Scientists Plotting Sedition? Michael Caputo’s Perfect Conspiracy Theory

The Trump loyalist sows fear and hatred by pulling all the classic levers of conspiracism

Scientists are in cahoots, plotting to overthrow the president in an act of sedition, Michael Caputo, assistant secretary for public affairs at the Department of Health and Human Services, claimed over the weekend. Caputo accused scientists “deep in the bowels of the CDC” of giving up on science and becoming “political animals,” as The Washington Post puts it. These scientists are plotting “how they’re going to attack Donald Trump.” Then Caputo rachets the fear up 10 notches in a frightening call to action akin to yelling “fire” in movie theater: “And when Donald Trump refuses to stand down at the inauguration, the shooting will begin,” he said in a Facebook video. “The drills that you’ve seen are nothing. If you carry guns, buy ammunition, ladies and gentlemen, because it’s going to be hard to get.”

Caputo reportedly apologized to his staff today for drawing negative attention to the administration’s health care strategy, according to Politico, blaming his outburst on a combination of physical health issues and the toll of fielding death threats against his family.

Meantime, Caputo’s accusations represent classic conspiracism, checking multiple boxes for how best to spread an accusatory perception to rally one group to believe that another group—which they already don’t like—is plotting illegally against the common good to gain money or power.

Caputo, a top communications official for the administration who has been criticized for throttling the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention’s efforts to communicate honestly about the threat of Covid-19, has no science or medical background. He is a Trump loyalist who was a Trump campaign advisor before appointment to his new role in April.

Based on my recent article on how conspiracy theories work and why we believe them, here are some of the clues that his theory might be a wee bit off-kilter:

  • Caputo has glued together a series of supposed facts and events and predictions into a single narrative to explain something that indeed worries one group of people (in this case ardent Trump supporters). Great conspiracy theories offer explanations where people may already have vague suspicions.
  • His new theory builds on existing fears, promoted by Trump and other administration officials, of a “deep state” that supposedly controls the government. Tying his new accusations to an existing conspiracy theory lends it credibility among anyone who believes the former.
  • His accusations are exceedingly complex. Many scientists and health officials are indeed unhappy with Trump’s admitted efforts to play down the coronavirus pandemic. Understandably, scientists want to be taken seriously for their expertise and their analysis and advice intended to inform the public. They would like the president to take them seriously, and some have resigned when they felt they were not getting the respect their expertise ought to engender. That’s the simple explanation for Caputo’s perceptions of sedition (which is an act of insurrection against authority).
  • Caputo aims to sow further distrust of expertise. If you can’t trust scientists and medical professionals about Covid-19, who can you trust? Every conspiracy needs a good boogeyman, even if they’re generally nice and respectful folks (I speak regularly with a lot of scientists and have done so for three decades — they are generally nice and respectful, very giving of their time and expertise, generally hoping their work improves our lot).
  • Caputo offered no evidence for his claims. Without evidence, no counter-argument is possible. He’s simply asking people to connect some mental dots, to believe. (And by the way, if some scientists are plotting sedition or otherwise conspiring for their own gain at the expense of the common good, I promise you others will call them out, and journalists will be all over it. Journalists do not discriminate when it comes to a scoop about a true conspiracy, or illegal behavior of any kind by people in power or those who command public respect.)

Caputo has, knowingly or unknowingly, stitched together all elements of the perfect conspiracy theory.

What sets this one apart is Caputo’s end goal. He wants people to believe, to hate, to fear, and to act. While conspiracy theories about a coverup of alien visitations or who else was involved in JFK’s assassination might be relatively harmless, Caputo is stoking fear and aiming to turn it into frighteningly dangerous, actionable rage, all with zero evidence there is anything nefarious going on.

British researchers Jamie Bartlett and Carl Miller, in studying extremist groups on the far left and the far right, concluded in a 2010 paper that conspiracy theories can push extremists to potentially dangerous actions by “pointing to forces beyond our control, articulating an enemy to hate, sharply dividing the group from the non-group, and, sometimes, legitimizing violence.”

I’m not predicting violence. But you can expect Caputo’s theory will be fervently embraced by a lot of people who already have ill will toward scientists and medical professionals and governmental authority in general, because he has done an excellent job planting the conspiratorial seeds.

One final note: Caputo says his “mental health has definitely failed,” as he put it. He’s seeing “shadows on the ceiling in my apartment, there alone, shadows are so long.”

That may be an accusation you can believe.

Independent health and science journalist, former editor-in-chief of LiveScience, writing about how we age and how to optimize your mind and body through time.

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