Conservatives claim to hate 'cancel culture' — but it's the heart of the right-wing agenda

You know who's not canceled? The endless parade of conservative pundits and politicians complaining about "cancel culture." You know who is canceled? George Floyd is canceled. Breonna Taylor is canceled. Ma'Khia Bryant is canceled. Andrew Brown Jr. is canceled. They are the true victims in America's longest-running culture war. Anyone who tells you different is just gaslighting. You want "cancel culture"? America is plagued with cancel culture. And no one is more American than conservatives, as they never cease reminding you.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Despite earlier boutique appeal, the term "cancel culture" had only faintly registered with the broader public before the July Fourth holiday last year (Google trends), when then-President Donald Trump gave a speech at Mount Rushmore, warning of "a growing danger that threatens every blessing our ancestors fought so hard for," and saying that his opponents' "political weapons" included ''cancel culture' — driving people from their jobs, shaming dissenters, and demanding total submission from anyone who disagrees."

It was a ludicrous accusation coming from the man who's signature line — "You're fired!" — was the quintessential expression of actually-existing cancel culture. More recently, Trump had been the main driver of the cancellation of NFL Colin Kaepernick, demanding not just that the NFL quarterback be fired, but driven from the country. That absurdity prompted CNN fact-checker Daniel Dale to post a list of people or institutions Trump had called out to cancel on Twitter over the years, ranging from corporations like AT&T, Apple and Macy's to newspapers like the Dallas Morning News and the Arizona Republic to liberal commentators like Paul Krugman and Touré and even conservatives like Karl Rove, Rich Lowry, Charles Krauthammer and Jonah Goldberg.

But now that Trump himself has been canceled by the votes of 81,268,924 Americans, "cancel culture" has become a go-to weapon of choice for Trumpian conservatives, fueled by a branded string of stories in conservative media, including the New York Post, Breitbart, the Daily Caller and the Daily Wire. With Trump himself no longer dominating news cycles 24/7, there's a huge void to fill. Conservative "cancel culture" panic helps fill that void by providing a shared cookie-cutter framework to both fuel and give shape to that panic — which is in fact a genuine cultural panic about the white right's loss of power to impose its worldview, and resulting judgments, on others. To hold onto power, conservatives are committed to building the "cancel culture" narrative, casting themselves as victims — along the lines of my December Salon story on perceived victimhood.

A meaningfully meaningless term

As Media Matters editor Parker Malloy argues, regarding the terms "cancel culture," "woke" and "identity politics": "Whatever real definitions these words had before they were co-opted by the right have been diluted to the point of meaninglessness." For conservatives, that meaninglessness is a feature, not a bug. Those words mean whatever a right-wing accuser needs them to mean in the moment. They are talismanic terms, representing the very cultural power the right feels itself losing in today's rapidly changing world. "Cancel culture" in particular has a profound Orwellian or even Nietzschean power: a transvaluation of values, transforming a moment of existential loss into one of triumph, at least for as long as we let them get away with it.

There are, however, two modest constraints on meaning we can observe: the notions that cancel culture is something new, and that it comes exclusively from the left. The reality is exactly the opposite. For as long as culture has been changing, conservatives have tried to stop it by suppressing or demonizing anything that challenges their worldview. Not all conservatives, of course, and not in all ways. But this has been a central thrust of conservative thought, not just in the modern political era, when the terms "liberal" and "conservative" emerged, but as far back as ancient Greece, as Eric Alfred Havelock showed in "The Liberal Temper in Greek Politics."

In American history we can see dramatic examples of conservative cancel culture in the Alien and Sedition Acts, in the 4,743 post-Civil War lynchings to terrorize and suppress black political power, in the post-World War I Palmer Raids, in which 10,000 were arrested and 556 deported, in the McCarthy era, during which hundreds were imprisoned and 10,000 to 12,000 Americans lost their jobs — including the long-neglected anti-gay Lavender Scare — and in the FBI's COINTELPRO Program, which targeted the 1960s civil rights and anti-war movements, labelling Martin Luther King Jr.'s SCLC as a Black nationalist "hate group." Trump's obsession with canceling people he fears fits squarely within this historical tradition. After all, his political mentor and second father-figure was Joe McCarthy's lead investigator, Roy Cohn. We shouldn't be the least bit surprised or confused by the cancel culture hysteria being promoted today as a front for the same evils it pretends to be fighting against.

Still, the term itself is new compared to this centuries-long history, so it warrants clarification. In early April, the Washington Post's Clyde McGrady provided an excellent guide, "The strange journey of 'cancel,' from a Black-culture punchline to a White-grievance watchword." McGrady offers a concise cultural history, from legendary songwriter/producer Nile Rodgers' experience with a bad date, rendered into the 1981 Chic song "Your Love Is Cancelled" to its appearance in "New Jack City" a decade later to 2000s songs "Hustler's Ambition" by 50 Cent and "I'm Single" by Lil Wayne and finally to Black Twitter.

"Declaring someone or something 'canceled' on Twitter was not really an attempt to activate a boycott or run anyone from the public square," McGrady explains. "Saying someone was 'canceled' was more like changing the channel — and telling your friends and followers about it — than demanding that the TV execs take the program off the air."

It's worth highlighting that Rodgers' bad-date experience at the root of all this sprang from his working-class common man rejection of tossing his cultural weight around:

[A]t heart, he was still a humble kid whose parents had struggled with drug addiction and who felt fortunate to have made it as far as he did. So, when his date asked the maître d' to remove people from a table so they could sit there instead, Rodgers bristled. …
Her attempt to use his celebrity to push people around was a dealbreaker. "No, no, no, I don't do that," Rodgers remembered explaining. "I don't play that card."

In short, canceling everyday people in the way that conservatives portray "cancel culture" to work was the exact opposite of what motivated Rodgers to coin the term in the first place, as well as how it's been used on Twitter. Think about that anytime you hear the term used.

You should also think of everything conservatives are doing — or trying to do — right now to cancel the views of those they disagree with. The following are just a few prominent examples. In each case, it's about those who wield power "canceling" — or at least trying to cancel — those who would challenge them. Their efforts to cancel democracy at the ballot box (with 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24) and in the streets (81 anti-protest bills in 34 states as of April 21) are deadly serious threats to American democracy.

But the right's most persistent, long-running cancel-culture attacks center on education. As Fairness and Accuracy In Reporting noted on William F. Buckley's death, "Buckley's career began in 1951 with the publication of 'God and Man at Yale,' an attack on his alma mater that urged the firing of professors whom he felt were insufficiently hostile to socialism and atheism."

Cancel culture in education

In March, Boise State University abruptly suspended all 52 sections of a required general education course, "Foundations of Ethics & Diversity," citing "allegations that a student or students have been humiliated and degraded in class on our campus for their beliefs and values." Suspending 52 sections of a required course without investigation for perhaps a single student complaint is of course wildly out of bounds, as pointed out by John K. Wilson at the Academe blog:

Even if one instructor had done something terrible in one class, that would only justify (in the most extreme cases) suspending that instructor temporarily and finding a substitute to continue the class. It could not justify suspending all 52 classes in which there was no evidence of any misconduct.

Shedding light on the over-reaction, The Foundation for Individual Rights in Education reported, "The cancellation of the classes comes after more than a year of lawmakers' efforts to rein in classes at Idaho universities and colleges." But the legislature wasn't acting on its own, as Wilson made clear:

The Idaho legislators are being pressured by right-wing nonprofits who demand censorship of liberal ideas on campus. A December 2020 report from the right-wing Idaho Freedom Foundation and the Claremont Institute declared that "eliminating social justice initiatives at Idaho's universities is necessary for meaningful reform, as well as disrupting their ability to provide stable careers for social justice advocates." The report called for the state legislature to act by "penalizing universities that continue to emphasize social justice education." This report urged the state legislature to violate academic freedom and ban classes it deemed too liberal: "Direct the University to eliminate courses that are infused with social justice Ideology." Leading right-wing think tanks are actively demanding a ban on courses based on their ideology. This is an example of conservative cancel culture far more extreme than anything pushed by left-wing activists.

The report doesn't just call for eliminating individual courses, however. It calls for the elimination of five whole departments — Gender Studies, Sociology, Global Studies, Social Work and History — that it claims are infused with "social justice" ideology. (A sixth blacklisted department has since been added: Criminal Justice.) Eight other departments (later updated to nine) are on a watch list of sorts, judged to be "social justice in training." What conservatives want here is strikingly similar to what Viktor Orbán has done in Hungary, where he's just announced the privatization of 11 public universities, to be run by political allies.

Boise State's recklessly illegal actions are just the tip of the iceberg. On April 15, Education Week reported that Republican lawmakers in eight states (including Idaho) have drafted bills restricting how teachers can discuss racism and sexism. "The bills use similar language as an executive order former President Donald Trump put in place to ban diversity trainings for federal workers," it reported.

Georgetown political scientist Donald Moynihan saw all this coming years ago. In a New York Times op-ed just before Trump took office, Moynihan — then at the University of Wisconsin — focused attention on what was really happening where he worked.

"At least three times in the past six months, state legislators have threatened to cut the budget of the University of Wisconsin at Madison for teaching about homosexuality, gender and race," his article began. All the discussions focused on the dangers of "political correctness" (the buzzword of choice before "cancel culture") bore no relation to his own experience teaching at public universities in three states over 14 years. "Students can protest on the campus mall, demanding that policies be changed; elected officials can pass laws or cut resources to reflect their beliefs about how a campus should operate," he wrote. "One group has much more power than the other."

I asked Moynihan about how he came to write that piece when he did. Here's what he said:

I was first engaged on speech issues when the then-governor of Wisconsin, Scott Walker, proposed to remove "the search for truth" from my university's mission statement. (He would later claim it was a typo.) He then reduced tenure protections for faculty and new policies that would have made it easier to bring guns on campus. Republican politicians would talk about free speech on campus, but seemed to be intent on eroding the conditions to protect such speech. Politicians were also willing to target faculty members. The chair of the Assembly Higher Education committee started monitoring faculty syllabi and calling for the firing of faculty whose courses he did not like.
That was when I spoke out…. It seemed deeply unfair that state officials would so blatantly use their power to determine what was, and what was not, acceptable speech. ...
Soon after a Ben Shapiro talk was interrupted for about 10 minutes the legislature proposed and the conservative Board of Regents adopted a new set of policies that they said protected free speech but effectively forced campuses to punish students for protest. Our Board of Regents was almost uniformly conservative appointees who seemed to see it as their job to attack the institution they had been appointed to represent.

I'll have more to say about Shapiro's role below. But it's part of a broader campaign. "Conservatives have been successful at demonizing the people who work on campus — faculty, staff and students — as threats to free speech," Moynihan told me. "Attacking universities became a staple of the far right, propelled by an entire ecosystem of media funded by donors like the Koch or DeVos families, such as Campus Reform. [More on them below, too.] Tucker Carlson had a themed segment called 'Campus Craziness.'"

Worse than that, Moynihan said:

The mainstream media bought it. It wasn't just on the right. Journalists at the Atlantic or writers in the New York Times told us that students were becoming dangerously intolerant, and faculty were brainwashing them. My op-ed in the Times was one of the few that pushed against that general narrative. The dominant narrative, even in places like the New York Times, was that conservative speech was being suppressed, and the students and faculty were the villains. Someone counted this! They found that over an 18-month stretch, there were 21 op-eds about the suppression of conservative speech but just three, including mine, on conservative threats to speech.

Remember: Moynihan's op-ed ran just days before Trump took office, having made complaints about "political correctness" a recurrent campaign theme.

"Once the general narrative was established, even trivial examples — students at Oberlin complaining about food names - were presented as serious and representative threats to speech," Moynihan continued. "There were also a series of college tours by people like Milo Yiannopoulos, Ann Coulter and Ben Shapiro who said offensive things designed to enrage people, and then generated protests and interruptions that embellished their brands as fearless free-speech champions."

In March 2018, Sanford Ungar reported on results from the Georgetown Free Speech Tracker:

[M]ost of the incidents where presumptively conservative speech has been interrupted or squelched in the last two or three years seem to involve the same few speakers: Milo Yiannopoulos, Ben Shapiro, Charles Murray, and Ann Coulter…. In some instances, they seem to invite, and delight in, disruption.

At Vox, Zack Beauchamp put a finer point on it:

What Ungar is suggesting here is that the "campus free speech" crisis is somewhat manufactured. Conservative student groups invite speakers famous for offensive and racially charged speech — all of the above speakers fit that bill — in a deliberate attempt to provoke the campus left. In other words, they're trolling.

