There is an area of social science research that speaks powerfully to the reactionary mind and why it is so hard to pin down. In a reactionary society such as ours during this reactionary age of modernity, it can be hard to tell who is and who is not a reactionary. I suspect that all of us have a bit of reactionary in us, as potential that can become manifest when we let down our guard. One of the tricky parts is reactionaries rarely identity as reactionaries nor would think of themselves that way. That is part of the nature of the reactionary mind, to appear as something else, even to the person possessed by it. To map out the terrain, it’s helpful to look to the Dark Triad — the potent mix of authoritarianism, narcissism, and Machiavellianism. The third facet, less often discussed, is my focus here (Silvio Manno, The dangerous falsehoods fabricated by Machiavellian leaders afflict the world today).
Machiavellianism relates to suspicious paranoia that can express as belief in conspiracy theories. We tend to think of this tendency in negative terms, but let’s keep in mind that, “On the positive side, belief in conspiracy theories has been associated with openness to experience… and support for democratic principles” (Sutton & Douglas, see below). As it has been said, just because you’re paranoid doesn’t mean they aren’t out to get you. Maintaining an attitude of mistrust toward the threat of authoritarianism is a reasonable and moral response to authoritarianism. Yet on the other hand, mistrust pushed to the extreme makes one vulnerable to the lures of the reactionary mind, fear turned in on itself and projected out onto others. A deficit of trustworthy sources of info, as happens under oppressive conditions, creates a vacuum that must be filled and people do their best to make sense of the patterns they perceive. This is not a healthy situation. When culture of trust is lacking, people perceive others as untrustworthy and they act accordingly. “Machiavellianism predicted participants’ agreement with conspiracy theories,” wrote Sutton and Douglas. “Also, participants’ personal willingness to conspire predicted the extent to which they endorsed the conspiracy theories. This mediated the relationship between Machiavellianism and endorsement of conspiracy theories.” This is how the dark triad comes to dominance, in the world and in the mind. It warps our sense of reality and creates warped individuals.
Just think of Trump and you have the idiot savant’s version of this phenomenon (heavy emphasis on the idiot part), although I’d advise careful awareness as it can express in a much more sophisticated manner (e.g., Karl Rove and his cynical manipulation of the “reality-based community”). Even so, let’s stick with this obvious example for the very reason that apparently it isn’t obvious to many. There are those who think of themselves as good people, shocking as it may seem, who genuinely believe and have faith in Trump (I’ve already analyzed the authoritarianism of Clinton Democrats and so I will ignore that for the time being). I know such people. Some of them are simply not all that thoughtful and so are easily manipulated by lies, melodrama, partisanship, and whatever other bullshit. I have a hard time being too harshly critical, as many of them really don’t understand anything about what is going on in the world. They are useful idiots to the social dominators aspiring to their authoritarian dreams, but they honestly don’t have a clue what they’re being used for. This makes them potentially dangerous, even if they are less of a direct threat. There is another class of Trump supporter, though, that is far more dangerous and concerning, not to mention bewildering.
Consider Robert David Steele, a military officer and supposedly a former (?) CIA spy who has since re-styled himself as a political reformer, open source advocate, and freedom fighter. Going by my initial take, he comes across as a right-wing nationalist and populist with a Cold War vibe about him, the weird mix of religious patriotism and pseudo-libertarianism, capitalist realism and regressive flirtations with progressive language… or something like that, although when he is criticizing corrupt power and advocating open source he can almost sound like a leftist at times. He was the 2012 Reform Party’s presidential nominee and he is more well known, across the political spectrum, for advocating electoral reform. Some of what he says sounds perfectly reasonable and respectable, but he also makes some truly bizarre statements. He has claimed that the world is ruled by Zionists, especially Hollywood, that Hillary Clinton wants to legalize bestiality and pedophilia, and that NASA is sending abducted children to be sex slaves on a Martian colony (Kyle Mantyla, Robert David Steele: Hillary Clinton Was ‘Going To Legalize Bestiality And Pedophilia’; Ben Collins, NASA Denies That It’s Running a Child Slave Colony on Mars; Wikispooks, Robert Steele: Mars child colony claims). In his Zionist fear-mongering, he has associated with the likes of Jeff Rense, David Icke, and David Duke — as dementedly and dangerously far right as you can get without falling off the edge of flat earth.
