Cooking up conspiracies

Simon Cowan

31 July 2020 | Ideas@theCentre

Conspiracy theories! Every now and then you get caught thinking only gullible Americans, or the overly paranoid, fall into them; but then you realise just how seductive they are.

Case in point: the release of the palace letters relating to Australia’s one great, constitutional crisis – the sacking of Gough Whitlam in 1975 – has seen otherwise sensible individuals seeking coded language in the correspondence.

All in service of the theory that a cabal of powerful vested interests removed Whitlam from office because he threatened to upset the existing power structures. It couldn’t just be Kerr acting alone: an act of such importance had to have something more significant behind it.

At their core, most conspiracy theories reflect something the believer either desperately wishes were true, or refuses to believe isn’t true.

Those clinging to Whitlam dismissal conspiracies can’t reconcile their vision of ‘Whitlam the great reformer, saviour of Australia’ with the reality that Whitlam was soundly rejected by the electorate after the dismissal. Twice.

Of course, it is impossible to mention conspiracy theories without mentioning Donald Trump. From the Obama ‘birther’ controversy, through to the Steel dossier and the spectre of Russian interference in the 2016 election, Trump is both the author and subject of some of the biggest political conspiracy theories in the last decade.

That it is increasingly impossible for US Republicans to support Trump without having to resort to conspiracy theories is evidence of a significant problem within the US political right.

Yet an equally big problem exists on the left. It was amazing to see the vigour with which politicians with decades of experience pursued the somewhat farcical idea that the only reason Trump won was that his campaign was basically a front for Russian interests.

That a politician like Hillary Clinton, with a track record of policy failures under a cloud of perceived dubious dealings – whose best argument for being made president was that it was her turn, and who ran an awful campaign – could be defeated should need no conspiracy theories to explain.

That the best candidates the Democratic party could muster were previously-defeated Clinton (who comedian Dave Chappelle compared to being asked to vote for Darth Vader) and a Septuagenarian socialist from Vermont who wasn’t even in the party, should have been clear evidence of an internal problem.

Yet her supporters, even as they admitted Clinton’s faults, simply couldn’t believe that the people would reject their vision in favour of the boorish Trump.

If there are two things conspiracy theorists and visionaries have in common, they are absolute confidence in their reality, and complete bafflement that others don’t just ‘get it’.

This is an edited extract of an opinion piece published in the Canberra Times as Conspiracy theories on Palace letters miss the mark

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