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Here in the United States, we have been awash in conspiracy theories for quite some time. Even before the rise of Donald Trump, conspiratorial ideation (as the psychologists call it) was the worldview of a considerable share of the public, distorting their understanding of events. Other countries have their anti-vaxxers and climate change deniers, of course, but the US seems to have more than its fair share of seriously conspiratorial thinkers. Donald Trump exacerbated this by playing up conspiracy thinking constantly – on Twitter, in press briefings and especially in the rallies attended by his most intense followers.
Now we are recovering from the most surreal presidential election anyone can remember. The 2020 Republican National Convention featured a speech by a suburban couple whose only claim to fame was that they brandished automatic weapons at protesters walking in front of their house. Trump’s campaign rallies routinely flouted local health ordinances for Covid. CNN reporter Dana Bash flatly called the first presidential debate a ‘shitshow’ on television. And, during a live presidential debate, Trump refused to repudiate white supremacist groups, one of which was later revealed to be plotting to kidnap the governor of Michigan. This is the sort of politics in which conspiratorial thinking flourishes.
What’s in a theory?
When it was announced that Trump had tested positive for Covid, some political commentators were suspicious. They argued that, firstly, he lies regularly, and secondly, illness would provide an excuse for not participating in additional presidential debates. Since such a ploy would necessitate the involvement of other people, it would be a conspiracy – albeit a small one. Thus, the suspicion itself was seen by some as a conspiracy theory. But it is not, and the reason why it is not is important.
There is a natural inclination to think that any suspicion or claim of a conspiracy is automatically a conspiracy theory. And, once this notion is accepted, the fact that conspiracies have in fact happened is taken to imply that conspiracy theories can be true.
But this line of reasoning ignores the ‘theory’ half of conspiracy theory. Indeed, the very word ‘theory’ causes confusion. Since conspiracy theories are not falsifiable, they are not theories in any scientific sense. They are more accurately described as ‘alternate realities’ in which a conspiracy is the dominant force. Conspiracies, on the other hand, are commonplace and often banal.
For example, in early 2019 prosecutors began investigating a conspiracy to get rich people’s children into colleges by creating fraudulent documents and bribing college officials. It turned out that there was such a conspiracy, and, since some of the parents were celebrities, it was newsworthy. The man behind the scheme pleaded guilty to conspiracy to commit fraud. But regardless of the reality of the conspiracy, the prosecutors were not conspiracy theorists. Their suspicions did not rise to the level of a theory or conjure up an alternate reality. The same is true for those who suspected Trump’s illness. They simply thought Trump may be faking; they were not entertaining a conspiracy theory.
All conspiracy theories create an alternate reality that hinges on the existence of a malevolent, secretive, and powerful elite. Exercising its control behind the scenes, this elite dominates the government, controls the media, corrupts science and undermines traditional values. The elite’s goal is the destruction of the good, honest, hard-working people and their way of life. The ultimate motivation behind this goal is often vague, but always evil.
As alternate realities, conspiracy theories are impossible to counter. Any factual evidence against them is taken as an effort by the elite to discredit those bold souls trying to expose the conspiracy. The facts are rejected because they do not fit (or even exist) in the alternate reality of the conspiracy theory. If, to take a real example, the Weather Channel begins linking climate change with severe weather outbreaks, this proves only that the Weather Channel has joined the conspiracy against the people. No attention is paid to the linkage.
Why the US has been such a hotbed of conspiratorial thinking throughout its history has been much debated. Scholars have noted US citizens’ sense of their nation as ‘exceptional’ and thus a target for sinister forces. Anti-intellectualism has come in for its share of the blame as well. But the main contender for generating conspiracy theories in the US is a strain of populism evident from the nation’s earliest days. It was, for instance, easy to see in the anti-freemasonry movement that swept through the US in the 1830s. In the 19th century, the ideological direction of this populism was hard to pin down – in some ways it appeared progressive, but in other ways, reactive. During the 20th century, however, the connections linking right-wing opposition to social progress, virulent bigotry, and conspiratorial thinking became stronger and stronger.