I’m familiar with right-wing paranoiacs and I’m not without sympathy. There is a soft place in my heart for conspiracy theories and my curiosity has led me into dark corners of humanity, but I must admit that Steele is an extreme example among extremes. More than a few people think that, if not outright incompetent, he is controlled opposition and a paid fake, a disinfo agent, a fraud, hustling a buck, or that something is not right about him, maybe even that “Once CIA always CIA“, while it’s also been said he sounds like Alex Jones — the latter is understandable since he has been interviewed by Jones (Richard Wooley, Donald Trump, Alex Jones and the illusion of knowledge). The same accusations are made against Alex Jones as well and they do ring true. Some wealthy interests are promoting Jones and probably Steele too, for whatever reason that might be — the alt-right is filled with shills, paid trolls, and a variety of mercenaries (Competing Media Manipulations, Grassroots or Astroturf?, Skepticism and Conspiracy, Hillsdale’s Imprimis: Neocon Propaganda, Victor Davis Hanson: Right-Wing Propagandist, Berkeley Scholar Doesn’t Admit He Is A Corporate Shill). I’m not sure it matters whether or not Steele, Jones, and similar types are true believers. Either way, they’re influential figures to keep your eyes on.
Steele has also done talks and interviews with The Guardian’s Nafeez Ahmed, RT’s Max Keiser, Coast to Coast AM’s Lisa Garr, and many others, including multiple appearances on BBC Radio. His writings can be found in a wide variety of publications, such as: Forbes, Huffington Post, Veterans Today, CounterPunch, openDemocracy, etc. Articles about him and his election reform campaign have appeared in the mainstream media as well. Bernie Sanders and Thom Hartmann wrote prefaces to one of his books, and Howard Bloom wrote a foreword to another one. The guy gets around and draws some significant figures into his orbit. He also has appeared alongside the leftist citizen-journalist Caitlin Johnstone. She has sought cross-ideological alliance with the ‘anti-establishment’ right which unfortunately, I’d argue, is inseparable from the alt-right despite her claims to the contrary. She received a lot of flack and now regrets allowing herself to get associated with him: “I made a very unwise appearance alongside the very shady Robert David Steele” (A Year Ago I Wrote About Cross-Ideological Collaboration. Here’s How It’s Been Going). She got played by Steele, as did former Congresswoman Cynthia McKinney, although the latter was already well on her way to discrediting herself with conspiracy theories and antisemitism (see her page on Rational Wiki and on Discover the Networks). McKinney is obviously drawn to Steele because of his own inclinations toward conspiracy theories and antisemitism; but what is Johnstone’s excuse? Her husband, Tim Foley, says “she adores” McKinney and that is precisely how she got mixed up with Steele in the first place (10 Facts About Caitlin Johnstone, From The Guy Who Knows Her Better Than Anyone). Such unwise decisions seem inevitable once entering the murky waters and miasmic fog where swamp creatures dwell.
Johnstone’s husband blames himself for letting that situation happen, as he encouraged her to go on the show: “Before we knew it there she was, with Steele talking about how “the alt-right and the alt-left” need to come together, a position Caitlin never held, but in too much of a mental fog to protest” (10 Facts About Caitlin Johnstone, From The Guy Who Knows Her Better Than Anyone). That doesn’t seem accurate. After the show, she had a positive appraisal of Steele: “Here’s Cynthia McKinney, PhD and Robert David Steele coming to my defense over the right-left collaboration against the deep state I keep talking about.” (Facebook, July 21, 2017). Those words express no desire to protest nor a delayed realization that there was a potential problem. “If you recall, this is around the same time,” writes Scott Creighton, “that swindler Robert David Steele was pushing for the same “unite” cause but at least he was honest when he said he was doing it in order to bring the alt-left into the Trump camp in order to ensure his victory in 2020. That fraud fell apart and eventually Caitlin realized what a cretin [Mike] Cernovich was and she too gave up on this effort” (How Caitlin Johnstone is Just Plain Wrong about “Conspiracy Theories”).
