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Editorial: Trump's denialism and the rise of conspiracy-theory politics

SOME might laugh at the dangerous denialism from the Trump presidency days after Joe Biden’s victory in the US elections.

Secretary of State Mike Pompeo still asserts that “there will be a smooth transition to a second Trump administration.”

Asked by a reporter whether Donald Trump’s refusal to concede would discredit US promotion of democratic norms abroad, Pompeo remarked that the US State Department has “often encountered” elections where it was uncertain whether “the outcome … reflected the will of the people.”

The question rests on the idea — common to “mainstream” politicians in the US and Britain — that the US has a history of championing democracy internationally. 

Labour leader Sir Keir Starmer welcomed Joe Biden’s election precisely as an indication that the US would return to this approach. 

But it rests on a complete misrepresentation of the US’s foreign policy history, its string of predatory wars — including the attacks on Afghanistan, Iraq and Libya in this century alone — and its routine support for coups to remove democratically elected governments from Iran to Chile and from Bolivia to Ukraine.

Much common ground is likely to unite the Trump and Biden presidencies on these questions.

A particular liberal attack line on Trump was that he was a Russian puppet. The narrative seems to survive exposure to a reality in which he has pursued an aggressively anti-Russia foreign policy; Trump has torn up the Intermediate Nuclear Forces and Open Skies treaties with Moscow and deployed troops to Ukraine and Lithuania.

If Vladimir Putin did fix anything for him, he must have regretted it. Yet claims that he did are specious, and bring us to the growing power of conspiracy theories in Western politics.

The chances of Trump successfully overturning Biden’s clear win are close to nil. 

But his “stolen election” mantra will accelerate the rejection of the political system by far-right and white supremacist groups, increasing the likelihood of racist and political violence more than equivalent liberal conspiracy theories do.

That should not blind us to the parallels, however. Hillary Clinton has long blamed Russia for her 2016 defeat. In Britain, it is more fashionable to blame Russia for Brexit.

Where do such claims come from? They are not backed by credible evidence. An Institute for Strategic Dialogue investigation into alleged Russian interference in Bavarian elections found no actual evidence, but speculated that Russian-funded media coverage of “issues indirectly tied to the election” such as the war in Syria might have influenced voters. 

Britain’s intelligence and security committee report on alleged Russian interference is similarly obsessed with intangibles — and comes to some very dangerous conclusions in the process, as former ambassador to Uzbekistan Craig Murray has noted: “It calls for the security services to be actively involved in ‘policing the democratic space’ … it calls for tough government action against social media companies who refuse to censor and remove from the internet material it believes to be inspired by foreign states…”

The trend common to conspiracy theories of the populist right and the liberal Establishment – rejecting as illegitimate any political victory by your opponents – indicates polarisation, certainly, but socialist answers to that must differ from liberal ones.

Both reflect crumbling public confidence in the political system, which results from that system’s growing inability to meet popular expectations, whether on bread-and-butter questions like pay and job security or existential ones like climate change.

Liberal opinion is alarmed by the withdrawal of consent. It hopes to restore consensus behind the status quo, including by censorship.

Socialists may share the alarm over some of the symptoms, but must base our approach on the objective reasons for alienation from the system.

Capitalism cannot stop or even slow the relentless exploitation of human and natural resources that has brought us to this point. No political answer resting on accommodation with the capitalist system will be able to hide that reality for long. 

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