Farai Chideya: We have already heard some amazing speakers, and right now we're going to continue by talking about the conspiracy trap, with Masha Gessen. She's a Russian and American professor and author. She's a professor at Amherst and she is the author of The Man Without a Face: The Unlikely Rise of Vladimir Putin, and in October her new book is coming out which is called The Future is History: How Totalitarianism Reclaimed Russia. So please welcome Masha Gessen.

Masha Gessen: So I’m going to start with an unfun­ny joke. You’re sup­posed to start with a joke, right? And the joke actu­al­ly comes from a 1940 entry in the diary of Victor Klemperer. Victor Klemperer was a lin­guist who kept a jour­nal of the Hitler years. A very detailed, very bril­liant jour­nal. And he quotes this joke that Hitler has run into Moses. And Hitler says to Moses, Tell me the truth. You set that bush on fire your­self, did­n’t you?” [scat­tered laugh­ter] Some peo­ple think it’s fun­ny.

I think that it’s hilar­i­ous. But I also think it’s illu­mi­nat­ing, in the sense that the ref­er­ence in that joke is to the Reichstag fire, right, which a lot of peo­ple in Germany believed that the Nazi par­ty had set itself in order to jus­ti­fy the polit­i­cal crack­down that fol­lowed.

But also to me it’s impor­tant because it’s illus­tra­tive of some­thing else. It’s illus­tra­tive of the way that con­spir­a­cy think­ing con­t­a­m­i­nates life under a par­tic­u­lar kind of regime. Basically in the joke, Hitler is also con­t­a­m­i­nat­ed by con­spir­a­cy think­ing, right. So peo­ple believe that he’s a con­spir­acist, peo­ple believe he set fire to the Reichstag, and they also think that he is a con­spir­a­cy­mon­ger and he thinks that Moses is a con­spir­acist, right.

And that’s some­thing that I think is diag­nos­tic. Under a par­tic­u­lar kind of regime that kind of con­spir­a­cy think­ing becomes endem­ic. And I would argue it’s very very dan­ger­ous. Now, when I talk about a par­tic­u­lar kind of regime what I’m talk­ing about is the kind of regime that forms on the promise of sim­plic­i­ty. And when we talk about a glob­al epi­dem­ic of some­thing polit­i­cal, it’s actu­al­ly very dif­fi­cult to put a term on it because it’s not always author­i­tar­i­an­ism that we’re look­ing at around the world right now when we talk about a cri­sis of democ­ra­cy. It’s not always the rise of the far right, some­times it’s the far left. Sometimes it’s a kind of pop­ulism that’s dif­fi­cult to sort of place right or left.

But what they def­i­nite­ly have in com­mon, these peo­ple who are ris­ing all over the world, these kind of anti-political politi­cians, is that they speak to a fear of com­plex­i­ty. They speak to the way that peo­ple feel home­less, at a loss in a very very com­pli­cat­ed world. And they promise sim­plic­i­ty. They usu­al­ly couch that promise in a sort of imag­i­nary past. They talk about tra­di­tions and tra­di­tion­al val­ues or mak­ing America great again. But real­ly what they’re talk­ing about is that things can be real­ly sim­ple. And that’s what gets them elect­ed.

Now, con­spir­a­cies are per­fect for sim­ple think­ing. Because con­spir­a­cy is by def­i­n­i­tion some­thing that explains every­thing. A real­ly great con­spir­a­cy explains some­thing that has already hap­pened and some­thing that’s going to hap­pen.

Truthers are con­spir­acists, right, peo­ple who believe that 9‍/‍11 was orga­nized by the US gov­ern­ment. Birthers are con­spir­acists. Pizzagate is a con­spir­a­cy. I mean, it’s a per­fect con­spir­a­cy, because it explains sort of why peo­ple go to this restau­rant and why it’s owned by the for­mer part­ner of a Democratic Party oper­a­tive, and it ties every­thing togeth­er and the world sud­den­ly stops being com­pli­cat­ed and looks sim­ple. And Russiagate is a con­spir­a­cy. Russiagate is per­fect. Because Russiagate explains how we got Trump and how we’re going to get rid of Trump. Russia elect­ed him, and once it all comes to light, he’s mag­i­cal­ly going to dis­ap­pear.

Now, here’s where it gets com­pli­cat­ed because wait a sec­ond, did­n’t Russians actu­al­ly inter­fere in the elec­tion? Didn’t they hack the DNC? Didn’t they try to infil­trate the cam­paign? Didn’t they have a meet­ing with with Don Jr. and dan­gle the promise of some sort of com­pro­mis­ing infor­ma­tion on Hillary? Yes, they did.

