Like Erdogan, Trump is using conspiracy theory to sabotage democracy: here’s what we learn from the Turkish experience

The accusation of conspiracy within the State is not just a red herring, it is a strategy meant to turn American democracy against itself. 

Julian de Medeiros
8 February 2018

UNITED STATES - FEBRUARY 06: Rep. Devin Nunes, R-Calif., talks with reporters after a meeting of the House Republican Conference in the Capitol on February 6, 2018. CQ-Roll Call/ Press Association. All rights reserved.Paranoid politicians have been selling conspiracy theories to the public for decades. But with this week’s controversial release of the ‘Nunes Memo’, Trump has identified a new conspiratorial enemy. Specifically, the President and his followers have sought to insinuate into existence a mass internal conspiracy within the FBI and the Department of Justice. In so doing, they have accused Democrats of cultivating a parallel state to engineer a coup against the President.

By elevating conspiratorial fear-mongering into a political weapon of mass disruption, Trump has taken a significant step towards a more authoritarian politics. This presents a new chapter in Trump’s already paranoid mindset, and it sets the tone for a dangerous escalation of conspiratorial framing, one that could potentially lead to an irreversible unravelling of trust in America’s democratic institutions. This conspiracy theory of society is not unlike the one that led Trump’s counter-part in Turkey, Recep Tayyip Erdogan, to seek a purge of Turkish civil and political institutions.

I make this comparison drawing upon my own experience of having lived in Turkey and observed the gradual erosion of Turkish democracy. Turkey provides a warning of sorts, a case study as to how in a very short space of time, a genuinely democratic society can unravel into an authoritarian regime. In a similar way, Erdogan cultivated the idea of a so-called ‘parallel state’ to justify the undoing of decades of Turkish democratization. Trump is surely laying the groundwork for a similar campaign of political paranoia. By elevating conspiratorial fear-mongering into a political weapon of mass disruption, Trump has taken a significant step towards a more authoritarian politics.

While America is evidently not Turkey, the main stages of what I call the ‘Conspiracy Frame’ apply equally to what is happening in America under Trump. In this op-ed I will try to persuade you that we can learn from the Turkish experience, and that what we learn warrants concern regarding the health of American democracy and the erosion of ‘truth’ in its political discourse.

Truth content versus truth act

We live in an era of political upheaval. Increasingly, the facts that shape our views – how we make sense of the world and our nation, how we think of our political leaders – are being shaped collectively on social media. In theory, one would expect this to lead to more diversity: all voices are heard, treated fairly, and misinformation is filtered out. But the opposite is true. These platforms pander to our worst impulses, allowing fake news to spread, and bigotry to don the mantle of truth, even when blatantly false. Worst of all, the idea of post-truth undermines our trust in each other and in our leaders, leaving us to question the resilience of democracy itself

In a system that feeds daily outrage, and a political environment in which few areas of life escape politicization or partisan scrutiny, there is insufficient solid ground to be found upon which to build tenable solutions to the erosion of trust in our institutions. Immediately lost in the daily rhetorical battles, we are not adequately served by contentions about freedom of speech as such, or truth, or even ‘post-truth’. In our desire to secure some form of genuine ‘freedom of speech’ in its most depoliticized and hence mythical form, the idea of a ‘pure’ or fully consensual ‘freedom’ of such speech arises as a necessary impossibility. Conspiracy theories are so effective precisely because they exploit this weakness in our perception of freedom of speech. They force us into an argument in which the premise itself undermines the validity of a free exchange of ideas. For many who spread conspiracy theories, this is precisely the effect they seek. Simply put, it is not a matter of whether Trump’s conspiracy theories are true or not. In their articulation they take on a life of their own.

