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Many factors stand behind the recent El Paso shooting, in which 22 people were killed, including racism, personal demons, and the easy availability of guns.

But something more — a conspiracist mindset — makes this brew uniquely toxic. And conspiracism is what made a massacre seem, to the alleged perpetrator’s eyes, an act of collective self-preservation. The shootings and his manifesto were a call to arms.

Familiar conspiratorial tropes are always with us — there are always new variations on a secret plot by a despised group whose covert goal is to deny America as a Christian nation, or depreciate America as a white nation, or cede sovereignty to the “new world order.”

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The particular fears that made violent self-defense seem urgent to the El Paso shooter were Hispanic invasion, race mixing, and the prospect of the “replacement” of the white race. He also fastened onto the apocalyptic notion that if society is to be sustainable in the face of global warming and population growth, the genocide of other races and obliteration of other cultures is necessary.

These vile and fantastic assertions are stated in a cool, pragmatic tone — as if this screed is a reasonable statement of what must be done, and why.

Yet there is something more in the shooter’s manifesto. The conspiracy he highlighted above all was the Democratic Party itself, which is poised, as he saw it, “to enact a political coup by importing and then legalizing millions of new voters.” A meta-conspiracy by treasonous Democrats is interlaced with the others. “America can only be destroyed from inside out. If our country fails it will be the fault of traitors,” the accused shooter wrote.

It is rightly said that hateful violence-inducing claims assault the heart and soul of America. But beyond that, the depiction of the Democratic Party as a conspiracy is a different kind of assault, this time on the foundations of democracy.

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What Richard Hofstadter called “the idea of legitimate opposition” requires us to regard our opponents as good faith supporters of constitutional democracy, even if we have deep disagreements with them over policy. It means that we must give up power — readily and peacefully — when we lose an election. And it means we cannot kill, jail, exile, dispossess, disenfranchise, or otherwise annihilate our opponents when our side wins.

Without the idea of a legitimate opposition, democracy is impossible. And that assault on legitimate opposition is in the ominous wave of accusation we hear in American politics today, and read in the alleged shooter’s manifesto.

Charges of Democratic treason live in the conspiracist culture of social media and YouTube and Twitter — until, that is, its adherents turn violent. It is there in the conspiratorial mash-up called QAnon , which depicts President Trump conspiring to defeat a seditious conspiracy led by Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, and their liberal allies. Last month a follower was charged with shooting to death a New York mob boss. His lawyer said he was under the influence of QAnon. We see it in Pizzagate, the fact-free concoction that has Hillary Clinton running a child-sex trafficking ring from the basement of a pizzeria in Washington, D.C.; a follower armed with an automatic weapon and the fantasy of saving the children shot up the place and, later, another follower bombed it.

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To see one’s political opponents as conspirators is to see them as existential threats. The opposition must be kept from office, its partisans disenfranchised, and if it succeeds in holding office, every tactic must be employed to render it impotent. In the mind of a shooter, against such a threat, violent self-defense is called for.

And when ordinary politics is suffused with conspiracist accusations, everyone is vulnerable.

Today’s hateful, racist conspiracism puts individual lives — especially minorities and their communities — at risk. Painting your opponents as criminals — as seditious conspirators — does the same. Repeated often enough, it enters the list of things that the violent conspiracist imagines can justify — indeed require: terrorism, assassination, even political massacre.

Today’s conspiracist accusations fuel the logic of massacre. Both American lives and American democracy hang in the balance.


Russell Muirhead is professor of democracy and politics at Dartmouth College. Nancy L. Rosenblum is professor of ethics in politics and government at Harvard University. They are coauthors of “A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.”