United States: Conspiracy and loathing in Trumpland

"Conspiracies, since they cannot be engaged in without the fellowship of others, are for that reason most perilous; for as most men are either fools or knaves, we run excessive risk in making such folk our companions."
Francesco Guicciardini

By Simon Pearson

September 8, 2020 — Links International Journal of Socialist Renewal reposted from Mutiny — Conspiracies exist, but conspiracy theories are something different. Since time immemorial we have had conspiracies. Julius Caesar died at the hands of a conspiracy led by Brutus, Cassius and other rebellious senators in 44 BCE, while more contemporaneously in California, 1996, one twin conspired to have the other murdered—so much for the sibling bond! In criminal law, ‘a conspiracy is an agreement between two or more people to commit a crime at some point in the future’.

But today increasing numbers of people are getting sucked into the world of obsessing over bizarre ideas concerning those in power, a dark place, one in which imaginations run wild, where the ideas on ‘subreddits’ on the Reddit social media website are accepted as uncontested truths. In the world of the conspiracy theorist, you will find a place where shock jocks and YouTube vloggers pontificate over chemtrails, the birther movement and 5G to perennial favourites such as the Kennedy assassination and 9/11. Even the notion that the Earth is flat is now growing in popularity with several celebrities speaking out about their views.

Why are they growing?

In the not too distant past the conspiracy theory was the drunken conversation held at the bar. A fleeting debate, fun for a moment but like the raging hangover that follows, ultimately forgotten. I’m sure you have also been that person shocked back into reality and reminded that real life is not like the X-Files. But today, in a world of instant messages, tweets, blogs, vlogs, and websites, the conspiracy theory has a grip on the right that will not be easily relinquished.

The global pandemic has created an environment rich with conspiracy theories. Living in isolation, with precarious employment, heightened anxiety and uncertainty over life in general, people are susceptible to the pull of this type of thinking. But this has only accelerated what was already happening. A November 2015 study cited by Vox suggested there was a conspiracy theory vicious circle whereby those of a high-info/low trust dynamic lapped up these ideas.

This study showed that on the right of the political axis individuals (already distrustful, especially of the government) become susceptible as they gain knowledge, whereas for those of a more liberal or left mindset, the more knowledge they received the less susceptible they were to conspiracy theories regardless of trust levels. So, it is unsurprising we have someone like President Donald Trump spreading such ideas; he is more than happy to stoke the fire of public sentiment with outlandish claims, knowing it will light up his Republican base.

We have had such irrational periods before. The 1970s was a recent decade where many societies were infused with paranoia, from President Nixon and Harold Wilson down. But the current toxic culture is even more concerning. Alienated people are turning to conspiracy theories to try and explain an increasingly chaotic world in which they feel like they have no real power. The conspiracy theories debated on the internet create a community, they give a sense of purpose, a group feeling of seeing through the lies and coming together to fight powerful elites.

The kernels of truth behind conspiracy theories

People who have taken the ‘red pill’ can see the truth about the elites who run the world. They could be the Democrat Party, the Illuminati, the Freemasons, shape-shifting lizards, Jewish people, or any combination thereof. The conspiracy theorists argue that behind the facade of democracy lie powerful forces that manipulate society in their own interests.

And this is what makes conspiracy theories so appealing. Strip away the nonsense and at the core is a concern over undemocratic elites and a world that is riddled with dangerous forces intent on domination. From a Marxist perspective, that is the kernel of truth that appeals to so many people. Of course there are elites who control the economy and dominate politics. However, Marxists are clear that the problem is the existence of a capitalist class that owns the economy. This capitalist class has huge power and influence in society and politics. They exploit people and planet and enrich themselves at the expense of others. But they are not particularly secretive about it; in fact they revel in it and live luxurious lifestyles with almost cult celebrity status.

Journalist Roger Cohen writes in the New York Times of the ‘captive mind’, which it could be argued is what many have suffered during the pandemic. Cohen describes a person who resorts ‘to conspiracy theory because it is the ultimate refuge of the powerless’. The pandemic has certainly left many feeling powerless and as Cohen states ‘if you cannot change your own life, it must be a greater force that controls the world’. Sociological factors of this kind may account for some conspiratorial thinking among election losers, but they seem less able to explain its prevalence among supporters of right wing/conservative governments that are actually in power.

