As we move away from Trump’s formal presidency and its final, disastrous event on January 6th at the capitol, the conspiracy theory framework he helped to establish continues in full force. After Trump spoke at CPAC it became clear that his hold on the GOP, his conspiratorial view of world affairs and “stolen elections,” continues to be a central piece of America’s conservative movement. These beliefs are threatening to radically reshape policy, such as further eroding voting rights over the false belief in voter fraud. Now the GOP seems beset on “election integrity” as its primary issue for the coming years, entirely constructed out of conspiratorial falsehoods that will have the ability to attack free and fair elections.
Almost half the country believes in alien-piloted UFOs and most believe that the “lone gunman” couldn’t have killed President John F. Kennedy, while growing portions believe everything from the idea that the moon landing was faked to the idea of a Flat Earth. In 2021, 70 percent of Republicans think that the election was stolen through an elaborate conspiracy, and 22 major Republican candidates in the November elections believe the antisemitic QAnon conspiracy that claims Democrats are running a Satanic child-trafficking ring.
David Neiwert has spent the last 30 years tracking the far right and writing about the violent threat it holds just under the surface. In his most recent book, Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us, he tracks how conspiracy theories have hijacked political discourse and are leading to explosive acts of violence and an entire culture alienated from consensus reality.
While rural America is far from a monolithic white demographic, those rural areas that continue to be overwhelmingly white have seen a mass orientation to conspiracy theories. Motivated by racism as well as misplaced blame for economic and cultural disaffection, conspiracy thinking has taken over in towns around the country. Neiwert unpacks how these theories are lethal, both to the people being consumed by them and the communities that surround them, and this requires us to find a way to confront them head on.
Shane Burley: How do you define a conspiracy theory and how is it different than, say, a cogent theory about an actual conspiracy?
David Neiwert: There’s a phrase I use in the book: “a hypothetical explanation of historical or ongoing news events comprised of secret plots, usually of a nefarious nature, whose existence may or may not be factual.” There are three main things, sort of limitations, that distinguish conspiracy theories from theories about conspiracies, because there are real conspiracies.
The first limitation is time. Most real conspiracies take place only over a very short period of time. Conspiracy theories frequently take place over decades and generations; the antisemitic conspiracy theory is a key example of this.
The second limitation is that actual conspiracy, by nature, necessarily must have a very limited number of actual participants, because the larger the number of people involved in the conspiracy, the greater the likelihood of exposure. And then it ceases to be a conspiracy, right? It’s no longer a secret plot. Whereas in conspiracy theories, you can have vast populations involved in this conspiracy, entire ethnic groups or entire religions. The most popular of these is the “globalists,” and this has just become a nameless mass of people that anybody that can include, basically anyone who questions the right wing.
The third limitation is the breadth and scope of the conspiracy. Usually, real conspiracies are very limited in what they’re attempting to achieve. They typically involve things that people are trying to achieve, very specific political goals; it’s not about controlling the world, which is what the vast amount of conspiracy theories are about — a nefarious “cabal” that is trying to control the world and enslave all mankind, which is a pretty broad scope.
What effect are conspiracy theories having on working-class communities, in particular? How it is manipulating some people’s understanding of economic deprivation, especially among white people prone to spreading racist disinformation?
First of all, I think it’s tearing a lot of families apart, and I think is tearing a lot of communities apart. This is especially happening in rural areas. And coming from a rural area, I can tell you that there are a lot of folks out there who still have both feet on the ground and believe in basic common sense. But most of them — because they’re surrounded by people who are bellicose and confrontational about it, most of them just keep their heads down…. I can tell you that there is a bullying common component to rural culture that can make been someone who is different — make life for them very difficult. Friends and family members are having difficulty around the Thanksgiving table [in the last few years]. I think the social fabric in these communities is fraying in these areas, and it has been for some time.
Secondly, if we look at what’s happened with the coronavirus as a sort of the model for how rural communities are embracing right-wing authoritarianism as they have under Trump, rural communities are fundamentally really killing themselves in the name of a culture war. Look at what’s happening in South Dakota and Oklahoma, where all these hospitals are being overwhelmed and people are dying while they are saying that the coronavirus is a hoax. And in their obituaries, they say they love Trump, like it’s their last words as they die. So you can see the hold that authoritarianism has.
The same is true of their economic interests. Trump has been pretty blatant in how he screwed up rural economies with his China play. He’s had to bail farmers out. These are working-class people and Trump passed a tax cut for billionaires and not for them. And yet, they love him for it, largely because it “triggers the libs.” But what this is really about is not just antipathy towards liberalism, but that combination of authoritarian submission and authoritarian aggression playing out.
What effect do conspiracy theories have on the theorists themselves, their sense of self and their relationships?
It depends on the role they play, so what I am going to describe doesn’t apply for Alex Jones or the people selling conspiracy theories, but instead the mid-level players and ordinary people posting conspiracy theories on Facebook. Those folks are drawn in because it feels empowering. There have been psychological studies on this, and these are folks who have very little belief in their own self-agency. They believe themselves to be non-players in the world and this gives them the chance to sort of stay ahead of everybody else. They can go out and actually enact change rather than be bit players.