Trolling takes other forms as well, as Alice Speri reported for the Intercept in early April. Her story carried the subhead, "Campus Reform and its publisher, the Leadership Institute, are siccing armies of trolls on professors across the country." Campus Reform purports to expose "liberal bias and abuse on the nation's college campuses," but regularly relies on misrepresentation, first to elicit faculty comments and then to mis-report them, making them seem as sinister as possible. "Over the last several years, Campus Reform has targeted hundreds of college professors," Speri reported, "leading to online harassment campaigns, doxxing, threats of violence, and calls on universities to fire their faculty."

A Trinity College assistant professor, Isaac Kamola, "has tracked more than 1,570 stories posted on Campus Reform since 2020 and surveyed the 338 individuals they targeted." He "found that at least 40 percent of respondents received 'threats of harm' following a Campus Reform article, mostly via email and social media." She goes on to say, "Less than half the people surveyed by Kamola reported receiving support from their universities' administrations, and more than 12 percent reported facing disciplinary action as a result of a Campus Reform story. Three people said they lost their jobs."

In short, they were canceled. And no one put them on national TV to talk about it. That's just one more way in which conservative gaslighting about cancel culture advances the very thing conservatives claim to be concerned about.

"Having created the narrative of the intolerant liberal campus as a problem, conservative politicians could propose a solution," Moynihan continued. "They could make a case for why their policing of speech on campus was actually protecting free speech. They effectively persuaded many that politicians should be trusted to monitor speech on campus, more than the people who lived on campus and have historically done a pretty good job of protecting speech."

But none of this matched reality. "Wisconsin has a long history of protest and counter-protest on campus, some of it quite violent. The idea that students had suddenly become aggressive seemed clearly wrong to me," Moynihan recalled. "These terms I kept hearing just did not fit with my experience with the students I engaged with. The gap between my lived experience on campus and what was being portrayed in the media was large."

At the same time, "I looked around the world and saw a very disturbing trend: Authoritarian governments in places like Hungary, Turkey and China were policing speech on campus as part of their effort to stifle dissent, using many of the same tools that U.S. state legislatures are adopting," Moynihan said. "For example, a bill in Florida encourages students to record and monitor their professors to expose their views. What could be more chilling to speech in the classroom? This is the same tool that China uses to control universities: Student informers report any dissent against the party."

Canceling democracy at the ballot box

Trump's refusal to accept his defeat in the 2020 election was the epitome of attempting to cancel democracy. But it was only an intensification of processes already underway. Republicans have only won the popular vote for president once in eight elections since 1988. They have not represented a majority of voters in the Senate since 1996. Their $30 million REDMAP project in 2010 created the most sweeping partisan redistricting of the House in US history, as former Salon editor in chief David Daley recounted in "Ratf**ked." Baseless claims of voter fraud have been repeatedly invoked in justifying and motivating voter suppression efforts. More broadly, a new study of state-level democratic backsliding since 2000 found that "Republican control of state government, however, consistently and profoundly reduces state democratic performance during this time period."

Still, what's happening now goes considerably further. A majority of Republicans refuse to believe Biden legitimately won the election, leading to an avalanche of new voter suppression bills — 361 bills in 47 states as of March 24, according to the Brennan Center, which reported:

Most restrictive bills take aim at absentee voting, while nearly a quarter seek stricter voter ID requirements. State lawmakers also aim to make voter registration harder, expand voter roll purges or adopt flawed practices that would risk improper purges, and cut back on early voting.

Sharply underscoring the cancel culture motivations — the conflict between established state power and shifting public opinion — the report continued: "The states that have seen the largest number of restrictive bills introduced are Texas (49 bills), Georgia (25 bills), and Arizona (23 bills). Bills are actively moving in the Texas and Arizona statehouses, and Georgia enacted an omnibus voter suppression bill last week."

The most infamous aspect of the Georgia law is its restriction on giving water to people waiting in long lines to vote. But as election law expert Rick Hasen explained in a New York Times op-ed, there's something even more sinister involved, a "new threat of election subversion" that "represent[s] a huge threat to American democracy itself." Specifically, "The Georgia law removes the secretary of state from decision-making power on the state election board," which is aimed at Brad Raffensperger, who refused to "find" 11,780 votes to overturn Biden's victory. "But the changes will apply to Mr. Raffensperger's successor, too, giving the legislature a greater hand in who counts votes and how they are counted," Hasen explained.

It's hardly an isolated case, he noted: "According to a new report by Protect Democracy, Law Forward and the States United Democracy Center, Republican legislators have proposed at least 148 bills in 36 states that could increase the chances of cooking the electoral books." More precisely, the press release says:

Many of the bills would make elections more difficult to administer or even unworkable; make it more difficult to finalize election results; allow for election interference and manipulation by hyper-partisan actors; and, in the worst cases, allow state legislatures to overturn the will of the voters and precipitate a democracy crisis. If these bills had been in place in 2020, they would have significantly added to the turmoil of the post-election period, and raised the prospect that the outcome of the election would have been contrary to the popular vote.

This is what a real cancel culture crisis looks like. And it's 100% conservative from top to bottom. There are of course some individual conservatives who strongly object — but nowhere near enough.

Canceling democracy in the streets

But democracy doesn't begin and end at the polls. The First Amendment protects basic freedoms that make meaningful democracy possible, including "the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances." Republicans have been busy trying to cancel our democracy on this front as well, with 81 anti-protest bills introduced in 34 states during the 2021 legislative session, "more than twice as many proposals as in any other year, according to Elly Page, a senior legal adviser at the International Center for Not-for-Profit Law," the New York Times reported on April 21. (Those laws are tracked here.)

"Republican legislators in Oklahoma and Iowa have passed bills granting immunity to drivers whose vehicles strike and injure protesters in public streets," the Times reported. But that's just the tip of the iceberg. "We've seen at least 15 bills introduced that would create new immunity for drivers who hit protesters with their cars," Page's colleague Nick Robinson told Democracy Now! on April 26. That just one of many objectionable features in a recently-passed Florida bill that Gov. Ron DeSantis signed while claiming it was as "anti-rioting." The ACLU of Florida characterized it instead as "anti-protest." Just three people would be enough to constitute a "riot" and 26 would constitute an "aggravated riot," potentially facing long prison sentences.

"Under this new bill, let's say you just go to a protest, and a handful of people kick over a trash can. Just by being part of that crowd, you can be arrested and prosecuted for rioting and face a felony," Robinson explained. "Actually, under the law, no one actually has to commit any violence at all. If there's just a danger to property, then people can be arrested for rioting."

In short, this a naked governmental power grab, meant to squelch popular protest, and aimed specificallyat Black Lives Matter protesters. How do we know? Florida lawmakers said as much, and they included a provision blocking any Florida city or county from cutting police budgets without explicit permission from the state.

Conservative anti-protest cancel culture is nothing new, of course. The Palmer Raids were supposed to head off a Russian Revolution-style violent uprising, but only turned up a total of four pistols from thousands of arrests. More recently, Republican state lawmakers have focused on criminalizing climate activism, as the Brennan Center reported in March:

Since 2016, 13 states have quietly enacted laws that increase criminal penalties for trespassing, damage, and interference with infrastructure sites such as oil refineries and pipelines. At least five more states have already introduced similar legislation this year.

The laws are based on post-9/11 national security legislation to protect vital physical infrastructure, "but most state critical infrastructure laws focus more narrowly on oil and gas pipelines," the Center noted. "While protecting critical infrastructure is a legitimate government function, these laws clearly target environmental and Indigenous activists by significantly raising the penalties for participating in or even tangentially supporting pipeline trespassing and property damage, crimes that are already illegal."

And there's one final conservative cancel culture twist: the question of who's calling the shots:

Many laws are modeled on draft legislation prepared by the American Legislative Exchange Council, also known as ALEC, a powerful lobbying group funded by fossil fuel companies like ExxonMobil and Shell.

Cancel culture In Congress

Those are three broad areas where conservative cancel culture is both widespread and deeply dangerous to democracy. But that's hardly the whole story. Consider what's happened with two key Biden appointments, Vanita Gupta, for Associate Attorney General, and Kristen Clarke to head the DOJ Civil Rights Division. Both were subject to dishonest, racist right-wing smear campaigns, as CNN reported, and Gupta was confirmed 51-49, with just one Republican vote (Sen. Lisa Murkowski of Alaska) on April 21. Both were relentlessly portrayed as dangerous extremists, when they've actually been leaders of mainstream civil rights organizations — the Leadership Conference on Civil and Human Rights (Gupta) and Lawyers' Committee on Civil Rights Under Law (Clarke). Both were attacked for supposedly being anti-police (no racial stereotyping there, right?) even though both had been endorsed by police organizations, including the Fraternal Order of Police (Gupta) and the Major Cities Chiefs Association (Clarke).

The attacks on them were part of a broader pattern of attacks on nominees who are women and/or people of color, including Xavier Becerra (Health and Human Services), Deb Haaland (Department of Interior) and Neera Tanden (Office of Management and Budget). Becerra was confirmed 50-49 — with Sen. Susan Collins of Maine as his only GOP vote — while Tanden's nomination was withdrawn.

All this is simply accepted as normal now, but it's prima facie evidence of a concerted conservative cancel-culture effort to stifle the voices of key Democratic constituencies. It's visible in the broad reach of voter suppression efforts, of protest suppression efforts and curriculum suppression efforts as well. They've all but given up on advancing anything like a governing agenda. At the Atlantic, Ron Brownstein observed:

With their opposition to President Joe Biden's infrastructure plan, Republicans are doubling down on a core bet they've made for his presidency: that the GOP can maintain support among its key constituencies while fighting programs that would provide those voters with tangible economic assistance.

To accomplish that, they have to cancel reality itself. No problem — Republicans have been doing that for decades. The only difference now is that they've stopped doing anything else.

Can a 'true' conservatism be redeemed after Trump? Maybe — if it embraces liberalism

It's not just the bedraggled band of "never Trump" Republican refugees on MSNBC and elsewhere who are endlessly vexed. For four long years, the whole mainstream media sphere has been laced with talk about the need for a healthy GOP, a vibrant two-party system, and a return to true conservative values. Critiques of that system, like Lee Drutman's "Breaking the Two-Party Doom Loop," only get a fraction of the attention devoted to these themes. But even more absent is any discussion of what a responsible conservatism might actually look like.

This article first appeared in Salon.

Conservatives who long for the days of George W. Bush or Ronald Reagan overlook one obvious fact: Their legacies helped get us into the current fix they — and we — find ourselves in. Both those presidents nourished the destructive, irrationalist forces that have come to dominate with Donald Trump, and both implemented ill-conceived policies that only made life worse: increasing inequality, eroding social stability and intensifying the ethos of cutthroat competition.

I'm not out to damn conservatism unreservedly, just because I'm quite blunt about its disastrous political failures. But conservative politics are not the whole story. Conservative temperament and character traits are part of human nature, as the field of political psychology has firmly established. And they can be positive qualities, as Dannagal Young argues in "Irony and Outrage," for example.

"Conservatives are just more skilled at efficient quick responses to threats," Young told me when I interviewed her. "These are people who will run into the fire. These are people who are so necessary for our society to survive and to thrive." But the outrage industry "exploits what are really to be thought of as gifts," mobilizing them on hate, which is "dangerous for democratic health."

By failing to distinguish between conservative temperament and conservative ideology — between conservative masses and conservative elites — we miss perhaps the most important aspect of the story of how we ended up with Trump: American conservatism has been profoundly irresponsible. It has repeatedly failed to deliver on its promises — its trickle-down promises to promote prosperity, its culture war promises to vanquish evil at home and turn back time, its foreign policy promises to vanquish evil abroad — and it never takes responsibility for those failures. And the people most hurt by this unending history of failure are ordinary Americans with conservative temperaments, whose faith in their leaders has repeatedly been betrayed.

The end result is obvious, even if many conservatives still insist Donald Trump isn't their creation. They made their own media alternative universe because they couldn't stand the real world, and out he came. They demonized the word "liberal" for 50 years, and only now are some of them wailing over the existential threat to liberal democracy. I want to trust the never-Trump conservatives. I want to see a healthy conservatism in place of a deeply malignant one, a conservatism that does not betray the ordinary people whose instincts and desires it appeals to. But the odds are very much against them in the short run.

A new poll identifying five "tribes" within Republican voters finds that only 15% qualify as "never Trump" Republicans. His job approval among the four other tribes is 97% to 100% — even among "post-Trump" Republicans who think it's time for new leadership. What's more, the two tribes most supportive of Trump also have the largest proportion who self-identify as "very conservative," while the "never Trump" tribe has the least. So conservatives who yearn to look toward the future need to think long and hard about what a healthy conservatism could look like, and then start building it.