These conspiracy theories are a replacement for understanding how class works. They conflate the power of the capitalist class with shadowy conspiratorial networks. They blame the Bilderberg Group and not capitalism itself. This is why some people have fallen prey to the 'socialism of fools' - anti-semitism. They argue that Jewish people are disproportionately powerful and influential, that they control banking and media and so on. This is simply racism dressed up as fake radicalism. There is no one ethnicity that controls everything or works in some clandestine way; such a view is simplistic nonsense used by nationalists and racists to spread division and hate, often to distract from their own crimes.

The rise of QAnon

In the United States, QAnon is the current fringe conspiracy theory that has been most oxygenated by those on the Republican right from the President down. Trump endorsed the QAnon movement in late August 2020.

QAnon started on the message board 4Chan, a known stomping ground of the far right in late 2017. The FBI were already identifying several regular people on the boards as potential domestic terrorist threats. Q was the nom de plume of someone claiming to be government insider who posted on a supposed plot in which President Trump, sleeves rolled up, is waging a war against the ‘deep state’[1] and high profile Satan-worshipping paedophiles. Q is the security clearance for someone who has access to the nuclear arsenal of the US military: top-level clearance. This anonymous Q has never identified him/herself, but he/she now has hundreds of thousands of people on the internet hanging on his/her every word.

While this sounds ludicrous, the QAnon conspiracy theory has gained significant traction over the last few years. In 2018, a Florida deputy sheriff was photographed wearing a QAnon patch on his tactical vest while meeting Vice President Pence, which was then deleted by the Vice President from his social media feed, further perpetuating the conspiracy theory.

One of the latest Republicans congressional prospects, Marjorie Taylor Greene,[2] has been actively promoting the conspiracy theory on YouTube this summer; ‘Q is a patriot,’ she said and later in the same video stated that the President is someone who has a ‘once in a lifetime opportunity to take this global cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles out’.

While one swallow does not a summer make, where QAnon believers tread you can surely find other damaging beliefs about the world. Politico unearthed hours of Facebook videos in which Greene raged against Islam, African American support for the Democrats, and the far-right’s go-to hate figure, Holocaust survivor and liberal investor George Soros, whom Greene called a Nazi! Of course, when challenged Greene sticks to the right’s trope of choice, namely that every Republican is labelled abhorrent by the Fake News Media.

Greene is not the only Republican candidate who has been happy to spout the QAnon conspiracy theory. A recent article in Newsweek identified a further six GOP candidates, with another one running as an independent.

But why does this matter? Is the QAnon conspiracy theory dangerous? I would argue it is and for two reasons: first, it allows the President and his supporters to escape criticism by blaming the ‘shadow state’ as the cause for the administration’s mistakes; and second, it acts as a ‘gateway drug’ to other wild theories and speculation.

With the birther movement[3] also making a reappearance during this presidential campaign, you may be thinking that conspiracy theories mostly affect the United States, but that is most certainly not the case.

COVID conspiracies

In the UK, like many parts of the world, the government has had to introduce legislation to halt the spread of the COVID infection. New words have entered the public lexicon, from lockdown to furlough, PPE to facemask. In trying to control COVID-19 the British Government has had to restrict our freedom of movement and mandated we wear protective masks in certain situations; this perceived governmental overreach has brought anti-maskers, anti-lockdown protesters and those who are against 5G together in small but well publicised protests. What would have been a protest about civil liberties, instead, with 5G thrown in, became a potent mix of anxiety and conspiracy theory.

Led by Piers Corbyn (the older brother of the previous Labour Leader) the placards on show in May protests had slogans such as ‘freedom over fear’ and ‘anti vax deserves a voice’. When Corbyn takes to the megaphone he suggests the ‘pandemic is a pack of lies to brainwash you and keep you in order’ and that ‘vaccination is not necessary’ and ‘5G enhances anyone who’s got the illness from COVID’. Of course, none of this is backed by science, or remotely true, but that doesn’t matter to the conspiracy theorist, who with the drip, drip of false information hopes some of it will stick and damage someone or something.

Tech billionaire Bill Gates has also found himself to be the ‘bogeyman’ of the pandemic with suggestions that his foundation's search for a COVID-19 vaccine and 5G are somehow linked with Gates intending to inject everyone with a controlling chip that will somehow be activated by the new 5G network. Like Soros, Gates is another public figure whom the right like to draw into their world of plots and conspiracies. It of course helps that Gates is extremely wealthy, and like Soros can be cast as part of a shadowy liberal elite pulling the strings of world government. This is not unlike the anti-Semitic tropes that spread around the world in the 20th Century, in which Jewish bankers and other prominent figures were accused of running the world (e.g. ‘The Protocols of the Elders of Zion’).