Initially, conspiracy communities are very welcoming, particularly to newbies. The two real initially empowering aspects of conspiracy theories are they have people encouraging them and they feel like they have secret knowledge. And they are in a community where they are actually listened to. The narrative arc of conspiracism feels empowering at first, but it is ultimately very disempowering because the overall narrative is that you are actually up against these nefarious forces that are so dark and deeply entrenched that no one really stands a chance against them. And so, they begin withdrawing from the world. It continues to have a disempowering effect of destroying your interpersonal relationships in the real world, both from friends and family and their larger community….
And the more this process happens, the more they turn to their new family in the conspiracy world for affirmation. And what they find is that their fellow conspiracists are actually paranoid, confrontational and very suspicious people who love nothing more than turning on each other. A large portion of these folks find themselves alienated even from this supposed community that welcomed them. The long end line of the narrative arc of the conspiracy theory is that you either move to a shed in the woods in Montana or you act out violently. Certainly, not everyone who goes down the rabbit hole of conspiracism acts out violently, but certainly over the past 15 years we have consistently seen that almost every mass
killer that you can find on record was somebody who was fundamentally enhanced by conspiracism. They subscribe to one conspiracy theory or another; most recently it has been the “Great Replacement” theory that whites are being demographically replaced.
I tried to lay out as clearly as I could in the book that this is one of the ways conspiracy theories are killing us. They have a consistent effect of inevitably unleashing these acts of incredible violence. And things have tremendous ripple effects. The young woman I talk to who survived the mass shooting in Las Vegas, she survived but she’ll never be the same. There were 22,000 people in the audience that night and none of them will ever be the same from having to witness that. And that extends to the family members of the people who were there, especially the people who died — they’ve had their lives turned upside down. And the consequences of these incidents just ripple further out to the rest of society.
The book concludes by talking about how we can confront conspiracy theories, and I think there are two levels we are trying to deal with: confronting an individual who subscribes to conspiracism, and then challenging the mass culture of conspiracy theories that seems to only be multiplying. How do we challenge this trend?
The book outlines a point-by-point strategy for what people can do personally. But I also discuss the larger meta-political issues and policies that we can pursue to also change this. And I think that that’s actually probably more germane for what we’re talking about here. For one thing, there needs to be serious media reform, both social media and journalistic media. Because, as you know, this stuff is spreading virally through social media, primarily, but it is also encouraged by the media world as well, and that’s unfortunate. I think there needs to be an international push on social media reform. As a country, we need to take a long, hard look at the spread of disinformation…. Facebook has started to push back on QAnon for kind of weird reasons, because they are creating “social disruption,” but that’s not the point. The reason QAnon’s a problem is that [followers] are disseminating just wildly false information, and I think that there should be something done about that.
This is not legal in some countries like it is here, and obviously it would take a constitutional amendment to change that. The sort of absolutism about the First Amendment has been a huge opening for conspiracism to creep through and toxify our democratic marketplace of ideas. And I think it has been amplified and encouraged in mainstream media, particularly right-wing mainstream media such as Fox News, and pundits such as [the late] Rush Limbaugh. I think that is particularly a problem when Fox News can have such a record of disseminating false information themselves and they are still permitted to exist as a corporate entity. This brings us to some of the larger issues that have to do with corporate media ownership. I believe that we will have a healthier media environment if we return to the era when corporate ownership was not allowed. Back when newspapers and TV stations were owned by private companies.
Conspiracism encourages a mindset when facts don’t matter, and unfortunately that seeps into folks on the left as well. It just happens to be that the right has turned into a gigantic font of bullshit, which has to do with why I’m on the left. A lot of what fuels the radical right is this dynamic of heroism, this belief that people must be heroic in their politics. This certainly fuels a lot of QAnon and conspiracy theories like “Save the Children.”
James Aho wrote a great book on the sociology of the far right called This Thing of Darkness, where he talks about how a lot of radical-right enterprises really revolve around the mythology of heroism. Heroes have to have an enemy or they can’t be a hero. So what they’re engaging in is a process of reification, whereby they essentially name an enemy, or create it, and then persecute and confront it. Aho also points out, and I think this true, that this spirit of heroism is also very much alive on the left. There are unfortunately, a lot of folks who get into this because they want to be heroic. This is often where we wind up engaging in the dehumanization of the other side, which is really, I think, the essence of right-wing extremism; the core of “eliminationism” is to demonize and dehumanize the enemy. When we engage in that, and get caught up in that cycle, we deepen and worsen it. I would encourage people who are engaged in this kind of activism to stop and think about why they’re doing this work, what their motivations are, because that’s going to affect how they approach dealing with the people and these issues.
I think to effectively combat the radical right we have to renounce our heroism and embrace the democratic strategy where we link arms. Our strength comes from our numbers, not when we suddenly become heroes.
This interview has been lightly edited for clarity and length.