I’ve been in a daze for around four years now. Like many individuals both in America and in different parts of the world, something fundamentally broke inside of me after November 8, 2016. For most of us in the more privileged spheres, the election of Donald Trump was more of a psychological crisis of faith than a physical one of personal well-being. It represented not only a failure or subversion of abstract notions of “right” and “wrong,” “moral” and “immoral” or “amoral.”
The most frightening thing about the results of that election was a creeping realization about the system of “norms” we all believed in. It was a crisis of shared facts and knowledge, of behavior and decorum, and the base level of competency and trust that the majority of people in this country must ascribe to the people in power in order for the entire notion of representative government to survive. The decimation of this baseline “normalcy” was like walking out over a cliff your entire life and only just discovering that the ground doesn’t exist. Trump was not the single or even primary cause of that erosion and rot. He was just the one who, possibly more than anyone else, saw the facade for what it really was and took advantage of it.
There will be countless books written in the coming years dissecting the many ways in which we arrived here and how it all went so terribly wrong. If we’re lucky most of the retrospectives and historical records will even acknowledge that something went terribly wrong. I am not equipped to write such a thing, let alone in this venue. As we rapidly approach another presidential election in the United States though, and as I look over the landscape of carnage left in the wake of rampant misinformation – campaigns both unintentional and oftentimes entirely intentional – there’s something I can’t quite shake from my mind.
In the final few weeks of the last presidential election, I wrote a piece for the website that I assumed would serve as a time capsule of that particular moment in history. It focused on a recent album released by NYC composer Darcy James Argue written for his chameleon-like big band Secret Society. Real Enemies, which originally premiered in 2015 as a live multimedia spectacle, was a crossover hit not only for its brilliant fusion of modern jazz, obscure compositional theory, classic film soundtracks, and far more. It caught on because its entire thesis was a deconstruction of America’s uniquely fraught relationship with conspiracy theories and paranoia at a time when we were witnessing a surge of such behavior.
Real Enemies, the article I wrote dissecting it, and a subsequent interview I conducted with Argue himself have been taking up residence in my head again. Looking back at all of these now is a surreal experience knowing what would come merely days after and all that would transpire in the years since. What is abundantly clear though is that the overall message and theme of Real Enemies was not merely a documentation of that specific time in American history or even a counter-history of the American people’s relationship to its government. It was a warning shot, a Cassandra-like plea to change course and avoid further and more permanent damage.
We failed to listen, and I am no longer confident that reversing course is going to be an option for the foreseeable future regardless of the outcome of the next election.
The Warning Shot
Real Enemies, in spite of its relevance to the 2016 election and everything since, is very much a product of the Obama era in America. The opening track “You Are Here” and many of the visuals surrounding it (both in the original performance and the booklet accompanying the physical album) refer to PRISM, the secret government internet surveillance program made famous by Edward Snowden in 2013. In a very deliberate move, Argue, along with writer/director Isaac Butler and filmmaker Peter Nigrini, begin the listener’s journey through this recent and 100% true government conspiracy.
From there the subjects jump wildly in time from 1950s McCarthyism to 1980s Iran-Contra to 9/11 and places in between. The important takeaway, however, is the here and now. Conspiracy theories have flourished throughout America’s existence. In many cases, the US government has openly encouraged them or started them from within as deliberate misdirection from programs and actions they don’t want to be revealed. In all cases though, the conspiracies are largely beside the point from the perspective of the government.
This more traditional view of the conspiratorial nature of America and American society is more reactive than top-down. Conspiracies about New World Orders, about the Illuminati, about lizard people and far more, they’re all part of a natural part of human nature. It is part of a natural desire to create order out of chaos. Oftentimes it is also a way to personally insert the individual self into a narrative or situation that perhaps affects them in some way but isn’t directly connected to them. Some conspiracies, such as ones associated with the JFK assassination or 9/11, have spread more readily and persisted due largely to the highly disruptive nature of the event itself.
But the theme throughout most of our history has been largely the same. Conspiracy theories and their spread are not rare, but most do not spread beyond a very limited set of people who are preternaturally prone to characteristics like mistrust, isolation, and extreme narcissism. The traditional view of the conspiracy-minded individual as the paranoid, tin-foil hat wearing loner is there for a reason.
