Did you find yourself rooting for Tiger to win the Masters a few weeks back? Why? He’s not exactly a good guy. Just ask his ex-wife. She didn’t chase after him with a golf club for no reason. No one would have blamed her had she caught him. That was ten years ago, and though he may live a quieter life now, you don’t get the sense he lives a better one. It doesn’t really matter. Last week, I cheered for him, and you probably did too. It was a compelling story, a comeback story, a redemption story (minus, mostly, any redemption). We didn’t cheer because he was redeemed; he was redeemed by our cheers. That’s how it usually works. We like to think we cheer for the good guys, but more often we think they are good only because we cheer for them. The opposite also applies.
Is there any other way to explain this years-long sporting event (now headed to overtime) known as the Russian collusion investigation? With the Mueller report finally out, it’s worth taking a moment to reflect on what we should have known all along and why so many of us didn’t. Maybe President Trump ended up doing something shady or improper—it wouldn’t be the first time—but that’s for someone else to decide. I only want to point out that it indicated what should have been obvious all along, that the idea Trump was a secret Russian agent or accomplice in a massive computer hack was always a ridiculous conspiracy theory. Most of us believed or disbelieved it entirely based on which team we cheered for. Those who happened to be right in this case are far from justified, lest we forget recent bouts of Birtherism or Benghazi or whatever other crazy theories have been out there.
We’ve become susceptible to conspiracies because we are not interested in the truth or goodness but in what we want truth and goodness to be. If we can decide (either individually or collectively) what is true or good, then it is simply a matter of a majority vote, whoever captures the most hearts or receives the loudest applause. But if truth and goodness exist outside of us, regardless of our opinions or feelings, then it is reasonable to believe that those whom we love are sometimes wrong and those whom we despise are occasionally right, maybe even good, even if by accident.
Conspiracies rely not primarily on evidence but on missing evidence. If you’re appealing to what we don’t yet know, what you believe is likely a conspiracy theory. Wait for all the evidence to come out, sure, but don’t count on it being exactly what you want it to be or the opposite of everything else we already know. Even if it involves someone you hate, the simplest, most obvious, innocent answer is usually the truth. I suppose it’s possible that Trump was sending secret messages to Russia using public tweets and public campaign speeches and meeting with secret Russian collaborators in public buildings that have his name on them (after all, that just shows how evil and stupid Trump is, right?), but more likely they were just dumb tweets and provocative campaign speeches and ill advised lobbying efforts. For that matter, I suppose Obama really could have been born in Kenya (or was it Indonesia) to a different mother and that his birth certificate could have been forged. We’ll never know until we get all of the evidence, I guess, including all of the secret, hidden evidence that we can never get. Maybe Obama will admit it on his deathbed. What a story that would be.
I remember talking to a relative years back, right when the investigation was beginning, and trying to convince him that he was becoming wrapped up in conspiratorial thinking. We were just learning about secret meetings at Trump Tower, wondering about ambiguous campaign statements, and suspicious tweets and facebook ads. What was really going on? I spent all night defending Trump not because I like him (I don’t) or because he’s a good guy (he isn’t), but because the allegations so clearly fit into the conspiracy theory mold, which exists outside of Trump or Obama or anything else. An important fact about conspiracies is that they never serve the person involved in them as much as person exposing them. We believe conspiracy theories because they serve us. They make sense only because we want them to.
Beware of what you want, because it’s so hard to go against that desire, even for what would benefit us or otherwise be an obvious truth. It’s as difficult to put away the cookies or turn off the screens, which we know are bad for us, as it is to critically examine our beliefs or question those we love or offer grace and understand to those we hate. If we are not aware of how distorting they are, what hope do we have? We will end up as fat and addicted citizens, swinging wildly from one false theory to the next that we just can’t stop believing, one moment being justified, the next being refuted, by chance.
It’s not enough to clash and hope for something left in the middle, to read the other side hoping to find perspective (that’s what those evil people would say, being in on it or useful idiots). We have to do the hard work of searching for something outside of ourselves and, rather than trying to bend it to our will, conform ourselves to it. Unfortunately, it involves all kinds of unpleasant necessities, like admitting that sometimes the evil are innocent and sometimes even Republicans are right, that our heroes are men like us, and that we all cheer at some time for the villain.