I Think About This a Lot is a series dedicated to private memes: images, videos, and other random trivia we are doomed to play forever on loop in our minds.
Every so often, when Steve Bannon slimes his way back into the news, I get to thinking: Wait, that guy’s still alive? Not because Bannon looks like the sentient embodiment of an illness, like the Mucinex Man, but because of the rumor that he had faced the death penalty as punishment for espionage. I am, of course, referring to this July 2017 Louise Mensch bombshell:
If you hadn’t seen this until now, you’re welcome. Unlike Mensch, I take a great deal of pleasure every time I report this.
First, a little background: Mensch is an independent journalist and former Tory MP who moved to the U.S. from the U.K. in 2012 and founded since-shuttered projects like Menshn (a Twitter competitor focused on politics) and Heat Street (a blog aimed at young conservatives, which was mostly devoted to venting anger at so-called Social Justice Warriors) before establishing herself as a prominent voice in the Trump-Russia Collusion Twitter Punditocracy. Her experience questioning News Corp officials during a 2011 U.K. government inquiry into a series of phone-hacking scandals gave her takes some weight, to the extent that the New York Times ran her op-ed with tips for the Russia investigators in March 2017 — just a few months before she tweeted about Steve Bannon potentially getting the death penalty, tagging what appears to be a Bannon “parody” account in the process.
As of now, Steve Bannon is not only still breathing and oozing, but a free man, so it’s safe to say that Mensch’s sources may not have had their fingers on the pulse. And while that was hilariously obvious to many at the time, Mensch’s fellow sleuths responded not with laughter but with somber agreement, while she herself doubled down. It’s almost as though people who are (seemingly) otherwise rational are more likely to believe crazy things if they want those crazy things to be true!
Prior to the 2016 election, I was under the mistaken impression that conservatives had a monopoly on believing obviously phony political material they encountered online. Image macros of apolitical celebrities overlaid with quotes about locking up Hillary Clinton or ending the Fed — those were standard-issue Crazy-Uncle-email-forwards (“Re: FW: Re: RE: Fw: Morgan Freeman Said What We’re ALL Thinking About Killary!”). Some of this could be chalked up to a simple lack of internet literacy, but the key was really wish fulfillment — “Of course Robin Williams thinks what I think about the capital gains tax. I knew I liked him for a reason!” Later, the birther movement, which coincidentally launched a certain gold-plated bankruptcy enthusiast onto the national political scene after years of obvious publicity-hound bluffing, felt like someone had Weird Science’d those forwarded emails to life. Some of this belief in the seemingly unbelievable involved conservatives lashing out at the world around them, trying to force it to make sense — their guys lost to Barfsac Ocrumbo? Twice? Well, in 2016, the world changed, and conservative conspiracy enthusiasts had to make room for the other side of the aisle.
In The Tempest, Shakespeare gave us the oft-paraphrased aphorism, “Misery acquaints a man with strange bedfellows” — and there aren’t many venues more miserable than post-2016 American politics. That’s why people post memes of a deputy attorney general and a Department of Justice special counsel like they’re Parks and Recreation reaction GIFs. That’s why they buy Comey Is My Homey T-shirts, and hang on to every word of Epic Tweet Thread Bombs from Mensch and her fellow so-called #Resistance Grifters — your Abramsons, your Garlands, your Krassensteins. Are their predictions right? Not important: They offer a glimmer of hope that things might somehow just go back to the way they were before President Deals sullied the office of the presidency by telling Shinzō Abe about the time he almost scored with Vanna White in a Raymour & Flanigan. If that has to happen via a Deep State coup, with executions on the White House lawn, well, [unintelligible mumbling]. In a perverse way, it’s heartening: kookiness truly knows no political-party bounds. Cue “We Are The World.”
So, how do we fix this bipartisan love affair with conspiracy theories? Can we fix it? Great questions! Unfortunately, scroll back up and check the title again — this column isn’t called “I Thought About This a Lot and Have Come Up With a Workable Solution.” I’d say that people should do their own research, but to a shocking number of people, “doing their own research” = “watching 45-minute YouTube videos that reinforce what they already think,” so maybe skip that. It’s like we’re living in two separate realities with progressively shrinking common ground — but hey, at least we can all agree that the Earth is round, right? Nobody look into that, please.
At least I can always remember that for a brief, shining moment in July 2017, a few thousand people read and believed that the authorities were considering giving Steve Bannon the death penalty (though, presumably, a number of them took no pleasure in it). Depressing? Unquestionably! Instructive? A little, maybe! While every day seems to bring a fresh torrent of hell-news, a combination of mild skepticism and occasionally logging off can go a long way toward keeping things on an even keel.
Also, anyone who disagrees with me is a Russian bot.