One of the unhappy attributes of the alternative universe of right-wing conspiracism—for people who dwell in reality, at least—is that, no matter how thoroughly and completely their twisted disinformation and conjecture is debunked and proven to be factually false, it will always live on: regurgitated and recycled, circulating in memes and message boards and Donald Trump speeches. Just as the anti-Obama “birther” theories not only never went away but became a political springboard for Trump, their zombie half-life can have lasting consequences.
That’s because the embrace of conspiracism by high-powered Republicans in the face of factual reality, as Greg Sargent recently discussed at The Washington Post, is actually an assertion of power—that is, of the power to shape public perception to their will. We can see this clearly in the case of the disinformation that surrounded the attack on Paul Pelosi and the spread of conspiracy theories about it that has continued to flourish even after the fake information (or in some cases, mistaken reporting) has been thoroughly exposed and discredited by the subsequent police investigation.
Even after the full details of the story on the Pelosi attack emerged—no, David DePape was not Pelosi’s gay lover, Pelosi did not call him a “friend” on the 911 call, he was not in his underwear, and the windows were broken in from the outside—the conspiracism spread through the Republican mainstream. What seemed to fuel this was an eagerness to deny that their own rhetoric might have led to the violence, an attempt to repudiate their own culpability.
Texas Senator Ted Cruz shared a tweet calling the attacker “a hippie nudist from Berkeley,” and labeled suggestions that DePape—who, in fact, reveled in far-right conspiracy theories, ranging from QAnon to Holocaust denial to election denialism to anti-vaxxer theories—might be a right-wing extremist as "absurd." Elon Musk, shortly after taking over Twitter, retweeted a piece from a notorious fake news outlet suggesting that Pelosi and DePape were gay lovers. Donald Trump Jr. shared a meme amplifying the same suggestions.
All those posts ended up being deleted, but a number of other prominent conservatives continued to propagate the conspiracism.
Right-wing provocateur Dinesh D'Souza tweeted, "nothing about the public account so far makes any sense." He followed up by using a classic conspiracist technique—claiming that the correction of faulty reporting (a common occurrence in breaking news) is evidence of a manipulated narrative, rather than evidence that facts revealed in the course of any investigation eventually clarify what actually happened—that creates a fog of suspicion that feeds the disinformation:
Pelosi knew the guy. Well no, he didn’t. There were 3 people there. No, two. Both guys had hammers. No, only one hammer. Both of them were in their underwear. No, just Pelosi. Is it a surprise we don’t believe the narrative when the facts must be heavily edited to conform to it?
The Gateway Pundit’s Jim Hoft, who has a well-established record of publishing “alternate facts,” posted a shifting rotation of conspiracy theories on his Telegram channel, calling the incident at the Pelosi home a “midnight escapade” and the incident investigation “another Pelosi wrap-up smear.”
But the most prominent voice enabling the conspiracist narrative around the Pelosi attack was Fox News’ Tucker Carlson—who, on his Wednesday program, played clips from Joe Biden’s speech earlier that evening in which he urged Americans to remain confident in their system of elections going into Tuesday’s midterms. Carlson, continuing his running theme this week embracing election denialism, was especially outraged and baffled that Biden connected the rhetoric heard in the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 to the attack on Pelosi:
Even though David DuPape is a mentally ill illegal alien nudist hippie living in a schoolbus with a BLM flag, Biden told us that he’s just your typical right-wing crazy, [mocking] just like the January 6 insurrectionists!
He then played a clip of Biden saying this:
After the assailant entered the home asking, ‘Where’s Nancy? Where’s Nancy?’ Those are the very same words used by the mob when they stormed the U.S. Capitol on January the 6th, broke windows, kicked in the doors, brutally attacked law enforcement, roamed the corridors hunting for officials, and erected gallows to hang the former vice president, Mike Pence. It was an enraged mob that had been whipped up into a frenzy by a president repeating over and over again the Big Lie, that the election of 2020 had been stolen.