Instead, we would be better served to see conspiracy theory and its relation to free speech as a problem of what the Greeks called parhessia, of truth-telling, or, as the ‘truth act’. Simply put, it is not a matter of whether Trump’s conspiracy theories are true or not. In their articulation they take on a life of their own. They constitute a ‘truth act’, not truth as such. In their radical unlikelihood, they force us to take on counterintuitive positions, ones that are contrary to our political values, in what is the first stage of the erosion of trust. For example, with Trump’s FBI conspiracy theory, liberals are suddenly in the odd position of defending the FBI, while so-called ‘law-and-order’ conservatives find themselves braying about the deep state. Both positions are inherently disingenuous, and this is precisely what the conspiracy theory as political act seeks to achieve.

Adorno referred to this unraveling of political positions as the erosion of ‘truth content’ (Wharheitsgehalt) in favor of truth-acts. And indeed, unless we recognize that even evidently false statements can take on political resonance, we risk losing sight of a central danger implicit in the liberal response to what has commonly been referred to as ‘post-truth’ politics: this is that the desire for a ‘pure’ and truthful politics can be just as harmful as the disintegration of truth in politics.

The erosion of truth as an important mechanism in the expression of political values should therefore be seen as more than a seemingly trivial matter of political manipulation and populist rhetoric. Simply put, just because we know Trump’s conspiracy theories to be false, does not mean that they do not pose a threat. Just because we know Trump’s conspiracy theories to be false, does not mean that they do not pose a threat.

In other words, conspiracy theories do not make the empirical truth shine all the brighter. Rather, they introduce a political language that denies the possibility of a debate on the basis of factual exchange. The very notion of a free exchange of ideas appears as inherently biased.

And in turn, the political positions that emerge from this new conspiratorial rhetoric are so contrary to ‘normal’ political positions that they undermine key ideological differences. Trump’s conspiratorial accusations with respect to the FBI leave many liberals defending the FBI, and former ‘law-and-order’ conservatives imagining a deep state plot to overthrow the government – positions clearly far removed from both the ideological and political realities of either side. But this is precisely what elite conspiracy theories achieve; they replace the very framework which would have enabled people to engage in civil debate. 

How conspiratorial framing works

When used by the political elite, conspiracy theory not only posits an alternate reality. It also suggests that the actual truth underlying any given issue is a mere constellation of falsifications. A good way to think of this is in terms of what academics like to call a ‘framing’ strategy. In this sense, we can therefore think of a ‘conspiracy frame’ that takes on three distinctive forms.

1: Conspiracy theory becomes a disruptive form of adversarial framing, not just the eccentric ravings of paranoid politicians, but a veritable political strategy, meant to disrupt discourse and erode trust in civil society, political institutions, and the rule of law.

2: This makes the invocation of conspiracy theory a strategy adopted by political winners, not losers. It is a tactic that the political elite employs to their own benefit, rather than a fringe expression of minority dissent. Simply put, the use of conspiratorial tactics is a practice of the political elite, not the stereotypical image of victimized and irrational loners.

3: The crucial point, therefore, in the strategy of conspiracy theory is that it focuses first on external enemies (the press, foreigners, socialists etc.) and then progresses to seeking evidence of internal adversaries (the judiciary, law enforcement, congress etc.). Any resistance that emerges thereunto is then held up as proof of a genuine conspiracy against the State.

The result of these three steps is a gradual erosion of trust in democratic institutions, and a creeping process of populist authoritarianism, enabled by a sideline take-over of judicial, economic, and legislative restrictions. In other words, the outcome of the conspiratorial strategy is the emergence of popular authoritarian leadership. This has been true in Turkey, and this is currently happening in America as well.

The Nunes Memo as conspiratorial strategy

Before I delve more deeply into these three points, let me summarize what makes Trump’s release of the Nunes Memo so extraordinary, and why this particular episode in American politics marks the beginning of a new and dangerous chapter.

First of all, the release of the document is an attempt to undermine the work of the very people Trump hand-selected to run the DOJ and the FBI. These were not conspiratorial or partisan appointments. They were selected by Trump himself. Trump paranoia is literally consuming itself. Democrats do not have any say in these appointments, nor do they in the Russia investigation. They do not control either the House or the Senate. The idea that there is a parallel society, a conspiracy against the Trump Presidency does not derive from its political weakness; it is an indicator of its strength and of its unharnessed potential.

