It has been interesting to see both Donald Trump and our very own Jacob Rees-Mogg peddling almost identical conspiracy theories over the last couple of days: identical, that is, in that they both target the bureaucracies of their respective countries. In Trump’s case it’s the FBI and the Justice Department, who are prejudiced and working against him; in Rees-Mogg’s the Whitehall and Brussels civil servants who are predisposed in favour of the EU. Astonishingly, R-Mogg even accuses them – our ‘neutral’ civil servants – of ‘fiddling’ and ‘rigging’ the evidence. I imagine Trump uses similar language. In both instances it’s the ‘deep’ or ‘secret’ or ‘hidden’ or ‘permanent’ state, plotting against the people.
Little else seems to connect these two men, the suave aristocratic Rees-Mogg and the ‘self-made’ Trump: except that both these persona are pretty ‘fake’, in the lingo of today. It was his father who gave Donald his start, financially, and then bailed him out – twice – when he was bankrupt, which makes him hardly ‘self-made’. Jacob’s father was a mere newspaper editor. Echt aristocrats are supposed to have more distinguished lineages than that. Rees-Mogg is also a Roman Catholic, of a pretty fundamentalist type, which makes him odder still (though not alone) in that company. This is probably why he so deliberately plays up to his ‘Lord Snooty’ image (for those who remember the Dandy), and why in Parliament he is widely known as ‘the Member for the Nineteenth Century’. Both of them are very obvious throw-backs to earlier periods in their respective nations’ histories: heroic capitalism and the world of Wooster and Jeeves. But of course neither aristos nor capitalists can make much of a mark politically in these democratic, or ‘populist’, times without having something else going for them; which is why both men have chosen to do battle with an enemy they believe they share with ‘the people’. Civil servants – in both countries – represent the ‘Establishment’, and so are bound to want to obstruct, in any way they can, the departures from conventional policy that are implied by Brexit, and by just about the whole of Trump’s rag-bag agenda. They are also easily blamed for anything that goes wrong, or can be seen to be doing down the ‘ordinary man – or woman – in the street’. That’s because they’re not usually visible, aren’t allowed to answer back, and are usually highly – often privately – educated, which puts them in the despised ‘elite’ or ‘expert’ class. What better way for someone like Rees-Mogg to disguise his own elitism?
It’s odd that it should be the Far Right that takes this line. Historically it has usually been the Right that dismisses all talk of ‘conspiracy’, associating conspiracy ‘theorists’ with nutters who believe – for example – that the British Royal family is a tribe of alien shape-shifting reptiles; or at the very least with Leftists, over-eager to discover plots on the Right against them. Immediately a Left-winger starts talking about an undercover plot to undermine Labour’s Harold Wilson in the 1960s and ’70s, for example, the cry of ‘conspiracy theory’ will go up from the Right, intended to associate him or her with these supposed paranoiacs. That’s one reason why respectable academic historians tend to keep clear of this territory: even when they think there might be something in it. To get tarred with that brush could be curtains for their professional careers.
That’s not the situation among Joe public, however, who is much more receptive to this kind of thing; which is another reason why Trump and Rees-Mogg are trying it on today. That might be out of desperation: both Trump and the Brexiteers are steering into choppy waters now. Another reason is the ad hominem turn their arguments have taken: arguing not so much from the evidence, as on the (supposed) characteristics and characters of the people and groups who take other views. ‘He would say that, wouldn’t he?’ Well yes, perhaps; but that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily wrong. When Trump tells his supporters the mainstream press is ‘fake’, they’re unlikely to delve deeper to see whether it really is. When Rees-Mogg tells them the Treasury has a habit of deliberately distorting the facts, the people’s underlying prejudices against a besuited and privileged elite will make that seem so plausible as to preclude the necessity of their looking any further. All this contributes to the scepticism and cynicism which are two of the banes of our public life today.