The phrase "conspiracy theory" finally may have outlived its usefulness in explaining what propels the current right-wing reaction. Paranoid utterances swirling around Washington, D.C., and the elected ranks of the GOP would be better described as laughable memes that lack any fact-based "theory" to back them up.
As commonly defined, a conspiracy theory is the belief that some secret and influential organization or cabal created a situation or event. By itself, a theory is a supposition or system of ideas meant to explain something. In science, theories are tested against facts and then confirmed, proved wrong or modified.
The election of Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene (R-Ga.) marks the ascent of someone who buys into a broad-ranging package of hoaxes that have been espoused by either Donald Trump or many of his loyalists. Among these is the famous QAnon fantasy that had Trump as a president fighting a secret cabal of Satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles who run the "deep state." Greene also casually tosses around violent rhetoric.
Greene's ravings — including space lasers starting wildfires, "fake" school shootings, Clinton-ordered "killings" — all suggest an unhinged impulse to draw attention, subvert facts and share in a cult online following. Elected in November, "MTG" instantly became Congress' answer to right-wing radio fabulist Alex Jones. Sen. Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) is only stating the obvious when he calls Greene's positions "loony lies."
The silly propaganda issued by Trump and enabler Rudy Giuliani also falls short of a fully developed conspiracy theory. Their election assertions add up to a series of far-fetched mini-hoaxes about Venezuela-manipulated voting machines, phantom suitcases full of illegal ballots and ordinary Pennsylvania citizens faking vote numbers.
In this case their goal was clear if elusive — to steal an election they called "stolen."
Even Trump's own consultants tried to explain that his authentic loss could be traced to popular distrust and his disastrous passivity in response to the coronavirus pandemic. A post-mortem report said that while he asserted irregularities in Black-majority cities, he was done in by hemorrhaging support from white voters.
Blaming the run-up to the deadly Jan. 6 Capitol riot entirely on extremists spouting "conspiracy theories" might give them too much credit for coherent belief.
Now, new Trump impeachment lawyer David Schoen says the then-president was exercising his "First Amendment right" when he whipped up his supporters that day with false claims and an appeal to "fight like hell" for him. Even the most libertarian of political theorists have said free speech does not extend to inciting violence.
Firing up a political faction with lies to forcefully shut down a legal election procedure in Congress is about the last thing you'd think of when describing a president's sworn duties. If there was any conspiracy to be discovered, it would have been directed by the 45th president against the U.S. Constitution.
Calling dark suspicions about how things work a "conspiracy theory" has traditionally been used by officials to defend secretive actions. In this instance, however, power players on the right are looking to fire up a rebellion with conspiracy canards.
Trump has repeatedly proved to America that frauds and fairy tales are crucial to his style. Professing a plausible conspiracy theory may just be too cerebral for him.