Secondly, by signing for the release of the Republican memo (purportedly without reading its contents) Trump is engaging in a highly partisan attempt to prove that the FBI is partisan. In undermining the FBI in its current guise, Trump will want to use the FBI for his own political purposes in a way not seen since the machinations of Nixon and Hoover. The idea that the FBI must be brought into line with the Trump Presidency so as to avoid being politically biased is a ludicrous argument. Yet it is one that fits perfectly within the paradigm of conspiracy theory. It is believable precisely because it seems to defy logic or belief.

This is not unlike Erdogan’s campaign first to undermine then to bring into line the Turkish intelligence services (MIT) and his attempts to cultivate private lines of intelligence outside the previously existing institutional framework. Meanwhile, he began to allege that his opponents were supporting a so-called ‘parallel state’. The dark irony of the conspiratorial politician is that he seems to accuse his opponents of the very things he is doing. So too with Trump: he accuses the FBI of obstruction of justice, of partisan meddling, of intimidation, and of corruption; all hallmarks of the fledgling Trump Presidency.

Thirdly, the reason it becomes so hard for Democrats to present any real opposition to this form of politicking, is that all their options only contribute to the conspiratorial strategy. They can defend the FBI, which only further politicizes its position, and is unconvincing considering that the Comey investigation into Hillary Clinton very likely contributed to her loss of the 2016 presidential election. Or they can argue that releasing the memo threatens American intelligence (i.e. that its contents are too explosive to be released), but this too is ultimately unconvincing, as the memo itself contains no smoking gun, no evidence of a discernible criminal activity, and nothing that would even suggest a concrete bias against the President.

The problem is that in the very debate surrounding whether or not to release the memo, the contents of the memo itself are rendered largely irrelevant. The truth act of making an accusation of conspiracy about a parallel state outweighs the importance of the truth content of the memo itself. The truth act of making an accusation of conspiracy about a parallel state outweighs the importance of the truth content of the memo itself.

This is what the American sociologist Richard Hofstadter once referred to as the ‘Paranoid Style in American Politics’; that is to say, the political strategy in which politicians invoke nebulous adversaries and conspiratorial foes to rouse populist support and antagonize legitimate opposition.

More than fear-mongering

But let us be clear. Trump’s fixation on an FBI conspiracy is more than just mere fear-mongering. It achieves a much broader effect than simply making people scared. It makes us lose faith in America’s institutions and the idea of democracy itself. It promises that a more authoritarian America would somehow be safer, more prosperous, and more harmonious. Instead the opposite is true; Trump’s strategy is to engineer insecurity, financial deregulation, and social antagonism. The accusation of conspiracy within the State is not just a red herring, it is a strategy meant to turn American democracy against itself. The opposite is true; Trump’s strategy is to engineer insecurity, financial deregulation, and social antagonism.

The ultimate goal is for Trump to emerge as judge, jury, and prosecutor of American’s new paranoid politics. It is not just an attempt to obstruct justice, but a clear indication of his desire to position himself as the sole arbiter of political integrity. I can say this with a fair degree of certainty because I have already witnessed this happen in Turkey. Erdogan is more popular than ever, precisely because he has found ways to paint himself as the victim of internal and external conspiracies against him. The central lesson is that democracies can become undone when we allow politicians to use conspiracy theories to sow confusion and justify political purges.

The Conspiracy Frame in Turkey

This creeping process, by which an otherwise democratic society becomes victim to authoritarian leadership can best be understood through ‘the Conspiracy Frame’; this form of political rhetoric in which the strongman leader is posited as the solution to a supposedly corrupt and infiltrated society. In Turkey, Erdogan was able to use the conspiracy frame in three distinct ways, which roughly correspond to the three stages outlined above.

