Examining the proliferations of conspiracy theories in the wake of Donald Trump’s presidency, Simon Pearson argues that we must take such ideas seriously as a threat to socialist politics.
19 August 2020
"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."
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’ 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, 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 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.
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.