Fortunately, I've got some ideas for them — ideas I first laid out almost 15 years ago, when Republicans lost control of the House in the wake of multiple Bush administration failures: the Iraq war, Hurricane Katrina, the botched attempt to privatize Social Security, and more. Bush was not a "true conservative," some began to argue as his popularity declined. He was a "globalist," some added. But what was "true" conservatism, then? My answer was simple: It was liberalism. If you want the ends that conservatives claim to desire, you get them through liberal means:

  • You preserve social order by including the so-called "undesirables." You grant them the dignity they deserve, simply for being human, and they proceed to act with dignity. (You think gay people are hedonistic narcissists, destructive to social order? Then recognize their right to marry, and stop treating them like second-class citizens.) This was 2006, remember!
  • You preserve religion's place as a polestar in people's lives precisely by keeping it separate from the vagaries of politics, where change is the only constant, and compromise a guiding principle. Render unto God that which is God, and unto Caesar that which is Caesar's.
  • You preserve the integrity of local communities and their institutions by engaging the power of state and national government to deal with problems that are too large for them to handle, that would utterly break them if they were left to stand alone.
  • You maintain historical continuity, and respect for the nation's traditions by rethinking both in the light of new experience, and the experience of new Americans. Self-reinvention is our most hallowed tradition.
  • You command respect for authority by exercising authority with respect for the people, who are the only legitimate source of authority.
  • You preserve the highest levels of personal morality, first, by granting people the freedom to discover its logic for themselves, and embrace it as their own freely chosen commitment, and second, by insisting on the public morality of a just and equitable social order.

I could add more to that list today, to bring it more fully up to date. But the core theme remains the same: You deliver the most legitimate desiderata of conservatism by embracing the practices, policies and ideals of liberalism. You want law enforcement respected? Then instead of defending racist police practices — up to and including wanton murder — reform law enforcement to act respectfully toward all people. Embrace the accountability that activists have long been calling for.

My argument here is not exactly that such reforms are the answer — I incline much closer to the abolitionist perspective. I'm simply highlighting what a sensible conservative approach ought to look like, if it were serious about achieving what conservatives themselves claim to care about.

Consider what we have instead: knee-jerk defense of police violence under the banner that "Blue Lives Matter," paired with defense of an insurrection that left three police dead and hundreds wounded. That's where the majority of self-described "very conservative" Republicans are today. Incoherence is a feature, not a bug, of actually existing conservatism.

So, is a coherent conservatism possible? One whose means can plausibly achieve its desired ends, even if those means be liberal? It should be. After all, conservatives have often claimed to be pragmatic and non-ideological, in contrast to liberals and those farther left. Not all conservatives have claimed this, of course, but enough have to make it clearly part of their tradition. And besides, when they have drawn ideological lines in the past, they've invariably redrawn them when they've proven untenable. The cases of slavery, segregation and the civic exclusion of women are the most obvious American examples that come to mind.

What stands in the way, for American conservatives, is their long history of demonizing liberals. How can they embrace what they have repeatedly demonized in a manner so central to defining themselves? Demonization and scapegoating have long been key to their successful struggles for political power, and tie into the basic nature of conservatism — the "efficient quick responses to threats" that Young spoke of. But they do so by misleading, just as logical fallacies mislead us by mimicking valid heuristics. (The post hoc "rooster" fallacy, for example, mimics the valid heuristic that causes precede effects.)

This misleading reaches an apotheosis in QAnon conspiracy theory. The "Infowars GOP" tribe, which has the strongest believers in QAnon theories (68% of that group subscribe to four or more such theories), also has the highest percentage who self-describe as "very conservative" (at 72%, compared to a GOP average of 49%). What is the essence of QAnon? That liberals are led by a hidden cabal of Satan-worshipping, cannibal pedophiles running a global child sex-trafficking ring, and that Donald Trump will someday defeat them in one fell swoop.

This is what happens when "efficient quick responses to threats" go haywire, just as they once did in Salem Village. Those responses should be "thought of as gifts," as Young put it, but they have been intentionally misdirected for years, if not decades. Can conservatism ever rid itself of this legacy? Color me skeptical, to say the least. It's not a question of individual attitudes — the "conspiracist dimension" that Joe Uscinski has found to be fairly uniform across the political spectrum — it's a question of conservative culture and the elites who shape it: the Murdochs, Mercers, Bradleys and Kochs who fund it, and the figures they chose to lift up.

It could be argued that liberals demonize these conservative leaders as well, but the people who are most intimately hurt by them are the conservative masses whose basic instincts and aspirations they so ruthlessly betray. The ends they hold out — preserving social order, local integrity, historical continuity, respect for authority, high levels of personal morality and religion's place as a polestar in people's lives — cannot be met by the means they insist on. In each instance, as I pointed out above, the exact opposite of what they insist on is required. "Liberal" means alone can deliver these desired conservative ends.

The good news for conservatives is that they don't actually have to become liberals to enjoy these liberal fruits, at least not in terms of temperament. But they do have to stop mindlessly and reflexively battling every aspect of liberal thought and ideology, and they have to be willing to claim those fruits as their own. There will still be — and will always be — temperamental differences between liberals and conservatives. There are temperamental gifts on both sides, as well as in between. But there's a common liberal cultural heritage that makes it pragmatically possible for both sides to achieve what's most important to them. Conservatives need to claim that heritage and own it for themselves.

Maybe I'm wrong and there's some basis on which a non-pathological form of conservatism could be built. If conservatives think they can do a better job of delivering the most legitimate desiderata of conservatism, then it's on them to explain how, and to show that it can actually work. That's what a responsible conservatism would do, if indeed it could exist. To do that, it will have to embrace what it has always demonized — or to put this in terms conservatives can relate to, it will have to man up, and put away childish things.

The dark truth about conspiracy theories: They're everywhere! Can they be stopped?

Conspiracy theories can take bewildering forms, as has become especially clear in the current era, when a recently deposed U.S. president became instrumental in spreading and popularizing an entire interlocking universe of demonstrably false conspiratorial narratives. But the historical development of conspiracy theories is becoming clearer, thanks to research across multiple disciplines, synthesized for a broad audience in German scholar Michael Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories."

This article originally appeared at Salon.

None of that work in any of those disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — gives us any reason to believe that conspiracy theories are going away anytime soon, simply because Donald Trump has left office. But they can help us make sense out of their persistence, which is why Salon reached out to Butter for an extended conversation.

In the first part of this interview, published two weeks ago, Butter — who teaches the history of American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen — discussed how conspiracy theories were long taken for granted. Winston Churchill, George Washington and Abraham Lincoln offer just a few entirely typical examples of major historical figures who believed in them. But conspiracy theories aren't universal throughout human history, Butter explained: They depend on the existence of a public sphere and the right sort of media environment.

Centuries before the internet, the printing press was responsible for the birth of conspiracy theories in their modern form. Butter also described the ways conspiracy theories can be categorized — they describe conspiracies from above or from below, from outside a society or from within — as well as the social and psychological needs they meet, and how they underwent a three-phase process of stigmatization that pushed them out of the mainstream after the 1950s.

In part two of the interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere as we know them today, their structural similarities with populism, the important case study of Donald Trump as a case study, what can be done to counter them and more. This transcript has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

In describing the comeback of conspiracy theory — which perhaps culminated with Donald Trump and QAnon — you outline what might be called a three-phase process of evangelism, in whose final stage we reach online conspiracy theories, which you characterize as "more rumors than fully fledged theories." How did this evangelical revival begin, and what defined it?

Conspiracy theories never really became unpopular. They were just flying under the radar for a while, in Europe far more so than in the United States. In the United States, conspiracy theories were always more part of popular discourse because of the [John F.] Kennedy assassination, because of Robert Kennedy, Martin Luther King and also Watergate, than they were part of public discourse in Europe. Still, you could make the argument that full-blown conspiracy theories in the U.S. as well in Germany during the '70s and 80s and '90s were part of rather hermetic subcultures that are difficult to enter and whose members have problems articulating their ideas and finding a broader audience.

In the United States, of course, the emergence of talk radio and other venues, even before the internet, helps these people voice their ideas, but if you look at the Western world in general, I think it's really the emergence of the internet that turns these subcultures into what we could now call counter-publics, publics that are more easily found and whose members have far less trouble now finding a public for their ideas.

This again happens in different steps, in that during the late '90s we have these precursors of the internet like USENET, where people are writing in forums. Of course this is not yet happening in life on any large scale, because people are not online all the time. You need a modem, you need to connect through your landline telephone and you can't do that all the time. So you might download comments and then contribute to the discussion and people might look it up later. But on the other hand, it's very close to what's happening in social media these days — just a little slower.

Then, of course, a couple of years later we get platforms like YouTube where you can upload your own conspiracy film, something that before the advent of digital technology was really only possible for professional filmmakers and people who were very rich and who could afford all this equipment. Now you can just do these things on your laptop. The first version of the "Loose Change" films, which had tens of millions of viewers, was allegedly produced for just $1,200 on a laptop. Suddenly you can do that and put it online and you will find an increasingly big audience.

Then the third step would be what's happening to conspiracy theories because of social media — the echo chamber they increasingly generate and the specific conditions that they impose on how messages can be framed. If you have only 140 or 280 characters at your disposal, you can't really develop the conspiracy theory in the way a 90-minute YouTube video can do it. You have to restrict yourself to certain bold claims, and you don't provide any evidence.

I think in American culture the first case we can observe is what is called the "birther" conspiracy theory, which claims that Barack Obama was never eligible to become president because he allegedly was not born in the United States. I tried very very hard, with students of mine, to find anything on the internet where this conspiracy theory is developed in detail in the way older conspiracy theories were developed. But it's not really there. You only find the rumors, you find little bits and pieces of evidence. People taking apart the birth certificate and arguing that it's a forgery. You don't find a full-blown, completely developed conspiracy narrative about that.

At the same time, it's not the case that one of these online forums entirely replaces the others. Even now, in 2021, we still find fully fledged conspiracy theories. It's not all about conspiracy rumors these days, and it seems to me that these longer documentaries are even making a comeback. So there is this film "Plandemic" that you probably have heard about, which is really returning to a form that was popular 10 years ago with the "Loose Change" films, and there's a second part that's up now which is called "Indoctrination," which I think runs nearly two hours. So these older forms don't disappear and they're coexisting with the newer ones now.

You talk about how conspiracy theories today have a lot in common with populism, even though historically that's not usually the case. What do they have in common, and what distinguishes them?

There are a couple of structural analogies between populism and conspiracy. For example, both of them clearly divide the world into good and evil. For conspiracy theories, it's always the conspirators and the victims of the conspiracy and for populism is always the elite and the common people, and the elite is always acting against the interests of the common people.

This is coming back to what we talked about earlier, that contemporary conspiracy theories usually target an alleged conspiracy from above, and it's usually elites that are imagined as conspiring from above. So we could say that both populism and contemporary Western conspiracy theories have a common enemy and that is the elite.

Now, of course not all populist discourse accuses the elite of conspiring actively against the people. But usually accusations of conspiracy are one way of explaining why the elite is acting against the interests of the people that tends to coexist with other explanations within a populist movement.

For example, very often the elite is being accused of having lost touch with reality, of neglecting the common people — they're so caught up in other things, so detached from reality, that they no longer know what people need. Sometimes the elite is also accused of being corrupt, meaning that everybody that wants to just enrich themselves — which is why they act against the interests of the people — but they're not following one common systematic plan. And then there are those people who say, "Wait a minute, it's not that they are detached from reality. It's not that they're all corrupt. They are all part of a devious plot."

To a certain degree these explanations can overlap and the accusation of conspiracy grows naturally out of the other explanations. So we could say that accusations of conspiracy are one specific way in which members of the populist movement make sense of the fact that the elite is allegedly acting against the interests of the people.

Another analogy is that both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatized in similar terms, aren't they?

Yes. Both populism and conspiracy theory are stigmatizing terms. If you call somebody a conspiracy theorist, you imply that you don't need to take them seriously, that this person is making baseless claims. If you call somebody a populist — I would suspect even more so in Europe than in the United States — you are also accusing them of being a fraud, of being somebody who is offering simplistic solutions to complex problems and is trying to rile up the masses.

Something we've observed again and again is that populists and members of populist movements accept people who believe in conspiracy theories, even though they themselves do not believe in these conspiracy theories. They say, "Well, you know, the elites are looking down on these people and think they are idiots because they believe in conspiracy theories. But they also think that we are idiots and should not be taken seriously, so there should be a space for these people within our movement." That's another parallel between populism and conspiracy theory.

You deal with Donald Trump as a case study, illustrating where conspiratorial thinking has most recently come to fruition. How did he rely on conspiracy rumors at first, rather than full-blown theories?

