I’ve not written about this election believing the flaws of the Republican candidate were pretty obvious; further litigating his failures as a candidate is now moot, he is now the president-elect of the United States. However, it is worth discussing what this administration will now bring given what we know about how conspiracy theorists behave and I believe our experience with conspiracy theorists and denialists gives some insight into what we can expect from a conspiracy theorist (CT) politician. There are some questions that may be answered and may help the scientific community develop strategies to respond to unique challenges of the leadership of our country now being dominated by those who reject the scientific method and the advice of scientific efforts in the fields of medicine, biology, and climate. After all, we now have a president and vice president elect who have conspiratorial views on vaccines, evolution and climate change, rejecting, effectively, the most important public health intervention of all time, the underpinning of all modern biology, and arguably the greatest threat to human survival on earth. So, what can we expect from a CT administration? Have there been previous examples that can guide us on what to expect? What type of impact will this have on funding for various agencies, both scientific and regulatory, that study and implement such policies? How will they operate their administration? What types of mistakes will they make? How can we mitigate, and possibly litigate for the advantage of the sciences and scientific progress?
The most important thing to realize about CTs is that they project their worst impulses onto others. Over the years studying denialists and CTs the pattern that emerges over and over is that they routinely commit the wrongs do what they accuse others of doing. The way the CT believes the world works, and how power is wielded, is how they would wield power if they were in control. Take, for example, Mike Adams, regarded by some skeptics as the internet’s number one crank for his work at Natural News. Adams routinely accuses medical doctors and scientists of crimes against humanity, selling medications which do not work and only make us sicker etc. However, a brief foray into his activities show that he is the one who recommends obviously useless medical therapies for profit and incites violence. After studying CTs for years, one sees this behavior replicated again and again, the projection of the CTs own worst behaviors onto others. Need more examples? Look no further than Mike’s competition for number one internet crank Alex Jones, who shouts to the heavens over unending lying by politicians and the media while peddling in an unending torrent of false stories and lies, including Sandy Hook truthism, 9/11 truth, chemtrails, and whatever other conspiratorial nonsense he can find. No national tragedy can occur without Alex Jones instantly inventing a CT narrative from whole cloth, with no evidence, yet everyone else is the liar. His list of beliefs reads like a Hieronymus Bosch painting, and there is ample evidence our president-elect goes to him for news.
So far the empirical evidence assembled by journalists like Kurt Eichenwald suggest the president-elect is no different. Almost every single thing he has claimed about his opponent more accurately described how he ran his business and his life, including crooked business deals, a self-enriching charity, mass deletion of emails in violation of court orders, and an astounding record assembled by fact checkers this year of unending lies for political gain. His opponent’s crimes were actually his crimes. We should not be surprised. The fact that he is conspiracy theorist told us everything we needed to know. It told us he would be promiscuous in his beliefs, unskilled or unwilling to distinguish between fact and fiction, and willing to believe and promote any falsehood if consistent with his ideological bent. That his prevailing ideology seems to only be “I am great” makes me wonder if the secret to his support is just to stroke his ego, and he’ll promote whatever nonsense you like.
What will this mean for the incoming administration? Like most CTs he will be unwilling to tolerate dissent, yet will tolerate almost any kind of madness from those individuals that agree with him. This will be no “Team of Rivals”, this will be a true basket of deplorables. What will be assembled is an administration of similarly factually-deranged crank sycophants who will harbor any number of absurd beliefs consistent with crank magnetism, but who will otherwise be tolerated by their boss no matter what they do, as long as they maintain loyalty to, and stroke the ego of, the president. Evidence suggests this is already happening as he has named a climate denialist to head his EPA transition team from the ideologically deranged Conservative Enterprise Institute – CEI being a bogus “think tank” that presents ideological anti-science as some kind of academic endeavor. These people are the classic example of the fake expert – an agent who has no actual expertise in science or policy but who does share your ideology and a semblance of academic legitimacy with which they can give your BS a patina of truthiness.
Is there any upside to this? Or is this all bad news? What is the upside to hiring criminally-incompetent non-scientists into positions of power? Well for one thing, the spoils system does not change the fundamental institutional structure of these agencies, the hard-working people and scientists who work for the EPA or NIH or NSF will not simply turn around on a dime and accept this nonsense, they will buck against incompetent leadership and still try to accomplish their mission. The bureaucracy is not so easy to replace and only a minority of positions at the top of agencies tend to be political appointments. Second, the people he appoints will truly be criminally-incompetent. I have little doubt that we will find his administration immediately trying to abuse power, criminally, almost the instant they take over. If we are vigilant, and anticipate the type of abuses which will be typical to such actors we should be able to use the institutions of government designed to prevent abuse to limit their damage. I fully expect the same type of self-dealing, self-enriching and fraudulent behavior that have typified his business career to extend directly into the white house. This is the hysterical error that those that want people with “business experience” to run government make. You doom yourself to incompetent leadership because government is not a business and it can’t realistically be turned into one. It is a fool’s errand, and all they will do is run afoul of the built-in protections of our institutions that are designed to prevent people from behaving like petty tyrants.
After all we do have one example in our history of a CT-lead government and that was Richard Nixon. He, however, lived in a time where the loud proclamation of his anti-Semitic conspiratorial beliefs about Jews and the media would actually result in some kind of backlash, while the current candidate ended his campaign with an ad directly alluding to a Jewish banking conspiracy. Instead we know about Nixons behavior from recordings at the time which captured his paranoia and despicable beliefs. Similarly Nixon surrounded himself with loyalists who adhered to the same ideology, and whatever other foibles they had were then forgiven. It was Nixon, after all, who in recordings could be heard suggesting “why don’t we just use the bomb on north Vietnam” and had to be talked down by then secretary of state Kissinger. Conspiracy theorists are not the type of people you want running government. They are quite mad, and dangerous. But they also tend to commit the very crimes they are always accusing others of committing, and indeed, Nixon was ultimately caught in a criminal conspiracy (there’s a difference!) to undermine his political opponents.
So, a piece of advice from another Mark so long ago applies, and we should enter the next 4 years with it in mind at all times. Follow the money.
P.S. It looks like its time for me to start writing more consistently. More to come.