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War Fever

On the rise of ‘the Ukraine war is fake’ conspiracy theorists.

An apartment in Irpin destroyed by a Russian bombardment in the area. Evidence of the destruction wrought by the war is still very visible in the town of Irpin, close to Kyiv. (Photo by Dominika Zarzycka/SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images)

Years ago a progressive friend asked my opinion about one of the right’s kookiest political news sites. “Do they believe the things they write,” he wondered, “or is it a grift?”

Ah, the eternal question. One that no one but the kooks themselves know the answer to. 

My response to him was that I’m not sure it’s either/or.

Sometimes it is. The latest court filing from Dominion Voting Systems has pretty definitively answered the “kooks or grifters?” question about Fox News, for instance.

But generally the line between the two isn’t as sharp as we like to think. Donald Trump began cooking up the Big Lie before the 2020 election, knowing that he’d need a way to save face if he lost. He made huge amounts of money off of his scam after the election as the poor suckers who were taken in by it poured cash into his phony “legal defense fund.” So many Republicans bought his version of reality that Trump has become the only presidential loser in modern American history to continue to lead his party after losing.

The fact that he’s profited politically and financially from his deception reeks of a grift. But no one who’s heard him babble about having been cheated in the two-and-a-half years since comes away doubting that he now believes it on some level. Even a con man as accomplished as Trump couldn’t commit to a bit as totally as he has with the “rigged election” crapola for reasons as coolly calculated as personal advantage. He’s been reprogrammed by his own BS, plainly. 

Reward someone with money and adulation for peddling feel-good nonsense and you’ve given them a powerful inducement to accept that nonsense as truth. I don’t know if L. Ron Hubbard believed what he wrote in Dianetics when he wrote it, but if he didn’t, my guess is that he came around in the end.

Which brings us to the au courant populist conspiracy theory.

It’s a doozy.

Stew Peters is conspiracy-prone even by the standards of modern right-wing media. He’s the man behind the anti-vax propaganda film Died Suddenly, for one thing, and prone to complaining about “the criminal China-Israel cartel that runs the GOP.” But I’m not “nutpicking” by flagging his tweet. Social media has seen a rash of posts lately casting dark suspicion on what’s happening in Ukraine. To take two of the more prominent examples:

Peters has more than 200,000 followers on Twitter. Becker, a former associate producer at Fox News, has more than 300,000. The estimable Mr. Turd has more than 1.4 million, having been amplified in the past by the likes of Donald Trump and Elon Musk.

His latest thoughts on Ukraine proved so influential among his audience that even a certain former national security adviser felt compelled to commend them.

Flynn’s account on Truth Social has more than 300,000 followers.

Becker became indignant after critics attacked him, noting that he never claimed there was no footage of the war, merely a “lack of footage.” The war is real, in other words, it’s just … not as bad as the blithe assertions of liberal journalists would have us believe. Needless to say, if the press took Becker’s advice and inundated U.S. platforms with gruesome images of dead Ukrainians, he and the rest would pivot to complaining that the media was trying to inflame U.S. public opinion into dumping even more weapons and cash into Volodymyr Zelensky’s lap. As it is, there’s abundant footage of the war online for anyone willing to spend eight seconds looking for it.

Whether revisionism is meaningfully different from outright denialism is a topic for another day. For now, it’s enough to note that questioning the reality of the war has strangely and suddenly picked up in populist social media. Some, like Peters, are treating photos of repaired Ukrainian buildings as evidence that they were never damaged in the first place. Some have flagged a video of “bodies” moving inside body bags as proof that the dead aren’t dead, never mind that the video in question comes from a climate-change protest held in Austria last year. And then there’s whatever the hell this is:

The guy at the bottom of the stairs is Maxim Donets, the head of Zelensky’s security detail. He does bear a superficial resemblance to the president, possibly intentionally in order to confuse any assassins who might try to take a shot at Zelensky from a distance. Forced to choose between a mundane explanation and a ludicrous hoax that confirms their priors, the motivated reasoner will take the hoax every time.