Here’s where it gets real­ly com­pli­cat­ed. The pos­si­ble exis­tence of a con­spir­a­cy is not an excuse for con­spir­a­cy think­ing. Even while we wait for this inves­ti­ga­tion to unfold and maybe hope that some­thing comes of it, when we engage in con­spir­a­cy think­ing, when we cling to this idea that we know how we got Trump and and we know how we’re going to get rid of Trump, and there’s this one thing that explains every­thing, we’re doing grave dam­age to our own abil­i­ty to think and to our own pol­i­tics. And to our own abil­i­ty to act.

Now, how does that work? Why is con­spir­a­cy think­ing so ter­ri­ble? Well because, again, it’s sim­ple. It pre­vents us from look­ing at the com­plex­i­ty of the world. It pre­vents us from look­ing actu­al­ly at the com­plex­i­ty of that whole Russia inter­ven­ing in the elec­tion sit­u­a­tion. Or maybe com­plex­i­ty is not the the exact word for this thing. It’s a mess, right.

And I’ll explain what I mean. If you read The New York Times inter­view with the pres­i­dent yes­ter­day, I mean here’s a man who can’t grasp the mean­ing of health insur­ance. Or fed­er­al employ­ment or polit­i­cal insti­tu­tions. Or parades. Or din­ner. Or a hand­shake. But some­how we still believe that he can grasp the mean­ing and the import of a con­spir­a­cy. That he can keep a secret for many months. That he can actu­al­ly hold onto a thought for many months. This is fun­ny but you know, this is a kind of gid­dy, hys­ter­i­cal laugh­ter, isn’t it?

What’s wrong with think­ing that this pres­i­dent can hold onto a thought? What’s wrong with think­ing that he can engage in a con­spir­a­cy? Well, it’s not real­i­ty. And get­ting divorced from real­i­ty is a very very dan­ger­ous thing in life, in pol­i­tics, in action, in every­thing. We have to stare at the fact that this is a man who does­n’t have a grasp on real­i­ty that is our real­i­ty. Focusing on the Russian con­spir­a­cy inter­feres with our abil­i­ty to see that. Because it’s in this one par­tic­u­lar area sort of imbues him with abilities—mental abilities—that he clear­ly does­n’t seem to pos­sess.

The oth­er thing is that the Russia part of the sto­ry is a dif­fer­ent kind of myth but very much a myth. In our imag­i­na­tion, Russia is a coun­try that is run by an iron fist, by one man who gives orders. Or maybe does­n’t even have to give orders; he has thoughts that’re imme­di­ate­ly car­ried out by a well-organized army of per­haps trolls or per­haps or sol­diers, spies, what­ev­er.

In fact— And we know this, right. This is real­i­ty that’s been estab­lished. The Democratic National Committee was hacked by two inde­pen­dent groups of appar­ent­ly Russia-affiliated hack­ers who weren’t aware of each oth­er. That’s not an acci­dent, that’s the kind of mess that that state is.

The inroad that we’re def­i­nite­ly aware of that was made to the Trump cam­paign was made by a low-level lawyer who was real­ly try­ing to advance the inter­ests of her extreme­ly cor­rupt clients, and dan­gled the promise of Russian gov­ern­ment par­tic­i­pa­tion in the cam­paign that she was prob­a­bly in no posi­tion to dan­gle.

Why was she doing this? Well, part­ly because she was prob­a­bly lying. Partly because she was a con artist who was try­ing to con Don Jr. into tak­ing that meet­ing and was suc­cess­ful in doing that. Partly also because who­ev­er man­ages to make a dent in Russia sanc­tions imposed by the US gov­ern­ment is going to prof­it great­ly in terms of priv­i­lege and mon­ey in Russia, and so there’s a race on for that.

So as you see, it’s a com­pli­cat­ed picture—it’s a very messy pic­ture. This idea that Putin could give an order, could see his way clear to elect­ing Trump through cun­ning inter­fer­ence in the American elec­tion and the American pub­lic space, gets us out of think­ing about how messy it is.

Of course it also gets us out of think­ing about who actu­al­ly elect­ed Trump. It was­n’t the Russians. I mean, even if we accept the the­o­ry that Russian inter­fer­ence played a deci­sive role in the elec­tion, the way that hypoth­e­sis works as it’s put for­ward by US intel­li­gence agen­cies, is that Russians used infor­ma­tion that they obtained in part by hack­ing the DNC to influ­ence American pub­lic opin­ion. So that what would hap­pen? So that Americans would vote for Trump. Because they’re the ones who elect­ed Trump.

