TBILISI - Why do conspiracy theories and general charlatanism so often receive their strongest support from the world’s dictators? Sure, dictators are almost always oddballs themselves, but that cannot be all there is to it. In fact, it is worth asking whether quackery is a necessary feature of authoritarian rule.
The latest evidence that it is can be found at the heart of Turkey’s current economic crisis. Turkey is saddled with debt and its currency, the lira, is plunging, yet the central bank has been all but prohibited from defending the currency by raising interest rates because President Recep Tayyip Erdogan believes that raising interest rates actually causes inflation.
The economics profession would beg to differ. But Erdogan, as with much else, is not inclined to listen. On the contrary, to force the central bank to pursue his bizarre monetary policy, Erdogan has installed his utterly unqualified son-in-law, Berat Albayrak, as the country’s minister of finance and the treasury.
Having grown up in the Soviet Union, I am particularly sensitive to the impact of perverse scientific theories on a society. Josef Stalin rejected Mendelian genetics (the fundamental laws of heredity) and even Darwin’s theory of evolution in favor of the bogus theories of Trofim Lysenko, the Soviet biologist who believed that human traits were acquired, not inherited. With Stalin’s backing, Lysenko — whose spurious agricultural research doomed perhaps millions of people to starvation — sent Soviet biology down a two-decade-long rabbit hole of lunacy.
Nikita Khrushchev may have overturned Stalinism, but he was no less a prisoner of theoretical perversity. He not only supported the Lysenko theories, but also believed ideologically hardened engineers and geologists who insisted that the rules of communism could defy the laws of nature. They told him that Soviet atomic bombs could be used to reverse the course of major rivers, allowing water to be redirected toward agriculture, rather than being “wasted” by flowing into the Arctic Ocean.
Russia’s experience with lethal authoritarian charlatanism is hardly unique. Hitler’s embrace of demented racial “science” delivered the world into darkness and led, almost inexorably, to the Holocaust. The perversion of reason was so normalized under Nazi rule that Josef Mengele’s grotesque human experiments could be discussed at scientific conferences just like any other medical research.
The same paranoia-fueled attraction to bogus science often motivates authoritarians to endorse conspiracy theories. Erdogan, who has long been convinced that external forces are relentlessly plotting against his regime, is no exception.
In Erdogan’s eyes, these malevolent forces usually act through the financial markets. So far, he has refrained from claiming outright that these markets act at the behest of “world Jewry” (the architects, many Turkish Islamists believe, of the 1908 Young Turk revolution and the secular republic that arose after World War I). But his core supporters hear the dog whistle behind his condemnations of the forces of finance — forces that now seem to be demanding higher interest rates.
But perhaps no current leader is more susceptible to misbegotten science and half-baked conspiracy theories than the U.S. president and wannabe authoritarian, Donald Trump. It should never be forgotten that Trump wormed his way into U.S. politics by promoting the racist “birther” argument, which claimed that then-President Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore did not qualify for the office he held.
Since entering the White House, the lunacy has only grown. On more than 20 occasions, Trump has tweeted about a potential link between vaccines and autism. That link — first promoted by a disgraced British doctor and a former Playboy playmate — has been conclusively refuted by the scientific community.
Trump also denies any link between human activity and climate change, again bucking the overwhelming scientific consensus. And he insists, over the protests of countless economists, that trade deficits are a sign of U.S. economic weakness. According to Alan Levinovitz, a professor of religious studies at James Madison University, Trump uses capitalization in his tweets much as medical quacks and religious charlatans did in their efforts to bamboozle the public in centuries past.
It is by no means clear whether Trump himself knows the difference between real and fake. He appears convinced that the FBI and the media are conspiring to bring down his presidency. In this sense, Trump has taken what the historian Richard Hofstadter described as the “paranoid style” from the fringes of U.S. politics into the mainstream. Perhaps a shared paranoid style is what draws Trump to Russian President Vladimir Putin, who has continually argued that the world is conspiring to deprive Russia of the great-power status it deserves.
In any case, as Turkey’s crisis starkly demonstrates, even the most deeply held of misbegotten beliefs eventually run up against reality. “The world is what it is,” as the late V.S. Naipaul put it at the start of his novel “A Bend in the River.” “Those who are nothing, or allow themselves to become nothing, have no place in it.” The same could be said of authoritarian leaders. Those who refuse to recognize the world as it is — whether they are viewing it from Turkey, the U.S., Venezuela or a host of other countries — eventually lose the position that their denial of reality was supposed to protect.
Nina L. Khrushcheva is a professor of international affairs at The New School and a senior fellow at the World Policy Institute. ©Project Syndicate, 2018