The alleged shooter at the U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum today has an online book excerpt revealing his deep roots in historic White Supremacy and antisemitic conspiracy theories, including references to the hoax document The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. His website includes links to White Supremacist and Holocaust denial sites.
People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes act on those irrational beliefs, and this has concrete consequences in the real world. The shooting today is a prime example of why it is a mistake to ignore bigoted conspiracy theories. Law enforcement needs to enforce laws against criminal behavior. Vicious bigoted speech, however, is often protected by the First Amendment. We do not need new laws or to encourage government agencies to further erode civil liberties. We need to stand up as moral people and speak out against the spread of bigoted conspiracy theories. That’s not a police problem, that’s our problem as people responsible for defending a free society.
Demagogues and conspiracy theorists use the same four “tools of fear." These are 1) dualism; 2) scapegoating; 3) demonization; and 4) apocalyptic aggression. The tools of fear are a connected constellation of frames, narratives, and processes used by demagogues to mobilize resentment and undermine the democratic process.
The basic dynamics remain the same no matter the ideological leanings of the demonizers or the identity of their targets. Meanwhile, our ability to resolve disputes through civic debate and compromise is hobbled. It is the combination of demagogic demonization and widespread scapegoating that is so dangerous. In such circumstances, angry allegations can quickly turn into apocalyptic aggression and violence targeting scapegoated groups like Jews or immigrants.
Apocalyptic aggression is fueled by right-wing pundits who demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in the ir audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.
What historian Richard Hofstadter famously described as the “paranoid style” in American political rhetoric can quickly move far beyond the conscious intent of those who practice it.
Chip Berlet is Senior Analyst of Political Research Associates and the author of a new study entitled Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating. He also is coauthor, with Matthew N. Lyons, of Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort.