America’s Other Pandemic: Conspiracy Theories
Professor Leonard Weinberg is a Senior Fellow at CARR, Professor Emeritus at the University of Nevada, and recipient of both Fulbright and Guggenheim research awards.
Judging by their prevalence and popularity, conspiratorial interpretations of political events seem to tap a basic need of many individuals in the US and other nations. The belief that nothing is as it appears and that access to esoteric knowledge will provide a key to understanding what’s really going on, seem to be common threads running through conspiracy theories which color political discourse in the United States, Europe, and elsewhere.
What explains the prevalence of political conspiracies at the present time? Three considerations come to mind. First, certainly in the US, but in Europe as well, citizens exhibit profound mistrust of each other (“you can’t be too careful”) and public institutions in general. In this atmosphere, gun ownership has become a highly salient issue for individuals worried their autonomy is likely to be threatened by malicious government agents or hostile ‘others’. It was no accident that William Pierce began his dystopian novel, The Turner Diaries (about the outbreak of a racial revolution in the US) with Congress enacting a strict gun control law (The Cohen Act).
Second, as Ezra Klein, Cass Sunstein, and others point out, new online social media platforms offer what amounts to free rein to individuals who wish to express sinister and often fantastic understandings of public events. Racism, anti-Semitism, and white supremacy have all found homes on the Internet. What became known as the ‘alt-Right’ exists almost exclusively as an online phenomenon.
Third, the COVID-19 pandemic, with its severe economic dislocations and public health restrictions, has left many people uncertain and unmoored about their immediate future. Feeling helpless in the face of events beyond their control increases their susceptibility to conspiratorial interpretations of hard to fathom events.
We might recall that in the aftermath of the inexplicable ‘black death’ pandemic in 14th century Europe, a witch craze arose in which more than 200,000 suspects, mostly women, were executed on nominally religious grounds.
The current susceptibility to conspiracy theories among Americans has not appeared out of the blue. As the late Richard Hofstadter and many others have pointed out, the US has a history in which the “paranoid style” of politics has periodically held sway.
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America’s History Of Conspiracy Theories
Conspiracies vary in scope, advocacy of racism, and the degree of violence they elicit. Some are comprehensive, all-encompassing explanations. For example, during the 1980s right-wing extremists in the United States developed the ZOG (Zionist Occupation Government) or JOG (Jewish Occupation Government) discourse, according to which the federal government had fallen under the control of Zionists or Jews. ZOG, in turn, had promoted the country’s racial pollution by encouraging non-whites or “dusky hordes” to dominate American urban life.
Earlier, in the 1950s, the Communist conspiracy attracted widespread public support. As articulated by the John Birch Society and such religious circuit-riders as Dr. Fred Schwarz and the Reverend Billy James Hargis, the country had almost fallen under the complete sway of “Communists”.
While exponents of the ZOG conspiracy favored violent revolution to re-establish white rule, supporters of the Communist conspiracy often thought that simple public exposure might do the job, particularly if this effort was accompanied by monetary donations to those uttering the warnings.
The John Birch Society had a literary bent; its various chapters in Arizona, southern California, Texas and elsewhere opened book shops where alleged patriotic Americans could inform themselves of the communist menace (e.g. they could become aware of the “fact” that John Foster Dulles, the secretary of state under President Eisenhower, and that Dr. Milton Eisenhower, the president’s brother, then Chancellor of the University of Minnesota, were part of the conspiracy).
To be fair, some on the far right was committed to the struggle against the Communist conspiracy and were prepared to take up arms. William Potter Gale, John Wesley Swift, Richard Butler, and others formed the Christian Defense League at the end of the 1950s which later mutated into the Posse Comitatus, a violent racist and anti-Semitic organization.
Not all political conspiracies seek to explain everything. Some are limited in scope. Here are a few examples. On the left side of the political divide, the ‘neo-conservative conspiracy’ sought to explain the 2003 American invasion of Iraq, ostensibly to eliminate Saddam Husseini’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. According to this view, neo-conservative followers of philosopher Leo Strauss, including such Jewish defense and state department officials as Paul Wolfowitz, Richard Perl, Douglas Feith, and Eliot Abrahms, encouraged the Bush administration to launch the Iraq war, not to advance America’s national interests but to protect Israel from Saddam’s military threat to the Jewish state. Under this theory, American soldiers and marines were being killed not on behalf of their country but to defend Israel against its enemies; a Zionist conspiracy in other words.
