US politics as The X-Files

As of this writing, several public references to this theory from prominent conservatives have been deleted. But the cover-up narrative will probably survive indefinitely as a reference point, an underground “truth,” like the left-wing conspiracies of old.

One of those deleted tweets belonged to Elon Musk, the new impresario of Twitter, and it inevitably became an exhibit in the case for liberal panic over his takeover: What could be more indicative of the platform’s imminent descent into a democracy-destroying hellscape than conspiracy theories spread by the Chief Twit himself?

“Trust no one” has become the ingrained in Republican thinking: David Duchovny and Gillian Anderson in The X-Files.Credit:Twentieth Television

But the alternative to Musk’s reign was clarified by the second recent illustration of our left-right reversal: a story from The Intercept, by Lee Fang and Ken Klippenstein, detailing the Department of Homeland Security’s migration into the social-media surveillance and the pressure the department has tried to exert on internet companies to flag and censor content along lines favored by the national security bureaucracy.

On the surface, this is not a partisan story: The Intercept is a left-wing publication, and the current version of the DHS anti-disinformation effort got started in the Trump administration.

But everyone understands those efforts’ current ideological valence. The war on disinformation is a crucial Democratic cause, the key lawsuit filed against the Biden administration on these issues comes from Republican attorneys general (joined by doctors critical of the public-health establishment), and the most famous flashpoint remains the social-media censorship of the Hunter Biden laptop story, which Fang and Klippenstein suggest followed from what one could reasonably call a deep-state pressure campaign.

Meanwhile, according to a draft report from the DHS obtained by The Intercept, the list of online subject areas that the department is particularly concerned about includes “the origins of the COVID-19 pandemic and the efficacy of COVID-19 vaccines, racial justice, US withdrawal from Afghanistan and the nature of US support to Ukraine” — mostly areas where, whether in wisdom or in folly, the populist right is more likely to dissent from the establishment position.

Democrats, meanwhile, have come to love the national security state. The US and US Department of Homeland Security flags.

Democrats, meanwhile, have come to love the national security state. The US and US Department of Homeland Security flags.Credit:AP

And for the future of Twitter, in particular, it’s notable that the Intercept story first points out that a committee advising DHS on disinformation policy included Twitter’s then-head of legal policy, trust and safety, Vijaya Gadde, and then notes that Gadde was one of the first people fired by Musk.

It’s a tacit nod to the left-right switch: Under Musk the social-media giant is widely seen as moving “rightward,” but that could mean becoming less entangled with an arm of what was once George W. Bush’s national security state.

The point of emphasising this reversal isn’t to suggest that either side is likely to flip back. The evolving attitudes of right and left reflect their evolving positions in American society, with cultural liberalism much more dominant in elite institutions than it was a generation ago and conservatism increasingly disreputable, representing downscale constituencies and outsider ideas.

In the 1970s, the left was paranoid: Pictured, the famously paranoid and left-leaning journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

In the 1970s, the left was paranoid: Pictured, the famously paranoid and left-leaning journalist Hunter S. Thompson.

But a stronger awareness of the flip might be helpful in tempering the temptations that afflict both sides. For progressives, that could mean acknowledging that the Department of Homeland Security’s disinformation wars, its attempted hand-in-glove with the great powers of Silicon Valley, would have been regarded as a dystopian scenario on their side not so long ago.

So is it really any less dystopian if the targets are Trumpistas and Anthony Fauci critics instead of Iraq War protesters? And if it is a little creepy and censorious and un-American, doesn’t that make some of the paranoia evident on the right these days a little less unfathomable and fascist seeming, even a little more relatable?

Then the Fox Mulder right might benefit from recalling the thing that conservatives — or this conservative, at least — used to find most insufferable about the anti-establishment left, which was not its scepticism but its credulity, not the eagerness to question official narratives but the speed with which implausible alternatives took root.

This is the key problem with the right today, whether the issue is the 2020 election or the COVID-vaccine debate or the attack on Paul Pelosi.


Not the baseline of scepticism, not being attuned to weaknesses and inconsistencies in official narratives, not being open to scenarios of elite self-dealing and conspiracy and cover-up, all of which emphatically exist.

It’s the swift replacement of scepticism with certainty, the shopping around for any narrative — even if it comes from Sidney Powell and Mike Lindell — to vindicate your initial theory, the refusal to accept that even institutions you reasonably mistrust sometimes get things right.

Or to put this in terms of Musk and his hopes for Twitter: The ideal virtual town square would be a place where conservatives could discuss speculative, even conspiratorial theories of the day’s events — but also a place where they could be persuaded to abandon bad theories when the evidence dissolves them.

Social-media and tribal incentives being what they are, that seems exceedingly unlikely.

Upside-down world: US politics today.

Upside-down world: US politics today.Credit:AP

But if I had just paid billions to own a social media platform — and become both its main character and arguably the most important right-leaning figure in American life, pending the Donald Trump-Ron DeSantis slugfest — I would be thinking about what it would take for a spirit of contrarianism and rebellion to aim, not simply at transgression, but at the whole of truth.

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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