Everyone wants to be America's Dumbest Senator. I don't know why. As far as I know there is no prize awarded other than the title itself. It is very, very important for many Republican senators to be seen as egregiously not-smart, however. It is virtue-signaling, but in reverse. I am one of you, every Republican senator wants to tell their Fox News-watching, Jade Helm-believing, blood-libel-suspicious, Anonymous Internet Conspiracy Troll-following base of supporters. I am just as dumb. I, too, despise expertise, book-learning, and fact-knowing. Fill me with your conspiracies; I shall return them to you with interest.
Anyhoo, that brings us to Sen. Tom Cotton of Arkansas. Sen. Tom Cotton has a theory, or rather a hypothesis, or rather a cognitius rectalus or a netherthink that What If maybe the coronavirus COVID-19 was not a virus that moved from bats to humans in the manner that many, many, many viruses have jumped to new hosts even though scientists are now quite certain that is what happened, but actually it is instead a new virus that was developed by the Chinese Communist Party but escaped from a not-secret lab because Reasons.
Mind you, Sen. Tom Cotton does not have a single plausible reason to believe this. But it was a conspiracy theory that Some Idiot Said, somewhere, which is reason enough for a sitting U.S. senator to burp it out again on Fox Freaking News.
As transcribed by The Washington Post, the exact thing
Trump Tom Cotton claimed, on Fox's theoretically business-premised Sunday Morning Futures, is this: "We don't know where it originated," but we "know that just a few miles away from" a food market previously suspected of being an original infection point "is China’s only biosafety level 4 super laboratory that researches human infectious diseases."
All right, so somebody's been looking at Zillow again, but is there anything more substantive than that? No, says Cotton proudly. "We don't have evidence that this disease originated there. But—"
Oh, here we go.
"—because of China's duplicity and dishonesty from the beginning, we need to at least ask the question."
Ah, there we go. The melodious chirp of every tin-hatted, mean-spirited, ignorant-on-purpose conspiracy songbird: We are just asking questions. We have no evidence that a microscopic space alien descended to earth on a pebble-sized spaceship, went into the nearest supermarket, pooped alien superviruses onto the produce and took off again, Tom Cotton insists to an audience of angry shut-ins; we are just asking the question.
For the record, we know with near-certainty that this virus was not hatched in a laboratory, either as a superweapon or otherwise. Experts can rule that out for a variety of reasons, all of them pretty darn interesting and informative. Even if someone, somewhere, proposed that theory in the very earliest days of the Wuhan outbreak, we don't need to propose it again now, because it has already been ruled out.
Nonetheless, Cotton took to Twitter Sunday evening to insist on the wisdom of his speculation, apparently irritated by the large number of people who had piped up to tell him that he was full of bat guano. Again the only evidence was: well, China lies a lot.
Yes. Yes it does. Fortunately we do not have to rely on their statements, as we have an actual analysis of the virus itself now, and once again Cotton is really, really diving into the conspiracy theory playbook with a suggestion that his main evidence for a secret conspiracy is that his target is of course denying their involvement in the secret conspiracy.
Touché, buddy. (More uncomfortably, we have in recent years had to grapple with our own awkward questions: Does China lie more than our own government, we ask as Tom Cotton mouths known false claims and Senate Republicans adopt every loony, post-factual derangement invented by the misfiring neurons in Donald Trump's head? Does China lie more than, say, Mike Pompeo? Does Chinese state media lie more than Sean Hannity, or less than Sean Hannity? The metrics on these things have taken a beating, of late.)
So here's what you need to know. Tom Cotton is not telling the truth. He is stating a theory which we know is untrue, with no apparent regard for the societal damage it does for a person in his office to broadcast false information. He has done that before, as well—that time, too, Cotton's claims seemed far more focused on frightening his racist, suspicious-of-all-foreigners-everywhere base than on imparting any actual information.
He's showboating, in other words. He's fearmongering because that is what his base wants to hear. They don't want to hear that there's a potentially dangerous emergent virus in China that the world's governments are coordinating to attempt to contain. They want to hear that it is the fault of "Chinese communists." Feed them that and the Fox News crowd will hang on your every word.
The Republican Party is not merely conspiracy-obsessed. It used to be conspiracy obsessed, even before the days when somebody convinced a group of Texas dimwits that Jade Helm was a devious scheme by the first non-white American president to annex, um, Texas. Now it is conspiracy-reliant. The old policies have broken down, the party planks have turned into a jumble as the party scrambles to portray Dear Leader's erratic lunacies as wisdom that all Good Patriots are now obliged to adhere to, and conspiracy theories have become the frame on which the party hangs itself.
It wasn't Russia that attacked America, tipping the election scales to the Republicans in an effort to keep a longtime Putin adversary from the presidency; it was actually the Democrats, and Ukraine. It was not Manafort, Flynn, Stone, and a host of other Trump officials and hangers-on that did crimes; it was the Deep State, a conspiracy coming from within the government itself. Climate change was invented by scientists to get more sweet, sweet science money. China invented a new coronavirus in an attempt to take over the world by giving everyone "the flu, but slightly worse." The enemy of the state is not those who break laws, but the "whistleblowers" who speak up. The enemy of the state is a free press that reports things the party doesn't like, rather than the things the party would prefer.
The enemy of the state is you, you sitting there reading this, for mocking Tom Cotton for spreading conspiracy theories rather than praising his diligent patriotism in asking the question.
The conspiracies have become the point. The world was not a scary enough place; it needed a narrative in which everything alarming was a plot aimed on preventing white conservatives of middling education from ascending to their true and deserved power. Now that that narrative has been put in place, the rest of the news can be put neatly in the slots provided. What the news actually is does not matter; it can be bent to fit.