Grievance, Trust And Conspiracy

A long essay in The Washington Post a few weeks ago made an effort to demystify America’s current embrace of conspiracy theories.

The author acknowledged that Americans have always been susceptible to these theories, and that mass delusions, disinformation and conspiracy mongering are hardly unique to America. Granted, the internet has made dissemination of these beliefs far simpler, and more visible to those of us that don’t engage with them, but that isn’t a measure of how prevalent they are.

I read the essay with considerable interest, because–really! What sorts of people believe the most prominent versions going around these days? The essay described a couple of them:

QAnon followers believe that former president Donald Trump spent his time as president battling a cabal of Satan-worshiping “deep state” Democrats who traffic children for sex, a paranoia that has often led to valuable resources being diverted away from real missing children cases. Since the 2020 election, they have also come to believe that Trump’s loss was the result of massive fraud, a disproved conspiracy theory that has in turn created a real threat to our democracy and elections. Going further than the 7 in 10 Republican voters who believe the same election conspiracy, Q followers also assure with prophetic zeal that Trump will be reinstated imminently. Mass arrests of the country’s corrupt elite and a “Great Awakening” will follow, they say.

This one is even more bizarre (if possible):

This one — bordering on messianic and based in part on numerology — involved the slain president’s son, who himself died in a plane crash in 1999. Here on the grassy knoll, they believed, John F. Kennedy Jr. would soon reemerge more than two decades after having faked his own death, or would perhaps be reincarnated outright. The resurrected son of the assassinated father, they assured, would become Trump’s vice president.

The author assured readers that–looney-tunes as these seem–they emerge from a long history of similarly outlandish beliefs. He traced a variety of these irrational stories through the nation’s history–remember all those witches in Salem? The “alternative” theories about the assassination of JFK? The insistence that Barack Obama was really born in Kenya?

Why do such theories thrive here–and under what circumstances? I’m not a psychiatrist and I don’t play one on TV, but think the following paragraphs explain a lot. (It always comes back to racism…)

Here in the United States, conspiracy theories have always been exacerbated by our unique racial, ethnic and religious pluralism, according to Goldberg and other historians.

As populist myths, conspiracy theories allow their believers to feel part of a “true” American community, as special defenders of it. They thrive, the historical record shows, amid the mistrust that exists between people and communities.
Americans have often embraced conspiratorial stories and lies with particular vigor during moments of pronounced uncertainty wrought by social and technological change. And conspiracy theory opportunists throughout U.S. history have found myriad ways to exploit these particular American fissures.

Students of these theories tell us that they are about certainty, belonging and power. They flourish because they resonate with people who are fearful and/or dissatisfied with their lives–people looking for someone to blame for whatever it is that they fear or whatever has gone wrong. As the author says,

To understand the lure of conspiracy theories and alternate realities, you have to interrogate what people get out of believing such things. You have to understand the human emotions — fear, estrangement, resentment — that underlie them.

The author also explains why we are hearing so much more about these trips into la-la land.

Over the past 20 years, sweeping technological change has dramatically accelerated the speed with which conspiracy theories can spread and has made it easier for people with fringe beliefs to find one another. I have seen in my reporting time and again that conspiracy theory communities online can often become more important to believers than their offline relations, a new kind of self-segregation that can eviscerate even family bonds. In our chaotic and divided moment, the stories we believe say something about the factions we belong to, like the music we listen to or the clothes we wear.

The Internet has not only made it easier for conspiratorial communities to organize, but it has also made conspiracy mongering substantially less arduous. No longer do those trafficking in conspiracy theories have to write books or stitch together grand presentations for maximum effect.

Add in the erosion of trust in American institutions, including government, and the very human tendency to see simple incompetence as something darker and more intentional–the need to identify a culprit who did it (whatever “it” was) on purpose…and the next thing you know, you’ve got Jewish Space Lasers.

We live in weird times.


  1. Life in America today can best be compared to “The Walking Dead”. The masses of walking dead Zombie Trumpites outnumber the scattered enclaves of living, thinking Americans struggling to survive their attacks. The Trump Republicans are eating us alive; they unite in masses to seek out and devour the heart and soul of America and Americans.

    This is the United States of America; why should the right and ability to vote be in question for anyone by anyone in this country? Especially those who depend on our votes to be elected.

    I keep gong back to a line by Rhett Butler in “Gone With The Wind” when he told the plantation owners “There is as much money in the destruction of a civilization as there is in building one.” It is always FOLLOW THE MONEY; money is supporting and spreading Trump’s conspiracy and they aren’t even hiding their actions or their lies.

  2. I’m just curious, the “journalist” in the WaPo writes, “the stories we believe say something about the factions we belong to, like the music we listen to or the clothes we wear.”

    That’s interesting because what he’s comparing is cultural norms. So, who gets to judge the stories we believe as conspiracies?

    So, the factions who believe that WaPo journalists write the truth can now judge and compartmentalize all other factions? LOL

    This is ridiculous!

  3. It strikes me that Rod Serling would be having a great time if he were alive today. We are truly in the twilight zone these days.

  4. Somewhat to Todd’s point, the media has “reported” this bullshit stream and the social media has latched onto it too. Why? Todd’s correct: It’s the money. It’s clear that the capitalist-owned media give not a single crap for health of our democracy. Rather, they seem to glory in reporting its destruction at the hands of lunatics, corrupt politicians and corporate/banking moguls who do not see past the quarterly report and stockholder desires.

    Karl Marx was ever so prescient in predicting the destruction of capitalism by its own hand. And our media and politics are blindly fulfilling that prophecy. The drooling class now wants even more power. I’m glad I’m old.

  5. When you exist within the walls erected by an ideology, you don’t have to evaluate what you hear. That has already been done for you. You might as well be at the tea party that Alice attended.

  6. One key contributor to conspiracies that Sheila didn’t emphasize is the monetization of conspiracy theories by elites like Michael Flynn, who made millions propagating both the Q-theory and the Arizona election review.

  7. Isolate the credible in the must read and listen. Agree or disagree with the authentic. Block or unsubscribe the others. It is a huge relief for me not to waste time with irrelevant cosmic dust.

  8. JoAnn, what is your source for “masses of walking dead Zombie Trumpites outnumber the scattered enclaves of living, thinking Americans struggling to survive their attacks.” If I remember correctly, Biden wiped out Trump both in votes cast and in the Electoral College. “Scattered enclaves” does not fit the facts of the 2020 presidential election. “Being eaten alive” is hyperbolic and unstantiated. Granted the strategy of taking over school boards and election boards is a genuine threat, but continued and permanent success is not guaranteed. In the immortal words of John Paul Jones, “I’ve just begun to fight.” Who is to say the ‘scattered enclaves’ lack both the ability to unite and win the battle as did the intrepid Admiral.

  9. Wayne, I liked JoAnn’s metaphor. I think the completely united Trumpite zombies, with their singular goals, while they might be a minority, they are trampling all of the isolated and not so well organized (or at least not so coherent messaging) real humans.

    The Republicans seem to be, very successfully, using the very tools that all cults use to suck in new converts.

  10. Wayne; the fact that Biden “wiped out” Trump in both votes cast and the Electoral College is being “wiped out” NOW by the minority retaining the power to override the ability to protect and save our right to vote. If the “scattered enclaves” HAVE the ability to unite and win the battle; why are we not seeing evidence of that where it counts?

  11. Hopefully other posters here will understand my desire to emigrate elsewhere. I’m so sick & tired of these unrestrained unhinged “wack jobs” I could just scream. They are leading the charge to completely dismantle our democracy.

  12. Regarding, Qanon and related conspiracy nonsense, one cannot overlook how poisoned people on the right have been by the media they consume. And that media isn’t WaPo or mainstream media. It is media sources like people’s Facebook and Twitter feeds, Joe Rogan’s podcast, Alex Jones, Newsmax, right wing radio, etc.

    Those people on the right do not believe the whole panoply of conspiracies out there, but when they’re bombarded with these conspiracies, they eventually start believing in some of them. They believe there is an element of truth in what is involved in the conspiracies. I hear it all the time from my conservative friends.