Trump is an interesting case, in that I think that he has been using conspiracy theories and conspiracy rumors very smartly from basically 2011 or 2012 onward, though most recent developments may have changed this. But initially he uses conspiracy rumors — those about Barack Obama's alleged birth outside of the country — to turn himself into a political figure. And this works — he's quite popular with Republican voters, suddenly, early in 2012 — and then he shuts up again, because he doesn't want to run against Obama just yet.

But he resuscitated these accusations against Obama and against conspiring elites in 2015, when he decided to run for the presidency. The interesting thing about Trump is that he usually does not articulate conspiracy theories. He doesn't really commit to anything; he restricts himself to conspiracy rumors. He just makes very short accusations, and usually leaves a safety net for himself. So he will always use phrases like "A lot of people are saying," or "I hear all the time," or "I've been told," or "Think about that." I would argue this is a strategy, because he does not want to alienate traditional Republican voters who have very little sympathy for conspiracy theories, and also people who might be receptive to his increasing populist stances, but who also favor other explanations of why elites are neglectful or corrupt over explanations of conspiracy.

But then, as you describe, that changed. When did that happen, and why?

It's only a couple of weeks before the 2016 election that he really makes this move from conspiracy rumors to conspiracy theories. In October 2016, the TV debates are over and he is behind in the polls to Hillary Clinton, and this tape has just been leaked to the press where he talks about sexually harassing women. I think this is the moment where Trump realizes that there is no chance that he's going to win over undecided voters or moderate voters. He knows that a lot of Republican voters will vote for him because they always vote for the Republican candidate and they really hate Hillary Clinton, but he now can reach out to people who are really receptive to his populist and conspiracist rhetoric.

So in his first public appearance after his tape goes public, he steps in front of his audience in Florida and talks for 45 minutes about a huge global conspiracy led by international banks and Hillary Clinton in order to destroy the American people. So here he really becomes a full-blown conspiracy theorist, because he knows he needs those people to vote for him now. This works and he wins the election, because, of course, of a couple of other factors interfere in his favor — James Comey's letter and also other things — and after the election he goes back to conspiracy rumors, at least usually.

This is the phase of the process I describe in the book. But since then things have developed further, and my impression is that what happened to Trump is something that has happened to other political leaders who initially use conspiracy theories strategically as well, for example, Viktor Orbán in Hungary. It seems to me that Trump at some point starts believing some of his own conspiracy theories that so far he has only spread strategically.

That seems to apply both to the accusations against Hunter Biden that are connected to Ukraine — because otherwise there would be no point in sending Rudy Giuliani to Ukraine to investigate all of this, and to expose himself in a manner that led to the first impeachment — and secondly, Trump had been talking about election fraud for many years, even before the 2016 election. Then, after that election, he said there had been illegal votes cast, and this is how he explains that he lost the popular vote.

He systematically picks up on this again from June 2020 onward, in order to cast doubt on the outcome of the 2020 election. It seems to me that this is something that by now he genuinely believes in himself, because there is no longer any discernible strategy in maintaining these conspiracy theories. Even now, at the moment that we're speaking, with the second impeachment going on, he first ordered his lawyers to focus on the election fraud, not on arguing that impeaching him while he was no longer in office is unconstitutional. So he seems to have fallen victim to some of his own conspiracy theories.

You have some prescriptions for what to do about conspiracy theories. Regarding specific ones you recommend "pre-debunking." How does that work?

We know that debunking is very problematic. It's very difficult to convince people who already believe in conspiracy theories, or are drawn to conspiracy theories, that they are wrong. But we know from a couple of studies — and I know from conversations with teachers, for example — that something that what works much better is the so-called pre-debunking, which means you teach people about the arguments of specific conspiracy theories, but also about the way in which conspiracy theories generally work, before they are exposed to them. Of course schools would be the place to do that. If you equip people with the right education and the right knowledge, then the likelihood that they will come to believe in conspiracy theories significantly decreases.

This is something that we can explain historically, if we return to the stigmatization of conspiracy theories during the 1950s and 60s, which was also partly motivated by explaining to people why conspiracy theories are bad explanations, how they overemphasize intentions and why this is problematic. We know that educating people is a good means against belief in conspiracy theories, because education seems to be negatively linked to belief in conspiracy theories. While there are, of course, highly educated and intelligent people who believe in conspiracy theories, the likelihood that you will believe in them decreases with your level of education. So I think that education and pre-debunking really are key to fighting conspiracy theories.

You also speak more generally about social literacy, media literacy and historical literacy. Explain briefly why those are important in combatting conspiracy theories.

Media literacy is of course extremely important. People need to know which sources, especially on the internet, they can trust and which sources they cannot trust. Why does it make more sense to trust an article by the Washington Post or the New York Times than to trust something that somebody just writes in social media? People need to know about how the media work, how the internet works. They need to understand the search algorithms of something like the Google engine, that this is not an objective window on reality, but the results you get are predetermined by your earlier searches, for example, so that there is a certain subjectivity there right from the start. This is something people need to understand.

Right. Then explain what you mean by social literacy?

It's important to teach people about how politics works, how society works and why it is impossible to plan all of these things years or sometimes even decades in advance. These processes are extremely complex, which basically means that a large-scale conspiracies are virtually impossible. And this is basically what people realized in the '50s and '60s, when the stigmatization occurred.

Finally, historical literacy: What's most important here?

Historical literacy for me would mean that you study both historical conspiracies and historical conspiracy theories. Of course there have always been conspiracies, and there will always be conspiracies in the future. But if you look at historical conspiracies, you realize that in scope and reach they are much different from what conspiracy theories imagine. Far fewer people are involved than conspiracy theories claim. In the assassination of Julius Caesar it's just a couple of dozen people. Even in the toppling of Iranian Prime Minister Mossadegh, back in the 1950s, by MI6 and the CIA, it's just a couple of dozen people, as opposed to faking the moon landing or orchestrating the 9/11 attack as an inside job, which would have required tens of thousands, or even hundreds of thousands of people.

And then real conspiracies usually revolve around singular events like a coup-d'état or an assassination. Conspiracy theories might begin with a single event but then we move on very quickly to all of history being a plot and people being deceived for years and decades.

Finally, if you study historical conspiracies, you also realize that usually something happens that the conspirators have not foreseen. Karl Popper writes in 1949 in "The Open Society and Its Enemies," when he coined the term "conspiracy theory" in its modern meaning, that the conspirators rarely enjoy the fruits of their labor. What he means by that is that something usually goes wrong. Think again of Julius Caesar. Roman senators killed Caesar because they saw him as a danger to the republic. They succeed in killing Caesar, but of course what ensues is a civil war and at the end of the civil war the republic ends. The time of the empire and the emperors begins, and the republic is history forever.

Or think of the recent Russian efforts to assassinate the opposition leader Alexei Navalny, to poison him. This didn't work in the end. He was brought to Germany and he was cured and now he's back in Russia and he's just been sentenced to two and a half years in prison, but he remains a real danger to the regime there. This was a conspiracy, but it didn't succeed the way it was imagined, and this failure is something for which there is no place in conspiracy theories. So studying historical conspiracies, I think, can alert us to seeing where conspiracy theories go wrong.

What's the most important question I didn't ask, and what's the answer to that question?

Not all conspiracy theories are dangerous, and not all conspiracy theorists are dangerous. It is important to contextualize. But generally speaking, there are three ways in which conspiracy theories can be dangerous.

First, they can be a catalyst for radicalization and thus ultimately lead to violence. People who believe in conspiracy theories can feel justified or even obliged to take up arms to interfere in the struggle between good and evil that is allegedly going on in front of them.

Second, medical conspiracy theories can be dangerous because people who deny established medical knowledge and dismiss it as part of a devious plot can endanger themselves and others because they do not take the necessary precautions.

Third, conspiracy theories can be a danger to democracy if they undermine people's trust in democratic processes and institutions. This danger is particularly high if a lot of people believe in these conspiracy theories and if they are articulated by people in power who stir up the masses.

All three dimensions can be observed in the storming of the Capitol on Jan. 6. People who do not wear masks or socially distance, because they think that the coronavirus is harmless, violently attack the heart of American democracy because they have been stirred up by a populist leader.

Conspiracy theories unmasked: From Winston Churchill to QAnon in a few easy steps

Many people may believe that we live in a golden age of conspiracy theories. That's not really the case, according to German academic Michael Butter, who teaches American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen in Germany. But we do live in the golden age of conspiracy-theory studies. Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories," published just after the presidential election, does an invaluable job synthesizing a wide range of research across multiple disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — over a period of decades.

This article first appeared in Salon.

While conspiracy theories are certainly much more prominent now than they were 20 or 30 years ago, they remain widely stigmatized. Before the 1950s, as Butter explains in his book and this interview, they were taken for a granted as a legitimate framework for describing the world. After the Nazi period and the McCarthy era they were driven to the political and social margins, and then returned under a cloud. The internet has played a central role in providing an environment where they can flourish, but the role of media is in itself hardly a new thing: Before the invention of the printing press, conspiracy theories as we know them today simply didn't exist, as far as we can tell, except in more limited scope in ancient Greece and Rome.

With America's conspiracist in chief now gone from the White House, such paranoid beliefs are not going to suddenly disappear, any more than the populism structurally associated with the dominant forms of conspiracy theories today. But what role will conspiracy theory play in the political future of the United States and the West, and what can its history tell us to expect? Salon reached out to Butter to explain the secret forces at work behind the surface of reality — or at least to discuss those questions and his new book. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Winston Churchill probably isn't the first person who comes to mind when we talk about conspiracy theory, but you begin your introduction by discussing a short speech he gave in 1920. Why begin there, and what does the most famous British statesman of the 20th century have to tell us?

I begin with Winston Churchill for two reasons. On the one hand, because it's a prototypical conspiracy theory that he develops in this speech. All the elements — nothing is at it seems, nothing happens by accident, everything is connected — are there, so this allows me to define what a conspiracy theory is. Secondly and equally important, I begin with Winston Churchill because this cuts to the major point of my book, which, besides providing a general introduction to conspiracy theories, is that it used to be quite normal to believe in conspiracy theories. People that you usually do not associate with conspiracy theories, but regard very highly — people like Churchill, but also George Washington or Abraham Lincoln — spread conspiracy theories, because this is what people did in the past. It was perfectly normal.

Right. But if conspiracy theories were taken for granted then, they're seen very differently now. Before asking the obvious question — how did we get here? — I'd like you to clarify several things. First of all, what's your definition of conspiracy theory?

I like two definitions, one that has been provided by the American political scientist Michael Barkun, who says conspiracy makes three assumptions: a) nothing happens by accident, which means everything has been planned by the conspirators, b) nothing is as it seems, which means that you always have to look beneath the surface to find out what is really going on because the conspirators are operating in secret, and c) everything is connected, that once you look beneath the surface and once you realize that there is a group secretly plotting you, then you also realize that there are connections between people, institutions and events, that you would not have thought possible otherwise. For example, in coronavirus conspiracy theories that make connections between 5G technology and the virus.

After I finished the book, I realized that Geoffrey Cubitt, an English historian, comes up with a slightly different definition. I'll give you the definition first and then explain why they're different. Cubitt says that there are again three elements: intentionalism — everything has been planned, and that corresponds exactly to what Barkun means by "nothing happens by accident." The second element for Cubitt is occultism — things happen in secret, and this would correspond to what Barkun means when he says nothing is as it seems. But then Cubitt does not highlight "everything is connected," but he highlights Manichaeanism, a clear distinction between good and evil, which is something Barkun also talks about, but which he considered less important than highlighting that everything is connected.

So these are the two definitions that I very much like because I think they really capture what conspiracy theories are about. The reason why they're different is that Cubitt is thinking as a historian about conspiracy theories in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that's the time when conspiracy theories mostly focused on specific events or on specific groups — the Jews or the Communists or the Catholics, but not all of them together. Whereas Barkun is really looking at the second half of the 20th century, which is the time in which we find what he calls "superconspiracy theories," that is, conspiracy theories that basically cover all of human history and that forge connections between the Nazi and the Jews and the Communists and other groups. Therefore for him to assume that everything is connected makes a lot of sense, whereas in conspiracy theories of the 18th and 19th century, there are limits to how far a conspiracy theory will go. Taken together, I think these are two very good definitions of conspiracy theory.

So how can we categorize conspiracy theories in terms of who is being accused, where the supposed conspiracy comes from and who's being conspired against?

I think we can come up with a couple of useful typologies. Many people assume, because they only look at the present and the Western world, that conspiracy theories always work from below towards those above, so that they're always tackling alleged conspiracies from above, conspiracies by the elites against the people. That would be one way to categorize modern conspiracy theories, but this is not what all conspiracy theories do. In fact, for centuries, when it was still normal to believe in conspiracy theories, they usually worked the other way around: They targeted enemies from below. It was the elites who were articulating conspiracy theories, and they were concerned with alleged conspirators that were challenging their powers.

