Over the summer, homegrown American conspiracism surged in tandem with the pandemic. On edge after months of lockdown, widespread infection and death, and a highly acrid political climate, people across the political spectrum nurtured a handful of increasingly fantastical explanations for the dismal state of things. On the right, the assorted delusions of QAnon converged with the president’s screeds about roving gangs of anarchists to produce new wild theories about antifa committing arson in Oregon. On the left, a string of police killings of civilians and subsequent aggressive crackdowns on protests spawned rumors that the NYPD was setting off fireworks in residential neighborhoods as an act of psychological warfare.
As Republic of Lies author Anna Merlan has noted, conspiracy theories tend to proliferate during times of economic instability and political uncertainty. They’re moreover especially at home in a nation that has a very real and gruesome history of government abuses, high-level cover-ups, and impunity for the rich and powerful. A summer shaped by an out-of-control pandemic and nearly nonstop protests was the perfect petri dish for an unprecedented convergence of multiple strains of conspiracism into a kind of free-floating cloud of distrust, or what Merlan has called the “conspiracy singularity.” And while the most poisonous conspiracy theories have taken root on the right, progressives, too, have recently grappled with falsehoods in an anxiety-riddled environment.
Just a few weeks ago, a whistleblower complaint alleged that an Immigration and Customs Enforcement detention camp in Georgia was performing mass hysterectomies on immigrant detainees. A nurse at that facility, the Irwin County Detention Center, claimed that a doctor there, whom she dubbed the “uterus collector,” was performing unwanted and unnecessary hysterectomies on “just about everybody” he treated. Given Trump’s spiteful immigration policies and the nation’s brutal history of eugenics and forced sterilization, the allegation didn’t sound particularly far-fetched. While several immigration reporters raised early flags about the story and worked to investigate the details, left-leaning social media instantly exploded in horror, and commentators drew comparisons to Nazi Germany.
Yet the allegation of mass hysterectomies was never quite substantiated (and the whistleblower herself later came under scrutiny for mistreatment of people being detained in the facility). Further investigations have suggested that something less sensational—but still shameful—took place at the Irwin detention center. On Tuesday, a number of women told The New York Times they had received unnecessary surgeries for small or benign cysts from Dr. Mahendra Amin, a gynecologist employed by the facility. Amin, the Times reported, had been accused in the past of ordering similar unnecessary surgeries in order to bill Medicaid at higher rates; his overly aggressive diagnoses at Irwin fit the same pattern. “Independent doctors that provide treatment for ICE detainees are paid for the procedures they perform with Department of Homeland Security funds,” the Times stated. “Procedures like the ones that Dr. Amin performed are normally billed at thousands of dollars each.” The story, then, was no less abhorrent but perhaps more banal: moneymaking at the expense of a group of people deemed disposable—and routinely denied proper medical treatment—by the state.
A similar kind of rote profit-seeking appears to have undergirded another recent scandal that initially looked like the product of a sinister plot. Over the summer, Democrats speculated that USPS Postmaster General Louis DeJoy—a Trump donor appointed to head the agency in May—was attempting to sabotage the postal service in order to undermine mail voting and throw the election to Trump. Upon assuming control of USPS, DeJoy had instituted a number of cost-cutting measures that snarled the postal system and hobbled mail delivery, including paring back postal workers’ overtime and reducing post office hours. In August, mail delays had reached such a volume that social media began to swirl with photographs of what appeared to be graveyards of USPS collection boxes and rumors that DeJoy was removing mailboxes to hinder people from mailing in their ballots. “This is happening right before our eyes. They are sabotaging USPS to sabotage vote by mail,” activist Thomas Kennedy wrote in a viral tweet.
Like the specter of ICE undertaking mass hysterectomies, the idea of a government official engaging in a ploy to prevent people from voting seemed within the realm of possibility; the United States, after all, is no stranger to disenfranchising segments of the population through tactics like polling station closures and voter ID laws, not to mention more overt Jim Crow–era measures like literacy tests. And the president, quite explicitly, does want to discredit the election and suppress the vote. But as reports later revealed, the USPS boxes in the viral photos hadn’t been seized for the purpose of rigging an election; rather, they had been out of commission for years and were undergoing refurbishing.
As it happens, DeJoy’s restructuring of the postal service likely had more to do with money than with voter suppression. According to a New York Times report in early September, XPO Logistics—DeJoy’s former employer, and a company in which he continues to own a stake of least $30 million—earned approximately $286 million from the USPS over the last seven years for providing a variety of support services. Since DeJoy’s appointment, the Times said, the company had further “ramped up” its business with the USPS. Though DeJoy and XPO have both claimed that DeJoy has recused himself from any dealings with XPO, he nevertheless continues to profit from his ties to the company. In fact, as writer Paul Prescod has put it, DeJoy’s overhaul of the postal system looks very much like “another iteration of a familiar right-wing strategy: degrade the quality of a service, turn the public against it, and then privatize.” That, in the end, isn’t quite the conspiracy that Democrats feared but is an affront to an important public institution that’s been a bulwark of the middle class for decades.
The proliferation of exaggeration and even outright myths at a time of acute precarity is hardly a surprise, and there are depressingly few signs that any of the conditions that enabled the rapid spiral of conspiracism this year will dissipate anytime soon, particularly on the eve of an extremely contentious election with no end to the pandemic in sight. But one unfortunate aspect of the tendency toward conspiracism in these cases and others is that overly lurid claims can often generate a kind of inadvertent numbness toward more mundane forms of violation or corruption.
As Felipe De La Hoz recently wrote, ICE doesn’t have to participate in a mass campaign of forced sterilization to be a violent and dehumanizing institution; yet very few of its past abuses attracted the same attention as one largely spurious charge. Likewise, even if Louis DeJoy isn’t personally detonating mailboxes, his efforts to downsize (or eventually privatize) the USPS for financial reasons during an election year is a threat to democratic participation. The problem that runs deeper than a few falsehoods is that regardless of whether the truth finally comes out, the same economic structures that encourage the pursuit of profit at the expense of the public will continue to compound the social unrest that leads to yet more paranoia. And that, in some ways, is its own kind of conspiracy.