals in the age of Trump. Unlike the fringy right, which has long relied on sites like Infowars and Breitbart to ratify its dreams and fears, the left lacks a well-developed infrastructure for spreading toxic and intoxicating innuendo. But progressives are angry and scared. They do seek out the pleasures of outrage and worldview confirmation. No political moment since at least the Nixon presidency has provided such fertile ground for conspiracy theories. Leaks spill ceaselessly from the White House, the Justice Department, and the FBI, a drip drip drip that’s as ceaseless as a ticking clock. (Five o’clock or thereabouts has become the new political witching hour, when all manner of inversions and mischief might occur.) Mensch’s scoops defy common sense and make a mockery of U.S. institutions. But so does Trump. Even her most tenuously sourced, outrageous tales feel like they’re on the cusp of tipping over into truth.

Outside of her filter bubble, Mensch isn’t taken particularly seriously. Yet to write her off entirely feels almost as naïve as to buy her product. Whether or not she believes that Trump is a pawn of Moscow, Mensch has discovered an unmanned stall in the information marketplace and transformed it into a hub. We can’t know the degree to which she’s fueled by ideological commitment as opposed to savvy opportunism. We can, though, ponder how a taste of mainstream approval and enthrallment might have converted a libertarian into a left-wing crusader, and how our desire to make sense of this hallucinatory president may have enlisted an entrepreneurial British woman in a peculiarly American story. Louise Mensch fashions wares we didn’t know we needed and delivers them to us through channels we didn’t realize we had. We say we want “nothing but the truth.” Her cottage industry of conspiracies thrives because, like the best sleuths and salespeople, she sees right through us.

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