Now, there was a lot of chest-beating after the elec­tion about how jour­nal­ists did­n’t cov­er the white working-class enough, and did­n’t have enough empathy—and some of that I think is very well-founded. But it has­n’t gone much beyond that, because we’re so focused on the Russia con­spir­a­cy, which gets us out of the predica­ment of need­ing to look at actu­al Trump vot­ers. At need­ing to look at the fab­ric of American soci­ety. And gets us look­ing at Russia instead, which is so much sim­pler.

Three, what’s wrong with Russiagate and focus­ing on Russiagate? When we focus on it, we don’t focus on oth­er things. And actu­al­ly I’m a great believ­er in cov­er­ing every­thing and writ­ing about every­thing and talk­ing about every­thing. But unfor­tu­nate­ly human beings don’t actu­al­ly have end­less band­width. And no mat­ter how large an army of jour­nal­ists we have, we don’t quite have enough jour­nal­ists to focus equal­ly well on dereg­u­la­tion, on the destruc­tion of the State Department—which has been absolute­ly dec­i­mat­ed, on the destruc­tion of oth­er American insti­tu­tions, and on Russiagate at the same time.

If you think I’m exag­ger­at­ing I’ll give you an exam­ple. Trump met with Putin. This is the offi­cial meet­ing. The one that went on for two hours and fif­teen min­utes. Afterwards, Secretary of State Tillerson meets with reporters. Reporters asked him about what? Mostly about Russiagate. Even though his answers are going to be pre­dictable. What they don’t ask him about it is what’s hap­pened to US for­eign pol­i­cy in regards to Russia. There’s one ques­tion that’s fold­ed into four oth­er ques­tions about sanc­tions imposed in response to Ukraine, and Tillerson, eas­i­ly because it’s fold­ed into four ques­tions, just avoids answer­ing that ques­tion alto­geth­er.

No ques­tions about human rights in Russia. No ques­tions about the ongo­ing polit­i­cal crack­down in Russia. No ques­tions about the fact that just two weeks before that meet­ing, 1,720 peo­ple were arrest­ed in a sin­gle day in Russia. The largest wave of arrests in a sin­gle day in decades. No ques­tion about that.

Six months ago that would have been auto­mat­ic. The polit­i­cal crack­down and human rights in Russia were a cor­ner­stone of US for­eign pol­i­cy. It would have been a no-brainer. No one would have even had to put it in their notes to be able to ask that ques­tion because that would have been the first ques­tion.

And that’s not just talk­ing about Russia, although that’s obvi­ous­ly huge­ly impor­tant and huge­ly impor­tant to me, but it’s talk­ing about what’s hap­pened to the insti­tu­tions of the American state. What’s hap­pened to the State Department, which no longer focus­es on human rights. Which no longer looks at polit­i­cal rights in oth­er coun­tries. Which has actu­al­ly lost its entire upper man­age­ment lev­el. Which is not func­tion­ing. No ques­tions about that because we’re focused on Russiagate. And that one exam­ple of that par­tic­u­lar press con­fer­ence is very very clear.

And num­ber five, and this I think is the most impor­tant thing. When we talk about the con­spir­a­cy, what it obscures is the future. We talk about what hap­pened. We have hopes of how mag­i­cal­ly it’s going to get rid of Trump. And you know, I keep using the word mag­i­cal­ly.” Why do I use the word mag­i­cal­ly?” Doesn’t impeach­ment hap­pen auto­mat­i­cal­ly? Well, it does­n’t. Impeachment has to be ini­ti­at­ed in the House and then put through by the Senate, and both of the hous­es of Congress are dom­i­nat­ed by Republicans who don’t seem to be on track to ini­ti­ate impeach­ment no mat­ter what kind of malfea­sance is demon­strat­ed. Is the House going to be flipped dur­ing the midterm elec­tions? Well, not as long as the Democrats are focused on Russiagate instead of focused on flip­ping the House.

But that’s just the imme­di­ate future. That’s the next six, eigh­teen months. I’m talk­ing about the oth­er future, the long-term future. The future after Trump, which is going to hap­pen. Even if he stays on for two terms. Eventually, because noth­ing lasts for­ev­er, Trump is going to end. And where are we going to be when that hap­pens?

Remember, he got elect­ed on the promise of sim­plic­i­ty. He got elect­ed on the promise of a return to the imag­i­nary past. The way to address that is not to just to rebuild the Democratic Party. It’s not to address the fact that the Democratic Party lies in ruins and the Republican Party lies pros­trate in front of Trump. But it’s to actu­al­ly think about a dif­fer­ent mes­sage. The only way to counter a mes­sage of the imag­i­nary past is to talk about the glo­ri­ous future.

