In last week’s issue of U.S. 1, we covered the predictions of Sam Wang, the neuroscience professor who correctly called the 2012 presidential election thanks to his mastery of data analysis. He said the 2016 presidential election was nearly a sure thing for Clinton, and that the election had a lot of “drama, but no suspense.”
Just one day later, that edition of the paper seemed like it came from an ancient era of history. Wang had made a bet that he would eat a bug if Trump got more than 240 electoral votes. By 9:30 p.m., as results came in, Wang posted on Twitter that he was looking up bug recipes. The following Saturday, he ate fried crickets on national television. The polls that Wang based his prediction on were terribly wrong. Donald Trump’s surprise victory overturned a lot of old beliefs, perhaps most of all the belief that someone is in charge of all this.
In the days leading up to the election, it looked like Clinton was going to cruise to victory despite her overall unpopularity. She was such a shoe-in that Trump was claiming that the system was rigged, the polls were rigged, and the election was rigged, even before it began, seemingly making excuses for an inevitable loss. When Trump won, he seemed as surprised as anyone else and had to scramble to put a transition team together.
People not only believed his claims of a rigged election but elaborated upon the conspiracy idea. I had conversations with several disillusioned Bernie Sanders supporters who thought Trump himself was part of a grand conspiracy to get Clinton elected president. The theory went that Bill and Hillary had encouraged Trump to run and that he was nothing more than a “straw man” throwing the election on purpose by making erratic statements and generally behaving like an insane, petulant child on the campaign trail.
On the other side of the political spectrum, conspiracy-minded radio host Alex Jones was frothing at the mouth every day over e-mails uncovered by an e-mail hack against John Podesta, Hillary Clinton’s campaign chair. One of them was from Podesta’s brother Tony, a high-powered Washington lobbyist who also happens to be an art collector. In the e-mail, Tony forwards a message from artist Marina Abramovich asking if Tony can attend a “spirit cooking” dinner. Stay with me, because this is weird.
Abramovich, a Serbian and the most famous performance artist in the world, had previously performed a piece called “Spirit Dinner” in which she used a thick red liquid to write bizarre “recipes” on a wall: “With a sharp knife, cut deeply into the middle finger of your left and. Eat the pain.” On another wall she wrote “Fresh morning urine. Sprinkle on the nightmare dreams.” No one knows if Podesta even went to the dinner because he never replied.
On the surface, this is a non-story. There’s only a roundabout connection to Hillary Clinton, and it is just about a dinner where a weird performance artist and a bunch of rich Washington insiders would attend. Later interviewed about the spirit dinner, Abramovich said it was just a normal dinner party.
But to the fevered imaginations of the conspiracy theorists, the “spirit dinner” confirmed everything they had ever said about the “global elites” and “international bankers” who they say control the world behind the scenes. It wasn’t just performance art, it was witchcraft! Blood magic! Hillary Clinton and her minions were involved in satanic rituals!
The conspiracy theorists — who are in reality conspiracy fantasists — believe that everything you see in the news is determined beforehand. That events are scripted by cabals of mysterious elites in smoke-filled rooms, with secret e-mails, or over a tall glass of urine at a spirit dinner.
But the Podesta e-mails revealed a truth that was much more frightening than a conspiracy. Most of the e-mails were routine campaign strategizing, and it is in these e-mails that a picture emerges. The campaign had no idea how to beat Donald Trump. They kicked lame campaign slogans back and forth, eventually settling on the cringe-worthy “I’m With Her” that made Clinton seem like she was entitled to the presidency, before settling on the generic “Stronger Together.”
A previous e-mail hack from the summer, this time of the Democratic National Committee, confirmed this impression. It was clear from the DNC e-mails that the Democrats could not have “rigged” an election even if they had wanted to. Their attempts to crush Bernie Sanders’ insurgent campaign were hamfisted. One official suggested the bizarre strategy of highlighting Sanders’s Jewish heritage: “My Southern Baptist peeps would draw a big difference between a Jew and an atheist.”
There were no evil overlords, just a bunch of people e-mailing back and forth who clearly had no idea what they were doing. For many, the thought that somewhere, somehow, adults are in charge, even if they have bad intentions, must be a comforting one. Seemingly random and frightening events are not the result of happenstance, but are all part of a grander plan to maintain global order.
Trump’s election, and the peek into the private communications of the “global elite” has proved once and for all that the cosmopolitan elites never had a master plan or even a half decent plan. Things sometimes happen for random and hard-to-understand reasons.
None of this means that conspiracies do not exist. Very real conspiracies have been uncovered by the supposedly compromised media (see Bridgegate). The most dangerous conspiracies of all exist out in the open, and are much more boring than the hallucinatory visions of Alex Jones, though no less threatening to the average person.
The global elites, to the extent that they are able to influence politics, openly change laws so that they can continue to amass ever growing proportions of the world’s wealth. Members of the foreign policy establishment have been advocating for war against Iran for several decades and now have their best chance of getting it.
Other elites conspire to weaken the first amendment. For example, Trump wants to make it easier to sue news outlets, thereby abusing the legal system to crush those would criticize him — a strategy perfected by Silicon Valley investor Peter Thiel, who buried Gawker Media under a wave of grudge lawsuits earlier this year. Thiel’s name has been floated for a cabinet seat in the new administration.
In Trump’s America, don’t look for lurid conspiracies in the shadows. Beware of the dull ones that are right out in the open.