    Let’s say you have a bucket of mud. And you throw it at a wall, one scoop at a time. Most of that mud is going to slide off the wall. But some will stick to the wall. That’s what’s going on with these conspiracies. You throw enough conspiracy mud at the wall, some of it sticks.

  13. Stan,

    I absolutely understand where you’re coming from. Unfortunately, you can run but you can’t hide lol!

    This is not just a local issue here in this country, it’s a phenomena in almost every country on this planet. Because we’ve reached a point where everyone is so connected. We cannot dismiss the magnitude of how things are changing at such a rapid pace. We’re at a point In history concerning our communication abilities and those who feel disenfranchised and those who want to be something more than what they are, a part of a grandiose movement so to speak.

    We are now in a time period of the Crusades on steroids. The desire of the upper class convincing followers that what they are doing is somehow appropriate. Why do they want to silence the teachers, scientists, and the local media? Because those are the individuals That pose the biggest threat to their movement. Because we’re in an epoch of connectivity and technology, it has reached a point of breaking. And by “it” I mean governments and societies as a whole.

    And, even though certain individuals on this blog dismiss a lot of my comments, if you go back, you can see that I brought out this very thing that’s happening now for quite a while. And most individuals Didn’t find that opinion credible.

    Without this current instantaneous global connectivity, the conspiracies would not spread globally. Unfortunately we’ve now reached that “Breaking point.” History is cyclical, but there is going to be a time when The last cycle will occur. And great change will happen. A time where people will beg the government for help and there will not be any. Humans are mortal so the lessons of history are lost By the generations coming after. But, The government’s are making a huge mistake by allowing those who propagate the conspiracies to have free reign, Hoping that truth and reason will somehow tip the balance back to sanity. That cannot work anymore. And, government allowed it to become the monster under the bed or the 800 lb gorilla in the room.

    What’s ended up happening, government’s Who Put too much stock in their intellect Decide to let The house burn down, So they can Send The resources to protect the library? history shows that that will never work. Unfortunately, we’ve seen this part of history Cascade through the Roman Empire, many of the empires That took The place of Rome, all the way to the British Empire and then the United States.

    Like I mentioned earlier, This epoch in time is unlike any other in history because of the connectivity globally. So, Man has finally reached the pinnacle of history, a time in history that will never be repeated, a global movement that seeks to tear down and destroy, Make anarchy the norm, to make lies and conspiracy and alternate reality. This will not turn out well at all. The conspiracy Zealot theocracy movements Never ever turn out Well. Possibly, You can compare the future of man to the start of the Dark Ages, Those dark ages were actually brought about by zealots that were used By those who wanted to have complete control.

    Vern and Todd are really spot on today. Of course I might have a different slant on some things, but the result will be the same.

    I will say this, The scriptures actually talk about this very thing when it refers to The Man Of Lawlessness, or The Composite Man. individuals and movements that change throughout history until it reaches a saturation point where The weight of history cannot hold it anymore. And it brings about a collapse of global society. Any doubt this is happening now? I wouldn’t be too quick to poo poo what scripture has to say because it definitely Talks about this very time we are in right now. History is cyclical and it will repeat itself until it cannot anymore. And, that would be the end of this history in which we’re living in now.

    Actually the apostle Paul makes it quite clear in his second letter to the Thessalonians 2:4-5 which reads, “He stands in opposition and exalts himself above every so-called God or object of worship, so that he sits down in the temple of God, publicly showing himself to be a God. Do you remember that when I was still with you, I used to tell you these things?”

    The aforementioned modern crusades, The Messianic beliefs of those who believe they are part of something greater than themselves, when they are Actually being misled, and run over the precipice. Being used by corrupt clergies and, as Todd says, oligarchs! Unfortunately Those who are doing the misleading cannot actually fathom their own destruction, they have their blinders on, the only thing they can see Is power and wealth. Power and wealth make a very poor life jacket.

  14. About 10 years ago, I had a friend at a retirement home in Bloomington who introduced me to another resident (in his 80s) who every month sent $500 to the GOP and their causes. JEEZ!! The right-wing wackos have a lot more believers willing to donate blindly than the Democrat/progressive/mostly reasonable crowd. Of course, I admit I read WaPo and The Atlantic articles once in a while, the NYT every day, and other such outlets controlled by my favorite oligarchies.

  15. While we talk about right-wing nut jobs and the most extremists conspiracy theories, I’m more concerned about the run-of-the-mill Republican who now believes the election was stolen and all manor of craziness about COVID. I’m a devout Christian, the Episcopalian-progressive kind. However, in the 70’s the notion that the Bible had to be taken literally began to really gain traction. Now, it’s pretty common among evangelical churches. This translates to the Bible as a only legitimate source for science, politics, social norms, and virtually every aspect of life. This also leads to some convoluted rationalizations for the parts not liked…like divorce which is just one of the very few no-nos that Jesus actually spoke against. IMO, the need to suspend judgement, rational thought, scientific facts paved the way for the the rank and file to believe Fox…all that followed. Scares me to death.

  16. Nancy,

    Actually Christ told his followers in his sermon on the mount, “the whole law hangs on love God and love your neighbor.” Then he told the Pharisees and Sadducees of the Sanhedrin that they were to “love their enemies.” If this was an actual practice today, none of what’s happening would be happening at all.

  17. When ” fear, estrangement, resentment” run the show, by way of the amygdala, people can not think rationally.
    “Just as religious and national myths become become entrenched in the mainstream when they are felt to provide moral uplift, fake news may go viral when its spreaders think higher values are at stake, like reinforcing solidarity within their own side and reminding comrades about the perfidiousness of the other one. Sometimes the moral is not even a coherent political strategy but a sense of moral superiority: the impression that rival social classes, and powerful institutions from which the sharers feel alienated, are decadent and corrupt.” From “Rationality: What it is,Why it Seems Scarce, Why it Matters,” by Steven Pinker
    So, it seems, it comes back down to a form of tribalism, as in “My fellow bigots, my fellow outliers,” and so on.
    Vernon is so right about Serling.

  18. I do not agree with the proposition that history as an accounting of events is cyclical – it is necessarily linear. However, I do agree with John that our means of communication have allowed nutjobs and fruitcakes to play their game to a giant audience, and that through incessant repitition some of their manure will stick to the barn door. I think the people who toss the manure have always been with us but now with permission of those who fear their day in the sun will soon be history and a technological means of distribution we the (largely) sane are seeing a potential end to civilization as we have come to know (and fashion) it.

    That doesn’t mean that we will not have a “civilization” if the Trump axe of dictatorship falls, but it does mean that such a new civilization will be “fashioned” by those who are a quart low and/or power seekers, collectively speaking. Whether democratic institutions and a counter-propaganda campaign to a return of something resembling Athenian democracy can overcome such a new civilization without intercine violence is unknown, of course, but if so it won’t be the first conflict we have had in the course of saving and/or reinstating our democracy.

    What to do to protect ourselves from the weirdos and power seekers who now have permission from Trump and others to install a fascist regime while destroying our democracy? Remain resolute in our determination to protect our democracy by every available means, including the use of the same technology the boisterous minority of nutjobs and criminals now employ in the protection of our constitutional republic, all while managing technological and other change for the common good.

    As I often write here and elsewhere, our democracy if the most precious asset we hold in common, and one of the last few things left worth dying for.

  19. Gerald,

    I absolutely agree with your take, and thank you for agreeing with me on something, lol!

    But, if you actually research through all of the major world powers, history shows, they really collapsed internally before they were taken over by any outside force. And for some, the outside force was inside of the borders already. Civil conflict!

    The Greek example is really prime, the Empire broke up into four separate groups after Alexander died. Rome lasted longer, but, they broke up because of civil conflict and of course not respecting the Huns as their military force and hence the Huns sacked Rome. The point there being don’t outsource your military.

    The Sun never sets on the British empire? Well, insurrection by their colonies reduced the British empire back to the Island where they originated from, lol.

    You can’t say, that everything with every world power was identical, but the fact remains that they all over reached. They were all overextended! And as a result, civil insurrection befell all of them. Brought them to their knees.

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