Gordon Campbell on the limits of conspiracy thinking

On the left, there’s long been a tendency to attribute phenomenal powers of competence and technological expertise to its opponents on the political right. (In this mindset, 9/11 was an inside job, carried out to foster the creation of the surveillance state.) Be it the CIA or the NSA or the Pentagon, the Grand Dragons of the left’s nightmares are seen as busily engaged 24/7 in wily games of multi-dimensional complexity that only very smart, ever vigilant and hyper-caffeinated people can detect. Therefore, for ordinary punters to lend any credence to what appears to be happening is only to play right into the hands of the evil puppet masters who are orchestrating our global outcomes.

You think, for instance, that US President Donald Trump was serious about that Muslim travel ban? No, no, the conspiracy mindset saw that as just a diversion from the real plan unfolding behind the scenes, while your attention was diverted. Trump the mastermind wasn’t serious – he was just testing the waters, to identify who stood up to him, all the better to eliminate them later.

Similarly, the White House has been merely orchestrating an appearance of chaos and incompetence, as it sneakily slots its fell captains into place in order to enact a constitutional coup in the United States, a bit further down the track. In recent weeks, a couple of useful articles have done their best to debunk this mindset, starting here and with a follow up here.

This doesn’t mean that White House ideologues like Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller don’t have a vision, or a plan. But this explanation seems more likely:

Generally speaking, the coup theory ascribes to 11-dimensional chess that which can be explained by simple incompetence and ideological extremism. Namely, the managerial incompetence of Donald Trump—recall that the only public company Trump ever ran lost money every year he was in charge and went bankrupt twice—and the ideological extremism of Steve Bannon and Stephen Miller, two of Trump’s top lieutenants.

Unfortunately, the ideological extremism is just as pervasive as the managerial incompetence. Bannon has been fingered as the imperial wizard and resident supervillain of the Trump White House, but in recent days, Miller – Trump’s 31 year old director of policy – has become almost as prominent a figure. On the weekend, it was Miller who got sent out on national TV to repeat Trump’s absurd claims of widespread voter fraud. It was also Miller who significantly refused to defend the embattled national security advisor Michael Flynn over his (possibly criminal) mission to re-assure the Russia ambassador that Trump, once in power, would lift the US sanctions imposed for Russia’s alleged meddling in last year’s US election. (The only thing currently saving Flynn from extinction is that this could make Trump look bad for hiring him in the first place, and then firing him under pressure.)

The interesting thing about Miller – and this is a blow to the conspiracy theorists – is that he always seems to have been the extremist nerd he is now. Here, for instance, is an article railing against political correctness and the need to make America great again that Miller wrote when he was 16 years old. Apparently, Miller got a hard time at school for his repeated hassling of Hispanic students.

Now, I guess it is possible that the Illuminati had their recruiters hard at work in Santa Monica 15 years ago. Yet it seems just as likely that Trump’s immigration policy has been Miller’s revenge on the Hispanic kids who gave him a hard time for being such a sanctimonious, obnoxious jerk back in high school.

Steve Bannon’s ideological lineage is almost as rich. Like Miller, Bannon believes that the Judeo-Christian tradition he sees as central to a vibrant capitalism is locked in a death struggle with Islam, and with China. In this survival contest, Russia and its Orthodox Christian tradition qualify as a potential US ally. What’s also clear is Bannon’s devotion to a theory called the Fourth Turning in American history, which he’s spoken about again and again.

The “fourth turning” is the final, apocalyptic turning point in American life after the American Revolution, the Civil War, the Great Depression of the 1930s, and takes its form in… the looming struggle with Islam and China. And yes, when Bannon says war, he does seem to mean a shooting war, not market competition. (Bannon opposes neo-liberalism, seeing it is being just as secular as Marxism in its subjugation of people to impersonal economic forces.) In this coming war, pain and suffering will be rained down on the just and unjust alike, so that the secular rot that Bannon sees at the centre of the Judeo-Christian West may be expunged, and the rule of the righteous restored.

According to Fourth Turning theory, the West will also see the emergence of a heroic figure from a previous generation, who will become known as the Grey Champion. This crackpot theory was contained in a series of quasi-historical books written by William Strauss and Neil Howe and published in the 1990s. Bannon, who was a struggling film producer in Hollywood at the time, became a fan of the books well before his tenure at Breitbart. There’s a clip at the head of this link where Bannon repeats the Strauss/Howe theory of the Fourth Turning, over and over again:

In a nutshell, here’s how it goes:

Strauss and Howe’s theory is based on a series of generational archetypes — the Artists, the Prophets, the Nomads and the Heroes — that sound like they were pulled from a dystopian young adult fiction series. Each complete four-part cycle, or saeculum, takes about 80 to 100 years, in Strauss and Howe’s reckoning. The Fourth Turning, which the authors published in 1997, focuses on the final, apocalyptic part of the cycle.

Strauss and Howe postulate that during this Fourth Turning crisis, an unexpected leader will emerge from an older generation to lead the nation, and what they call the “Hero” generation (in this case, millennials), to a new order. This person is known as the Grey Champion. An election or another event — perhaps a war — will bring this person to power, and their regime will rule throughout the crisis.

“The winners will now have the power to pursue the more potent, less incrementalist agenda about which they had long dreamed and against which their adversaries had darkly warned,” Strauss and Howe wrote in The Fourth Turning. “This new regime will enthrone itself for the duration of the Crisis. Regardless of its ideology, that new leadership will assert public authority and demand private sacrifice. Where leaders had once been inclined to alleviate societal pressures, they will now aggravate them to command the nation’s attention.”

Meaning: the worse it gets, the better it is. So if you thought that with Trump, we’re all trapped in a ruthlessly efficient plan concocted by the Illuminati, think again. Instead, we may be trapped inside a dystopian young adult novel that’s being played out in real time, by the servants of the Grey – or Orange – Champion. May the odds be in your favour.

Footnote: No doubt, that near-collapsing Oroville high dam in northern California will be seen by some as a ‘black ops’ exercise carried out to rescue Trump from his current misfortunes, and enable him to look presidential. Its all so obvious.

Footnote Two : While, as mentioned, the left are routinely in awe of the right’s supervillainry, the right don’t seem to hold the left’s political skills in similar regard. However, the right do tend to think the left has better sex, more often.

Calamity Songs

Obviously, the soundtrack for anyone’s end times party has to include “Bad Moon Rising”… but IMO, if you’re talking apocalypse, the Decemberists had this one nailed quite some time ago:

And the Simpsons had their own variation on rampant consumerism turning out quite badly: