Opinion | Conspiracy Theorizing Goes Off the Rails

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By Paul Krugman

Opinion Columnist

On Feb. 3 a train carrying hazardous materials derailed in East Palestine, Ohio. Some of the contents immediately caught fire. Three days later authorities released and burned off additional material from five tankers. These fires caused elevated levels of harmful chemicals in the local air, although the Environmental Protection Agency says that the pollution wasn’t severe enough to cause long-term health damage.

Train derailments are actually fairly common, but you can see how this one might become a political issue. After all, the Obama administration tried to improve rail safety, for example by requiring superior modern brakes on high-hazard trains, and then the Trump administration reversed these regulations. As it happens, these regulations probably wouldn’t have prevented the Ohio derailment, because they were too narrow to have covered this particular train. Still, the events in East Palestine would seem, on the face of it, to strengthen the progressive case for stronger regulation of industry and hurt the conservative case against regulation.

Instead, however, the right is on the attack, claiming that blame for the disaster in Ohio rests on the Biden administration, which it says doesn’t care about or is even actively hostile to white people.

This is vile. It’s also amazing. As far as I can tell, right-wing commentators have just invented a whole new class of conspiracy theory, one that doesn’t even try to explain how the alleged conspiracy is supposed to work.

Conspiracy theories generally come in two forms: those that involve a small, powerful cabal and those that require that thousands of people be colluding to hide the truth.

Historically, theories about powerful cabals have often been tied to antisemitism, to the belief that the Elders of Zion and/or the Rothschilds were shaping history — a view promoted by some actually powerful people, including Henry Ford. These days, however, the most prominent example is QAnon, with its claim that a secret ring of pedophiles controls the U.S. government. And at this point, of course, QAnon adherents hold significant power within the House Republican caucus.

The thing about secret-cabal theories is that while they’re generally absurd, they’re hard to definitively disprove. Is President Biden actually a shape-shifting alien lizard? The White House physician will tell you no, but how do you know that he isn’t a lizard, too?

The other kind of conspiracy theory, by contrast, seems as if it would be easy to disprove, because thousands of people would have to be in on the plot, without a single one breaking ranks. A prime example, still highly influential on the right, is the assertion that climate change is a hoax. To believe that, you have to claim that thousands of scientists are colluding to falsify the evidence. But that hasn’t stopped the belief that climate change isn’t real from being widespread, maybe even dominant, on the U.S. political right.

The Big Lie about the “stolen” 2020 election would seem to fall into the same category, requiring malfeasance by election officials across the country. Yet a large majority of Republicans told pollsters that they didn’t believe Biden actually won.

And there’s a new conspiracy theory in town: the claim that the war in Ukraine isn’t really happening, that it’s some kind of fake. Who could possibly believe that all the reporting, all the film footage is concocted? Well, Donald Trump’s first national security adviser is apparently now a Ukraine war truther, and I won’t be surprised if we start to hear this from many people on the right.

But the conspiracy theorizing about the Ohio derailment takes it to a whole other level. When Tucker Carlson suggests that this happened because East Palestine is a rural white community, with another Fox News host going so far as to say that the Biden administration is “spilling toxic chemicals on poor white people,” how is this even supposed to have worked? How did Biden officials engineer a derailment by a private-sector train company, running on privately owned track, which lobbied against stronger safety regulations?

The administration also hasn’t stinted on disaster aid. Multiple federal agencies quickly arrived on the scene, and Ohio’s Republican governor says of the federal response, “I don’t have complaints … we’re getting the help that we need.”

But never mind. Something bad happened to conservative white people, so surely woke progressives must have been responsible.

Given what we’ve learned about how Fox handled claims of a stolen election — feeding the Big Lie in public while mocking it in private — it’s a good bet that the network and other right-wing commentators know perfectly well that their accusations about the derailment are junk. But they know their audience, and probably believe that it’s good business to propound racist conspiracy theories even if they make no logical sense.

Of course, it does no good to appeal to the right’s better nature. But let me make a plea to mainstream media: Please don’t report on this as if there were an actual controversy about who’s responsible for the East Palestine disaster.

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