This is how right-wing reactionaries seek legitimacy, by co-opting the rhetoric of the political left (e.g., Glenn Beck writing a book about Thomas Paine) and, by disguising their true intentions, drawing in those who otherwise would be resistant and unpersuaded (e.g., Steve Bannon as the architect behind Donald Trump using New Deal Progressive rhetoric as campaign promises). This is a lesson I learned in dealing with the alt-right. I used to debate with race realists such as human biodiversity advocates, until I realized all that I was accomplishing was giving them legitimacy in treating their views as worthy of public debate. It was irrelevant that they presented themselves as rational and weren’t explicitly racist, even in their denying racist allegations with shows of sincerity, as their rhetoric was making racism more acceptable by spinning it in new ways. That is their talent, spreading bullshit. Reactionaries are brilliant in manipulating the left in this manner. This is what worries me about Steele, in how he is able to speak to the concerns of the political left and then use the support he gains to promote Trump’s truly sick agenda or rather to promote the agenda of the lords and masters of the swamp hidden behind Trump’s buffoonery.
There is good reason Johnstone came around to calling Steele ‘shady’. His response to free speech of others is to threaten their free speech. The economist Michael Hudson, among others, has written about Steele’s use of frivolous lawsuits to shut down opponents (Robert David Steele’s ‘Feral’ Lawsuit Movement). In writing about this anti-democratic behavior (Robert David Steele: The Pinocchio Effect), he drew the ire of Steele himself who, in a comment from just a couple of days ago, wrote: “Thank you for this. I have copied it to my attorney with the suggestion that we add you to the roster of those to be called to testify about the conspiracy to defame me. The facts are the facts. I have two witnesses, both employed by NATO, who will testify to the truth of my claim. You are now part of my lawsuit against Jason Goodman, Patricia Negron, and Susan Lutzke. Congratulations.” Instead of countering with a fair-minded response and fact-based counterargument, he immediately went on the attack to silence someone who dared oppose him, which ironically substantiates the mindset portrayed in the article itself. It’s even more amusing in the context that, a little less than a decade ago, Steele specifically told people they should “listen to” Michael Hudson (No Labels “Non-Party” Equals “Four More Years” for Wall Street, Goldman Sachs, Grand Theft USA). This demonstrates lizard-brain levels of moral depravity, and the hypocrisy of it is beyond depressing. He is the guy presenting himself as a defender of an open society. Obviously, he isn’t to be trusted.
Yet I can’t help but feeling sorry for the guy. In the way that Trump appears to be exhibiting early onset dementia, I wouldn’t be surprised if Steele is suffering from paranoid schizophrenia or some other mental illness. Then again, maybe that is a given in a society that is insane. People become Machiavellian because that is how a Machiavellian society shapes them, and most definitely Steele is so shaped at this point, after having spent his entire career in right-wing authoritarian institutions of power, the military and CIA. That is what first occurred to me when my progressive friend asked me to look into him. The kind of anti-Zionist language goes far beyond criticisms of Israel as an authoritarian state, in the way the United States is also authoritarian. In his Machiavellian-minded support of President Trump, Steele wants to believe that Trump’s outward show of support for Machiavellian ‘Zionists’ is a deceptive ploy of Machiavellian genius: “The announced move of the US Embassy to Jerusalem – what one erudite British citizen labels a “diplomatic bon-bon”  – may have been part of a deeper strategy to finish Benjamin Netanyahu off while uniting the Arab tribes” (Is Zionism Over?). Ah, the tangled webs the paranoid mind weaves. His obsession with conspiracy theories about Zionists and pedophilia rings is typical of a certain kind of right-wing mindset, but I’m not sure that he was always this way.
