For years now on Palmer Report, I have inveighed against conspiracy theories. And for good reason. The conspiracy theory mentality has given rise to global warming denialism, birtherism, the Big Lie and countless QAnon absurdities. Conspiracy theories are a cancer on the body politic, the very antithesis of critical thinking, and a lot of people are prone to the lies generated by conspiracy theories in part because they don’t understand how they work or by what mechanism they are being deceived.
It’s particularly instructive to look at what Republicans are doing with Donald Trump’s indictments. Their deception is pulled off using what I refer to as “the microscope.” The microscope, in the metaphorical sense that I am using it, is employed to examine individual details to the exclusion of everything else, especially the larger picture.
For example, a MAGA loyalist, Fox News host or Trump apologist will seize upon a short passage in the Georgia indictment where Trump has sent a tweet and say that Trump is harmlessly expressing his opinion on social media. They’ll then insist that Trump is therefore being indicted for merely exercising his First Amendment right to free speech! They will ignore what I call “the telescope,” that is, if you back up and look at the larger picture, you will quickly see that the tweet was part of a bigger context in which, say, fake electors are sent forth with counterfeit documents in order to steal the election. That, of course, is the actual felony, not sending a tweet.
Naturally this nonsense won’t work in a court of law. A judge or a prosecutor would spot it in a New York minute and disallow it or object to it on the grounds that the defence is obviously attempting to deceive the court. But it doesn’t have to work in court, only in everyday conversations where people are easily persuaded and rules are lax or nonexistent.
That’s why, when they were litigating the Big Lie in sixty court cases, Rudy Giuliani and company made wild accusations in front of news cameras, but used far tamer language when they went before judges. They knew better than to push their bullshit in court.
Think of it in terms of the 9/11 “Truther” movement. The conspiracy theorist will talk all day long about “anomalies” with Building 7 (“problems” that are easily explained with a simple Google search) but ignore the larger context of how it’s possible that a plot involving literally hundreds, or even thousands of people, could be kept secret for decades without a single person leaking to the press or writing a book about their involvement. Indeed, the complete lack of simple awe that so many people could keep that secret for so long betrays a staggering naïveté, one that every “Truther” refuses to address no matter how often it’s pointed out to them.
Conspiracy theorists build mosaics out of tiny anecdotal experiences in lieu of larger models of cohesive paradigms. What is the first thing a climate science denialist says if it’s unseasonably cold in their part of the country? “So much for global warming,” of course. Never mind that the rest of the world is on fire or under water, they’re just fine and they only have to convince the tiny minds of their immediate tiny world. The bigger picture, the telescope, is anathema to their pet conspiracy theory.
Whole conspiracy books are constructed out of one microscopic anecdote after another assembled in breathless, dramatic prose into a pastiche of utter rubbish. Taken together the individual pieces of the mosaic the author has made creates a false paradigm of a whole that is a complete delusion — but can be totally deceiving. In this context the telescope could easily defeat the microscope. But telescopes are banned in the conspiracy theory worldview.
The telescope (or bigger picture) of the Trump indictments is one that Republicans don’t want people to see. They desperately try to shut down (and shout down) anything that contradicts their forays into microscopy. That’s why Republicans won’t have reasonable debates about the facts, preferring instead to use exhausting “Gish Gallops” of endless deceiving little falsehoods that they pretend to be outraged about.
If Trump were innocent then Republicans would be delighted that court trials are coming. Because trials are the most fertile grounds in which reason triumphs, where there are stringent rules and lies and nonsense are much harder to promote. If Trump were innocent, Republicans would believe that it’s only a matter of time before he’s acquitted on all counts. But Trump is guilty and they know it.
This is why Republicans are particularly terrified of Trump’s Georgia indictment. The trial will undoubtedly be televised, and the whole world will get to watch as Trump’s carefully constructed mosaic of microscopic lies is dismantled piece by piece by the telescope of justice. And what a day of justice it will be when he is found guilty on all counts! And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.