The Intercept’s Glenn Greenwald recently compiled a list of the top 10 “most embarrassing media failures on the Trump-Russia story.” All of them exhibit a common theme: Russian conspiracies are undermining American interests everywhere. Greenwald’s piece was followed by a bizarre New York Times story from January 16 with the headline: “Trump and Putin: Five Meetings Infused With Mystery.” The story implied something sinister in undisclosed conversations between the two leaders while offering no evidence whatsoever.
What causes otherwise intelligent people to put their faith in conspiracy theories? A common explanation on the Right is that these conspiracies are cynically concocted to overthrow the Trump presidency. Another explanation points to declining standards of journalism, i.e., reporters being too incompetent to refute groundless claims. Both reasons have merit yet both fail to explain the peculiar estrangement from reality that a belief in baseless conspiracies represents.
In the early stages of the French Revolution, the Jacobins imagined that the beacon of a democratic France would shine across the world and tyrannical kings would topple before its luminescence. The Jacobin imagination was polluted by utopian idealism, the ideology that causes people to see the world how they wish it to be rather than how it is.
When the luminescence of France began to fade and the revolutionary army began to falter, the Jacobins felt there could only be one explanation: conspiracy. Only a deep-seated plot could be preventing France the Savior from vanquishing retrograde monarchs. From the beginning, the virtuous Jacobins saw themselves as fighting a conspiracy against the rights of humanity. Hence the Reign of Terror, with the guillotine deployed against priests and nobles who were seen as forming the core opposition to a better world.
Idealism and conspiracy theories are, it seems, opposite sides of the same coin. When the dream fails to materialize, its validity is not questioned; instead the search to find those who connived against it begins.
Like the Jacobins, the foreign policy establishment in the United States has for decades hitched its wagons to idealistic dreaming. The Romantic ideas of Hegel and Rousseau permeate their thinking. Consider the establishment’s obsequious reaction to Francis Fukuyama’s “end of history” thesis. Fukuyama presented himself as the all-seeing gnostic who had divined the direction of all human history. One does not need the acumen of an Aristotle to know that this was far from an original thesis. Fukuyama’s Hegelianism was both warmed over and unmoored from reality. And yet the foreign policy establishment swooned over him. The Bush 43 administration fell so hard for him that they tried to give history a little push by invading Iraq.
Or consider the globalist dreaming of the elites that Samuel P. Huntington labeled “Davos men.” In the Davos dream, culture, history, and religion are archaic relics of a world fading away. National borders are disappearing, and a new global order is emerging, led by secular multilateral institutions staffed by an all-knowing “cosmopolitan” elite.
The reality of a borderless world is global migration that threatens to extinguish much of Western civilization in a generation or two. With cultures clashing, nationalism on the march, and religious wars raging, the Davos men continue to worship their dream from the safety of their Gulfstream jets.
And to the Davos men, only a conspiracy can explain the election of Donald Trump. How else could such a regressive development have occurred when history is cascading toward open borders, democracy, and international institutions? How could an American president question the value of NATO and other alliances whose glorious mission is to midwife the end of history by democratizing everything from Lisbon to the Urals?
For those in a dream world, the only possible explanation for Trump is a conspiracy. His presidency was hatched by Vladimir Putin, the world leader with the strongest reasons for slowing the progressive march of history. Trump won the election because Putin has the powers of a Rasputin. He can thwart history by crossing his eyes, pulling secret levers, and deploying hackers.
But Trump and Putin will not be permitted to conspire against the dream. Their conspiracy must be destroyed, even at the risk of nuclear war. Special counsels must be created, eavesdropping must be expanded, foreign spies must be employed, and jackbooted agents must break down every door linked to this insidious conspiracy. The ruling elites are prepared to tear up the Constitution itself to save humanity from this diabolical cabal.
The resilience of the Russia conspiracy in the minds of our establishment should remind us that the primary obstacle to a sensible foreign policy is our ideologized culture, in which the Western outlook of common sense has been eroded by a Romantic utopian idealism. When people within reach of massive military power are this estranged from reality, the situation can only be described as frightening.
William S. Smith is research fellow at and managing director of the Center for the Study of Statesmanship at The Catholic University of America.