My friend was inspired by his book, The Open Source Revolution, written back in 2012. That book does not deal in conspiracy theory, as far as I can tell, nor does it once mention Zionism, pedophilia, etc. Here is a taste of it: “The goal is to reject money and concentrated illicitly aggregated and largely phantom wealth in favor of community wealth defined by community knowledge, community sharing of information, and community definition of truth derived in transparency and authenticity, the latter being the ultimate arbiter of shared wealth. When we relate and share knowledge authentically, this places us in a state of grace, a state of “win-win” harmony with all others, and establishes trust among all” (from excerpt). Sounds nice, inspiring even. He mentions how he had originally believed in Barack Obama before realizing he was more of the same. That is what led to his writing an earlier book, Election 2008: Lipstick on the Pig. By the time 2012 rolled around, his identity as a patriotic, paternalistic, and progressive Democrat was clearly changing. In the book from that year, he wrote that,
“Understanding and accepting this sorry state of affairs has been part of my own personal and professional rejection of American exceptionalism and the rule by an elite. This shift in perspective recognizes the need for a new planet-wide consciousness based on an open information sharing and direct democracy. For many years I thought that our elected representatives had been corrupted by corporations and, more recently, by banks (or, I should say, the people who use these structures as veils for their own unethical accumulation of profit). I was in error. As we now know from numerous cases, the most blatant being that of former Congressman Randy Cunningham, it is more often elected representatives who have been shaking down banks and corporations in order to fund their own ambitions to remain in power and to profit at the expense of the people.”
Though not speaking in the overt language of the conspiratorial-minded, his words were beginning to express more of that worldview. Rather than it being a systemic problem of capitalism and corporatism, it is the fault of devious individuals who manipulate the system. The elite, rather than being an enlightened technocracy, are something darker — in this black-and-white dogmatism, those in positions of power are either good or evil with no gray area, no shade or tint, much less nuances of color. Before it was the banks that were the problem, but with his shift of focus it’s a small step to embracing the alleged child-molesting Zionists as the real source of power behind the banks. He used to talk about peaceful reform, but, in recent years, he has taken on more of the dark vision of Christian fundamentalism with hints of gnostic-like demonic archons and End Times longing. Nonetheless, I was curious and felt a desire to give Steele a fair hearing. So, I used a web search function to look for results prior to Trump’s presidential campaign, prior to Obama’s administration, and prior to the 9/11 terrorist attack. He didn’t sound all that crazy in the past and, the further I looked back, the more normal he spoke.
Even in 2012 when he started ranting about Zionists, it was relatively mild in tone while also giving voice to anti-authoritarianism and anti-colonialism, almost left-wing in ideology (The after effects of the Arab Spring, good or bad for Israel?). It’s true that Steele was on Alex Jones show as early as 2006, but keep in mind that Jones was far less crazy back then and far more coherent in his own criticisms of corrupt and abusive power (Kourosh Ziabari, Google following CIA’s path in confronting Iran). It can be easy to forget that, when you go back far enough, Jones had a significant following on the political left. It was a different world before both Trump lunacy syndrome and Obama derangement syndrome. It’s been a slow but steady decline for people like this. Decades ago, all that Steele was known for was his open source advocacy in arguing that secrecy was a bad way of doing anything, especially government. There was nothing controversial about this, other than being controversial to secretive authoritarians.
He went from that to his present belief that there are NASA martian colonies filled with child sex slaves. In both cases, he comes across as wholly earnest, for whatever that is worth. Still, earnest or not, there might be forces greater than him that are using and manipulating him for purposes he does not fathom. Seeing Machiavellianism in others opens one up to manipulation by Machiavellian social dominators. If there actually were demonic/Satanic forces as he believes, then one might suggest he is possessed by them. He has turned to the dark side or rather his mind has become lost in dark places, but it’s an all too common, if extreme, example of spiritual sickness and soul loss. His fear-mongering about pedophiles ruling the world is not only mental illness for there are real-world consequences, such as Alex Jones spreading conspiracy theories about pedophilia (Pizzagate) until one of his listeners took him seriously enough to go out and shoot up a restaurant.
