The dangers of Trump and climate conspiracy theories

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Donald Trump has predictably resorted to insinuation to mask his deficiencies. Speaking to reporters after the first presidential debate, he said: 'They gave me a defective mic. Did you notice that? My mic was defective within the room. I wonder, was that on purpose?'

Donald Trump and Hillary ClintonIt is hilarious until you realise how it would be received by supporters. Two days on, one theory making the rounds is that Hillary Clinton was making coded gestures to debate moderator Lester Holt. There is also speculation that she was fed questions beforehand. It is not hard to miss the set-up for #riggedelection.

It captures something of contemporary politics, where the line between conspiracy theory and legitimate anti-establishment criticism is more smudged than ever. A deficit of trust is one thing; an active detachment from truth is something else.

Sometimes I miss the days when conspiracy theories were cuter, like Area 51 cover-ups of aliens, the fake moon landing and Jesuits being a global, shadow government. It can be fun to speculate, as long as we don't fall into the trap of taking what we don't know too seriously. That is the way of superstition and paranoia.

Demogorgons — sorry, I mean demagogues — thrive on such disorientations, hauling people into murkier versions of reality. If we drew a Venn diagram of subscribers to intrigue, we would probably find an overlap inhabited by climate change denialists, men's rights activists, the halal-phobic, and people who believe in a queer agenda.

We all know someone who ticks more than one of these boxes. We can tell by the degree to which they bend reality to their worldview. When a power blackout gripped South Australia this week, Senator Malcolm Roberts was quick to tweet, 'I call on South Australia and the country to urgently exit all climate change policies that are the direct cause of this huge mess in SA.'

Severe weather, which affected infrastructure in Port Augusta, which led to a protective shut-down, which might have tripped up the system due to a voltage drop, which might have been exacerbated by insufficient alternate transmission lines, which may have nothing to do with interconnectors to Victoria — that is too much electrical engineering to deal with. Ergo, the blackout is due to climate change policy.

It is to be expected. Roberts recently said in parliament that the atmosphere cannot possibly warm the earth's surface. In order for anyone to say that, they would have to believe that physics is bunk.

 

"Not everything is a lie, even the things that are difficult to understand. Reality is always complicated — that does not mean the truth has been maliciously kept from you."

 

Conspiracy theorism has become the blade of choice for those entangled by the knots of life in this millennium — scientific complexities, technological disruptions, cultural shifts led by empowered minorities, failures of 'third way' politics. For all its convolutions, a good conspiracy theory cuts through: someone can be blamed.

On the one hand, moral independence and scepticism are good shields against institutional power. It is not a bad thing to resist the status quo and demand accountability.

On the other hand, no one is out to get you, specifically. Not everything is a lie, even the things that are difficult to understand. Reality is always complicated — that does not mean the truth has been maliciously kept from you.

Perhaps this is why conspiracy theories lately have so much currency: too many people mistaking insecurity for wisdom, fear for certainty. If this were all it is, then we could chalk it up to human nature. But as a mode of political engagement, it is dangerous.

If there is already a deficit of trust, how can sowing doubt and blame restore our institutions? If conspiracy theories continue to be wielded like blades, what will be left to hold together our polity?

There are indications that the coming US election will have a higher turnout than recent years. Seismic shifts in voter demographics, a strong Democratic push for registration, the pervasive sense of a historical election (last felt during Barack Obama's first campaign) — these and other factors will bring voters to the polls. The prospect of ceding reality to those who spurn it in the first place means that the stakes are nosebleed-high. We will know how successful Trump has been in undermining the integrity of the democratic process not when he wins — but if he loses.

 


Fatima MeashamFatima Measham is a Eureka Street consulting editor. She tweets @foomeister and blogs at This is Complicated. She is a featured guest at this year's Melbourne Writers Festival.

Topic tags: Fatima Measham, Donald Trump, Hillary Clinton, presidential debate, climate change denial

 

 

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Existing comments

The trouble with casting people as "goodie" or "baddie" is the grey area (pardon the pun) each candidate falls into. There is always a contrived air about US Presidential elections - spin doctors take a bow! On a rainy, and gloriously free, morning (yesterday) I relished reading Alice Munro's sublime story "Hateship, Friendship, Courtship, Loveship, Marriage". Don't let the title put you off. This is a story of human frailty and human strength, with a liberal dose of God's grace.
Pam | 30 September 2016


Fair enough. But what's wrong with 'men's rights'? Just go down the family courts in Ireland any day and watch how fathers are routinely regarded almost automatically as either 'not suitable as parents' or almost always second-best to mum. Bah humbug.
Dr Philip O'Keeffe | 30 September 2016


Wise words, Fatima. Then again, perhaps even the conspiracy theorists deserve a hearing sometimes. After all, the idea that governments were spying on you and collecting all your data would definitely have fallen in the tinfoil hat league until 2013 (and formed an amusing film plot in "Enemy of the State") - and then along came Snowden. Likewise, the 2012 Defence Intelligence Agency document (http://www.judicialwatch.org/wp-content/uploads/2015/05/Pg.-291-Pgs.-287-293-JW-v-DOD-and-State-14-812-DOD-Release-2015-04-10-final-version11.pdf) which predicted (with evident approval) the rise of a Salafist state centred on Raqqa suggests that the conspiracy theorists who draw links between the US and Daesh are not necessarily entirely crazy (a suspicion not much allayed by the allegedly accidental airstrikes on the Syrian army at Deir ez Zor this month). Not that I think you should believe everything you hear. Cynicism should not be our default mode. Unfortunately, however, the moral independence and scepticism which you so rightly ask sometimes leads to the scary possibility that (just occasionally) the conspiracies are real.
Justin Glyn SJ | 30 September 2016


The media at home and abroad have tried to depict the US presidential election as good Clinton and a bad Trump. There is no doubt that Trump is a joke, but this did not deter US voters from electing Ronald Reagan as president many years ago. However, if Clinton is elected as president, this could be quite dangerous for world peace. Many Americans who don't like Trump do not like Clinton either and view her as a war criminal because of actions she took while she was Secretary of State- especially the war against Libya. My hope is that most Americans will vote for the Greens candidate who is standing on a platform of peace, social justice and environmental responsibility. I do think it may be a forlorn hope, but it would be good if the media gave us the full picture.
Andrew (Andy) Alcock | 02 October 2016


There are real conspiracies, I would have to concede. We should, for example, rightly raise questions about the exceptional influence of corporate lobbies and political donors. The machinations that led to the Iraq invasion were conspiratorial in character. However, the antidote to such conspiracies is deeper transparency via whistle-blower protections, robust institutional checks and balances etc. Conspiracy theories, on the other hand, would not be remedied in this way. To borrow Ellena Savage's words: 'Conspiracy theorism, rather, is seeing every piece of counter-evidence, every lack of evidence, as evidence of a conspiracy. A conspiracy theory is defined around the fact it can't be falsified; it proves itself in its own articulation.'
Fatima Measham | 03 October 2016


"A conspiracy theory is defined around the fact it can't be falsified; it proves itself in its own articulation." That sounds like gender theory which can't be falsified either because gender is apparently what you say you are. Are people who believe in gender theory also inside that Venn intersection, sitting next to, smiling at and serving as proof of concept to “the people who believe in a queer agenda”?
Roy Chen Yee | 03 October 2016


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