Late Thursday evening (Central Time, that is) an earthquake struck near Vanuatu. If any Americans or Europeans have heard of that small island archipelago nation at all it is likely due to its stint as the setting of the 2004 season of Survivor, back when that show was at the apex of its popularity. The nation's reappearance in the news due to the earthquake is as good a reason as any to tell one of my favorite politics and government anecdotes. What I am about to tell you is true. I couldn't make this up if I tried.

(And don't worry, reports indicate no one was hurt in the quake. If that segue seemed Too Soon.)

During the golden era of empires European powers, especially Britain and France, were scooping up Pacific islands like kids grabbing candy at a parade. Both the UK and France claimed different parts of an island group off the eastern coast of Australia. Captain Cook "discovered" them in 1774 and christened them the New Hebrides, and by the late 1800s the two major colonial powers of Europe were deadlocked over who could add the hapless islands and their people to its trading card list of obscure colonies.

As the islands were too small and irrelevant to spark any kind of major throw-down between Paris and London, in 1906 the nations simply agreed (without consulting the Vanuatu people, naturally) to govern the islands under a rare arrangement called a condominium. When used in the political sense the term simply means any territory over which two governing bodies will exercise shared authority. In practice it meant that every single aspect of the state and government was duplicated; there was, for example, a French police force and a British one. They alternated days, each enforcing the laws of its own nation. Seriously.

Someone arrested in Vanuatu had three choices for legal proceedings. They could be tried in a British court under common law, in a "local" court under tribal law, or in a French court under the Napoleonic code. Every government act and document had to be provided in French, English, and the local Bisonia creole tongue, and public signs were similarly trilingual. Visitors had to pass through both French and UK customs separately. There was a British jail and a French jail (which served champagne). There was a British hospital and a French hospital (which also served champagne). The condominium agreement itself was overseen by a Spanish judge (the first of whom spoke neither English nor French) and a Dutch accountant. The only saving grace was that in the staggeringly hot tropical climate, nobody did much of anything.

Oh, and in 1942 the Americans showed up and essentially took over. Since all parties involved – French, British, or local – were actively terrified that the Japanese were about to invade, this was not unwelcome. The New Hebrides were phenomenally lucky in comparison to many other islands and atolls. Since 1942 residents have held in high regard the memory of a cow named Besse, supposedly killed when an American errant aircraft crash-landed in a farmer's field. This was the sole casualty of World War II in the islands. Not one human casualty was recorded.

A funny thing about decolonization in the Pacific is that the year in which many colonies received their independence coincided exactly with the depletion of the local phosphate (guano) reserves. Isn't it weird how it worked out like that? The New Hebrides – its unconventional and redundant governing arrangement having lasted 74 years, or 73 years longer than anyone predicted – took their turn in 1980 and chose to revert to the local name, Vanuatu. This was common among the islands who had been given meaningless European names. The nearby Gilbert and Ellice Islands, for example, gained independence in 1976 and immediately seceded from one another to become Kiribati and Tuvalu, respectively.

Colonialism was weird. The New Hebrides condominium might have been peak weird.


These are halcyon days for conspiracy theorists. It's possible that with the help of the internet such theories will propagate exponentially forever and we'll look back on 2016 as a more innocent time, but I don't relish the opportunity to live in a world where a wider range of conspiracy theories are more gleefully embraced than they are today.

Conspiracy theories are appealing for two reasons: they make the world seem more interesting and exciting than it really is ("Hillary stole the nomination" is a much better hook than "It was unlikely that a 74 year old Vermont socialist who isn't a member of the Democratic Party was looking at an uphill battle to win the Democratic nomination, and honestly if there was a conspiracy against him he wouldn't have come nearly as close to winning as he did") and they allow people to shift responsibility. We didn't lose, we were cheated. I'm not a failure, the (Jews, Unions, Liberals, feminists, immigrants) stole what I deserve. Both of these things make conspiracy theories inherently appealing, and for valid reasons. Nobody likes being bored or having to blame themselves for the things they aren't happy about.

Not all conspiracy theories enjoy equal acceptance, though, and the most plausible ones – the ones that seem like they have enough circumstantial evidence to make them true-ish – have the upper hand. You don't hear anyone but the most fringe unstable types talking about chemtrails, but large numbers of people believe, for example, that global warming or the price of gasoline are the products of conspiracies. Identifying a group of people who could benefit (Scientists! Environmentalists! Liberals!) a theory seems more plausible, and identifying individuals or groups who seem to have control over a fluctuating commodity (OPEC! Obama! The Saudis! The Jews, because it's always Jews!) allows people who don't care to bother with the details below the surface to take comfort in having found the answer.

I do not for a moment endorse the conspiracy theory that Trump is tanking this election on purpose to ensure that his supposed close buddy Hillary Clinton wins – Look, they stood next to each other in a picture in 1994, what more evidence to you need? What other explanation could there be for the First Lady and a famous rich person to have been in the same room together? – but the past three weeks have made it perfectly clear why so many people have latched onto it. I don't believe it, because there is no evidence to support it. But Trump has melted down so completely and seems to be going so far out of his way to think of what he can say that will finally get his acolytes to stop cheering for him that it's only logical for people who are cynical and pay limited attention to politics to seize upon this as an explanation for his otherwise inexplicable behavior. Trying to make sense out of nonsense is normal.

The truth, as usual, is more mundane: the man has a personality disorder, and an attention-craving narcissist who relies on shock value has to continually up the ante in order to keep achieving the same effect (think Howard Stern, Marilyn Manson, etc.) And once you've attacked a dead US Army soldier's parents and asked Russian agents to steal classified information to help your campaign, I guess the only way to increase the shock value from there is to make "jokes" about your supporters killing Hillary Clinton. That's why it seems like this is playing out to a script, like each week brings a calculated increase in the extent to which Trump seemingly goes out of his way to get people not to vote for him.

I don't believe Trump cares about anyone but Trump, or that he is trying to help Clinton win. I do understand how people could look at this shitshow and come to that conclusion, though. The popularity of that theory is the best testament to just how bad he and his campaign are. We're witnessing something historic here. Think of how badly a team would have to lose the Super Bowl, for example, before it would enter your mind (and seem plausible) that they were losing on purpose to help their friends on the other sideline.