Not conspiracies – we need socialist answers

Such examples demonstrate that there are no harmless conspiracy theories. They dominate the thinking of much of the far right (and sometimes of sections of the left) and those who lean towards libertarianism. It doesn’t matter what evidence is provided to counter the conspiracy narrative; if the person believes it to be true, any dissenting voice reinforces the view that it must be true, with the dissenters simply intent on hiding the truth.

Political use of conspiracy theories are particularly popular with authoritarian and totalitarian regimes and parties. The philosopher Karl Popper argued that the totalitarian state benefited from imaginary plots, paranoia, racism and chauvinistic behaviour. In the Trumpian world of alleged fake news it feels like we are only ever a hop, skip and jump from totalitarianism instigated by the Trump administration.

And this is the dangerous dynamic. The far-right conspiracy theories propagate a view that some liberal elite or the UN is about to impose a police state on the USA, when it is Trump, with his masked federal agents running rampage around US cities with no accountability, that is the problem. In this way the conspiracists don’t challenge the dominant narrative; they endorse and cover for it. Likewise with climate change, several conspiracy theories argue that global warming is a hoax, it is made up, or is some kind of sinister agenda by the ‘environmental lobby’. This view has been pushed by the petro-chemical industry for years and reinforced by corporate lobbyists desperately struggling to defend the profits of that sector from government regulation. Again the conspiracy theorists aren’t ‘speaking truth to power’ and standing against powerful interests: they are giving them a helping hand in continuing their destruction of the planet.

Alex Jones and his Infowars website has flourished in the Trumpland of conspiracy theories and the ludicrous fake news narrative deployed to brush difficult stories aside. Jones often speaks of defending freedom from global tyranny, but he sees freedom as only the freedom to do what he wants; e.g. not to wear a mask or be told what to do by the government. For him, it is 'tyranny' to prevent the next Sandy Hook school shooting or unnecessary death during a pandemic, if accomplished by controlling automatic weapons or temporarily mandating masks. For him, freedom is atomised and negative.

Conspiracy theories will always take hold in lieu of a shared agency. If we are unable to make rational choices and feel our every move is thwarted by malign and hidden forces, the dark side of our human nature will latch onto the malevolent. If the working class can challenge the bourgeoisie, and through collective action deliver meaningful change, the workers and the oppressed will no longer need such scapegoats or in turn give such theories the time of day. Conversely, by consigning the conspiracy theory to the dustbin of history, the working class will be freed to intellectually engage with the world in a mature and positive fashion.

So, whenever you hear a conspiracy theory or see one trending on social media, counter the narrative; it is not harmless fun and if allowed to breathe can damage the framework of our societies. A conspiracy theory only ever comes from fear, be that the fear of an individual or group of people. If you can reach out and offer the hand of comradeship to that individual or group, the fear subsides and the theories fail to grow.

Crucially we need a movement that isn’t distracted by conspiracy theories that divert energy and attention away from the real social problems in society. Low wages aren’t caused by the Illuminati, it is the bosses acting in their own interests. It's not the Jewish-run Rothschild bank that controls the world markets, it is a complex economic relationship dominated by governments and banks across the world, based not on a shadowy secret occult power, but on the genuine real-world interests of capitalist and their politicians.

But for those people enamoured of conspiracy theories we have to ask - how do you propose to change the world? QAnon want to elect far right politicians in the US, so their agenda is merely to perpetuate the same system as the one we have at present. Not very radical. Socialists are building a mass movement to overthrow capitalism, to eliminate the power of the entrenched capitalist class and their supporters and create genuine equality and human freedom. That is worth spending time on, not watching yet another YouTube video about the royal family being shape-shifting lizards.

Simon Pearson is an East Midlands activist and trade union member. He is a recent graduate of the Open University with an interest in Modern European History and Politics.

[1] Wikipedia describes the Deep State to be a type of governance made up of networks of power operating independently of a state's political leadership in pursuit of their own agenda and goals. 

[2] Greene is standing for Georgia’s 14th Congressional District.

[3] A series of related conspiracy theories that falsely suggest that President Obama did not meet the constitutional requirement of having been born in the United States, or of U.S citizen parents.