For Real Enemies, it was important to establish this, but the creators were interested in this subject not just as an intellectual or historical curiosity. By the time we come full circle to the final chapter of the performance and album, also titled “You Are Here,” it’s clear that the artists have something to say about our modern era of conspiracism.
Peppered in along the familiar themes of the opening of the album are soundbites featuring political and media figures voicing conspiratorial opinions. Perhaps the most interesting to hear now is one from former Arizona sheriff Joe Arpaio, who rose to prominence over his public promotion of the Obama birtherism theories, in which President Obama was actually a foreign national who tricked an entire nation into believing he was someone else. The irony of hearing that soundbite now is that Arpaio has already largely become lost to history even as the tendrils of birtherism have survived. That’s because the most well-known propagator ultimately was Donald Trump.
In my interview with Argue, he explained the decision at the time to use Arpaio over Trump as such:
Obviously when we first started writing the piece we thought about, well, you know, as we return to the present at the end of the piece we will need to say something about birtherism because it’s such a prominent, but absurd, conspiracy theory in American politics. But the voice that we used to represent birtherism is Sheriff Joe Arpaio because, at the time, he was sort of the most prominent and powerful birther. We could’ve used Trump, but at the time Trump held no elected office, and it seemed like that would be too easy or superficial, whereas Sheriff Joe Arpaio is actually someone who is in a position to make policy, so his investigation into the president’s birth certificate seemed so much more consequential at the time. And, of course, we all saw what happened after that.
The Arpaio/Trump example is sadly the exact proof of what has changed over the past decade. In Trump we not only have the mainstreaming and legitimizing of conspiracy theories and conspiratorial thinking. Trump represents a brand new era of symbiosis of governance and policy via weaponized conspiracy. The threat is no longer external or can be minimized. The call is coming from inside the house.
The Enemy Within
Perhaps the chief struggle of covering or analyzing the Trump presidency is distinguishing where a blatant lie or conspiracy begins and where it bleeds into truth. Furthermore, it has often become difficult to separate the actions of the president, his administration, and the media ecosystem propping him up from conspiracies that have manifested into their own funhouse mirror of reality itself.
Take two of the “scandals”1 that have dominated prominent chunks of his term thus far: high-level coordination and collusion with Russia and Ukraine – the former to influence the outcome of the 2016 election, and the latter to influence the upcoming election.
As recently as this past week a bipartisan Senate committee released their final report on the Russia affair confirming most of what has already been reported upon ad nauseam the past 4 years. Trump’s campaign made multiple contacts with Russian intelligence officials and figures with direct ties to Russian president Vladimir Putin. Those campaign officials either sought information on Trump’s opponents, chiefly Hillary Clinton, elicited their help in stealing e-mails and other data from the rival campaign, or provided them with internal campaign data. All of these on their own provide enough conspiracy fodder for the most outlandish and Red-baiting political thrillers of the Cold War era. But because all of these events occurred in such a slapdash manner, often out plainly in the open – and without a singular big reveal of the likes of the Nixon tapes – no one event had the “smoking gun” effect we’ve come to expect.
Furthermore, the response from Trump and his allies in government and the media has been mostly to short-circuit the entire process by devising their own conspiracy theory narratives. Thus you get James Comey and Robert Mueller, lifelong Republicans who are now in fact part of the “deep state” plot to overthrow Trump. Even Obama would get a second act as part of the conspiracy, as they would allege that he wiretapped Trump and set him up for a coup.2
As for what truly and ultimately happened? We likely will never know the full details and extent of Trump and his campaign’s involvement with Russian officials to influence the 2016 election. And that uncertainty and distrust leads many of us to fill in the blanks ourselves, constructing spy thriller novels of daring espionage between shady figures like Paul Manafort and Russian oligarchs and politicos. We want there to be a single thread we can pull that will connect all of these figures and events into a single, masterfully-crafted plot. We want the villains to be exposed and brought to justice. And every day that doesn’t happen is another day where we feel just a bit more despondent and less trustful of the democratic institutions that bind us as a country.