Another useful distinction is that between an enemy within and an enemy without. In the 18th and 19th centuries in the Western world, for example, we very often have this idea of an enemy who is outside the country and who is plotting, maybe with the help of some people within the country, against that nation. In the second half of the 20th century, the dominant feature that we find the Western world is that there is an enemy within — your own elite, your own government — that is in league with the conspirators. They might not be the ones pulling all the strings, but they're a big part of that. There might be an enemy without as well, but very often these conspiracy theories can do without an enemy without. So, enemies within or without, from above or from below, I think these are useful categories to think about conspiracy theories.

You also discuss how conspiracy theories are dependent on a public sphere and the right sort of media environment. For the public sphere, you go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, and for media environments you talk about the role of the printing press in the modern world. Can you elaborate on this?

For some time during the 1980 and 1990s, a lot of scholars thought that conspiracy theories were an anthropological given, meaning that they exist everywhere in all at all times and all places. Since then, a new generation of scholars has highlighted that this is probably wrong, and that conspiracy theories do not exist everywhere. So the question is then, where and when do they exist?

We know that we do find what we could call modern conspiracy theories from the early modern period or maybe the late medieval period onwards, with certain precursors in the 13th or 14th century. This is something one can link to the emergence of a reading public that is tied to the invention of the printing press, where texts can circulate, where many people can be exposed to these theories.

At the same time, we know that there are examples that come very close to our modern conspiracy theories in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The reason for that is probably that in these places we already had something like a public sphere: people meeting in the market square to take decisions together in ancient Athens or people discussing events in ancient Rome. Of course conspiracy theories can circulate orally, as well as in the form of manuscripts. And then this disappears in a way. During the early Middle Ages and the high Middle Ages, at least from what we know today, it seems as if there really aren't full-blown conspiracy theories around.

And then came the printing press.

It's only with the emergence of a new public sphere and new media conditions that conspiracy theories, you could say, re-emerged, or emerged fully for the first time. They've been around since then, changing when the environment changed as well. So you could tell the whole history of conspiracy theories as the history of different media regimes. The printing press triggers the movement towards pamphlets and then later to treatises and books filled with footnotes.

The internet in turn gives us these YouTube conspiracy-theory documentaries during the early 2000s that are no longer dry and full of footnotes, that are really exciting and fun to watch, as I know from talking to lots of my students. Then the latest development would be some platform like Twitter where the restriction of 140 characters, or now 280 characters, makes for the development from full-blown conspiracy theories toward conspiracy rumors. You just make a bold claim, but you don't offer any evidence for that because there's simply no space to do that and because of the conditions of the medium. You're only talking to your followers anyway, so they don't require you to provide evidence.

What social, psychological and epistemic needs do conspiracy theories meet?

We know that there are two groups of people in the West, in the present, who in terms of psychological profile are particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. First, there are people who feel out of control and feel powerless and they can explain the fact that they are not being heard, that the country is developing in a direction that unhappy with, by resorting to conspiracy theories. Secondly, there are people who have trouble accepting insecurity and ambiguity, and what conspiracy theories do for these people is to resolve this ambiguity and provide seemingly clear answers.

Think about the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, at least in Germany and Europe, when everything went into lockdown in early March last year and we were all sitting at home and nobody knew what our lives would look like in three days or three weeks or three months. That's a situation where conspiracy theories were extremely attractive because they provided an answer. They told people, "Well, this is what's really going on. These are the people who are responsible for this, and this is what they are trying to trying to achieve."

Obviously, it's easier for some people to believe that a group of conspirators is pulling the strings than to accept that nobody is putting the strings, because it's easier to accept that people are acting intentionally than to accept that there's a lot of chaos and contingency at work. If human agents are responsible, then of course you have scapegoats, you have people you can point your finger at and blame for everything. If it's abstract forces like globalization, or just coincidence and chaos, then you really can't point your finger at anybody. And if human agents are responsible for all that, then no matter how powerful they might appear they can, at least in theory, be defeated. Even though this might prove difficult to achieve, at least it's possible. You can't really defeat chaos or an abstract force like globalization. So this is what makes conspiracy theories attractive.

Then, in the present period, where it's no longer normal to believe in conspiracy theories, believing in them also allows you to reassure yourself that you are special: You can claim that you are somebody who has understood something that most people are missing. While they are walking through life with their eyes closed, sleeping, you have opened your eyes. You've woken up, and these are powerful metaphors in conspiracy's discourse. You can claim that you are special because you know something that others don't.

Let's get back to the journey from Winston Churchill in 1920 to us in 2021. First, you describe a three-phase process of stigmatization in Europe and North America, focused both on psychology and epistemology. How did that process begin?

We need to keep in mind that during the 1950s it was still normal in the United States to believe in conspiracies. The majority of people believed there was a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Moscow in the 1950s to subvert the country. We may think today of Sen. [Joseph] McCarthy as a raving madman, but he was really representative of a specific historical moment, and only a couple of years earlier in Germany, belief in a different conspiracy theory — that of the Jewish Bolshevist world plot — had led to the Holocaust. So Western countries were rife with conspiracy theories, and then this changed rather quickly, because by the mid-1960s only a minority of Americans, usually those on the extreme right, believed in this communist plot. So what happens?

What happens is a popularization of insights from psychology and the social sciences that basically had two different sources. On the one hand, you have scholars like Theodor Adorno and other émigrés of the Frankfurt School, who are sitting in exile in the United States in the 1940s and early '50s looking at what's happening in Europe, and seeing what conspiracy theories can result in — namely the extermination of European Jews. So they begin to argue that conspiracy theories are dangerous.

At the same time, other people, especially from sociology — and I'm thinking particularly here of Karl Popper — argue that conspiracy theories are an inadequate explanation of what is going on in social reality, because they always overemphasize intentional action and tend to neglect structural effects or unintended consequences.

So these two arguments — conspiracy theories are dangerous and conspiracy theories are bad explanations — would be the first step in the stigmatization, and are, at least initially, really restricted to the ivory tower. I mean, hardly anybody reads all 800 pages of "The Authoritarian Personality."

What happened next to create broader criticism?

During the early 1950s, liberal American scholars and journalists pick up on these ideas and develop them further, because they are trying to defend themselves against accusations by conspiracy theorists that they are part of a Moscow-orchestrated communist plot. One way of countering this activation is of course to dismiss this mode of thinking entirely. So you have people like Edward Shils, for example, who do not write 800 pages on the authoritarian personality in a book nobody will ever read outside academia, but who write 800 words for Harper's or The Atlantic or other magazines. So these ideas get developed and popularized.

This works incredibly well, so by the early 1960s, as I mentioned earlier, only people on the extreme margins of society still confess to openly believe in conspiracy. This in turn allows a third generation of scholars — we can think of somebody like Richard Hofstadter — to make the argument that conspiracy theories are always populist, and that they are always the instruments of minority movements, and that there is no path and no place for them in mainstream American politics, that they are always a dangerous populist cry from the margins. This is basically the argument Hofstadter makes in his seminal 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in which he so powerfully associates belief in conspiracy theories with paranoia.

You mentioned earlier that around this same time a lot more people were being exposed to the social sciences, and to a more sophisticated understanding of causality in the social sphere.

That's the other development. In that sense, we have two-way development. One is that more and more people get exposed to these ideas from social science and psychology because these ideas become part of the more popular general discourse. At the same time, of course, more and more people are attending college because of the G.I. Bill, which multiplies the number of students in American colleges within a couple of years. Of course, in college people take classes in psychology, in sociology, in political science, and it's obvious that they were exposed to these ideas there, and this also contributed to this stigmatization of conspiracy theories.

In the second part of this interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere, their structural relationship to populism, the case study of Donald Trump and more.

'A moment of moral and political nihilism': Theologian Adam Kotsko on our current crisis

In the wake of Donald Trump's failed insurrection, the most reflective observation I have encountered is theologian Adam Kotsko's article "An Apocalypse About Nothing," in a new left-wing Christian publication called The Bias. (That confusing name apparently has a heritage in the 1960s British Catholic left.) While the 24/7 cable news narrative has been all about how dramatically different the Trump and Biden presidencies are, Kotsko stressed the opposite: Trump's child separation policy was virtually the only thing to set him apart from previous Republican presidents, while "Joe Biden is the most conservative Democratic nominee of the postwar era."

This article first appeared in Salon.

While many people might argue with those assessments, it's more difficult to dispute Kotsko's deeper point about the broader historical pattern: "Over and [over] again, and to an increasing degree, the alternation of power between two broadly similar political parties is treated as an apocalyptic emergency." When every election is the most catastrophically important in history — when nothing is ever gained, beyond a temporary reprieve — something is surely missing at the core.

Kotsko also noted that "the word 'apocalypse' refers etymologically to a revelation, or more literally an uncovering," adding: "Apocalyptic literature always finds its society and historical moment to be corrupt and decadent." So rather than rail against the overheated apocalyptic rhetoric of others, Kotsko undertook his own cool-eyed, analytical version, saying, "I will follow my prophetic and apostolic forebears in diagnosing the root cause of that corruption and decadence as a failure to recognize the truth, which has resulted in a thoroughgoing moral and political nihilism."

That truth is not simply the failure of the neoliberal order — ushered in by Ronald Reagan and Margaret Thatcher, but embraced by Bill Clinton, Tony Blair and Barack Obama as well — but a good deal more as well: the lies about human nature, freedom and the market which lie at the core of the neoliberal faith, as Kotsko unfolded in his 2018 book, "Neoliberalism's Demons: On the Political Theology of Late Capital." So I reached out to ask him to discuss what he had uncovered at the core of our historical moment's "corruption and decadence." This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Shortly after Trump's failed coup attempt, you wrote "An Apocalypse About Nothing." You called the attempt "a potentially apocalyptic moment, one in which all our certainties about constitutional government and electoral politics dissolved and all bets were off," and yet in terms of normal politics, you argue, it was hard to see why. Above the blow-by-blow melodrama, from a larger perspective many people would agree that the Democrats lack the confidence and vision to stand up to Republicans, and I think your work can help us better understand why. But I want to begin with your deeper argument. You write that in your book you argue that neoliberalism "has always been an apocalyptic discourse." First of all, how do you define neoliberalism?

Neoliberalism is the political and economic project which has been a shared ambition by most major parties in most Western countries for the last generation. It is a project of trying to reimagine and re-create as many parts of society as possible on the model of a competitive market.

What do you mean by describing it as an "apocalyptic discourse"?

It started off as an oppositional movement. Especially after the First World War and the Great Depression, the free market ideal was under threat. It had been discredited and different alternatives were being tried, including more radical alternatives like the Soviet Union. So the people who were theorizing this before it became public policy were constantly like, "You need to adopt our free-market ideals or else you're going to be Communists." So it was like a voice calling in the wilderness: "Get back to the gospel of the free-market or else you're going to lose your freedom forever!"

When Reagan came in, and Thatcher as well, they adopted a similar kind of apocalyptic tone, except that they were kind of like the messiah implementing this plan. It was defeating all these enemies. Reagan is often credited — probably falsely — with delivering the crushing blow against the Soviet Union that made its dissolution inevitable and breaking the welfare state, all these powers that were literally demonized in a lot of neoliberal discourse The perception was that he was the one vanquishing them.

Then when the Democrats adopted the discourse themselves, how was it apocalyptic for them?

I think for them it turned around the idea that once the neoliberal order was established, it was no longer a matter of defeating these alternatives, because they had been all defeated. You know, the claim that there was no alternative to neoliberalism seemed true at that moment. The only threats were just these nihilistic threats of disaster — natural disasters, chaos, failed states, terrorism — these purely negative threats that were constantly menacing the world scene. The Democrats, and basically the left wing of neoliberalism in general, positioned themselves as trying to stabilize and rationalize the neoliberal system so that these nihilistic threats would not fester and lash out.

In your book, "Neoliberalism's Demons," you write that "neoliberalism makes demons of us all." Can you explain what's entailed in this demonization? It's a bit different from what folks might think.

I think the common use of the word "demonization" — aside from literally making an analogy between somebody and a demon — suggests saying something like really, really negative about them. Like, Republicans hate Hillary Clinton, so they demonized her. But I think there's a little bit more nuance to that, if you look at the theological tradition and what Christian thinkers were saying about how demons came about.

According to this mythology, God created them initially as angels, but then gave them this kind of impossible test, from the very first moment that they were created. Some of them were deemed to have failed for choosing not to submit to God quickly enough, or something like that. I took that to be emblematic of something that happens constantly in neoliberalism, which is that we're given a kind of false or meaningless choice that just sets us up to fail. That just puts us in a position where we are supposedly responsible for the bad outcome but doesn't give us enough power to actually change the situation, or change the terms of the choice we're given.

Your book talks about student debt in relationship to that. Could you say something more about that, to help flesh it out?

I think especially with talk of student loan forgiveness coming up, this is an especially relevant example. When people are arguing against student debt forgiveness, they say it's unfair to those who were responsible, and either didn't take on debt or worked their way through college or they paid them off, and that you're going to create incentives for people to take on all these irresponsible debts that they can't pay for. In general, student debt us a great example of this entrapment, because on the one hand, it's a contract that's freely entered into, but on the other hand, students are constantly told from a very young age that the only way they're going to have a livable life is if they go to college.

So they feel trapped. They have to take on student loans, because the alternative of not going to college just doesn't seem viable to them. And then they're on the hook for this very unusual form of debt that you can't get out of through bankruptcy, that you have to pay for even if you didn't finish your degree. It's a situation that's basically set up so that they can only fail, that they can only hurt themselves. But on a formal level, they are still responsible because they freely chose to do it.

You go on to talk about the benefits that flow to the purveyors of neoliberalism, both Republicans and Democrats, from leaning into this apocalyptic tone. Say a bit more about that.

If you look at what neoliberalism is promising, it's kind of boring. There's not a lot of dynamism or meaning to it. It's just like, if we set up economic incentives in the right way, then the right people will be rewarded and the lazy people will be punished, or something like that. I think Thomas Frank once wrote an article where he called neoliberalism "The God That Sucked." [Note: Frank was referring to the market with that term, but by extension the ideology of neoliberalism was clearly implicated.]

I think this apocalyptic rhetoric really gives us a sense of meaning and moral heft that it doesn't objectively have. It's the paradox of somebody claiming, "I'm on this great moral crusade and opposing these powerful forces," when really they're saying we should let the rich get even richer. The apocalyptic stance helps to resolve some of this cognitive dissonance, and give people an emotional attachment to it that wouldn't otherwise exist.

There's also an awful lot of scolding that goes along with neoliberalism.

It is very moralistic, very intent on blaming people. I think that neoliberalism presents itself as being about individual freedom and that it's trying to set up society so that whatever happens is a reflection of all of us collectively — or at least that it aggregates all our decisions onto the outcome that we all want. Since individual choice is the only kind of choice it recognizes, politicians wind up kind of pulling that string a lot to offload responsibility on individuals rather than themselves.

I think we've seen this a lot with COVID, the pandemic. It's intrinsically a shared, collective thing that requires a large-scale response, and yet we're constantly asked to be angry at individuals who choose not to wear masks, when there isn't a law making them wear masks. Individuals are supposed to discern what the true guidance should be on safety and respond appropriately, even though the political authorities haven't actually given that to them. It's really been reduced to a pretty absurd point in the pandemic, but it shows a dynamic that's always been going on.

You write that "Over and [over] again, and to an increasing degree, the alternation of power between two broadly similar political parties is treated as an apocalyptic emergency." But then came what you call "the genuine neoliberal apocalypse," meaning the great financial crisis of 2008. Why was that an apocalypse specifically for the neoliberal worldview?

Because it objectively discredited all their claims about how society works and how the market works. For them, the market is supposed to take individual choices and produce the appropriate rewards or punishments. But given that the crisis was so widespread and universal, it's not as though everybody just stopped and decided to make the wrong choices. And especially the fact that the choice that was being punished was buying a house, which is normally seen as the mark of responsibility. That added a kind of absurdity, like adding insult to injury. It also exposed the fallacy that the market is supposed to be much wiser and more far-seeing than any human being could be, when in fact the market was so completely wrong about these subprime mortgages and had built so much on them. That seemed to discredit the ideas that the market can handle things. So I think, objectively speaking, this should have forced a reckoning: Man, maybe we've been wrong this whole time. And it did not.

That's just what I wanted to ask about next: Why didn't we get any kind of significant or meaningful change?

I think that, first of all, we shouldn't have expected any change from the Republicans. They just kind of doubled down on their scapegoating, and they fantasized that the crisis was due to individual bad actors, which just so happened to be minorities. For instance, with the fantasies that mortgage subsidies somehow caused it, or something like that. So they're just stuck in a complete fantasyland of trying to make the math work out.

I think that for Democrats, it was both fortunate and also very unfortunate that Obama arose at the moment that he did. Because it seems like he was kind of a unique political talent, and the only one who could sell this agenda. He was very dedicated to doing neoliberal best practices, and bringing everybody in who supposedly knew what they were doing. They applied those practices and the economy did start to get better, based on the metrics, even if people were suffering, and even though the unemployment rate was misleading because so many people had supposedly given up. It still seemed to be getting better. And he then won re-election too, which seemed to endorse the fact that the best practices had worked.

I think that on the one hand, the Republicans became completely detached from reality, and on the other hand, the Democrats became complacent, because they were treating very meager successes as, like, a vindication of their entire strategy. The real problem is that, given the neoliberal hold over both parties for so long, there's just been basically brain drain. There's nobody other than old-timers like Bernie Sanders who has any kind of different outlook. Anybody who's come up since the neoliberal turn has to be within that mindset, or else they can't get anywhere in the party. So when the time came, there was nobody to ask questions or to look at the situation differently.

You also identify the coronavirus crisis as the second time in this young century when "the neoliberal paradigm has faced an apocalyptic challenge." There's a greater divergence between Trump and Biden's responses than there was between Bush and Obama's, but you write that "the goal was still to ensure that the market continued to function 'normally,'" and you make the related observation that both parties "cannot afford to tell the truth ... that the neoliberal consensus has failed and will continue to fail."

This ties into the beginning of your piece, where you argue that Trump is not all that different from other Republicans, while Biden was the Democrats' most conservative postwar nominee. I see Biden as a weathervane candidate, who responded to a younger, more diverse electorate to get elected and has some desire to try new things, although perhaps there's a lack of sustaining ideas.

I've been pleasantly surprised by the directions Biden has taken, although my expectations were basically at rock-bottom. I think that what's lacking — the ideas are not lacking. I mean, if we're talking about basically reforming every aspect of society, plans exist, activist groups exist, academic studies of their plausibility exist. In terms of knowing what to do, we've got it. But all those solutions seem to be impossible. I think it's good that Biden is pushing for more relief, but that's still basically cutting checks to people. That's not restructuring the economy to make it more robust against the next inevitable pandemic. We know they're going to become more frequent. We know this is going to happen again, and simply giving people aid now does not restructure the economy so that it's more robust against something like that.

Most absurd of all, I think, is the rejection of Medicare for All. if there's ever been an event that shows that health is an intrinsically public good that he should be handled by society as a whole, not on a for-profit basis, surely it's this pandemic, yet that's still off the table. Biden has ruled all along that option is off the table, and has even said he would veto it. So I don't think it's a lack of ideas. I think it's just that so much is dismissed as impossible from the get-go, or as unrealistic, that it doesn't even get discussed. There is a difference, obviously an important difference, between the two parties. But on the grand scale of things, it's minuscule compared to what could be done and needs to be done.

What I meant by "ideas" was overarching, organizing ideas that can make sense of specific proposals and provide a shared framework on the scale of neoliberalism, ideas that are sweeping enough to provide a common orientation and set of shared assumptions people can draw on in a political discussion. That seems to be what we're lacking.

Yeah, that makes more sense. I think there is a kind of grab-bag quality to a lot of progressive proposals. That was something that the Green New Deal was castigated for, kind of wanting to do everything at once, but without a shared, easy core idea that's animates all of it and tells us why it's all connected. Have you seen this book by Mike Konczal, "Freedom From the Market"? It seems like that could be a promising step in the right direction. Trying to reclaim the term "freedom," instead of the market and freedom being identified. Making clear that we realize that the market is constraining in a lot of ways, and that it doesn't do certain things well, doesn't always have the right answers.

I think it helps to see the market as a human creation. Wheels are good things, but we get flat tires all the time. The maintenance of wheels and the maintenance of bridges are part of the package that comes with them. The same applies to markets: They're useful creations, but you don't worship them. You fix them to work properly.

I'm sure you're right there are good uses for markets, but it's the idolatry of markets that's the problem, the idea that everything has to be in that mold. Even right now, we're only talking about them negatively. We don't have a positive alternative. I think you're right, that's what's lacking. It's probably unrealistic to expect a man in his late 70s to suddenly have a come-to-Jesus moment and develop a whole new politics. [Laughter.]

We could perhaps stimulate those around him, and those coming up, to seek an alternative! Another thing I'm struck by is that idolatry of the market leads to a contraction of moral considerations: Rather than facing a multitude of moral goods that need to be considered distinctly, in different situations, everything is given a market price. It flattens out all moral reasoning. I think we need to push back against that, to revitalize our sense of diverse, pluralistic moral goods, as well as moral agency.

Yeah, I think you're right. Whenever we do that, we're always in this defensive crouch. There's always a temptation to turn the corner and say, "Actually, if we were more humane to each other, that would help the economy!" It tends to be this black hole that sucks everything out. In my own experience — I'm an academic in the humanities, and we always have to prove our worth somehow. Why can't we say, "Hey, business leaders, why don't we prove the worth of what you're doing? Why should you dominate our lives? Why should you control everything? The one chance we get for education in our lives — why should it be for you? Why can't it also be for us? Why can't it be for our own minds and our own interests?"

But it seems like everybody's more stuck on, like, "We provide critical thinking skills that will make you better at doing business!" That may be true or not true, but it's still within that framework. I think you're right that we lack that alternative. Even in my book, I wind up saying, "We need to abolish the market," but I don't say, "And here's what it will look like when we do it. Here's the positive alternative that will replace it." So I'm just as guilty as anybody.

I like to end my interviews by asking, "What's the most important question I didn't ask? And what's the answer?"

Where you can buy my book. [Laughter.]

How Donald Trump's destructiveness forced us to a point of reckoning about America

If every cloud has a silver lining, Donald Trump's destructiveness offers this one: He has forced us to a point of reckoning about America. If we think all this chaos is just about him, we've missed the whole point. On that point, there's wide agreement. Beyond that, however, there's considerable disagreement, if not confusion. The vast majority of elite discourse sees this in terms of a challenge to liberal democracy — a challenge that's been unfolding worldwide over the past decade or so, sometimes characterized as a "third wave of autocratization."

There's a large body of knowledge and experience behind this point of view (see groups such as Varieties of Democracy for a global perspective, or Bright Lines Watch in the U.S.). But such an idealized view of American democracy has always been challenged by African Americans, for instance: See Frederick Douglass' "What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?" or Langston Hughes' "Let America Be America Again.") Trump's election, in obvious response to Barack Obama's, has had the effect of pushing the longstanding Black critique of American democracy to the very center of our politics.

In contrast, University of Wisconsin political scientist Mark Copelovitch has been tweeting his observations of American politics under the rubric of "Today in life under competitive authoritarianism." The term comes from Steven Levitsky and Lucan Way's 2010 book, "Competitive Authoritarianism: Hybrid Regimes After the Cold War" (introduced in an earlier paper here.) They cite "four minimum criteria" that modern democratic regimes meet, which these "hybrid regimes" (including most of the nations in the former Soviet Union) fail to meet on a systematic basis, thereby creating an uneven playing field between government and opposition. The first three of these criteria are that executives and legislatures are chosen through elections that are open, free, and fair; that virtually all adults posses the right to vote; and that political rights and civil liberties — including freedom of the press, freedom of association and freedom to criticize the government without reprisal — are broadly protected.

By systemically violating these criteria, and possibly a fourth — "elected authorities possess real authority to govern, in that they are not subject to the tutelary authority of military or clerical leaders" — competitive authoritarian regimes seek to maintain the general appearance of being democracy-like in order to claim legitimacy, but without practicing actual, substantive democracy. In a late October pair of tweets, Copelovitch summed up his view:

Arguably, the US has basically not fully met the 1st 2 of Levitsky & Way's democratic criteria since the failure of Reconstruction. Trump-era backsliding is mostly on criterion 3 But the problem now is additive. EC + increases in gerrymandering & malapportionment + Trump.
I actually do think this is what we are starting to realize & why the Court/Senate/statehood reforms have gained traction. The immediate authoritarian threat of Trump since 2017 has shined light on the enduring undemocratic nature of our political institutions.

This framework of "competitive authoritarianism" offers a more realistic description of America's actually existing political system than calling it a backsliding liberal democracy. Our problem is not primarily a flaw in liberal democracy as such, but in the United States' consistent failure to actually embody what it pretends to be.

