Here is an attempt to get at some of what’s behind conspiracism, the rising belief in and promotion of political conspiracy theories. In recent years those theories have been heavily associated with QAnon: that a cabal of child sexual abusers running a world-wide trafficking ring has been a major force in opposing
; that “the storm,” the day the cabal is exposed and jailed, is coming. In the past year, it includes the charge the presidential election was stolen through state-by-state fraud. In the past week there is increasing talk of the coming “reinstatement,” in which proof of election fraud is revealed through state audits, previously reported results are overturned, and Donald Trump is inaugurated again.
Belief in these things is growing. An online poll this week from Ipsos reported 15% of Americans agree that the government, media and financial worlds are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Not 15% of Republicans or conservatives, but of Americans. That’s a lot. Twenty percent believe in “the storm.” Axios last weekend quoted
the evangelical theologian, saying he talks every day to pastors of virtually every denomination “who are exhausted by these theories blowing through their churches.”
What is behind the growth of conspiracism? Many things. In no special order:
It is pleasurable to know and hold a higher knowledge—you get it, others don’t. In confusing times it’s good to have a Theory of Everything that explains it all to you. America has always had more than its share of cranks and crackpots—it’s the darker side of what gives us our gifts and original thinking. We’re open to the outlandish. America is a lonely place. When you hold to a conspiracy theory, you join a community. You’re suddenly part of something. You have new friends you can talk to on the internet to whom you’re joined at the brain. They see the world the way you do; it is a very intimate connection.
Church affiliation and practice have been falling for decades, but people always have a spiritual hole inside, and if God can’t fill it, Q will do. The unrealized and unhappy are always in search of a cause to distract themselves from the problems of their lives. And we like to be divided, too. We like to be in a fight—“Albion’s Seed”—and on a side. One of the enduring and revealing songs of America asks “Which side are you on / Which side are you on? / You go to Harlan County / There is no neutral there / You’ll either be a union man / Or a thug for J.H. Blair.”
Conspiracy believers don’t believe what the mainstream media tell them. Why would they? Newsrooms are undergoing their own revolution, with woke progressives vs. journalistic traditionalists, advocacy versus old-school news values. It is ideological. “We are here to shape and encourage a new reality.” “No, we are here to find and report the news.” It is generational: The young have the upper hand and the Slack channel. The woke are winning. If a year ago you thought the obvious—maybe the coronavirus that came from Wuhan leaked out of the Wuhan lab where they were studying coronaviruses—you were shut down as racist, bigoted, divisive. The progressives’ great talent is policing, and they are always on patrol. Everyone, even the most unsophisticated news consumer, can kind of tell.
So all those things are at play. But so is this: When you think your country has grown completely bizarre, only bizarre explanations will do.
Think of what normal human beings have been asked to absorb the past year. The whole country was shut down and everyone was told to stay in the house. They closed the churches, and the churches agreed. There was no school and everyone made believe—really, we all made believe!—screens were a replacement. A bunch of 13-year-old girls in the junior high decided they were boys and started getting shots, and no adults helped them by saying, “Whoa, slow down, this is a major life decision and you’re a kid.” The school board no longer argues about transgender bathrooms, they’re on to transgender boys wanting to play on the girls team. Big corporations now tell you what you should think about local questions, and if this offends you, they don’t care. There were riots and protests last summer and local government seemed overwhelmed.
And in the course of events, the Founders were revealed to be not flawed but great men who made something new in history, but venal, vicious bottom dwellers who made something bad for bad reasons. Mobs tore down and graffitied the statues, not just the Confederate ones but Washington, Lincoln,
Not only your understanding of your country’s greatness was being taken away but the idea of human greatness itself, leaving you with less to aim at when you tell your kid, “I’m not much, but you can be great.” There’s literally less for you to point up to. And if you grieved over this and were white, if your eyes filled with tears, it was explained as white fragility, the brittle response of a frightened soul unable to stare unblinking at the truth. Your grief proves their point.
I don’t think our elites understand all they’ve asked people to accept the past year. And I’m sure they don’t care. The great thing about being “the elites” is you never think you are “the elites,” so you don’t have to make anything better because you’re not the one in charge.
It wouldn’t have helped that one of the great crime and culture stories of the century has been quickening the past year—the story of
and presidents and princes, and tech titans and heads of hedge funds, and the private island and the young girls. It’s the kind of story that might leave you believing young people are being trafficked by powerful men.
All this would contribute to a mood of conspiracism. Should we be surprised that people might look at the landscape of just the past year and say, “The devil himself must have done this”? It’s a small jump from that to the information, which you just got on Reddit and which seems suddenly plausible, that a devil-worshiping cabal is in charge.
Conspiracism is of course fueled and powered by the great engine of this still-new thing in human history, the internet. We are so used to saying “The internet changed everything” that we have forgotten it changed everything. American politics has always been full of spleen and madness, and the pamphlets and newspapers of
era were full of conspiracy. (
was a secret monarchist, Washington a doddering egomaniac with “a sick mind.”) But the pamphlets could go only so far and reach so many. In a nation of farmers only so many people had time to incorporate wild talk into their worldview.
The internet is a great thing with great virtues, but it is helping break up America. This is a problem that can’t be solved, only managed. Good people should be thinking about how to do that.
Conspiracism isn’t going away. It will only grow and become damaging in ways we aren’t quite imagining.
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