War of memes. / Eli Christman

Con Air

The campaign ends with conspiracies—of, by, and for the dunces

War of memes. / Eli Christman
w
o
r
d

f
a
c
t
o
r
y

It seems entirely fitting that in the final stretch of a presidential campaign militantly indifferent to a host of policy crises, from climate change to wealth inequality, from antitrust prosecutions to affordable housing, the American public is left to gnaw maliciously on a pair of conspiracy theories. And it’s no less fitting that the prostrate corporate media complex—ripe for more than a few antitrust prosecutions of its own—should breathlessly tout both fantasies, certain as they are to prey on primal voter anxieties and thereby ramp up ratings numbers and clicks.

The first of the now all-but impregnable storylines framing the closing days of Campaign ’16, for readers who have sanely opted to live under a rock until late October, is as follows: FBI Director James Comey, moved by some gnomic ideological muse or another, has reactivated his agency’s investigation into what’s gone out over Hillary Clinton’s idiotically administered private email server—even though he’d previously declared said investigation effectively completed, and even though he, like the rest of us, has zero idea whether any sensitive or new, or newly sensitive, information is contained in this latest email cache. Oh, and of course, this new crop of emails turned up via the FBI’s unrelated probe into the never-ending sexting antics of former Democratic Congressman and current priapic clown Anthony Weiner, estranged husband of Clinton aide Huma Abedin.

Never mind that the Occam’s razor explanation of this non-twist in the Hillary email saga is that Clinton, while serving as secretary of state, probably prevailed upon Abedin simply to print out email threads for review in old-school paper format, in the great tradition of tech-befuddled Boomers round the globe. Never mind as well that, at this late stage of gnat-straining debate, the odds of sinister new communiqués turning up via the Clinton server are now on a par with those of a Red Sox World Series victory. The entire Breitbartized conservative movement has been fed a news diet that reduces to the elegantly simple formulation EMAILS BAD for nearly two years now. And that means, in turn, that all the Trump campaign has to do is intone some variation of the word sequence “Hillary” and “emails” and crowds will duly chant “Lock her up!” and many far worse things on cue.

Cable producers, having wasted much of the campaign airing unedited footage of Trump rallies, know this all too well. So no sooner was Comey pronouncing his Clouseau-like determination to wade back into the email morass than the airwaves were overrun with moronic speculation over what trouble this all portended for campaign Clinton. Never mind (yet again) that the irresponsible and uninformed blaring of this non-news event as though it were a top-drawer scandal of Watergate or Teapot Dome vintage is precisely the kind of trouble that the Clinton campaign went on to experience. In the serene epistemological closure that cable news executives call home, they are simply neutral players on the political stage, relaying “breaking news” to an audience that long ago gave up on the prospect of seeing actual news coursing through their cable feeds.

Meanwhile, faced with a barrage of unhinged conspiratorial speculation, Democratic power brokers went promptly into unhinged conspiratorial-speculation mode. (So much, it seems, for that worn-out moralizing dictum from Michelle Obama: “When they go low, we go high.”) After much harum-scarum speculating about the specter of Donald Trump, Kremlin spook, we’re left with little more than the news that a commercial server affiliated with Trump businesses has randomly interfaced with computers of obscure Russian provenance. Over at Mother Jones, David Corn has a slightly more grounded scooplet on a D.C. security consultant shuttling his own report on troubling Trump-Putin connections over to an FBI investigator, but let’s just say that the FBI’s credibility when it comes to handling any sensitive intel coming from any source of any ideological coloration merits even more critical scrutiny than usual.

Once a news outlet cheerfully sets a conspiracy-meme in motion, this sort of tit-for-tat partisan race to the bottom is all but inevitable.

In any event, the larger point here is that, once a news outlet cheerfully sets a conspiracy-meme in motion, this sort of tit-for-tat partisan race to the bottom is all but inevitable. Back in Clinton Era I, of course, the allegations came hot and heavy over every reprobate action that the baby alt-right could pin on sybaritic ’60s-bred counterculture poster boy Bill Clinton, from coke smuggling to crony murder. In response, of course, Hillary Clinton excoriated the “vast right-wing conspiracy” out to defame her husband with baseless charges that he’d committed reckless frottage with White House intern Monica Lewinsky. Inconveniently for all interested parties, of course, both things were true: there was a vast right-wing conspiracy to discredit the Clinton presidency; and the alleged reckless frottage did actually take place. Fittingly, the only person who emerged from this dismal set piece with any plausible claim to moral authority was Monica Lewinsky herself.

You’d think that even political journalists would possess enough of a historical sensibility—to say nothing of a rudimentary self-awareness—to heed the blindingly obvious lessons of our recent conspiracy-besotted political past. Yet here we are, with all available media resources deployed in the endgame of this ugly political cycle to hunt down the micro-scandal most likely to benefit one or the other of our major-party national committees. Missing from the roster of genuine scandal are a whole litany of Trump authored trespasses; the latest New York Times report on the GOP nominee’s dubiously legal tax writeoffs was a lone straw that floated harmlessly to Earth amid all the breathless email-Russia blustering. To take but one egregious example of media malpractice: it still beggars belief that our cable commentariat lets even the smallest facet of Trump’s pseudo-economic plan gain mention without instantaneously offering the reminder that this is the first major party presidential nominee in modern history to refuse to release his tax returns. Similarly, Clinton’s exuberantly bellicose foreign policy positions get a dumbfoundingly routine free pass from our putative political watchdogs in the media—in no small part, of course, because imperial freebooting is what passes for political maturity in their ranks. And this is all in place, remember, of any substantive reckoning with the actual public scandals of our age: the Brazilianized American economy, the unmoored surveillance state, the savage inequalities of race—and climate change, climate change, climate change.

Such is the state of the media-brokered public discourse in our republic’s metastasizing crisis of self-confidence. It’s almost as if, I dunno, a conspiracy was afoot to keep us from truly beholding the scope of our looming collective catastrophe. But what am I nattering on about? Ratings are way up!

Chris Lehmann is editor in chief of The Baffler and author of Rich People Things. His latest book, The Money Cult, is out now from Melville House.

You Might Also Enjoy

Baffler Newsletter

new email subscribers receive a digital copy of our current issue.

Further Reading