Saturday, 20 Apr 2024

Opinion | The Paranoid Center

Over the last three years, since Brexit and the Trumpening and the general rise of disreputable forces in Western politics, there has been a steadily boiling elite panic about the power of the paranoid fringe, the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories, the pull of fake news and the danger of alternative realities.

And yet over that same period, a good many members of the opposition to Donald Trump — a mix of serious journalists, cable television hosts, pop culture personalities, erstwhile government officials, professional activists and politicians — have been invested in what appears to be exactly the kind of conspiracy-laced alternative reality that they believed themselves to be resisting.

With the apparent “no collusion” conclusion to the Robert Mueller investigation, there will now be a retreat from this alternative reality to more defensible terrain — the terrain where Trump is a sordid figure who admires despots and surrounded himself with hacks and two-bit crooks while his campaign was buoyed by a foreign power’s hack of his opponent.

All of this is still true, in the same way that once the W.M.D. and Qaeda connections turned out to be illusory, Saddam Hussein was still a wicked dictator whose reign deserved to end. But as with the Iraq war, what has been sold, and often fervently believed, about l’affaire Russe has been something far more sweeping — a story about active collaboration and tacit treason and the subjection of United States policymaking to Vladimir Putin’s purposes, a story where the trail of kompromat and collusion supposedly went back decades, a story that was supposed to end with indictments in Trump’s inner circle, if not the jailing of the man himself.

I’m borrowing the parallel to the Iraq debate from Matt Taibbi, the left-wing muckraker and flamethrower, whose splenetic denunciation this weekend of the media’s Russia coverage declared that as “a purely journalistic failure … W.M.D. was a pimple compared to Russiagate.”

Like many of Taibbi’s claims over the years, this one seems overdrawn. Yes, the most extreme forms of the collusion narrative were always exceedingly unlikely, but the combination of a real Russian crime and a lot of lying and guilty-seeming behavior by Trump and his hangers-on made a certain amount of speculation inevitable and reasonable. Yes, the mainstream press gave too much credence to the Steele dossier and rushed to publish too quickly on seemingly incriminating stories. But as long as you got news from somewhere other than Rachel Maddow the case for skepticism was amply available as well. And — as Taibbi concedes — the various Russiagate conspiracy theories didn’t actually lead us into a shooting war with Russia, whereas the Iraq debate gave us a true foreign policy disaster, not just a strange cultural obsession with a special prosecutor’s work.

But the parallel is still useful, because both the march to war with Iraq and the Russia panic show us the ways in which a politics of paranoia can manifest itself not just on the far-left and far-right fringes but in the very heart of the American establishment.

In both cases, the exaggerated fear of Saddam Hussein’s arsenal and terrorism ties and the exaggerated fear of Russian capacities and influence, the truest believers belonged to the center-right and center-left — neoconservatives and hawkish liberals in the Iraq case, and an alliance of center-left pundits, overeager reporters, national security figures and NeverTrump Republicans in the case of Russiagate.

And in both cases the strongest skepticism came not just from partisans (Trump-defending Republicans with Russia, Bush-hating Democrats with Iraq) but also from the ideological fringes, both further left and further right. The Iraq war was fiercely opposed by paleoconservatives and antiwar libertarians as well as by the antiwar left, and the strongest skeptics of the Russiagate narrative have been left-wing journalists — Taibbi, Glenn Greenwald, Michael Tracey and others.

This pattern points to the essential difference between paranoias of the fringes and what Reason’s Jesse Walker once called “the paranoid center.” Because the center believes in the basic goodness of American and Western institutions, the basic wisdom and patriotism of their personnel, its threat matrix is always attuned to Great Enemies outside and radicals within, and its greatest fears tend to involve the two groups working together — whether that means Middle Eastern dictators and Islamist sleeper cells after Sept. 11 or the grand alliance of Putinists and homegrown white nationalists that’s blamed for Donald Trump.

Meanwhile the extremes, in different but sometimes overlapping ways, are much more skeptical about American institutions, much more “unpatriotic” in the way that David Frum once dismissed right-wing critics of the Iraq war, and thus much more likely to be skeptical of any narrative that asks you to simply trust the wisdom and good intentions of, say, figures like James Comey and John Brennan.

This gives both the far left and the far right an advantage when it comes to seeing through the paranoias of the center — even as both are tempted toward paranoias that locate all the evils of the world within the establishment, in the interlocking directorates of Washington and Wall Street or the military-industrial complex or the Brussels-Berlin axis.

Neither form of paranoia is necessarily worse or better than the other — and neither, it should be stressed, is always wrong. The paranoid center tends to take real threats and then inflate them, rather than inventing them ex nihilo; the paranoid fringes tend to identify real establishment failures and corruptions but then over-imagine conspiracies and puppet masters.

But the paranoid center generally has a power that the fringes lack — both the formal power of institutions and the cultural power to set narratives and declare the boundaries of legitimate debate. And this can make centrist paranoia more dangerous and more easily disguised.

At the same time, the center still believes in authority figures in a way that the fringes don’t. So one might hope, in this specific case, that having an establishment figure like Robert Mueller rendering a skeptical verdict will suffice to put the more baroque Trump-Russia conspiracies to rest … or at least to banish them from cable and newsprint, and back to the extremely long Twitter threads where they first flourished, and ultimately belong.

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Ross Douthat has been an Opinion columnist for The Times since 2009. He is the author of several books, most recently, “To Change the Church: Pope Francis and the Future of Catholicism.”

You can follow him on Twitter: @DouthatNYT

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