First, he singled out opposition and critical media as evidence of a foreign conspiracy against the ruling party. The Gezi protests provided the most visible backdrop against which all manner of conspiratorial accusations emerged. On a daily basis, Erdogan gave rousing speeches, indicting foreign conspirators and claiming the press was in league with enemies of the people.

Secondly, Erdogan turned his gaze inwards, suggesting that Gülenists and the so-called ‘interest-rate-lobby’ had infiltrated parliament and civil society. Next, opposition parties were accused of being terrorists for their ties to Kurdish communities. Finally, following the attempted military coup, Erdogan purged the military, universities, the media, and the legislative branch; all under the auspices of protecting the State from internal and external conspirators.

Finally, as a nationwide crackdown ensued, and Turkey turned its back on decades of democratization in a rapidly unfolding authoritarian take-over, a continuing State of Emergency was declared, and the people were asked to vote in a constitutional referendum to enhance Presidential powers.

In this the conspiracy frame came full circle, effectively taking on the shape of a so-called ‘Master Frame’, in which all politics become inherently conspiratorial. And as a result, Erdogan has situated himself not only as a strongman leader, but as a democratically elected popular leader. Democracies can become undone when we allow politicians to use conspiracy theories to sow confusion and justify political purges.

Make no mistake. This could happen in America as well. Unless we learn how to avoid the pitfalls of the paranoid style, and find ways to articulate arguments against the conspiracy frame, American democracy will be equally vulnerable to the same tactics of conspiracy that took Turkey by storm. But we can protect ourselves against this by doing the following.

Truth is not enough: how to neutralize the Conspiracy Frame

It begins by realizing that the truth is not enough. We must learn to distinguish between truth content and truth acts. Trump is often heralded as the ‘barstool’ President, not because he has high approval ratings with the average American, but because his political ‘gift’ consists of knowing how to play to the most impulsive and instinctive interpretation of every political event. What Trump understands better than progressives, is just how strong the everyman desire is to see in democratic government evidence of a secret conspiracy against the people.

As a result, the disquieting idea emerges that democracy, rather than being the highest form of human cooperation, is on the contrary, the nemesis to human achievement. Unless we find ways of speaking about the ‘truths’ in peoples lives, rather than just the facts of their daily existence, democracy will never be more appealing, and certainly less intuitive, than authoritarianism.

Secondly, we cannot seek to regulate the truth through oversight committees, social media censorship, or government legislation. In so doing, we would only lend further credence to the suspicion that there is a massive conspiracy from within to prevent Americans from exercising their right to free speech.

We must realize that the purveyors of such conspiracy theories not only manage to achieve a general sense of distrust of democracy, but they know how to bring out the most totalitarian strains in our own underlying desire for truth as a regulated good – a safeguarded foundational principle of our politics. We must be wary when we think of how to 'combat' conspiracy theory, lest we compromise the integrity of the very democratic principles we wish to preserve.

Finally, we must refocus our rhetoric on the issues that matter, not on debating whether or not there exists an FBI conspiracy against Trump. Hard as it may seem, there are winning arguments to be made. And these are not just about hard facts but about contemporary truths, the things that Americans care about most, and that can only be fixed with democratic solutions: the rise of income inequality, stagnating wages, access to healthcare, corporate malpractice, and civil rights violations. These are the issues we should be brave enough to address, not the conspiracies Trump would preoccupy us with. These are the issues we should be brave enough to address, not the conspiracies Trump would preoccupy us with.

While the Turkish case may not leave us optimistic, I believe that by looking at how Erdogan used conspiracy theory as a political weapon we can learn to be prepared for what is likely to come in American politics. As a gradual erosion of truthful politics around the globe coincides with an increased popular appetite for authoritarianism, we cannot afford to think that American democracy is strictly speaking exceptional and somehow immune from the threat of authoritarian leadership.

Democracy must always be a work in progress, and if the Turkish case teaches us anything, it is that we cannot allow ourselves to take our political freedoms for granted. We must learn to speak up rather than just shake our heads at the popular delusions of conspiratorial politics. The truth is not always enough.

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