The same goes for Ukraine, in which it was even more blatant that Trump was using what he perceived was his power as President to bully another country’s leader into participating in a conspiracy to perpetuate and spread misinformation. This time the target would be former Vice President and current presidential nominee Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who served on the board for regional energy holdings company called Burisma.3 This would infamously lead to the impeachment of Trump from the House of Representatives, which, in a divided and bitterly partisan government means very little from a practical perspective.
Once again, the crimes and evidence were out in the open, and there were enough moving pieces and minute details to both muddy the waters and drive people on all sides to the height of conspiratorial hysteria. And once again, Trump would ultimately pay no material consequences, and the populace as a whole would become more angry and less trustful of government and media.
Of course, all of this pales in comparison to the mother of all conspiracy theories in the Trump era: QAnon. This pernicious umbrella term originated in the virtual toxic waste dumps of 4 and 8 Chan, with an anonymous poster leaving cryptic messages about a secret, high-level effort to root out child traffickers and other evildoers supposedly within the Democratic Party and “deep state.”
And though a constant theme of everything QAnon over the years has been child trafficking – beginning with Pizzagate and most recently ensnaring furniture company Wayfair4 – the core governing principle of the following is that Donald Trump is on the “good” side, fighting corruption and evildoers in whatever form they may take. It is a constantly evolving retcon of both Trump the person and Trump the presidency, in which the conclusion is always the same: Trump is right and somehow is the puppet master of a grand plan that we can only see parts of.
Trump himself has all but openly endorsed the movement:
Pressed on QAnon theories that Trump is allegedly saving the nation from a satanic cult of child sex traffickers, Trump claimed ignorance, but asked, “Is that supposed to be a bad thing?”
“If I can help save the world from problems, I’m willing to do it,” Trump said.
In many ways QAnon is like a conspiracy theory in reverse. There is no single event or action that the conspiracy theory is constructed to explain. Rather, the guiding principle of the conspiracy is the answer itself. It’s the Rosetta Stone for interpreting all events that flow through it.
If Real Enemies was largely an examination of the more populist, bottom-up model of conspiracy theories within the United States, what we have now is the opposite. With Trump as president we now have a top-down model of conspiratorial thinking. Trump, the paranoid narcissist he is, exhibits all of the characteristics of someone who is likely to fall victim to the conspiratorial mindset. He uses the office of president to both commit conspiracies against American institutions, as well as flaunt his own conspiracy theories that he uses media ecosystems – both broadcast and social media – to repeat and spread.
If Argue and the creators of Real Enemies couldn’t quite see the tsunami that is Trump coming, what they did see was the rising tide of dissatisfaction and general mistrust that elevated him and placed him in office in the first place. Perhaps more crucially, they also identified the only things that can truly pull us out of the hole we’re now in.
The Way Through
In my original article on this topic I highlighted one section of Real Enemies as being the single most instructive and telling excerpt. In the album’s penultimate track, “Who Do You Trust?” the creators introduce a new element, spoken word monologue from actor James Urbaniak. Most of what Urbaniak recites is text taken straight from famous 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter. Those words cover much of what characterizes the kind of conspiracy-driven mindset that was already becoming commonplace in right-wing politics.
In the final track though, the aforementioned reprise of “You Are Here,” Urbaniak returns with original text that is far more pointed and direct in diagnosing what Real Enemies‘ creators feel is the root cause for the increase and severity of conspiratorial thinking.
When citizens cannot trust their government to tell the truth, they become more susceptible to that dread disease – conspiracism. They become less likely to trust their government to do anything, to conduct fair elections, say, or spend their tax money, or protect their children or their planet. The result is a profoundly weakened polity, with fewer citizens voting, and more problems left unaddressed for a future generation, that is even more cynical about the possibility of reforms.
It was at this point last time that I also referenced Pew’s ongoing tracking poll of public trust in government. In the past four years the level of trust hasn’t decreased precipitously, but that isn’t saying a whole lot when it was already below 20%. As of 2019 only 17% of Americans said they trust the government to do what is right at least most of the time.
