It’s a mistake to believe most conspiracy theories, but it’s also a mistake to assume that they bear no relation to reality. Some are just insane emanations or deliberate misinformation. But others exaggerate and misread important trends rather than denying them, or offer implausible explanations for mysteries that nonetheless linger unexplained.
This is as true in the Trump era as in any other. Extraterrestrials are probably not among us, but we keep being handed new evidence that the UFO phenomenon is real. QAnon is a landscape of fantasy, but the fact that powerful sexual predators have ties to presidents, popes and princes is a hard post-Jeffrey Epstein truth.
Sometimes, though, conspiracy theories outlive the reality that once sustained them, surging in popularity just as the real world is making their anxieties irrelevant. And something like that may be happening right now with conspiratorial thinking about the so-called New World Order. On the one hand, the coronavirus is inspiring a surge of NWO paranoia, a renewed fear of elite cabals that aspire to rule the world. But at the same time, the actual new world order, the dream of global integration and transnational governance, is disintegrating before our very eyes.
The phrase “New World Order” was lifted by the conspiracy-minded from the optimistic rhetoric of George H.W. Bush, and since then the paranoia and the facts have always existed symbiotically. The fantasy is looming totalitarian control, black helicopters descending, secret Bilderberg plots. But it’s been encouraged by various undeniable realities: the growth of transnational institutions, the manifest power of a global overclass, the often undemocratic expansion of the European Union, and the rise of digital surveillance and the ties binding China and the U.S. into “Chimerica.”
Now it’s being given new life by the response to the coronavirus, which is being cast as a pretext for some sort of one-worlder takeover — with Bill Gates and Anthony Fauci held up as potential masterminds, “test and trace” as a scheme for permanent surveillance.
But unlike in the 1990s or 2000s, when New World Order paranoia exaggerated real developments and trends, in the current moment the reality is the opposite of what is feared. Instead of leading to some sort of globalist consolidation, the rule of the coronavirus is unraveling internationalism everywhere you look.
The virus has exposed global entities as either weak and politically compromised, in the case of the World Health Organization, or all-but-irrelevant, in the case of the United Nations. It has restored or hardened borders, impeded migration, devolved power from the international to national and the national to local. And it has spurred renewed great-power rivalry, with “Chimerica” dissolving and a trans-Pacific Cold War looming.
Yes, some forms of test-and-trace may increase tech-industry surveillance power. But in every other respect, the trends and institutions that provoke New World Order paranoia are likely to emerge from this crisis battered, discredited or permanently weakened.
The same counterpoint applies to the narrower, less-apocalyptic suggestion that the pandemic lockdowns are an expression of late-stage liberal cosmopolitanism, of the liberal technocrat’s obsession with physical health and state control. (My friends R.R. Reno of First Things and Daniel McCarthy of Modern Age have both offered variations on this argument.)
In reality, late-stage liberalism is obsessed with health and state supervision for the purposes of personal liberation, pleasure-seeking, tourism and commerce. So a period of lockdown and closed borders is not the apotheosis of liberal cosmopolitanism but its temporary negation.
That doesn’t mean the liberal order is about to give way to a new post-liberal age; and neither does the weakness of the WHO or the EU mean that globalism, ideological and institutional, will simply disappear. But in the post-pandemic era both liberalism and globalism may seem more like zombie ideologies, ghosts of the more ambitious and utopian past, than ascendant forces capable of inspiring either hope or fear.
And those who presently fear them, even to the point of paranoia and conspiracy, may come to realize that they were mistaking spasms for real strength and the bitter twilight of the globalist era for a new world order’s dawn.
Douthat writes for the New York Times.