The conspiracy theorist Alex Jones provides us with another example. In 2012 an armed mentally ill young man entered Sandy Hook elementary school in a suburban Connecticut community and shot to death first and second-grade students along with their teachers. These murders led to widespread demands for new gun control legislation. Despite this initiative, which enjoyed the support of President Obama, Congress failed to pass new restrictions on gun possession. America’s gun lobby won the day.
Alex Jones, through his website Infowars and his popular talk radio show, did his part. Jones claimed the Sandy Hook massacre was really a conspiracy by the advocates of gun control to artificially create a public atmosphere supportive of new limits on citizens’ ‘right to bear arms.’ He claimed the Sandy Hook massacre was a charade– actors had been paid to simulate the murders of elementary school children. Jones was sued for these lies.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
President Trump Fuels The Fires Of False Conspiracies
Today, President Donald Trump acknowledges, promotes and appears to rely on a range of conspiracy theories. In public speeches and ‘tweets’ Trump has claimed that ‘Antifa’, a loose aggregation of anti-fascist activists, is really a massive, cohesive and violent organization intent on enacting murder and mayhem throughout the US. Trump’s Antifa conspiracy has had real-world consequences. Armed militias have mobilized and vigilante groups have formed prepared to do battle against an almost completely imaginary threat.
QAnon is the most imaginative of the wide-scope conspiracies to have surfaced in the United States since the end of World War II. It also appears to have spread more quickly and farther than other explain-all conspiracies. An early version first surfaced on 4Chan (a site given over to exotic political expressions) at the end of October 2017. By 2020, QAnon had achieved the online equivalent of celebrity status, with adherents and believers throughout the country. And QAnon has won many converts in Germany as well.
‘You’re the president. You’re not, like, someone’s crazy uncle who can just retweet whatever’ — Savannah Guthrie lays into Trump for spreading QAnon conspiracy theories pic.twitter.com/sqa0hrbU8d
— NowThis (@nowthisnews) October 16, 2020
The QAnon conspiracy stands out, among other things, because it depicts President Trump (who reports not knowing anything about it while continuing to amplify its theories) as a heroic figure engaged in a life and death battle against satanic forces. Trump is not only attempting to overcome the ‘deep state’, meaning permanent federal officials who have sought to undermine his policies and defeat his re-election.
The QAnon conspiracy does not stop there. It goes on to depict Trump as confronting a world-wide cabal of Satan worshippers who specialize in kidnapping children, molesting them, and then trafficking them to sex-crazed bidders. The Satanic cabal often drains the blood of child-captives as part of its Satanic rituals. Thanks to Trump, a shady real estate developer and television pitchman after all, there is to be a reckoning. A “storm” is coming. On a signal from Trump, QAnon followers will rise up and overthrow the Satanic cabal, if necessary by murder and mayhem.
Who belongs to the Satanic forces Q Anon will confront? Membership varies depending on who is doing the tweeting. But George Soros, the Rothschild family, Hollywood celebrities, Hillary Clinton, Barak Obama, Deborah Wasserman Schultz (former chair of the Democratic National Committee), and liberal Democrats, in general, are frequently identified as satanic offenders.
The reference to draining the blood of children has a familiar ring. Beginning in the 12th century and continuing up to the 20th, from time-to-time Jews in Europe were accused, and not infrequently killed, because some Christians came to believe the ‘blood libel’. As part of the Passover ritual, Jews allegedly kidnapped and murdered children and then used their blood in the baking of unleavened bread (matzos). It’s probably not a complete coincidence that QAnon’s fantasy has produced a secularized version of the ‘blood libel’.
What seems particularly worrying about the QAnon conspiracy is that it provides a call to action. If Trump is in effect ‘martyred’ at the November election if he loses in other words, will Trump unleash QAnon’s promised ‘storm’?
This article is brought to you by the Centre for Analysis of the Radical Right (CARR). Through their research, CARR intends to lead discussions on the development of radical right extremism around the world.