Conspiracy theories speak to the deep parts of our meaning-making brain, the part that draws patterns from the chaos of life. Meaning-making is, in a deeper mythic sense, the struggle of the hero to master the forces of evil. In a pre-modern forest--dark and filled with wolves--meaning is the light. We want to draw conclusions to beat back the darkness.
Our brains associate neural regions that are architecturally close together. For many, the parts of our brain that give meaning to "Trump" are the same regions associated with Hitler, zombies, and evil capitalists like Lex Luthor. The more juice we put into those places, the more the currents try to leap across new synaptic gaps. To forge grand meanings and narratives.
I do not know whether or not Trump colluded with the Russians. No one in the public sphere knows. Certainly he was elated by the Russia DNC hacks and used them to his advantage, but this is quite different than actively working with the Russians to influence our elections, isn't it?
What would it mean if Trump didn't collude with the Russians? What would it mean if nobody on his campaign participated in the active measures that Russian hackers deployed to defeat Hillary Clinton?
We have to ask: why do we want so much to believe that Trump stole the election? Sometimes fiction, if it is fiction, can be truer than fact. What role does it play for us?
We want Trump to have cheated at democracy, so we can go back to believing in democracy again. We want Trump to be evil like a super-villain or a KGB spy. We want to expose his policies as violent and inhumane. We want him to have hacked the election because, ultimately, he is evil. We want to unveil that deeper evil. And we hope, dear God we hope, that Trump will be impeached. That the political nightmare will end.
But what happens if the super-narrative falls apart?
Here's the problem. If the Trump-Russia collusion is credibly debunked by the ongoing FBI investigation, Trump's approval ratings will soar. All the media infrastructure that risked itself on anonymous sources and hot tips will be discredited in a terribly permanent way. Brietbart, Fox, and Infowars will stand triumphant: the truth-tellers.
We will be left like Christians mourning the death of God, our lantern smashed in the darkness.
False meaning is a drug. It gives us certainty when there is none, it gives us the confidence to draw conclusions that are not yet warranted. And, worse, it undoes the real truth upon which our mythology is built.
But what will we be left with? It will still be true that a narcissist con man bullied his way to the presidency with lies and white supremacist rhetoric. It will still be true that an emotionally unstable man has his finger on the nuclear button. It will still be true that the policies he's putting in place will destroy the most vulnerable: from people of color, to immigrants, to LGBTQ folks, to the poor white rural folks that elected him.
That, my friends, is strong enough footing. We do not need a false god. It may be too late to pivot. CNN has overreached, and it seems that all of Trump's goading claims about fake news are being proved true--because journalists have forgotten their jobs and reached for the biggest meaning-machine they could find. The biggest profit machine.
It is tempting to do the same. Remember what pre-Trump supporters did during the Obama years? They fed on fear-mongering garbage news like Brietbart and Infowars, paving the way for Trump to walk to the edge of the cliff and permanently destroy the bridge back to reality.
That is why we must be patient. Skeptical. Firm in the truth. We must wait. We must not be goaded into emotional attacks. We must focus on the known. We must focus on policy.
I ask: how many of us have called our congresspeople about the repeal of the affordable care act? How many of us have stopped tracking policies as we watched the Russia scandal unfold with baited breath? It served a purpose. But we've pushed Russia as far as it will go until we have all the facts on the table. Now let's pivot and defeat Trump on policies. Trump has portrayed himself as a chronic winner. Let's make him into a chronic loser. Let's organize a movement to re-take America. But right now, let's make some phone calls.