BY Edwin Hodge
I remember the first interview I gave at the beginning of the COVID pandemic. The journalist was with the Canadian Press and looking for a sociologist to comment on the challenges posed by public health orders and isolation in the Canadian context. He wanted to know what the single greatest challenge to people might be; I think he was expecting to hear something about suicide rates, depression, or mental fatigue, so when I answered, “conspiracy theories,” he laughed.
“Conspiracy theories. Really?” I think he thought I was joking, and I didn’t blame him. For the most part, conspiratorial thinking occupies the very fringes of North American societies, where you tend to find an incredible array of people and movements—the 9/11 Truthers, the UFO believers, and the low-key anti-Semites peddling fears of “Globalists” or the Illuminati.
“Sure,” I told him. “The longer people are locked indoors, the more time they spend doomscrolling through social media, the greater their exposure to fringe ideas becomes. With so many people out of work or working from home, it’s inevitable that some of them will be drawn to conspiracies, at least some of which have the potential to lead to violence.” The journalist wrote a piece about the challenges that conspiracies posed to policymakers in Canada. Looking back at it nearly a year later, it’s clear I underestimated how far such conspiracies would spread.
By March 2020, QAnon and other extremist conspiratorial movements related to Trump, the election, and COVID-19 had already taken shape, and in the chaotic—often panic-fuelled—months to follow, other fringe beliefs bubbled up from some of the darker holes in the digital landscape. At first, they seemed disparate; some—like QAnon—were focused on then-president Trump’s supposed war on the “deep state”, while others pushed the increasingly mainstream Republican lie that the fall, 2020 elections would be rife with fraud, possibly even illegitimate. These were all covered to greater and lesser degrees by traditional media outlets, but what was perhaps less covered was the slow, steady convergence of these different patterns of conspiracy into a powerful new conspiratorial juggernaut. By the end of December, anywhere you found a Trump flag, you found QAnon, anti-maskers, and #StopTheSteal signs. More frustrating was how quickly some Republican politicians sought to grab hold of that tiger, thinking (in a myopic sort of way) to ride it to victory, with entirely predictable results.
There’s a good reason why forward-thinking politicians don’t court the conspiratorial elements of their preferred demographics: they’re unpredictable, and liable to turn on you when you least expect it. When it comes to movements like QAnon, that unpredictability has been welded to a kind of pared-down fascism that positions people unaffiliated with the movement not merely outside the wary circle of trust, but outside the universe of moral obligation for its members. From inside QAnon, anyone who disagrees with them is asleep, ignorant, foolish, or actively plotting against them; they aren’t just enemies, but existential threats to the group, to America, and possibly to the entire world of freedom loving people. That’s not an attractive demographic to court for political gain; it’s a bomb with a faulty and unpredictable trigger, and on January 6th, 2021, it went off.
This isn’t the first time that conspiratorial ideologies have driven American extremists to engage in violence. There has long been a strand of conspiratorial—even paranoid—belief in American politics. Throughout the 1980s and 1990s, anti-government militias and early “patriot” groups, fuelled by paranoid beliefs about government overreach and “One World” agendas organized protests and were even invited to speak before the U.S. Senate. Yet perhaps the most infamous cases of conspiratorial beliefs driving social action could be found in the work of people like Timothy McVeigh, architect of the Oklahoma City Bombing, or Gordon Kahl, a member of the Far-Right Posse Comitatus movement who was killed by police after a shootout that left two officers dead. It’s certainly been true that whole swaths of American White Supremacy have been built on a foundation of conspiratorial ideologies that purport to show how the United States has been controlled by everyone from the United Nationsto Jewish “Globalists” out to brainwash and control white people.
It’s not the aim of this essay to rehash the events leading up to the assault on the heart of American democracy; others will do that, and better. The purpose here is to answer a question being asked by policy makers and activists: what’s next? The answer is, in my view, more of what we’ve already seen; more extremism on the Far-Right; more conspiratorial movements; more challenges to traditional attitudes about things like “truth” and “fact.” Activists in the post-Trump era are faced with something terrifying: an open and explicit partnership forming between some Far-Right Republicans and the conspiratorial fringes of the Farther-Right. There have long been loose associations between mainstream parties in the United States and their conspiratorial fringes, but while historically both Democrats and Republicans have pushed those elements to the fringes of their respective parties, the GOP today seems more than willing to invite them in.
The post-Trump era is also increasingly the post-Truth era, where empirical facts are routinely challenged by internet know-nothings whose half-baked lies and specious arguments have managed to find people gullible enough to believe almost anything. In some corners of the internet there’s a term “crank magnetism” which refers to the tendency of conspiracy theorists to believe multiple different conspiracy theories at the same time, even if they’re contradictory. QAnon is a prime example of this, weaving disparate conspiracies about pedophilia, Hollywood, “the Globalists”, the deep state, Trump, COVID-19 and public health orders, and a host of others to form a conspiratorial Grand Unified Theory. The challenge to activists in the post-Trump era is how to counter movements whose members care little for empirical fact (or objective reality) and, worse, who increasingly have the support of elected members of the American government.
When we think about living in a “post-truth” world, we need to be honest about what we’re experiencing. We aren’t living in a world that knows the truth but chooses to lie; we’re living in a world where the truth doesn’t matter at all. The greatest challenge now is building consensus and reality-based activism in a society that increasingly sees truth as little more than someone else’s opinion, and that is a scary place to be.