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.