Impeachment, conspiracy theories, and facts

Historian Sophia Rosenfeld shares her take on the hearings leading up to President Trump’s impeachment, the wealth of conspiracy theories surrounding them, and tips on how to absorb it all without feeling dazed.

Sophia Rosenfeld
Sophia Rosenfeld, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History

The hearings leading up to President Trump’s impeachment by the House of Representatives brought to light what much of America already knows: Republicans and Democrats can’t agree about much, including the facts surrounding the impeachment proceedings.

The back and forth was mind-numbingly contradictory.

“The facts are undisputed,” House Judiciary Committee Chairman Jerry Nadler, Democrat of New York, said during the Dec. 4 hearing.

GOP Rep. Doug Collins of Georgia, the ranking member of the committee, saw it differently.

“The facts are not only disputed, they are contradictive of each other,” he argued.

Sophia Rosenfeld, Walter H. Annenberg Professor of History, takes a historical look at truth in democracy and turns that lens toward today’s political atmosphere in her book “Democracy and Truth: A Short History,” published earlier this year. Democracy, she says, is built on the idea that truth matters but also that no one gets to say definitively what it is. That has always made the idea of what is truth complicated.

Penn Today asked Rosenfeld to share her take on the hearings, the wealth of conspiracy theories surrounding them and any tips on how to absorb all without feeling dizzy. 

How have conspiracy theories taken center stage in the impeachment proceedings?

What is interesting about these hearings is that they are founded on two potential conspiracy theories. 

One is the hope on the part of the president and his advisors that the 2016 election meddling in the U.S. could be pinned on Ukraine instead of Russia, despite the fact that this theory has been refuted by our own intelligence agencies. 

The second conspiracy theory involves Former Vice President Joe Biden’s son Hunter and both the father and the son’s actions in Ukraine during the Obama administration. Without that foundation in conspiracy, the plot that is at the center of the impeachment hearings—involving the president holding up of money earmarked for the Ukrainian military until an investigation of these theories on the part of the Ukrainian government was announced—wouldn’t exist in the first place.

Conspiracy theories always have a lot of players and implied connections. They are often so complex that it is hard to wrap your mind around them. But when they are repeated often enough, it’s not hard for people to believe that it all probably adds up to something. That’s partially the risk here. But you don’t want to dismiss them all as crack-potted either because some can turn out to be true.

Watergate, for instance, must have sounded at first like a conspiracy theory, but then the evidence showed that you could connect the dots and something nefarious did take place behind the scenes. 

Even though conspiracy theories have been around for ages, why does it seem like they are more prevalent now?

The difference now is that conspiracy theories are getting credence they’ve not had in the past. We are bombarded with ideas of “deep state” plots, for example, and not just from the bottom up but also from the top down. In the case at the center of the impeachment hearings, it’s not just the president but also the attorney general of the U.S. giving credence to these conspiracy theories. 

Moreover, once upon a time people enamored of conspiracy theories would typically have been more fringe. But now the internet lets like-minded people connect easily around the world. You don’t need much to spread a conspiracy theory these days; you get amplification from below and dissemination from the top—or vice versa.

For conspiracy theories to work, though, they have to have a grain of truth in them, and they have to touch a nerve, like the Hunter Biden situation. It’s at least plausible there was corruption, and that a crime of some sort occurred.  But it is hard for most of us to understand the facts.  It is also hard for most of us to understand the law governing the situation. Is it legally permissible for a close family member to sit on the board of a foreign company while another family member has a key role in the U.S. government that involves some authority over that country? Is it ethical (which is a different question)? And what kind of investigation is legitimate? So, in the absence of clear answers, what results is a war of words.

Is such disagreement about facts a new phenomenon?

No, but what worries me is there is so little consensus now on elemental facts. For a democracy to function well, you have to have some basic points of agreement. There should be a shared, basic understanding both about what has happened to date and about what the rules of the game are. Take, for example, economic indicators. Is unemployment up or down in the last year? We (the public and elected representatives) have to first agree on what we are looking at and only then can be have a good, serious fight about how we approach the problem.

Otherwise, democracy is just a kind of power game, and then I think conspiracy theories become just another form of weaponized truth.

The nation seems more polarized than ever. Is that true?

There have been other moments of extreme polarization in the United States. After the passage of the U.S. Constitution, the Federalists and Anti-Federalists found it hard to cooperate. This is not a completely new world. We also have long experienced tensions between expert truth and populist truth.

But extreme polarization has been building for several decades now, as economic and educational disparities and social segregation have grown. One result is a growing sense that we share very little, and that even truth is something partisan rather than a place where we find agreement and commonality.

What can viewers and consumers of news do to sort through all this conflicting information?

It’s a very tough problem. We can try do more, through regulation and economic penalties, to get social media companies to shut down the spreading of falsehoods. But we have to also be very careful not to hamper free speech. We can also try to bolster institutions that make it their mission to propagate verifiable information, from much of the press to universities.  
But individually there’s little we can do but be critical listeners and thinkers and try hard not to not spread ideas and claims on Facebook and elsewhere when we aren’t sure there is any real, demonstrable evidence behind them.