When you want to know which way the wind is blowing among populists, Ted Cruz is a reliable weathervane. He can’t wade too deeply into conspiratorial nonsense—usually—but he’s built a career on pandering to the Republican base and keeps his ear to the ground to make sure he knows what they want to hear. As expected, in one recent interview he hinted that not everything in Ukraine may be as it seems, reminding his audience that Zelensky is an actor by trade and deeming it suspicious that he and Joe Biden seemed unbothered when air-raid sirens sounded as the two strolled around Kyiv during the president’s visit.

As vicious and corrupt as Russian state media is, they do at least recognize that the war in Ukraine is real and brutal. We’ve arrived at the point in the United States where you might be marginally better off trusting Kremlin propaganda than your nearest right-wing “influencer.”

Why have some lately taken to doubting the reality of the war? And do they believe the things they say or is it a grift?

The timing is easily explained. To begin with, the question of whether to fund Ukraine is about to come to a head on the American right and ardent populists know which side of the debate they’re supposed to be on.

Hint: Not this side.

As the 2024 primary campaign gets rolling, Republicans are starting to clarify their positions on the war. Nikki Haley and other traditional hawks, like Tom Cotton, support Ukraine unabashedly; Trump obviously does not, although he’s anxious enough about the politics of aligning himself with Putin again that he’s framed his preference for Ukrainian capitulation as part of a vague “peace deal.” Ron DeSantis is taking a broadly Trumpist line but with a bit more moral skepticism of Russia than Trump is capable of mustering, the governor’s way of trying to pander to hawks and doves simultaneously.

Populists who already spend most of their time performing their contempt for “elites” and “the establishment” have suddenly and vividly been reminded that many prominent figures in their own party, never mind Democrats, staunchly support Ukraine. “Helping Ukraine defend itself is supported by all the people the far right defines itself against—liberals, experts, human rights supporters, traditional conservatives,” one historian observed this weekend about the recent “war is fake” craze. Because all establishment preferences amount to a hoax or scam at the expense of the common man in the populist worldview, the war must be one too.

That the environmental disaster in East Palestine, Ohio, coincided with this pulling-apart among Republicans made the debate over the war that much more fraught. Biden’s decision to visit Kyiv but not a Trumpy part of the Rust Belt where the locals are struggling with poisoned air was every “America First” suspicion about Democratic priorities seemingly confirmed. The Republican Party doesn’t need to choose between supporting Ukraine and supporting East Palestine, contrary to what certain disingenuous nationalists might tell you, but one can understand why right-wingers who define themselves by their opposition to the left might have felt pushed toward more extreme anti-Ukraine attitudes by Biden’s behavior.

To top it off, last week was the first anniversary of the war. American media overflowed with tributes to Zelensky’s leadership and Ukraine’s resolve. Our wizened Democratic president flew into Kyiv to mark the occasion, an ordeal involving considerable risk that “took guts,” as National Review put it. The sheer ubiquity of flattering coverage may have driven some righties further toward fantasy about Ukrainian fakery to cope. Obsessed as they are with strength and toughness, populists can’t tolerate the idea of their liberal opponents demonstrating toughness themselves. To wit:

The war is fake and Zelensky is soft because he once played an effeminate character in an old comedy bit. You tell yourself what you’ve gotta tell yourself to make the world make sense, and their world makes sense when cold-eyed macho authoritarians like Putin (or this guy) who preach traditional values roll over cowering European-style liberals like Biden and Zelensky.

Is it a grift or do they really believe it?

Again, I don’t think it’s either/or.

David French made a trenchant point in his New York Times column this weekend about the mentality that drives partisan outlets like Fox News. Fox isn’t popular among conservatives because of the information it delivers to them, he wrote, it’s popular because of the information it delivers from them.

To understand the Fox News phenomenon, one has to understand the place it occupies in Red America. It’s no mere source of news. It’s the place where Red America goes to feel seen and heard.

[Viewer] loyalty is built around a social compact, the profound and powerful sense in Red America that Fox is for us. It’s our megaphone to the culture. Yet when Fox created this compact, it placed the audience in charge of its content.