But we don’t have a vision of the future that’s put for­ward by the Democratic Party—or any­body else. The resis­tance is resist­ing what Trump is doing right now. The resis­tance large­ly is based on the premise, which is very much the premise that was advanced dur­ing the Democratic cam­paign, that things are good or were good before Trump came to pow­er and need to be pre­served as they were. That changes to those— Remember Hillary’s mes­sage, We’re great because we’re good?” That’s we’re good in the present,” right. There’s no promise of the future there.

And of course the resis­tance, as in any sit­u­a­tion of polit­i­cal cri­sis, has to focus on things that need to be sal­vaged. But some­one needs to be think­ing about the future. Because the whole rea­son that liv­ing in a com­plex world is so fright­en­ing is because peo­ple can no longer imag­ine their future. This is what the great psy­cho­an­a­lyst and social psy­chol­o­gist Erich Fromm wrote about in 1940 in his book Escape from Freedom when he talked about how ruth­less peo­ple feel when they lose their abil­i­ty to pre­dict what’s going to hap­pen to them in the future. That is very much the predica­ment of Americans who vot­ed for Trump.

And there is no vision that any­body is offer­ing to them. Or even to those Americans who did­n’t vote for Trump. We need peo­ple think­ing about what a dif­fer­ent world is going to look like. Because we’re enter­ing a dif­fer­ent world whether we like it or not. But we have very lit­tle idea of what it looks like. And as long as we focus on con­spir­a­cies, as long as we focus on some­thing that promis­es to make the world sim­ple, we’re not talk­ing about the future. In fact, we’re obscur­ing the future.

So how do you prac­tice defi­ance against that? Defiance against that is actually—it sounds pret­ty sim­ple. You engage with real­i­ty. You take every piece of news crit­i­cal­ly. Not as con­fir­ma­tion of your idea that there was a con­spir­a­cy. Not as con­fir­ma­tion of your already-existing idea of what hap­pened and what’s going to hap­pen. But as some­thing that yes, exists in con­text, but is also just what it is. Just what you’re learn­ing today.

But more impor­tant that, you engage with oth­er peo­ple. You act with oth­er peo­ple. You engage with them offline. Conspiracies are also ter­ri­ble because they pull you more and more, fur­ther and fur­ther into the online uni­verse of ever-spiraling con­spir­a­cy the­o­riz­ing. You engage with peo­ple whose ideas don’t coin­cide with your own in every way. And you engage with peo­ple around things that aren’t the con­spir­a­cy. That are real­i­ty and that are the future. And that’s how you get out of the con­spir­a­cy trap. That’s also how you get to be defi­ant.

And we have ten min­utes for ques­tions.

Ethan Zuckerman: So, thank you so much. That's some of the most clear and provocative thinking I've heard about this particular moment that we're facing in time. But it's also debilitating in how depressing it is in some ways. Because it's not only that we're having trouble looking back, but looking forward. I'm curious if and where you find hope for this future-positive vision that counters of this very scary narrative that we have to return to some sort of imagined past. Where do you find hope within the current political space here and elsewhere?

Masha Gessen: Oh, that's um…that's a difficult question. I'm actually not finding hope in people talking about the future. I think there are people academia who are thinking about the future. I think that they're not getting out into the public space. In fact I haven't encountered them even though this is something that I'm thinking about and writing about.

Where I do find hope in sort of the immediate present is in some of the resistance. I think that the way that the Trump presidency has been unfolding in some surprising ways is in how it has galvanized civil society in a very broad way. The response to the travel ban demonstrated something very peculiar about this country. Which is that this country has the most robust civil society ever, and anywhere in the world. For some of the wrong reasons, I would argue. That's a whole other topic.

But it's there. And it can act and push institutions toward acting. And so that's what we saw with the travel ban. We saw people coming out into the streets, through the street-level civil society all the way to professional civil society, which was the ACLU immediately filing suit. And then we saw courts acting in response to that pressure, both from the street and from the professional civil society. And so that is a kind of resilience that's not based entirely in institutions, which are being decimated, but that is built into the society at this moment and is giving us a lot of lead time.

I think there's a lot of reinvention going on in the media. I think it goes sort of on a parallel track with what's probably unavoidable normalization. And the normalization is depressing but predictable. But the mobilization is actually pretty awesome. I mean, the way that we're sort of this competition between the Times and The Washington Post of the kind that hasn't happened in years or probably decades. The kind of collaboration which I think is even more exciting between different investigative outlets including different nonprofit investigative outlets. And we're going to be seeing more sort of fruits of those efforts in a bit. So that's actual honest-to-goodness reinvention. And that starts to to get us toward the future.