The case of Q-Anon
The current manifestation of the all-encompassing right-wing conspiracy theory in the US is Q-Anon. Originally just a marketing gimmick in which an imaginary insider (‘Q’) with vast knowledge decided to anonymously expose the conspiracy within the government, Q-Anon has morphed into an identity for its adherents. It has nearly become a cult – although an unusually large one with considerable merchandise for sale online.
Marketing aside, there is nothing original about the conspiracy theory underlying Q-Anon. In the 1930s, it was the ‘secret government’ conspiracy in which Jews were seizing control of the US. In recent years, efforts have been made to play down or even eliminate the antisemitism, but it continues to lurk just beneath the surface [see info box below article]. After the second world war, the conspiratorial elite was embodied by the ‘globalists’, a term recently revived by Donald Trump, who were determined to subjugate US sovereignty to a world government.
Since then, this conspiracy theory expanded to include civil rights, environmentalism, feminism and other perceived threats. George Bush’s ‘New World Order’ provided a rallying point for conspiracists [see info box below]. And, of course, the election of Barack Obama gave rise to its ‘birther’ dimension. Despite all these new directions, the core conspiracy theory embraced by Q-Anon identifiers is one that has not changed over the years. It is the betrayal of the United States by a cosmopolitan, degenerate, and alien elite.
The ‘United States’, in this context, is of course the United States as it exists in the alternate reality: a Christian nation, ordained by God himself, founded by white Christian men and their families. Because the ‘true’ United States is white and Christian, the betrayal of the US is much the same thing as the conspiracy against the white race. White supremacists who embrace this conspiracy theory – and Q-Anon is full of them – invariably see themselves as victims of decades of degradation and abuse, their inherent superiority notwithstanding.
All conspiracy theories create an alternate reality that hinges on the existence of a malevolent, secretive, and powerful elite
These twin pillars of conspiratorial thinking in the US – betrayal and victimisation – can get lost in the daily onslaught of conspiratorial news. Many conspiratorial news stories are treated as self-contained bits of weirdness, but they spring from the larger conspiracy theory. Shortly before Trump took office a young man attacked a Washington DC pizzeria with the intention of rescuing the children being held in its basement by paedophiles. There were no children, no paedophiles, nor even a basement. The young man had fallen under the sway of websites devoted to the vast paedophile ring supposedly orchestrated by Hillary Clinton and the Democrats – part of the effort by conspiracists to invent a corrupt elite [see info box below]. The facts in the case did not put an end to the story. Today, Hillary Clinton’s elite paedophile ring is an article of faith for most Q-Anoners.
In another bit of weirdness, Donald Trump went off on one of his rants at a campaign rally last year over how one had to flush toilets ten times nowadays. Reporters found this gratuitous complaint rather baffling. But his audience of believers knew what he was talking about: the elite’s ability to force compliance with regulations based on environmental ‘hoaxes’, in this case the wish to save water. The conspiracy believers know that elites want a pristine world for their playground, at the expense of regular people’s freedom to own a proper toilet (or an incandescent lightbulb or an automobile). The most extreme alternate environmental reality has the elite killing off the bulk of the population with chemtrails [see info box below].
Sealed off from actual facts in their alternate reality, Q-Anon conspiracists will buy into any story that buttresses their beliefs about the elite – no matter how inane. The activities of the paedophile ring, for instance, have recently been expanded to include cannibalism. The mass shootings that afflict the US on a regular basis are hoaxes (complete with well paid ‘crisis actors’) carefully staged by the elite to build public support for seizing all guns. George Soros – the only real contender for the top spot in the conspiracy other than Hillary Clinton – has been busy supporting Antifa thugs. He pays their airfare so they can travel, dressed in black and fully armed, from city to city wreaking havoc.
The entire Black Lives Matter movement is similarly controlled by the elite behind the scenes. The protesters, Q-Anoners believe, are well paid for carrying out their part in the grand conspiracy. And of course, the Covid pandemic is just another hoax in the Q-Anon alternate reality. An affliction created by the China arm of the conspiracy, Covid has been hyped into a pandemic solely to justify controlling the public. Forcing people to wear masks is just the symbolic, but important, beginning. The lockdown is the crucial test of the public’s willingness to cede control over their own lives to ‘public health’ authorities [see info box below].