This is, of course, precisely correct. Indeed, video from Jan. 6 shows multiple people demanding to know where Nancy Pelosi could be found—not to mention taking over her office and trashing it. “Nancy, oh, Nancy, where are you, Nancy?” one of them could be heard saying. Another could be heard yelling, "Nancy...Nancy...We're coming for you Nancy." One of the rioters now in prison, David Antonio Ticas, demanded of a Capitol Police officer: "Where's Nancy Pelosi? You don’t know?" as he wandered the Capitol in search of her.
Carlson, however, then put on a performance designed to push his audience into an alternate reality in which those events never happened. Affecting his most baffled expression, he ranted:
Every word is a lie. Really, it’s hallucinatory listening to it. None of that is true. There’s no reality in those sentences that you just heard.
ironically, only a few days before, Carlson and his sidekick Glenn Greenwald were huffing and puffing about how Democratic authoritarianism was all about persuading voters not to believe their own ears and eyes—a textbook example of projection. His intent in all this, he makes clear, is not only to erase Biden’s words but to assure Republicans that they are going to win the midterms—if Democrats don’t cheat, that is:
Some people will fall for it, hardcore MSNBC viewers. But most people will not fall for it. It has no bearing on the lives they’ve been living under Joe Biden’s presidency, which are getting worse, across the board. Not just Republicans, but independents and Democrats too, and that’s why Democrats are going to lose—if we have a free and fair election Tuesday, even in the state of New York.
Sargent captures the purpose of this denialist rhetoric in his Post column: ”It’s as if all the lying is becoming an assertion of power in its own right, a kind of end in itself,” he writes.
He notes that trying to counter these lies with facts is “about as effective as shooting spitballs at a balloon”:
This is partly because the falsehoods have spread wildly through a right-wing media ecosystem that has been constructed to be impervious to outside challenge, as Matt Gertz details at Media Matters.
But it’s also because the whole point of all the lying is to assert the power to manufacture an alternate story in the face of easily demonstrable facts and outraged condemnation — and, importantly, to assert that power unabashedly and defiantly.
This was apparent not just in the above clip, but in the segment that preceded it, in which Carlson’s larger intent is clear: To build a narrative in which Republicans should expect to cruise to an easy victory—and to respond with anger and violence if it doesn’t:
The conventional view among people who follow politics is that the Democratic Party is about to suffer a humiliating repudiation in next week’s midterm election. It seems very likely now that Democrats will lose both houses of Congress, and that’s just the beginning of their pain. Polls suggest that even places that reported Joe Biden by a wide margin in 2020 are about to swing dramatically against him and his party.
Carlson then ran a clip in which Biden talked about MAGA Republicans trying to undermine faith in elections, and urging Americans to be patient with next week’s results and allow them to be counted accurately, which often takes considerable time. Carlson used that plea for a twin assault: 1) to depict Biden’s appeals to the voters as an authoritarian “command,” and 2) to broadly suggest that any delays in final vote counts are indicative of fraudulent behavior by Democrats:
That’s very weird, if you think about it. So here we are, less than a week before the Democratic Party is supposed to suffer overwhelming losses in the midterm elections. And here you have the leader of that party, Joe Biden, commanding you not complain about the election results. Why is that?
Well, let’s see. Here’s Joe Biden telling you that thanks to the changes—the many changes, Democrats have made to our system of voting—all of which make voter fraud easier to commit—we may not know the results of the elections for a few days. But don’t be alarmed. Everything is completely on the level. And whatever you do, do not ask questions or else you’re a criminal.
This is an insidious narrative. In reality, Pennsylvania’s Republican Legislature insisted on only allowing state elections officials to begin counting any early-vote ballots until the morning of the election. This means that larger numbers of those ballots—which naturally occur in larger urban counties—will take considerably more time. This is why Allegheny, Montgomery, and Philadelphia counties anticipate poll workers will take until Wednesday to finish counting ballots, and Bucks County may take until Thursday.
So Carlson is setting up his audience to immediately cry “fraud” if early results show, for instance, Mehmet Oz ahead of John Fetterman, or Doug Mastriano leading Josh Shapiro—an entirely likely scenario, considering that Republicans’ strength in Pennsylvania lies mostly in rural areas with smaller populations whose votes can be counted more easily—and then the late vote from heavily populated urban areas flips those results. Donald Trump tried spreading “voter fraud” claims in 2020 under a similar situation.