I have no desire to discredit the lifework of Robert David Steele. His earlier message of freedom for all remains valid, but as a spokesperson he is damaged goods and his writings are tainted. I gave an accounting of this to my aforementioned friend who inquired about him. My friend became convinced that he should no longer recommend him to others. It’s sad to see someone’s mental breakdown play out on the public stage. And even sadder is that the message itself loses credibility in the process and so public debate about democracy becomes muddied. That furthers the agenda of anti-democratic forces. If nothing else, we can learn from such cases, learn about the importance of intellectual self-defense and psychological self-care. It’s too easy for any of us, in reacting to reactionaries, to become reactionaries ourselves. We should be aware of how hatred and fear can consume the mind. We can only be ruled by the darkness outside of us when it has first come to rule inside of us. Maintaining a positive vision is most important as a candle to light our way, to see the passage ahead and to see the precipice we walk along. It’s a long way down to tumble, if we lose our footing.
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Power, Politics, and Paranoia
ed. by Jan-Willem van Prooijen, Paul A. M. van Lange
“Examining the monological nature of conspiracy theories”
by Robbie M. Sutton and Karen M. Douglas
People generally want to explain socially significant events such as the deaths of celebrities and major international disasters (e.g., Leman and Cinnirella, 2007 ; Weiner, 1985 ), but lack direct access to definitive proof of the truth or otherwise of a conspiracy theory. Even the educated middle classes of functioning democracies need to rely on second, third, and n th hand reportage and interpretation in media channels, since they lack direct access to the facts (Sutton, 2010 ). Writing from a political science perspective, Sunstein and Vermeule ( 2009 ) speculate that communities who lack even this information tend to be more susceptible to conspiracy theorizing. These communities include disadvantaged and marginalized groups, and citizens of highly authoritarian states. Such communities experience “a sharply limited number of (relevant) informational sources,” which leads them to experience “crippled epistemologies” in which they are forced to rely on unreliable sources (p. 204). As psychologists, we would suggest that lack of knowledge, however severe, forces members of the public to rely not only on indirect and unreliable sources but also on cognitive heuristics that allow workable, even if unreliable, inferences in the face of incomplete information. One such heuristic is projection: using beliefs about the self as a basis to evaluate claims about other people.
Specifically, we contend that the social-cognitive tool of projection can help people in these uncertain situations (Ames, 2004 ; Krueger, 2000 ; McCloskey, 1958 ). When people are unsure about what someone may or may not have done, they can use their own thoughts, feelings, motivations, or action tendencies as a source of information. That is, they can judge others by judging what they themselves think they would do. For example, people may be more likely to adopt the hypothesis that Princess Diana was assassinated if they believe that they, personally, would be willing to take part in this act if they were in the same situation. So, a person’s perception that “I would do it” informs their perception that “others did it.” Beliefs in conspiracy theories – even about completely unrelated events – may therefore be held together by people’s judgments of their own moral tendencies.
We tested the role of projection in two studies (Douglas and Sutton, 2011 ). In the first study, we asked participants to complete the scale for Machiavellianism – an individual differences variable associated with personal morality (Christie and Geis, 1970 ). Measuring Machiavellianism allowed us to test the prediction that the relationship between personal moral qualities and beliefs in conspiracy theories would be mediated by projection of those moral qualities onto others. We asked participants to rate their agreement with a range of conspiracy theories and measured their tendency to project by asking them, for each individual conspiracy theory, how willing they would have been to participate in the conspiracy themselves (e.g., “If you had been in the position of the US government, would you have ordered the attack on the Twin Towers on 9/11?”). As hypothesized, Machiavellianism predicted participants’ agreement with conspiracy theories. Also, participants’ personal willingness to conspire predicted the extent to which they endorsed the conspiracy theories. This mediated the relationship between Machiavellianism and endorsement of conspiracy theories.
In a second study, we experimentally manipulated participants’ feelings of personal morality. We reasoned that by recalling a time when they behaved in a moral and decent manner, people would perceive themselves as less likely to participate in conspiracies. As predicted, participants asked to remember a time when they helped someone in need were subsequently less willing to conspire than control participants. They also endorsed a range of conspiracy theories less strongly. This decline in conspiracy belief was mediated by a decrease in willingness to conspire. These two studies, taken together, suggest that conspiracy theories may be held together by projection. Beliefs may not support each other, but instead may be held together by believers’ perception of their own moral tendencies (Douglas and Sutton, 2011 ).