So, it happened. Mythmaking beat math. Drama put data in its place. A candidate who styled himself a renegade outsider has become the forty-fifth president. It’s almost as though a humble serving girl were changed by the wave of a wand into a princess, or a stranger in bright rags put a pipe to his lips and played so wonderfully that all the children of the village . . . If a hallmark of enduring fairy tales and folktales is an outsized, vivid character who overcomes impossible odds, this is one that should endure. And if a feature of such tales is diffuse, collective authorship — the way they seem to well up from the countryside rather than issue from a writer’s pen — this one qualifies on that count too.
Still, a folktale needs more than magic. It needs a moral — one that any child can grasp and that endless imperfect retellings can’t corrupt. Another tale from last fall certainly bore such a lesson. It’s the story of a girl of grit and gumption who faced many enemies, developed guile to match her great ambition, and prevailed against an age-old prejudice — or would have, if things had turned out differently. For long stretches of the Clinton campaign — particularly during the drowsy August of private banquets in the Hamptons and Martha’s Vineyard — the moral was practically all the story had; the underlying action had mostly ceased.
For Trump, however, the action never ceased, though its meaning seemed uncertain. This air of uncertainty remains. Even assuming a lesson can be drawn from events so magnificently bizarre, who is best qualified to find it? The collective who conjured the story into existence or the prestige press that failed both to credit and comprehend it?
There is another form of folklore that may be relevant here: conspiracy theories. They were everywhere last year, organizing and shaping confusing realities so as to make them intelligible. In this function, they compete with the editorial pages, but from an unconventional position. Sincere conspiracy theorists, despite the slurs so often hurled against them, really do believe in facts and revere the truth; it’s their notion of how facts and truth relate to each other that differs from journalistic orthodoxy. Because they assume that the truth is often veiled, and that what veils it is, of course, the “facts” — the apparent facts, the agreed-on facts, i.e., the lies — truth-seeking, for conspiracy theorists, is more a matter of knowledge destruction than of knowledge gathering. Until the first is complete, the second can’t even begin. Quite often it never does.
Take the assassination of JFK. Many people continue to believe that a shady conspiracy lies behind it because the symmetry-loving human brain can’t fathom how an effect of such enormity — the violent murder of a young, dynamic president — could proceed from a cause as puny as one man’s nuttiness. It’s too arbitrary, this scenario. Hence grander, more serious plots. Castro did it. The Cosa Nostra. A militaristic cabal within the government. Before these schemes could even be looked into, though, the facts at hand had to be nullified. Oswald was a lousy marksman. There were fewer shell casings in the sniper’s nest than shots necessary to inflict the wounds. And so on, until it was a mystery ripe for renovating into a tragedy, with villains whose stature was closer to the dead hero’s and whose motives were of proportional depth and darkness.
An honest literary history of Election 2016 must include all sorts of narrative threads, an unusually high number of them factually dubious. It was a story told in many modes, whose creators were often hidden from plain view and distributed, folktale style, among the multitudes. The unclassifiable contest between think-tanky expertise and populist bombast, academically sanctioned identity politics and neo-Prussian bugle calls to duty, had broadened my sense of what news was, and conspiracy theories helped me cope with the tension. Week by week since the primaries had started and day by day once the conventions were over, I found myself supplementing my normal regimen of reputable publications with an assortment of speculative, eccentric, and occasionally flat-out wacky blog posts, Reddit discussions, YouTube rants, and comment threads.
One reason I’d started roving so far afield was that it no longer felt very far. The distance from what was formerly the center to what had long constituted the fringes of opinion and analysis had shrunk to no distance at all. A click could take me anywhere. I grew to enjoy the rhythms of these weird hops, which felt like the jump cuts in an action movie and accurately reflected the swerves and jerks of the campaign. Zoom in on Paul Krugman, eminent economist, discoursing on the blessings of free trade; pan to Alex Jones, sweaty unmasker of globalist intrigues, predicting uprisings and riots; then over to someone on Twitter with nineteen followers, whose jabs against Trump supporters and Sanders diehards were redolent of Correct the Record, the pro-Clinton social-media gang. On to the amusingly scurvy Drudge Report, then the old-time hard-left CounterPunch. What center? What fringe? Inside the black hole of the new media universe, space collapses to a singularity.
The election’s atmosphere of intrigue contributed to my manic investigations. Puzzles and secrets were everywhere; who could guess where solutions might pop up? Trump was refusing to release his tax returns, and the executive editor of the New York Times suggested that he would risk going to jail if that were the penalty for publishing them. There was also the matter of Paul Manafort, Trump’s disgraced former campaign chief, who may have had links to Vladimir Putin. And Putin himself was on the prowl, it seemed. The so-called D.N.C. leaks from Guccifer 2.0 were the work of Putin’s minions. Or maybe not. Certain blogs and subreddits I visited held that the leaker was an idealistic young Democratic Party insider, who’d been privy to tawdry machinations he felt should be exposed. The theory went that after the leak, he was murdered in retribution on a dark street in Washington, D.C. Julian Assange’s WikiLeaks offered a reward for information about the killer.
