Right-Wing Conspiracy Theories Are Stranger Than 20th-Century Fiction
If you’re a fan of science fiction horror, you’ve probably read your fair share of H.P. Lovecraft’s deeply influential work, then learned about the man, shuddered, and could never look at those equally haunting and gruesome tales in quite the same way again. For those who don’t know, Lovecraft was a racist, and we’re not talking racist when comparing turn of the 20th-century views to today’s. No, we’re talking about racist to the point that virulent bigots of his day were telling him to maybe tone it down a notch or two. This little historical tidbit even got some of today’s aficionados of the genre to which he was instrumental asking whether they should keep reading and recommending his works.
While some would venture to say no, it’s actually quite a complicated subject. These stories can evolve and acquire new meanings which don’t require us to ignore the man behind it or to say that his works achieved their effect in spite of his negative traits. If anything, the Cthulhu Mythos is with us today precisely because Lovecraft was a bigot’s bigot. Without his fear of the new, the unknown, and the unfamiliar, he could’ve never committed it to the page with all those signature layers of dread, panic, and disgust. His talent lay in being able to accurately channel our primal fears into text and we respond to it on a downright subconscious level. And by doing so, he gives us a glimpse into the mind of a terrified xenophobic racist.
Just consider who and what scares him. Immigrants become weird fish people worshipping a grotesque amphibian deity. Natives and indigenous people turn into primitive savages who paint themselves with animal blood to sacrifice children and young virgins to kick off midnight orgies. New politicians and ideas become tentacled monsters roused from their slumber only to drive humanity insane before slowly consuming it. The world is dark and anxious, filled with eldritch dangers lurking behind every corner, and every unfamiliar stranger or newcomer is hiding a horrifying secret involving sexual perversions, ritualistic disembowelment, or both. You’d never want to live in this disturbing reality if you could help it.
Having considered that perspective, could we perhaps look at rural, red state America and ask whether they see their blue state city-dwelling counterparts in full blown Lovecraft Vision™? Given their invective and loudly advertised fears on social media, could it be that when they look at residents of big cities, they don’t see fellow citizens but deformed fish monsters, products of unholy unions between alien amphibians and hapless, not-too-bright humans? Do they see new ideas and leaders coming from cities as the march of alien gods preceded by armies of cultists who do unspeakable things in the dark while pretending to be normal people by day? Eric Trump the (even) Lesser himself said that “Democrats aren’t even people” on national TV.
Sounds extreme? Consider the central premise of the most popular conspiracy theory on the right today: QAnon. While it’s a vast theory-of-everything, it ultimately boils down to one very simple premise. If you disagree with the Republican and conservative establishments, you’re a cannibalistic Satanic pedophile working for a malevolent New World Order, full stop. And with today’s right-wing rhetoric becoming so hyperbolic and its politicians’ agendas so widely reviled, there are innumerable very vocal dissenters, especially when gerrymandering and the Electoral College greatly dilute the voices of the nation’s majority, which means only one thing to QAnon adherents. Just about everyone out there is a cannibalistic Satanic pedophile.
And that’s on top of their social media feeds hyperventilating with gloom and doom, detailing ever more nefarious and harebrained plots by foreigners and Jews — yes Jews, it’s always the Jews with these conspiracies — to effectively replace the brave anti-Satanic patriots with amoral foreigners reliant on government handouts, and their politicians using fear not just as a critical part of their platforms, but as their whole pitch. Vote for me, or the globalist monster will come to your house, rip your face off, and sell your kids and grandkids into sex slavery on Mars. All your neighbors, friends, and family are either actively plotting against you or refuse to believe that a nefarious alien evil is about to befall the nation.
While all of this may seem like an abstract thought experiment, it’s worth asking because before you try to solve a rift between opposing sides, you need to understand how they see each other, otherwise even the most elaborate and well-crafted message by the highest-paid and successful political consultants in all the land will fall flat. If the division between the American right and the rest of the country was a matter of policy and fine details of its implementation, there would be little taste for the kind of vitriol we see today. Who can possibly get that riled up about caps on tax brackets for luxury goods or drug price negotiations? No, the fight is framed as far, far more existential than that.Looking to make a difference? Consider signing one of these sponsored petitions:
Moderates and liberals want to view the current divide as a matter of miscommunication. That it’s just a clash of values and priorities and if they remind the rest of the country that we’re all after the same goal, that all we want to do is make sure we can prosper and take advantage of all the resources we have at our disposal, we’d all get along again. But that’s not how the right sees the current schism. No, as far as the right is concerned, they’re engaged in a life or death battle with existential threats, ones they may no longer see as entirely human anymore, but as monsters hiding under a cloak of humanity, almost like a society of ghouls struggling not to sink our teeth into every “proud patriot” we pass on the street.