The defeat of Donald Trump will not put an end to Q-Anon. Even if the name were to disappear, the underlying belief in the conspiracy against a white, Christian, United States will continue. Believers will absorb Trump’s martyrdom into their conspiracy theory and move on. Indeed, New York Magazine detailed that 24 Q-Anon candidates were on the federal ballot in November, 22 of them Republican and two independents. Recent news reports even suggest that Q-Anon is gaining a foothold among right-wing nationalist groups in Europe.
Countering the conspiracists
The question that many people have grappled with is how to counter conspiratorial thinking or even reverse its growing acceptance. Individuals can do two things.
First, do not accept conspiratorial thinking even when it complements your own ideas. This worked remarkably well when left-wing critics of the Bush administration such as Noam Chomsky and Howard Zinn refused to be drawn into a conspiratorial framework by 9/11 conspiracists. Second, counter conspiratorial thinking online immediately. Do not give it time to sink in, unopposed, into the public’s consciousness. The speed with which stupid ideas are debunked makes a great deal of difference.
The media can also help. Referring to anything suspicious or to any unusual belief as a ‘conspiracy theory’ does considerable harm by normalising conspiracy thinking. The person who thinks that perhaps Bigfoot may be real will, on hearing that belief called a conspiracy theory, thinks, ‘Well, I guess I must be a conspiracy theorist. Okay.’ We may never eliminate conspiratorial thinking, but we can try to move it out of the acceptable mainstream.
Info box: key conspiracy theories
Anti-semitism: Representative Louis McFadden claimed in 1932 that the US federal reserve system (central bank) was created by ‘Jewish financiers’ to ‘foist worthless paper money’ on US citizens, while the Jews stole ‘our’ gold. Today a populist martyr for conspiracists, McFadden’s ideas are still popular. But, as the antisemitism has been purged to make the ‘fed conspiracy’ less vile, it has lost its entire rationale. Recent versions of the conspiracy are left without any actual villains to blame.
‘New World Order’: In 1990, President George H W Bush happened to use the phrase ‘new world order’ to describe the post-Soviet era. Unfortunately, this exact phrase had long been used to designate the supposed globalists’ conspiracy to subjugate the US under a world regime. Militia-style outfits such as Police Against the New World Order equated it with the ‘oligarchy of the world’s richest families’ (i.e. Jews). In short order, the term came to include Jesuits, abortionists, satanism, ‘new age’ religion and anything else conspiracists opposed.
Elite paedophile ring: Alt-right websites, such as Mike Cernovich’s Danger and Play, cynically promoted this hoax just before the election of 2016. Donald Trump’s apparent choice for national security advisor, Michael Flynn (and his ‘chief of staff’ Michael Flynn Jr), were disgraced over their retweeting stories about ‘Sex crimes with children’ and lost their positions. Conspiracists online quickly folded the unrelated death of a Democratic Party worker into the plot – claiming he was killed because he knew too much.
Chemtrails: The notion that jet aircraft contrails secretly spread toxic chemicals to stupefy the public and sap their will to resist the elite has long persisted among conspiracists. The absence of any evidence for chemtrails – including the infrastructure and large number of people that would be needed to do this – simply proves the scope of the cover-up. Faced with the argument that chemtrails would affect everyone indiscriminately, conspiracy peddler Alex Jones claimed that ‘globalists’ had received a ‘special detox’ to protect them.
Public health: US conspiracists have mistrusted public health efforts in the US for decades. Issues have included polio serum (a ‘wedge for nationwide socialised medicine’); fluoridated water (poisonous to ‘the White Race’); Lyme disease (an insect-borne affliction that Minnesota governor Jesse Ventura called ‘germ warfare’); various miracle cures; AIDS; Ebola; the Zika virus; influenza; pasteurised milk; and, of course, vaccines. The spectre of a ‘medical conspiracy against America’ dates back at least to 1952.
Thomas Milan Konda is the author of Conspiracies of Conspiracies and professor emeritus of political science at State University of New York at Plattsburgh.