Just as the press was declaring the election over, the whistle-blowing group unsheathed a dagger after promising a mighty sword. I was spellbound nonetheless. I’ve never much relished reading things I should — college textbooks, quality bestsellers, crinkly pharmaceutical inserts on dosages and side effects — but reading what I’m told I shouldn’t has beguiled me ever since I spied a copy of Valley of the Dolls stashed behind my father’s law books. When CNN’s Chris Cuomo implied on the air one day that reading the WikiLeaks emails was somehow illegal for average citizens — though not, of course, for journalists — I charged ahead with extra zeal.
The first several batches of emails were fairly boring. Most were petty and procedural, revealing a fretful, insular campaign obsessed with controlling its treatment by the media, many of whose highest-profile members it counted as friends in a way that seemed untoward. But then came what WikiLeaks teasingly called Phase Three and the infamous Pizzagate scandal it unleashed, which is still with us — and will be, I guarantee, throughout Trump’s term. The theory has just the strange juju our new president attracts and appears to enjoy consuming personally. Its theme of organized ritual pedophilia among the political illuminati is also a perfect metaphoric vehicle for generalized suspicion of all insiders — which may have been its appeal to the armed kook who showed up at a D.C. pizzeria in early December prepared to confront the mythical evildoers. That the scandal was revealed around the same time as a series of DDoS attacks that briefly blacked out Twitter and silenced WikiLeaks was an added bonus, the sort of provocative coincidence that devotees of far-fetched cover-ups find dispositive.
Which brings me to late November, when I returned to the web in search of morally trenchant explanations of Trump’s unanticipated win. I should say that I’d felt it coming. How? The gift of distance, one might say. I live in rural Montana, whose isolation from the great opinion centers proved clarifying in this year of hostility to great opinion centers — and the wealth and power feeding them. That force might not have seemed so propulsive, so pounding, inside river-bound New York, gridlocked L.A., or Beltway-wrapped D.C., but out here in the great wide open it boomed like thunder. The beanstalk was coming down, and the giant would fall. The internet dwellers expected this outcome, too; their jumpy, overexcited state was like that of gophers before an earthquake. The only ones who didn’t know what was coming were those who believed they were in the know already. Such smugness is also annoying to watch after a while, since nothing stirs resentment like blithe mistakenness in those who make a living correcting others. Witness the story in the Washington Post from November 24, which ended my search for postelectoral closure with the most disturbing theory yet — disturbing because of its source, not its content. (That prize still goes to Pizzagate.)
America had been duped, the story proclaimed, or at least enough of America to swing things. Trump’s barely bar-clearing win had been a trick, an act of cunning international mischief. Spread by Russia, ostensibly, using the World Wide Web, and preying on an impressionistic electorate in an inordinately distrustful mood, “fake news” was a villainous phenomenon well suited to outraged moralizing. The article even linked to a long list of the websites and blogs where true conspirators had planted their fraudulent conspiracy theories to discredit Clinton and foment the sort of anger and distrust supposedly favorable to Trump.
The Drudge Report. CounterPunch. Naked Capitalism. (How in my many trips down the rabbit hole had I missed Naked Capitalism?) It was an extensive catalogue, with no ideological coherence. And readers were urged to take on faith that it cohered at all. Who’d compiled the list of news sites? A sketchy-sounding outfit called PropOrNot, whose members, alas, would not be named so as to shield them from foreign spooks. Were the sites aware of the plot? Not necessarily. Many of them were “useful idiots,” as were their readers, the Post implied. The article also gestured toward a filter, potentially supplied by Google and Facebook, that would deny readers access to problem stories. That way the idiots couldn’t be used again.
When a free press starts eating its own tail by opposing the freedom to read as a means of fashioning a moral for a story that it grasped poorly to begin with, the Trump win finally starts making sense: it’s an old-fashioned anticlerical rebellion. Not that the Post’s fake-news thesis lacked merit. I had proved as gullible as anyone, at times, to propaganda-tainted trash. But wasn’t that my right? To figure things out for myself, even at the risk of being misinformed? Wasn’t that the right of all Americans? Putin obviously knew it was, or he wouldn’t have paid it tribute by exploiting it. And Trump (whose own chronic bullying of the media is itself a danger to press freedom) knew it also — did he ever. The man is a salesman, and salesmen know things. They know their customers’ weak spots. Not all people are smart, they understand, and even the smartest among them aren’t always smart, particularly when they forget that they’re fools too — and that every other fool can see it.
So here’s to the freedom to be led astray, which it would be folly to restrict, lest it foster complacency and tempt the devil. Because that’s what attracts him: foolproof safeguards. Like the one the Clinton campaign erected when, per WikiLeaks, it encouraged the nomination of a laughable, beatable “Pied Piper candidate” named Donald Trump. Or CNN’s belief in its ability to not only report the news but tell us which sources to ignore.
Assume you’re an imbecile, but, more important, consider that the imbecile across from you may be a genius in disguise. As we go forward, so many of us still secure in our contempt for the vulgar pretender and his sorry partisans, it’s a lesson worth remembering. It might prove helpful, even protective. Plus, it’s true.