Carlson kept repeating that “Biden commanded you to accept the election results whenever they arrive, no matter what they may be,” though anyone watching the speech understood that the president was appealing to the public to support their democracy by having faith in the integrity of the system. It was not a command, it was a plea. However, this neatly fits Carlson’s running narrative claiming that Democrats are only able to cling to power through “censorship.” So that was the twisted version of reality he sold his audience.
Then he wrapped it up with a diatribe that reveals the epistemologically backward narrative that he’s foisting on his audience, the kind that leaves them vulnerable to authoritarian manipulation through disinformation and conspiracism:
First of all, if people have questions about the last election, or January 6, or what happened at Nancy Pelosi’s house in San Francisco last Friday, there’s a really simple way to put those concerns to rest, to stop the conspiracy theories—and that’s produce the evidence. Show us the facts.
If people are worried about vote totals in a specific state in 2020, first of all they have the right to have the party in charge prove, prove that that election was fair. But moreover, they have a duty to ask. The only way you have a free and fair system is if everybody is free to ask questions about it, and demand real answers.
If you’re coming up with some sort of crazy theory about what happened at Nancy Pelosi’s house last Friday, instead of yelling at you or calling you names, or telling you you’re a conspiracy nut—‘You Alex Jones’—just produce the police body cam! Why’s that so hard? If you think something weird was going on on January 6th—OK! It’s not your fault! Maybe it’s the fault of the people who are hiding thousands of hours of video evidence from January 6th! Why wouldn’t you release that? The onus is on them, not the rest of us. We’re not the crazy people. You’re the liars.
This is, of course, a completely upside-down version of reality, and of how logic is supposed to work. It’s impossible to prove a negative proposition like this: The onus is not on the people who oversee normative information operations; they can’t prove that cockamamie conspiracy theories drawn from thin air are false because there’s no checkable evidence being offered. In logic, the onus is always on the accuser to provide substantive evidence to support their suspicions. Moreover, Americans have always been able to question their elections, but there are multiple venues for doing so: through county clerks, election boards, and finally, the courts. Simply calling election officials “cheaters” and “traitors” without any evidence isn’t “asking questions” about the elections—it’s attacking them. And in the process, of course, it's attacking democracy itself.
The same is generally true of the Jan. 6 videos, or the Pelosi security cameras, but with a bit more nuance. Because both of these cases involve active criminal investigations that are still in the process of going to court, much of the video evidence around them is held in abeyance from public review for the sake of protecting both prosecutors and defendants. This kind of evidence is often produced for public viewing during the trials themselves. Demanding to see all of the potentially available evidence in advance not only runs counter to how our system of justice works, it also is another exercise in upside-down logic: If we can’t see all the video, they’re saying, then how do we know there isn’t exculpatory evidence on it? (Answer: That’s what defense attorneys are for.)
This is, however, exactly how authoritarians work: They convince their audiences to embrace twisted forms of bad logic that both further their alternative-universe beliefs and demolish their ability to reason clearly on their own. The resulting gap between the authoritarian True Believers and the rest of society operating on normative logic becomes a wedge that tightens the mutual embrace of leaders and followers.
Ruth Ben-Ghiat, a New York University professor, told Sargent that the spread of Pelosi conspiracy theories is yet another example of the “autocratic political culture” currently consuming the Republican Party.
“The ability to assert a false reality in the face of empirical evidence is itself an act of power,” Ben-Ghiat said. The authoritarians who push this kind of narrative, she said, place themselves “above the truth” and “above democratic custom.”
That’s your average Republican in 2022.
At long last, the 2022 midterms are almost here! With the battle for the House front and center, we give you a window into the key races on a final pre-election episode of The Downballot. We discuss a wide range of contests that will offer insight into how the night is going, including top GOP pickup opportunities, second-tier Republican targets, and the seats where Democrats are on offense. And with many vote tallies likely to stretch on for some time, we also identify several bellwether races in states that count quickly.