Other polling shows a similar lack of confidence in other key public and private institutions. A recent Gallup poll showed confidence in the police the lowest it’s been in the 25 years they’ve polled the question. Institutions as a whole have likewise decreased in public trust, with the key exceptions being the medical system and public schools.
As our trust in these institutions continues to decrease, we become more likely to not believe information they distribute and resist their actions. We also become more likely to engage in conspiratorial thinking against them. For law enforcement, the recent increase of public anger and mistrust in them is well-deserved and long overdue. Police have not changed their behavior in any way in recent years to cause this, but rather there has been a public awakening and awareness of the kinds of unjust and unequal brutality that occurs every single day in this country.
But with that comes the tendency to believe every story and theory that ascribes malice to law enforcement. Two recent examples of this at work were during the height of the BLM protests in the wake of George Floyd’s killing. There were multiple instances around the country of protesters claiming that law enforcement were setting up pallets of bricks near protest sites in order to goad individuals into using them and give police cause to arrest protesters for destroying property or endangering others. In spite of its social media virality, this has proven to be likely false. Same goes for the theories about police using fireworks in populated, largely minority-majority neighborhoods as a kind of “psyops” effort to provoke and torment protesters. The more likely explanation is a combination of oversupply and boredom, both side effects of the COVID pandemic and resulting lockdown measures.
Speaking of COVID, the worldwide pandemic has unleashed its own set of absolutely bonkers conspiracy theories, which have only flourished in the face of much of the world’s utter failure to contain the virus adequately. From conspiracies about its origins5; to the role of 5G internet technology in causing or spreading it; to the continued misinformation from world leaders like Trump and Brazil’s president Jair Bolsonaro in both downplaying its severity and peddling unproven therapies like hydroxychloroquine; to the persistent mindset of far too many Americans that the virus doesn’t exist at all and is another deep state conspiracy to damage Trump’s presidency; our lack of trust in government, medical, media, and other institutions is literally killing us.
So what can be done? How can we hope to address the multitudes of ills both created by and resulting in the promulgation of the conspiratorial mindset in our politics and society? To really get at the core of the issue it will require addressing the broken trust between our institutions of power and the people. For Argue, the answer lies in accountability and grand systemic/institutional reform. I asked him in my interview if he thought we were already headed down a kind of conspiratorial death spiral and if there was any way to pull out of it. His response (which I’ve excerpted a bit) was fascinating and measured.
Well, there’s two ways that the cycle can go. The cycle can continue to spiral downwards, or there can be a kind of return to the core ideas of openness and populist democracy that you saw represented in certain other candidates in this presidential cycle. We saw that in the wake of Watergate. One of the positive consequences of Watergate is that because of popular trust in government had reached an all-time low, there was a genuine effort to open up the books. One of the voices you hear in the show is Frank Church of the Church Commission, which took a hard look at what our intelligence agencies were really doing with the public’s tax dollars both at home and abroad…Because public trust in institutions had reached such a low ebb after Watergate, there was a real demand for that level of accountability in order to restore the public’s faith in democracy…I guess the most succinct way of putting it is that I hope that the current level of distrust in government can be productively channeled in order to make government more open in a way that has some hope in restoring that trust.
The remedy to distrust, conspiracy, and institutional wrongdoing is, logically enough, the opposite of those things. It’s openness, more transparency, more democracy, more accountability. It will require fighting the natural and institutional urge to look forward and “move on” once Trump leaves office either next January or four years later. I firmly believe that the original sin of the Obama administration and Congress was not prosecuting the many crimes of George W Bush and his administration for the many lies and levels of corruption that led to multiple wars in the middle east and other graft that looks almost quaint in comparison now. If Joe Biden wins in November, he cannot make the same mistake. Thus far he has at least indicated that he will not stand in the way of federal investigation and prosecution of Trump out of office.
This does not go nearly far enough, however. It will require a wholesale revamping of our system of codes, laws, and regulations that define what those in power are legally allowed to do, particularly within the executive branch. So many of the aspects of those “norms” that Trump and his abetters like Attorney General William Barr have steamrolled will need to be written into cold, hard law. Watchdog positions like Inspector Generals for departments will need to be strengthened and made less vulnerable to corrupt dismissals and firings. Entire departments like Homeland Security will need to come under scrutiny and be either drastically restructured or eliminated altogether. Congress will need to intelligently write laws to regulate and keep up with the speed of social media’s evolution as it continues to be both an incredible tool of free expression as well as superspreader of misinformation and violent extremist recruitment tool.
