In light of the recent end to Donald Trump’s years-long birther campaign, the time seems right to say a few words about conspiracy culture in American politics. Or, rather, to say a few words about one of the forces that drives it.
And to do this, I want to start by discussing that cultural touchstone of the 1990s: The X-Files.
I know. Bear with me.
Standing somewhere at the intersection of horror, sci-fi, and the police procedural, The X-Files is a TV series that originally ran from 1993 to 2002 and that, because of its mass popularity and the awesome power of twenty-first-century nostalgia, returned for a “revival” mini-season earlier this year. The story centers on Fox Mulder and Dana Scully, FBI agents who together play out the familiar believer-skeptic trope—“Spooky” Mulder the former and rational-minded Scully the latter. In most episodes, Scully’s rationality comes up short. Tasked with investigating inexplicable and often paranormal cases, the two find evidence of monsters and cryptids, mutants and aliens, covert operatives and U.S. governments that have something to hide.
That last one is important. Although Scully and Mulder are on the U.S. payroll, their relationship to the government is uneasy. As the series unfolds, their investigations lead them increasingly to suspect the existence of a shadow government, a government-within-a-government—one that for decades has been experimenting on the American public and covering up not only its own culpability but also, among other things, the possibility of extraterrestrial life.
Small wonder, then, that two of the show’s most famous taglines read “The Truth Is Out There” and “Trust No One.” Indeed, in an election cycle so often preoccupied with one candidate’s deleted emails and another’s flagrant disregard for fact, these taglines might fairly extend to the 2016 campaign trail.
The truth is out there. Trust no one.
Yet I raise this point only to dismiss it. I’m not interested in pursuing similarities between The X-Files and the current political climate. In fact, I don’t think such comparisons would be productive. After all, The X-Files is a work of fiction. It does not record history. It does not purport to describe things as they are. Any resemblance to actual events, locales, or persons, living or dead, is—as they say—entirely coincidental.
So, no. As a work of fiction, The X-Files does not have much to say about supposed left-wing conspiracies, or about conservative cabals headed up by Mr. Burns, Fat Tony, and Dracula.
But when it comes to diagnosing a politically polarized mainstream that routinely suspects the worst from the other side of the aisle, The X-Files does have one thing going for it—and it is the same thing that fiction in general has going for it. The X-Files knows how to entertain. And it knows what entertains.
Specifically, I want to suggest that irrespective of the cloak-and-dagger politics it portrays, The X-Files does an excellent job of exposing our secret pleasure in conspiracy theories. It demonstrates how paranoia can be fun, a kind of self-flattery. Against a system hell-bent on suppressing the truth, Scully and Mulder stand as heroes—truth-seekers who press on relentlessly through the brambles of subterfuge and misdirection. Rugged individualists of American yore, the two of them have backs that do not break and values that do not yield to a politician’s whim. The ugliness of the world they inhabit—the world that fiction created—only causes the star of their commitment to shine brighter.
And that is an attractive place to be in mainstream American culture.
While working with the Champaign Park District this past summer, I listened to more conservative talk radio than I’d ever heard. I disagreed with most of it. But while the views expressed by hosts and guest callers consistently rankled me, what astounded me more was the circuitous route everyone took in order to ascribe the worst possible intentions to the left. Nowhere did anyone consider the possibility that politics is messy. Nowhere did anyone suggest that liberal politicians might take their elected duty just as seriously as their right-wing counterparts. Within the echo-chamber of WLS-AM 890, there were heroes, and there were villains.
Now, obviously, I do not mean to suggest that such roundabout thinking is unique to the right. It isn’t. Nor do I want to diminish the existence of the actual foul play, market manipulation, and mass surveillance that have happened over the course of American history—and that still happen. Instead, I want to call into question the frequency with which we go about looking for the worst in people. Because imagining the worst, reading intimations of conspiracy into positions I disagree with—it’s way sexier than acknowledging the messiness of the political process, and way easier than engaging with competing views in good faith. It all helps me sustain the fantasy that I know what’s up, that my vision is clear, that my morals are un-impinged.
That I and those who agree with me are the real heroes here.
The truth is out there, baby. And I know exactly where to find it.
Ben DeVries (’15) graduated with degrees in literature and writing. He and his wife Jes, a fellow Calvin grad, live in Champaign, Illinois, where Ben is looking to add some letters behind his name. On the academic off-seasons, he reads fantasy and works as a glorified “go-fer” at the Champaign Park District. He’s been known to make a mean deep-dish pizza.