I asked Copelovitch about his "competitive authoritarianism" tweets, and he responded that the "most proximate reason" for writing them was his state of residence: "I have lived since 2006 in Wisconsin, which has been the canary in the coalmine for all of the developments and risks to American democracy that we've seen since 2016. ... What we're seeing at the national level under Trump is simply the extension of what's happened in Wisconsin, under [former governor] Scott Walker and [State Assembly Speaker] Robin Vos, to the U.S. as a whole." The fullest description of this can be found in Dan Kaufman's book, "The Fall of Wisconsin: The Conservative Conquest of a Progressive Bastion and the Future of American Politics."

But there's also Copelovitch's own background, as he explained by email.

I come at all of this as a scholar of international political economy (the politics of international trade, money, and finance). For the last decade, I've been studying the causes and consequences of the Great Recession and the Eurozone financial crises and quite a bit of time collaborating with (and reading) comparative politics scholars focused on the rise of far right and populist nationalist parties. I've also spent a lot of time studying the politics of the interwar era, especially in the wake of the economic and financial crises in Weimar Germany (see my recent book), and it should come as no surprise that I, like many, see many similarities between that era and ours.

This approach fits well with Levitsky and Way's concept of "competitive authoritarianism," which they define in contrast with democracy on the one hand and outright authoritarianism on the other: "In competitive authoritarian regimes, formal democratic institutions are widely viewed as the principal means of obtaining and exercising political authority. Incumbents violate those rules so often and to such an extent, however, that the regime fails to meet conventional minimum standards for democracy."

Modern functioning democracies meet the four criteria named above. While there may be violations of any of the four criteria, "such violations are not broad or systematic enough to seriously impede democratic challenges to incumbent Governments," the authors write. "In other words, they do not fundamentally alter the playing field between government and opposition." But that's precisely what those violations are doing in America today — and have been doing since the demise of Reconstruction in the late 19th century, when it comes to free and fair elections with universal suffrage.

Passage of the Voting Rights Act in 1965 represented a giant step forward, but significant participation gaps have persisted, among minority groups in particular and low-income people in general, as documented in "Why Americans Don't Vote," which led to the passage of the 1993 "motor voter" law and "Why Americans Still Don't Vote," a sequel of sorts describing the continued obstacles. Since then, moreover, the Republican Party has increasingly shifted from passive obstruction of expanded voting rights to strategies of active voter suppression.

This fits within the "competitive authoritarian" framework Levitsky and Way describe:

Rather than openly violating democratic rules (for example, by banning or repressing the opposition and the media), incumbents are more likely to use bribery, co-optation, and more subtle forms of persecution, such as the use of tax authorities, compliant judiciaries, and other state agencies to "legally" harass, persecute, or extort cooperative behavior from critics.

Both the sweeping gerrymandering described in "Ratf**ked" by former Salon editor David Daley, and the Supreme Court's refusal to remedy the situation, are crucial examples of how this unfolds in America today. The same could be said of the 2013 Supreme Court decision in Shelby County v. Holder, striking down the crucial pre-clearance provision of the Voting Rights Act by invalidating the jurisdictional maps. It also applies to voter-suppression strategies such as voter ID laws, which disproportionately affect Democratic voters.

Race, even more than class, stands at the center of most of these voter suppression and disenfranchisement efforts, which descend from America's founding as a Herrenvolk democracy or republic (experts have argued for both). Today's Republicans certainly didn't originate this practice, but they energetically took it over, as described in "The Long Southern Strategy" (Salon author interview here), for example. Other anti-democratic aspects of our political system have more mixed origins: "Ratf**ked," for example, shows how the GOP took traditional gerrymandering to a level never imagined before.

Copelovitch told me he began tweeting about "life under competitive authoritarianism" as a way of "linking these three things together: the anti-democratic institutional biases of U.S. politics, the unprecedented lawless authoritarianism of Trump and the GOP's active embrace of restricting democracy. I've kept it going largely because the developments have continued throughout the last several years, to the point that I believe there are real, serious concerns about the state of American democracy."

This is an especially important point: Copelovitch sees the awareness of these concerns as a real dividing line "between people arguing that 'the system has worked' over the last two months to prevent Trump's attempts to steal the election, and those of us still warning that the unprecedented authoritarian threat to U.S. democracy persists, despite Biden's victory."

Part of what defines that division is a deeper sense of how the system isn't working. Copelovitch has written earlier tweets referencing Robert Dahl's 1989 book "Democracy and its Critics" and noting that the U.S. basically violates the core criteria of democratic process that Dahl defines, especially relating to voter suppression, gerrymandering and the apportionment of U.S. Senate seats. "When you start to compare the U.S. by these criteria, to other countries' political systems, you quickly notice that we don't stack up well at all," he told me. "If you look at, say Germany or New Zealand, which have mixed-member proportional representation systems, you realize that our electoral institutions have institutionalized minority rule and locked in policies at odds with what large majorities of Americans seem to want on almost every issue." The $2,000 stimulus checks blocked by Mitch McConnell last week are merely the most recent high-profile example.

"In this sense, U.S. politics isn't really fully democratic," Coplevitch continued. "At the moment, every single branch of the government is currently controlled (or partially controlled) by the representatives or appointees of a party representing a minority of Americans and supporting a wide range of policy positions that are deeply unpopular with the median voter."

It's not that we don't know what to do, at least in theory. But the lessons are drenched in historical irony. "I've long been of the position that the U.S. got constitutional design mostly right in 1949, when we helped oversee the establishment of Germany's mixed-member proportional representation system at the founding of the Federal Republic," Copelovitch said. "New Zealand adopted this system in 1996, and it has been very successful. If one were starting from scratch and looking for the ideal federal system, this is the model we'd look to follow."

That might be politically impossible in the U.S. anytime soon, he admits. but there are other options. Copelovitch cites Lee Drutman's book "Breaking the Two Party Doom Loop," which advocates ranked choice voting, multi-member districts, enlarging the House of Representatives, automatic universal voter registration, statehood for both the District of Columbia and Puerto Rico, and fixed terms for Supreme Court justices, among other reforms.

The first bill passed by the Democratic House majority in 2019, H.R. 1, the "For the People Act," was a direct attempt to address this situation — even if it didn't go nearly far enough. Mitch McConnell's response was telling, characterizing the law as "a package of urgent measures to rewrite the rules of American politics for the exclusive benefit of the Democratic Party." Aside from the obvious projection involved, the Senate majority leader came awfully close to acknowledging the inconvenient truth that elite Republican positions are either profoundly unpopular or profoundly impractical. (This same contradiction, to a large extent, enabled the ascendancy of Donald Trump.) It's certainly possible that Republicans could find ways to compete on a more level playing field, but only by abandoning the extremist politics they've increasingly embraced over the past 40 years.

Recognizing that America is, or is becoming, a competitive authoritarian regime is undoubtedly painful and unsettling. But that's the critical first step in becoming the liberal democracy this nation has always pretended to be. As with addiction or mental illness, you can't fix a problem until you finally admit you have one.

Donald Trump and the politics of victimhood: From winning to whining

"We're all victims," Donald Trump claimed at his first rally after the presidential election, on Dec. 5 in Georgia "We're all victims. Everybody here. All these thousands of people here tonight. They're all victims. Every one of you." That was quite a change from his 2016 election campaign, when he promised "So much winning you'll get bored." Liberals were supposed to be the "snowflakes," right? What happened? How did the once-proud party of masculine self-reliance and "personal responsibility" become such a bunch of whiny snowflakes?

This article first appeared in Salon.

There are lots of reasons one could point to, but in truth it's pretty much a blind-men-and-the-elephant situation. We have an abundance of particular insights, with different bits and pieces of the answer. But surprisingly little is known about the role of victimhood in politics in any organized sense, even though particular examples are well-known, some of them quite broad. A passage on white Southern victimhood in the conclusion of "The Long Southern Strategy" (author interview here) is a case in point, drawing together some of the major themes developed earlier in the book. But there is no shared empirical framework for comparing levels of Southern victimhood with victimhood levels elsewhere — unlike with other measures, such as modern sexism, which is used to great effect in that book. All kinds of political attitudes have been measured and studied over the years—enough to fill a whole volume, more than 20 years ago, but no one's ever studied victimhood with the same kind of rigorous scrutiny.

Until now, that is — in a new paper by Miles Armaly and Adam Enders, "'Why Me?' The Role of Perceived Victimhood in American Politics" (forthcoming in the journal Political Behavior.) Given how much of a role victimhood plays in politics, it's remarkable that this appears to be the first attempt ever to develop a way to measure it, and thereby open up a whole new realm of inquiry. By measuring perceived victimhood, the authors show that it's "largely unrelated to political predispositions or sociodemographic characteristics," but is related to, but various views of government, society and the world (especially with regard to perceived corruption and conspiratorial thinking) and personality traits such as narcissism and a sense of entitlement.

While the authors didn't set out to explain how Republicans became the victim party, Armaly told me in a recent interview, that makes a lot of sense in terms of what they did find. "The idea of many Trump supporters being 'victims' is borne out in our work," he said. "Inasmuch as cueing from political elites is responsible for some of these feelings, victimhood is currently manifesting in Trump supporters in large part because of 'we are the victims' messages," such as Trump's speech in Georgia.

The combination of two processes — top-down elite cues and bottom-up pre-existing attitudes — is one of three major distinctions drawn in this paper that clarify our understanding of victimhood, and how it helps shape the political landscape. "It's bottom-up in the sense that many psychological traits are. It's top-down in that elites can cue feelings of victimhood," Armaly put it. Neither of those things by itself can explain how victimhood functions in politics; both need to involved. But even to begin we need the help of another distinction — between objectively-defined victimhood and a subjective sense of victimhood — in order to focus on the common psychological factors shared by differently situated political individuals and groups.

Finally, "Why Me" develops a highly-clarifying twofold construct of subjective victimhood: It is egocentric, involving a tendency to agree with statements like "I am the victim because I deserve more than I get," and it involves a sense of systemic unfairness, reflected in sentiments like, "I am the victim because the system is rigged against me." The two are strongly correlated but distinct, with egocentric victims more likely to be Trump supporters, for example, while systemic victims are less likely to be.

In an added wrinkle, the paper's conclusion suggests the existence of a third form of victimhood, "an other-oriented, or accusatory one," and goes on to note:

Modern right-wing rhetoric, for instance, decries liberal "snowflakes," "safe spaces," and political correctness culture. In each of these instances, victimhood is projected onto others. This mobilizes the projectors because the "victims" are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting.

If every accusation is a confession, this third form of victimhood offers a very big clue as to how Trump's base has turned snowflake.

Each of these distinctions is worth considering in turn. But first let's note three key points from the paper's conclusion. First, the centrality of victimhood:

Victimhood is central to politics. If politics is, as Lasswell (1936) famously described, about "who gets what, when, how," there are going to be victims. Some will be perceived as victims when they are not, others just the opposite. Political communication is, in no trivial sense, tasked with making some feel like victims, and others look like victims.

Second, victimhood in politics isn't necessarily pernicious:

That victimhood plays such a central role in politics is not necessarily troubling.
It is intuitive that politicians would make their case to constituents in such a way that victimhood is cued. Indeed, we want representatives that work to realize our values, fill our pockets, and facilitate a happy and healthy life.

Third, what's troubling is when a sense of victimhood fuels extremism:

Rather than the mere appeal to victimhood, it is the lengths one is willing to go in order to mobilize victimhood that poses the greatest potential normative threat to a civilized democratic political system. Speaking historically, it is precisely a feeling of hypervictimization that has caused people to turn to authoritarian regimes for relief.

Subjective vs. objective

Let's turn to the three distinctions described above: The objective/subjective distinction comes first. One reason perceived victimhood hasn't been systematically studied, Armaly told me, is because "there are actual political victims." In the course of getting the paper published, he said, "People were talking about 'How are Black people different from white people? How are women different from men?' Because people were stuck in the idea of genuine victims of the political process. I think that's one of the reasons that we haven't had this direct focus on perceived victimhood in political science or similar fields."

In fact, the paper itself notes: "Men seem to be slightly higher in perceived victimhood across the board. … Such an observation underscores our claim that victimhood — as a self-perception — does not require relative disempowerment or subjection to injustices."

In conversation, Armaly was more blunt. "It doesn't matter what's true," he said. "It matters what people think and what they feel."

A broader public understanding of this could be helpful, he said: "If people understand that these are perceptions, that they can be made to feel this way — and that's a powerful source for political elites." Indeed, promoting this kind of awareness was the underlying insight behind the race-class narrative project developed by Ian Haney López, Anat Shenker-Osorio, and Demos, which I wrote about here in June 2018. I described it as a suite of narratives "that call out scapegoating by greedy, wealthy special interests, and that call on people to unify across racial lines for the common good."

Armaly expressed the promise he sees in more general terms. "If an individual can recognize that perhaps they are being told they're victims when indeed they're not, maybe there's something there that people can learn from: 'Hold on, I'm not really the victim here.''"