And even this will not be enough to reverse course entirely, in part because so much of the damage has already been done. Take QAnon, for example. What started as a niche super conspiracy in the darkest corners of the internet will now certainly have at least one, possibly several, adherents entering Congress next term. In many ways QAnon looks like the future of Republican politics. It is very possible that this top-down model of conspiracism is here to stay. Even if we manage to do many things right in the coming years there may be no putting all of this back in the bottle.
One other quote from Argue on this topic haunts me. It feels as true, if not truer today than it did four years ago.
There’s an irony to the people who have this view of “Well I just don’t trust anything the government tells me,” because a lot of the biggest donors to the various political parties are thrilled with that view because it is to their advantage that you believe that your vote and your ability to protest and your ability to rally public opinion is something that is not actually available to you. You are actually a citizen of a democracy powerless because the fix is in, and the only way to resolve it is either burn it all to the ground or to bring in some strongman-type figure. And those are terrifying options! And I feel like that’s the road down at which there’s a tipping point for skepticism. Obviously, everyone should – given, for instance, that the CIA did conduct those mind-control experiments on Canadian housewives – there is a level of skepticism that is absolutely warranted and required in order to inform citizens to have a watchdog role to play in keeping a democracy healthy. But there is definitely a tipping point beyond which the whole thing collapses in a garbage fire, and I worry about that tipping point.
As a fitting coda to all of this (that I honestly could not have planned better even if I tried), in the midst of my writing this piece, Argue himself announced that he, Butler, Nigrini, and producer Beth Morrison have produced an updated adaptation of the original Real Enemies performances in visual streaming form.
This update will feature new written/visual material to reflect the time that has passed since its original debut. Argue writes, “When we learned we would have the opportunity to make this film, Peter, Isaac, and I had a long discussion about whether or not to update the show. We asked ourselves whether it would be stronger to leave it as it was, as a time capsule of where we were at at the time, and where we thought the nation might be headed in the fall of 2015. Ultimately, though, this is a show that opens and closes with a chapter called “You Are Here,” which is designed to speak to the present moment. So we concluded that some of this material would need to be updated in light of… recent events.”
This version, which Argue is affectionately calling Real Enemies: The Movie, will premiere October 21 at 7pm PDT through Cal Performances’ “At Home” series.
Perhaps if things go well in the coming years, we can look back at all versions of Real Enemies as the time capsule it was intended to be. For now though, it continues to be a dark reflection of our past, our present, and our murky future.
- “Scandal” is unfortunately another word that has lost most meaning in this presidency. The word implies something that the perpetrator(s) can be made to face consequences or shame over, both things that Trump has demonstrated time and time again he feels no need for. Is it possible for there to be a scandal when the subject is impervious to being scandalized?
- This conspiracy has made appearances throughout the Trump presidency, as recently as the previous week’s Republican National Convention, where former Director of National Intelligence Richard Grenell proclaimed that “The Obama-Biden administration secretly launched a surveillance operation on the Trump campaign.”
- It should be noted that part of the reason why Trump’s attacks on Hunter Biden were able to stick among a pretty wide array of people, including some Democratic voters (many of whom were already in the middle of a fierce primary battle supporting candidates other than Biden) was because this kind of milder and run-of-the-mill nepotism (I don’t think anyone thinks that Hunter Biden is an expert on Ukrainian energy production and exports) plays right into people’s distrust of “elites” who have connections and positions they almost certainly don’t deserve.
- For those looking to get a more in-depth examination of the whole Wayfair fracas with the level of incredulous and confused humor it deserves, I highly recommend this episode of the podcast Reply All that features actor/comedian/notoriously social media-averse Jason Mantzoukas.
- People like the president have taken particular glee in referring to COVID as the “China virus.” They have also gone to great lengths to either suggest or flat-out promote theories about China having created the virus intentionally as a weapon, or, in its milder form, intentionally in a lab but escaped.