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A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy, Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum

Reviewed by Brigitte L. Nacos

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Two weeks before Election Day 2020, a Yahoo/YouGov survey found that 52 percent of Donald Trump supporters believed that “President Trump is working to dismantle an elite child sex-trafficking ring involving top Democrats.” Thus, more than half of President Trump’s supporters embraced the QAnon conspiracy theory of a global satanic pedophile ring that was plotting against the 45th President of the United States. Prominent pedophiles were said to be Trump opponents such as Joe Biden, Hillary Clinton, and other “deep state” suspects. When asked by reporters to renounce QAnon, President Trump claimed repeatedly to “know nothing” or “not much” about the group. Yet, during a White House press briefing in the summer of 2020, he said, “I understand that they like me very much, which I appreciate.” These words and similar public statements were at odds with an Federal Bureau of Investigation alert that warned of more domestic terrorism by right-wing domestic conspiracy theorists in general and by QAnon fanatics in particular.

Although Russell Muirhead and Nancy L. Rosenblum wrote this well-researched and well-written book before Trump repeatedly refused to disavow QAnon, they could not have been surprised. The authors link him in the first sentence of the introductory chapter to “the new conspiracism [that] moved into the White House with the inauguration of Donald Trump as president of the United States in 2017” (p. 1).

Muirhead and Rosenblum distinguish between classical conspiracy theory based on some actual events, persons, or issues that are then examined and spun into conspiracy theories, such as the truthers’ dubious explanation of the September 11 attacks. Some traditional conspiracy theories turn out to discover real, unsavory plots. In contrast, the authors argue convincingly that the new conspiracism lacks any factual grounding, relying completely on false statements and tenuous hearsay—hence the book’s title, A Lot of People Are Saying. This phrase and similar ones (“many people say…” or “some say…”), used regularly by President Trump and his supporters, are part and parcel of the new conspiracism’s alternative facts, post truths, pseudo realities, and outright lies. When the same realities are seen by opposing political blocs as either true or false, right or wrong, the result is widespread public confusion.

While traditional conspiracy theories were in the past and continue to be concocted on both sides of the political spectrum, Muirhead and Rosenblum emphasize that conspiracism without theory is mostly found in right-wing milieus, dehumanizes declared enemies, and encourages violence. Still, in the authors’ view, the new conspiracists are not “agitating to transform democracy into something else—authoritarianism or protofascism or anti-liberal populism… The new conspiracism is without any coherent constructive political aim” (pp. 30, 31). I do not share this view. Even though these contemporary conspiracists do not have formal political programs, they have potent political preferences and objectives. By vilifying opponents as “enemies of the people,” by relentlessly attacking the institutions and values of liberal democracy, and by worshipping a political leader with authoritarian traits, QAnon and similar groups demonstrate their rejection of democratic pluralism and their preference for the logical options: illiberal democracy or neofascism.

Indeed, the baseless postelection claims that a liberal cabal stole votes to take a second term away from President Trump support the authors’ warning that the new conspiracism is an assault on democracy in that it delegitimizes governmental institutions, including political parties, and amplifies tribalism, polarization, disorientation, and distrust in government.

I recommend the volume highly.

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