And this is both disturbing and critical to understand. You can’t negotiate with someone who you see as a fellow person with different ideas and upbringing while to them, you’re a tentacle of a monstrous alien creature and when you talk, instead of hearing what you have to say, their mind plays what they think is the grumble of your stomach and gnashing of your fangs. They simply do not and cannot hear you, much less understand you enough to have an opinion on what it is you’re trying to express. They’re far too consumed with fear and desperate for anyone to make them feel safe again. This is why they seem to be willing to vote for destructive politicians even if they hate these politicians to their core without fail.
Likewise, this is why those politicians invest so much time in trying to terrify their constituents out of their minds, to create and justify a perpetual state of emergency in which norms and rules must be suspended to survive a supposed existential threat. And if those rules just happen to make their primary donors more money or put their friends in positions of enormous power and influence while removing every independent check or control on their actions, well that’s just the price society must pay for being saved from the Illuminati/Antifa/Reptoid/MS-13/Satanic cabal. Question this arrangement, and you’ll be accused of being an agent of evil because you tried to lift the curtain and show who controls the generator of fear and why.
Of course, this is not to say that politicians sit around dreaming up of conspiracy theories all the time, although some probably do. No, what happens is a lot dumber. Politicians use existing and popular conspiracies going viral on social media as excuses for their greed, megalomania, and failures. Instead of blaming objectively terrible leadership and demanding better, their voters are pointed at convenient enemies. Sure, they might hate the system and want positive change, but if it means their political opponents or people they’re trained to envision as monsters also get a better education, cheaper healthcare, or higher wages, they’d rather burn it all down. It’s not that they truly love the way things are, it’s that they hate you more.
This is also not to say that the only reason some people have a visceral hatred towards their fellow citizens is because they’ve been somehow brainwashed. They have agency and could’ve easily ignored the fear-mongering and conspiracies. Instead, they chose to believe the absolute worst about their friends, neighbors, and family, regardless of the source. Yes, some may well have been pushed over the edge. Others are — and let’s not mince words here — just bad people who let themselves rot to the core. We certainly shouldn’t wish them ill or try to punish them for it, but neither should we expect a miracle of them pulling a mass Ebeneezer Scrooge one fateful morning.
As their fellow citizens suffer from a pandemic, they laugh about how more hard-hit blue states and cities are, downplay the dangers of the virus, and seem downright giddy to sacrifice older Americans and those in ill health so they can get a haircut and a drink at the bar. They’re more or less setting up the very death panels with which they threatened their voters in 2008 but far less formal, simply justifying their choices of what they think are acceptable casualties in their quest to pretend that life is normal, and seem perfectly fine if those dying from a novel disease aren’t members of their ethnopolitical tribe. Though even when they are, the response we get from them is a riff on “no one lives forever” and a shrug.
But this antagonistic, politics-and-culture-are-existential-war philosophy has one last nasty and painful surprise in store for all those who ascribe to it. By telling its adherents that anyone who even remotely disagrees with them on anything is a monstrous enemy, and encouraging them to devote their lives to making their targets miserable at any cost to win “the struggle,” even to their own health and finances, they create a self-fulfilling prophecy. At some point, those targets will refuse to take the abuse and fight back, both affirming their abusers’ worldviews and turning a once imaginary conflict brewed in the mind of the perpetually paranoid in search of a way to assert power, into a very real one.
And that’s the ultimate price of bigotry and conspiratorial fervor. They create the very conflicts, miseries, and divisions those who fell for the siren call of fear and self-destructive rage say they want to avoid, tearing apart families and entire nations in their wake, squandering trillions and decades of social cohesion and goodwill necessary to keep nations running. It’s the equivalent of punching yourself in the face, attacking a confused bystander after accusing them of assault, then wondering why you’re now in the middle of a fight and getting seriously hurt in the process. Just like the protagonists of Lovecraft’s stories, you summoned the very things you feared and it cost your sanity in the process.