The race-class narratives didn't specifically discuss victimhood, but they did confront the dynamic. For example:

California's strength comes from our ability to work together – to knit together a landscape of people from different places and of different races into a whole. For this to be a place of freedom for all, we cannot let the greedy few and the politicians they pay for divide us against each other based on what someone looks like, where they come from or how much money they have. It's time to stand up for each other and come together. It is time for us to vote for leaders who see all of us as equal, whether we are white, black, or brown, who respect all of our families, and who will govern for all of us.

Armaly's work suggests that other elite manipulations of victimhood could be countered with similar kinds of messages. Recognizing victimhood as a subjective state is the first step toward breaking its spell.

Egocentric vs. systemic

This distinction is the most fully elaborated of the three. What both poles have in common is that victimhood is "attractive," Armaly explained, "because it's placing the blame for one's lot in life on somebody else: 'It's not my fault.' It's a psychologically pleasing thing. I don't have to be blamed, because somebody else is doing this." From there, the two types diverge. "With the systemic, people are placing the blame with specific higher entities if you will, and with egocentric, people feel this way, they have the internal feelings of victimhood, but again, it's not their fault. It's always nice to lay blame somewhere else. That's the way to eliminate psychological pressure on oneself."

The difference between the two might seem subtle, and only emerged gradually over time. "We were discussing how to measure victimhood, and we have these ideas central to what we thought victimhood entailed," Armaly explained. "At a certain point we realized these are kind of tapping different things. So if you look at the items we use, four of them refer to the self, or 'me' or 'I' or something like that, and the other four are referring to outward sources."

The paper itself puts it this way: "The major distinction between egocentric and systemic victimhood is blame attribution. Systemic victimhood is a manifestation of perceived victimhood whereby the self defined victim specifically attributes blame for their victim status on systemic issues and entities." By contrast, "Egocentric victimhood ... is less outwardly focused. Egocentric victims feel that they never get what they deserve in life, never get an extra break, and are always settling for less. Neither the 'oppressor,' nor the attribution of blame, are very specific."

Indeed, the difference is striking: As mentioned above, egocentric victims are more supportive of Trump, while systemic victims are less likely to be. This makes intuitive sense, in terms of Trump's vague, self-centered language way — about victimization and pretty much everything else. The lack of evidence of voter fraud or any irregularities in the 50-plus election-related lawsuits Trump and his allies have filed does not matter nearly as much to egocentric victims as it potentially would to systemic victims. But the differential support could also reflect the fact that Trump was president when the study was done, Armaly noted. On top of that, "Trump is the establishment, he's wealthy, he's been around forever. So people who see wealth and maybe other systemic issues as victimizing don't support Trump."

There was a similar difference with regard to a set of racial issues, including affirmative action. "Somebody who thinks that they're the victim, an egocentric victim [is] going to view something like affirmative action as taking away possibilities that they think they rightfully deserve," Armaly explained. "Whereas a systemic victim seemingly recognizes that there are systemic forces that need to be corrected, and affirmative action is a correction for that type of systemic racial issue."

A similar logic applies with respect to anti-political-correctness attitudes, Armaly said. "The egocentric victim sees it like, 'I'm being told what I can and can't say. This is an infringement of My First Amendment rights.' Of course it's not. It's not coming from the government. But they perceive society as censoring them."

By contrast, people with a high sense of systemic victimhood "would think you really shouldn't speak to each other the way we do sometimes. Maybe some of this political correctness language is a good thing, because it's more inclusive, It helps people not feel so bad about how other people speak about them," Armaly explained.

But even as the two kinds of victimhood systematically produce opposite effects in some ways, the attitudes remain strongly correlated — more strongly than with any of six theoretically-related psychological constructs that the authors investigated, including three kinds of narcissism: individual trait-based narcissism, in-the-moment state-based narcissism, and group-based collective narcissism. The point of that analysis was "to show that our concept isn't just narcissism," Amay explained. "We think one way of conceptualizing victimhood is other concepts in the psychological literature plus something else. So, for instance, entitlement plus not getting what you deserve. … It's narcissism, plus something else."

Top-down meets bottom-up

With this more detailed understanding of systemic and egocentric victimhood in hand, we are better able to appreciate the significance of the third distinction, between the top-down and bottom-up aspects of victimhood. The primary focus of the paper (and the discussion above) is on the latter: Bottom-up aspects provide the primary data. But top-down elite messaging is central to the political process. There's no way to understand victimhood's political significance (not just potential) without it.

Subjects were presented with identical victimhood narratives attributed to Trump or Joe Biden, according to their partisan identification. "One thing we know from decades of political science research is people only respond to cues from sources they trust," Armaly noted. "Republicans are going to support Trump, Democrats are going to support Biden. Let's see if they can cue victimhood in their followers." The message was simple:

You, the middle class and working people, have been the victims of so much. You never seem to catch a break, and always seem to pay the steepest price. It's sad, it really is. And I'm going to keep fighting for you no matter what.

The result, the paper noted, was that "both egocentric and systemic victimhood increase as a result of hearing Trump or Biden describe the average people's inability to catch a break." In short, Armaly said, "This is not a Trump phenomenon. This is not a Republican or conservative phenomenon. It cuts across ideological lines and partisan lines. But Trump is very effective at it. And it seems like he's weaponizing this victimhood to adhere people to him, to the party, to certain policies. This is a powerful force and it's a powerful feeling. If people feel like victims, it's unlikely that they're going to see the other party as a way to fix victimhood.

"So Republicans who agree with Trump that 'Hey, we are the victims,' they're never going to turn to Joe Biden for the remedy. They're only going to turn to Republicans in the future, maybe even continuing to support Trump. So one consequence of this, we think, is entrenching polarization, furthering extremity in beliefs about politics, and making people set up more in their existing camps."

Of course, Trump election loss and his subsequent behavior has further intensified feelings of victimhood: "That's precisely what the 'Stop the Steal' thing is about," Armaly said. "'We're the victims of fraudulent elections,' even though there's no evidence pointing there and they keep losing in court. But that is definitely a victimhood-cueing rallying cry."

In a way, this helps makes sense of the decades-long thrust of "The Long Southern Strategy." Threatened identities — first around race, and then gender and religion — were key to the whole enterprise. As co-author Angie Maxwell told me, "They didn't have infrastructure in a lot of places for the Republican Party. So they had to create this sense of urgency, and you do that by tapping into things that people feel are fragile and are being threatened." In short, they had to promote feelings of victimhood.

I asked Maxwell to comment on the theme of victimhood for this story. She responded:

In an effort to cut an electoral map path to victory, starting in the 1960s, Republican strategists pushed individualism against the collective — against collective bargaining, protest, organizing. Individualism creates blinders that can deny systemic racism, sexism and privilege. Simultaneously, these GOP strategists, in order to shake Southern whites lose from their long-term connection to the Democratic Party, manufactured a sense of urgency about everything from the "war on Christmas" to the welfare queen bankrupting the taxpayer. That combination creates a self-focused, faux victimhood, reminiscent of the Lost Cause in the South but with a national appeal.

This is how, under the "Stop the Steal" banner, we get a majority of House Republicans supporting an utterly frivolous lawsuit before the Supreme Court that flies in the face of decades of GOP "states' rights" rhetoric. Surprise! The Southern strategy was never about states' rights, any more than the Civil War was. (The Dred Scott decision and the Fugitive Slave Act had already made a mockery of those Southern claims.)

On the role of narcissism

It's worth highlighting how significant Trump's narcissism is in this dynamic. He is utterly incapable of ever admitting he's been wrong. When finally forced to recant his support for birtherism, he double-falsely claimed, "Hillary Clinton started birtherism, and I ended it." Now, having lost an election by more than 7 million votes he claims the election is being stolen from him.

So even though narcissism is only related to victimhood statistically, it's still important to consider the role it plays. For this, I reached out to therapist Elizabeth Mika, whose chapter in "The Dangerous Case of Donald Trump" on "Tyranny as a Triumph of Narcissism" explained how tyranny is a "three-legged beast," encompassing the tyrant, his supporters and the society as a whole.

"A sense of victimhood — as opposed to real victimhood — is always based in narcissism: the erroneous, corrosive and inherently destructive belief that we are special — somehow better than others — and thus we deserve special treatment, perks and privileges," Mika said.

There's a logical connection, she continued. "Narcissists are eternal victims, as perpetual victimhood is the other side of the narcissistic coin. It can't be otherwise, because if you believe yourself to be special and the world does not reflect this back to you, as is always the case sooner or later, you are going to feel victimized by the lack of special treatment."

A similar logic applies to groups as well. "You can expect the members of historically privileged classes and groups to have a sense of specialness ingrained in them by the virtue of being part of that class," Mika said. "When their sense of privilege is threatened and/or eroded, by, for example, expanding the privilege to others, members of previously disenfranchised and thus 'inferior' groups, they react with anger and rage that seek suitable scapegoats, more often than not from among those who are seen as 'stealing' their privilege or otherwise responsible for its loss. For narcissists, the loss of privilege feels like oppression."

This description is a near-perfect fit for Trump's white, Christian nationalist base. That base easily delivered landslide re-election victories for Richard Nixon in the 70s and Ronald Reagan in the 80s, but has only managed one popular-vote victory since 1988. Its privileged position has been eroding for at least 30 years now, and has only survived this long because of multiple anti-democratic features of our politics: the Electoral College, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the Senate filibuster and ideologically-stacked courts. The longer that power has been sustained on such a fragile, illegitimate foundation, the more crushing its loss would seem. Hello, snowflakes!

A third kind of victimhood

As mentioned before, a third form of victimhood is proposed in the paper, an other-oriented or accusatory one typified by right-wing attacks on liberal "snowflakes" and political correctness in which victimhood is projected onto others. "This mobilizes the projectors because the 'victims' are illegitimate — they are not deserving of victim status in the eyes of those doing the projecting."

This is clearly more complicated than egocentric or systemic victimhood. But more than projection is likely going on. It may be a process known as "projective identification," discovered by British psychoanalyst Melanie Klein, which I wrote about here in late 2015. It involves "introjection (imagining another — or aspects of another — inside oneself) as well as projection—or even both, simultaneously." The first example Klein gave was a specific form known as "envious reversal," in which the projector's unwanted inner states (thoughts, feelings, etc.) are projected (into what Klein called the "container") while the projector steals some desirable state of the "container."

If one is not a victim but claims to be, that's very likely an example of envious reversal. But if one is a snowflake and has spent years attacking others as snowflakes, that's also an example of envious reversal. So, too, if you believe that others are unfairly claiming victim status, when in fact that's been your go-to move ever since Brown v. Board of Education. So there's a potential for this kind of victimhood to lead into a hall-of-mirrors fantasy situation. But remember: This is still subjective victimhood. Questions about how subjective and objective realities align are incredibly important, but to fully address them we need to understand the subjective side as well as can.

The first step in studying "other-oriented victimhood," Armaly said, would be to examine whether the "correlates" are "similar to egocentric or systemic victimhood, or whether we are talking about a third, totally unique type?" His intuition is that such people "would reject the idea that they're victims, most of the time," but might also "reject the idea that others are victims. Other-oriented victimhood doesn't ever seem to be saying, 'Oh yeah, those people are victims of the political process,' It's usually used as a way to say they're not."

The notion of other-oriented victimhood can also have significance for the public as citizens in a democracy, helping us to see things more clearly. "The bleeding heart in me wants to talk about empathy," Armaly said. "Maybe let's not think about victimhood in terms of who is and isn't a victim. Maybe there's another way to approach it. Also, I think victimhood is not zero-sum. Multiple people can be victims — it's not mutually exclusive and not dichotomous in that way."

As a big-picture thought about victimhood as whole, Armaly raised a fundamental question. "We should be asking ourselves, 'Are we comfortable giving victims increased status to make social and political claims?'" he said. "And then, similarly, 'Are we comfortable judging the veracity of different claims?' We don't have a way to do this. Society isn't cohesive. We don't have the same mores and the same norms, necessarily, across all facets of society." He went on to note that, "Elevating some claims over others incentivizes these feelings of victimhood, and that's one of the reasons people are attracted to them. I think we have to consider whether incentivizing that feeling is a good thing."

Recalling the three points from the conclusion of "Why Me?" cited above, the answer may be that victimhood is inevitably central to politics and isn't necessarily pernicious, but that our capacity to deal with it without falling prey to hyper-victimization may be at a historically low ebb. That recognition could help orient us toward civic repair. Eliminating both actual victimhood and a sense of victimhood is not within our power. But continuing to be a victim of victimhood just might be. If, as Armaly argues, victimhood is not zero-sum, the best way to help any professed victims might be to help them all. Yes, even the snowflakes-in-denial who can't let go of their damaged and defeated president.

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