So you can start to understand the shock when, on Election Day in 2020, Fox News accurately, if arguably prematurely, called Arizona for Joe Biden. It broke the social compact. By presuming the fairness of the election and by declaring Joe Biden the winner of a previously red state, Fox sent a message to its own audience — an audience that had been primed to mistrust election results by Trump and by reports on Fox News — that it did not hear them. It did not see them.

Right, and that’s true about every conservative media outlet or “personality” with a following, not just Fox. If you’re Stew Peters or, uh, Catturd2 or especially Donald Trump Jr., your influence derives from your willingness to represent people who otherwise aren’t “seen and heard” in the broader culture. The more zealously and reliably you amplify their grievances by attacking elite pieties—the war is fake! Zelensky is gay!—the more secure your influence is. As I said last week, conservative media “presents itself as a rebuttal to professional media more so than as a news-gathering endeavor, so go figure that it ends up prioritizing political interests over truth when the two diverge.” An industry designed to be adversarial more so than truthful will be rife with grifters competing endlessly to see who can parrot the audience’s beliefs most fulsomely.

But it’s not entirely grifty. Like Trump with his “rigged election” obsession, I suspect these guys have marinated for so long in their own propaganda that it’s soaked into their bones.

The point of partisan media is to gatekeep information so that it doesn’t contradict patrons’ assumptions about the world. (A “safe space,” to borrow progressive lingo.) Sometimes reality intrudes so insistently that information can’t be excluded; it’s acknowledged reluctantly and then spun away, conspiratorially if necessary. The singular fact about modern partisan media is that practically every outlet with meaningful reach operates this way. If you’re getting your news from a single website that tells you you’re right about everything, you’re apt to become a devoted fan of that site. If you’re getting your news from 50 websites that tell you you’re right about everything, you’re destined to conclude that you really are right about everything and any information to the contrary must be a hoax.

Fifty different news sources couldn’t all be lying in the same way, could they?

Any muscle that isn’t exercised for a long stretch will atrophy. So too with intellectual faculties: Those who rely entirely on trusted political gatekeepers for news will lose their ability over time to cope with information that conflicts with their beliefs. The election was rigged; ivermectin cures COVID; a “national divorce” would be a great idea. (“Everyone I talk to says this.”) Ironically, the reason the very not-fake Ukraine war began in the first place is that the president of Russia built his own informational safe space in which he was assured that his troops would be welcomed as liberators. Fantasy politics is grossly irresponsible in political leaders, particularly in matters of life and death. But it certainly is … intoxicating.

The proof that populists’ descent into fantasy isn’t purely a grift but to some degree a matter of earnest kookery is that they continue to stick with it despite the terrible electoral results it’s delivered for them. Marjorie Taylor Greene surely knows that “national divorce” chit chat from a congresswoman isn’t good for the party. She doesn’t care; she believes it. Trump must have some inkling after the midterms that his heavy breathing about the “rigged election” is alienating swing voters. He doesn’t care; not only is he still whining about it, he’s been egging on Kari Lake’s doomed challenge to her gubernatorial loss too. Catturd2, Kyle Becker, and Stew Peters might admit privately that their conspiracy theorizing about the war is apt to make people think all populists are nuts. But what can they do? They mean what they say.

Spouting over-the-top kookery is like getting a garish facial tattoo. It’s not the sort of thing you’d ever do to make a buck, which is what motivates grifters. It’s the sort of thing you do when you’re very committed to your look. And when you’re part of a subculture which you know won’t penalize you for that look. To the contrary.

Maybe another cycle of election disappointment will finally disincentivize it. I suspect, though, that conspiracy theorists would rather continue to lead an American right that reliably underperforms at the polls than revert to being a junior partner in a coalition capable of producing 2010-style Republican landslides. The question is largely moot: Since conservative media will continue to prioritize “representation” over truth, it’ll go on functioning as a feedback loop that keeps its patrons serenely ignorant of how they might profitably adjust their politics to appeal to more voters. We’re doomed.

Nick Catoggio is a staff writer at The Dispatch and is based in Texas. Prior to joining the company in 2022, he spent 16 years gradually alienating a populist readership at Hot Air. When Nick isn’t busy writing a daily newsletter on politics, he’s … probably planning the next day’s newsletter.