Audience 2: So, do you think that— You sort of talked about this contradiction of the competence required by conspiracy theory. Is it possible that that's part of the appeal of conspiracies? That maybe there's somebody that's really much wiser than we think—

Gessen: Yes.

Audience 2: —in charge, that could have fleets of black helicopters and be manipulating the atmosphere. I mean, wouldn't it be great if the government actually had some division that was that competent?

Gessen: Oh, absolutely. I mean, I think that's a huge part of the appeal. Because to imagine that the world is run by incompetent, not terribly intelligent or just simply stupid uncurious men… Which as someone who you know, lives here now and who is a biographer of Putin I can tell you that's what it is, right. And I think that part of the particular Russia conspiracy sort of subconsciously is that. That well, if we have a clown for a president, at least they have a competent former spy for president.

Unfortunate that's not the case. He has a more control over his statements and emotions than Trump has. But in terms of his level of education and his level of curiosity? It's roughly the same. And so Those are the two men who have their fingers on the nuclear button.

Audience 3: So I guess the answer to this might be the hard problem of critical thinking? But I just wanted to know like, engaging reality, that's a very strong, profound statement. But what is the litmus test for that? Because you can kind of engage with a lot of people and hear their truths and understand that, and then sort of look at facts and such. But then creating a narrative that is based in reality, that can be a hard thing to do.

Gessen: Well, you're right. Critical thinking is that. And I think the litmus test is feeling uncomfortable. I mean, I think that there's… And I want to be very clear about this. There's a lot to be said for being around like-minded people at a time like this. It saves your sanity. It is really important to go out and talk to people who do affirm your reality and who do affirm your sense of how bad things are or where the hope is or whatever.

But if that's all you're getting? Then you're not actually engaging reality. And so you know, I think each of us has to set a level of discomfort for ourselves that is tolerable. Or maybe that's just a little bit beyond tolerable. And that's probably the level to aim for.

Audience 4 So Masha, I'm Nico. [sp?] I'm a big fan. And having read a lot of the essays you've been writing in the New York Review of Books but also the recent essay in Harper's… But also the recent essay in Harper's terrified me. Mostly because I'd heard you speak at a neighboring academic institution recently, and found you kinda calming in your sense that we had to be clear-eyed and not give into conspiracy thinking when looking at the current situation.

But the Harper's essay on the Reichstag fire was like, really alarming and felt almost… I felt like it was driving me into conspiracy thinking, in a sense. And then I listened to you again today— I'm just struggling with the relationship between finding something alarming and feeling like there's a great urgency to the moment, and how easily that feels like that tips in a way from clear-minded strategic thinking to conspiracy thinking.

Gessen: Right. So that's um… I think you're inviting me to summarize a 5,000 word essay in Harper's in two words or less. But… Well, that's the only way I can answer that question. So Harpers asked me to write about the looming Reichstag fire, which I think is a trope that a lot of you have encountered if not all of you, which is that something is going to happen. There's going to be a terrorist attack that Trump was going to use for an all-out political crackdown.

And the argument that I made is that that's happened. It happened on 9‍/‍11. And a lot of the reason that we have Trump is because of what happened then and because we have existed in a state of emergency for sixteen years. Not just a legal state of emergency, although that's also true, but a state mental state of forever war, a mental state of mobilization, a mental state of exception. And to some extent a legal state of exception. Which is what a Reichstag fire is.

I wasn't arguing for the conspiracy theory that attaches itself to a Reichstag fire because in fact, we don't know if there was a conspiracy. And this brings me around to the bad joke. We don't know that the Nazi party actually engineered the Reichstag fire. The preponderance of the evidence now seems to be that no, it was one young communist activist acting alone and the Nazi party took great advantage of that particular event.

So I don't think, Nick, that it should take you down the road of conspiracy thinking. Should it alarm you? Yeah, it should totally alarm you. But I think being alarmed is a good state. I think we should stay alarmed certainly at least as long as this president is in power and probably longer.

Farai Chideya: The next person who's coming up here also exemplifies the joy in the struggle. He took an incredible risk and pivoted his life by disclosing his status as an undocumented American. His project is Define American. He's the founder and CEO of a nonprofit media advocacy organization that uses storytelling to humanize conversations around immigration, citizenship, and identity. Jose Antonio Vargas also won a Pulitzer Prize for reporting, while he was an undocumented journalist at a major news organization, on the Virginia Tech shooting in 2008.

Further Reference

Notes on this presentation by J. Nathan Matias at the Center for Civic Media blog

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