After last year’s Capitol riot, commentators focused on the role allegedly played in the attack by the strange QAnon conspiracy. Dozens of those arrested for disorderly and violent behavior at the Capitol said they were QAnon believers.
Last year, the Brookings Institution declared that its “violent nature and [the] susceptibility of individuals to the conspiracy theory has made QAnon a significant threat to democracy.” In 2019 an FBI field office bulletin referred to QAnon as one of several conspiracy theories constituting a domestic terrorism threat. Political scientists Russell Muirhead and Nancy Rosenblum, in their 2019 study “A Lot of People Are Saying,” insisted that QAnon represents a “new conspiracism” in which bare assertions now replace theory and facts. The internet supercharges such assertions into even more outlandish and dangerous beliefs, they argued.
Does QAnon, and the many conspiracies like it, represent a unique threat to American democracy? Or, more likely, are conspiracies representative of a long tradition of American paranoid thinking that we have managed to live with?
A conspiracy theory is a belief in a plot secretly carried out by powerful people for some nefarious goal. These theories are constantly in the media, and we can find conspiracy theories on just about anything. Rare is the politician who doesn’t claim a conspiracy is behind some adverse circumstance, such as inflation or rising gas prices.
QAnon followers believe that since 2017, on message boards administered anonymously by an American and a South African, a government insider has been sending secret chat messages about a “deep state” plot of sex-trafficking pedophiles that only Donald Trump can stop. (Why pedophiles? Couldn’t they be philatelists?) Along the way, QAnon embraced many other conspiracy theories, including that the 2020 election was rigged in favor of President Biden.
A Conspiracy for Our Time
Weak on supporting evidence, QAnon’s genius is its low cost of entry. You could become adept on the message boards quickly, unlike, say, a conspiracist on the Kennedy assassination or Watergate, which require at least some command of facts and logic. QAnon seems the perfect conspiracy for our online, attention-deficit age.
QAnon never has been very popular. In 2020 most Americans rejected QAnon, with 57% saying it was “very bad” and 17% saying “somewhat bad,” according to the Pew Research Center. Still, the number of QAnon believers is astonishing. A 2021 poll by the Public Religion Research Institute indicated that 15% of Americans support the core QAnon belief that “the government, media and financial worlds in the U.S. are controlled by a group of Satan-worshipping pedophiles who run a global child sex trafficking operation.”
As for QAnon being a violent threat, the evidence is flimsy. Much of the reputation of QAnon for violence comes from its precursor, the 2016 “Pizzagate” incident in which a troubled man fired a shot in a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant believing that it was a front for sex trafficking. Harming no one, he quickly surrendered to authorities. The shooter’s conspiratorial beliefs inspired him to act, but his history of depression and drug abuse probably played a major role.
Not Prone to Violence
Besides the involvement of some followers in the Capitol riot, most QAnon incidents don’t constitute political violence, let alone terrorism. Experts at the University of Maryland’s National Consortium for the Study of Terrorism and Responses to Terrorism concluded that most QAnon-linked violence concerned interpersonal issues. “Nine of the 10 victims who have been killed or injured in QAnon-related attacks since 2018 had prior relationships with their assailants and all but two of the 10 victims were related to their attackers,” according to the study. Most QAnon crimes consisted of baseless threats, and few followers have demonstrated any capacity to successfully attack others. Of the millions of Americans sympathetic to QAnon beliefs, the authors conclude, only a tiny minority have acted out violently. Those who have appear to suffer from mental health issues. QAnon may be bizarre and unhealthy but calling it an inspiration for domestic terrorism appears far-fetched.
QAnon might be an extreme example, but Americans of all classes buy into some conspiracy theories. Consider how many journalists, politicians and security experts fell for the theory that Trump might have been a Russian asset, which included former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper and former CIA Director John Brennan. The “Truther” conspiracy that the U.S. government contrived 9/11 has a large following in Hollywood. Academia is susceptible to conspiracy theories too. All versions of “Critical Theory” posit a non-falsifiable narrative of a society at war, with one class seeking to dominate another. Linguistics theorist Noam Chomsky has made a second career out of blaming the U.S. for nearly all the world’s ills.
Conspiracy theories represent a large pool of fallacies that Americans have long found persuasive. They might be based on a poor premise (“international cabal of sex traffickers”), lack of common sense (“I can’t **** figure out what the theory is here,” William Barr told Trump about his electoral fraud claims), lack of simplicity (Oliver Stone’s elaborate CIA-coup d’état theory about the Kennedy assassination), or leaps of logic (why would Barack Obama’s parents have arranged for a fake Hawaii birth certificate?)
As conspiracy theory researcher Joseph Uscinski explains, some people instinctively reject authoritative information sources and others feel disconnected from the political system. But he doubts that Americans are more susceptible to these theories today than in the past. University of Chicago researchers J. Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood contend that national surveys from 2006-2011 show that “over half of the American population consistently endorses some kind of conspiratorial narrative about a current political event or phenomenon and that these attitudes are predicted by supernatural, paranormal and Manichean sentiments.” Oliver and Wood conclude that far from being cranky outliers, conspiracists make up a significant body of American public opinion.
With guaranteed free speech and a free press, the U.S. offers a haven for conspiracy entrepreneurs to publish and promote their theories. Alex Jones, the sinister genius behind Infowars and the Sandy-Hook-massacre-as-government-plot conspiracy, has many fathers. Years ago, the science fiction writer Charles Fort pushed many theories on paranormal phenomena against conventional science and gained a sizable following. In the 1970s, Robert Anton Wilson gave new life to the 18th century Illuminati conspiracy. Writer Bill Kaysing in “We Never Went to the Moon” invented the faked-Apollo moon landing conspiracy. The conspiracy gadfly Richard Gage is a major voice behind the 9/11 Truther movement. The modern anti-vax conspiracy originated with a now-discredited article by Dr. Andrew Wakefield in the British medical journal Lancet and found a home in the U.S. With all due respect to Muirhead and Rosenblum’s “new conspiracism” argument, many of these older conspiracies have as much contempt for facts as QAnon.
Elections Are Always Rigged
Americans have long entertained conspiracy theories to explain election outcomes. Both Republicans and Democrats often believe the other party is somehow rigging the results. Uscinski cites a 2012 poll in which 62% of respondents blamed election fraud as having caused their preferred candidate to lose. He says the more one believes in conspiracy theories, the more likely a belief in electoral fraud.
Richard M. Nixon thought the 1960 presidential election was rigged in John F. Kennedy’s favor, and some Americans still believe this, despite slim evidence. After the 1980 presidential election, National Security Council staffer Gary Sick advanced the theory of an “October Surprise” in which the Reagan campaign team plotted with Revolutionary Iran to keep U.S. diplomats hostage until after the election so President Jimmy Carter wouldn’t get a boost in the polls. Two congressional investigations concluded that the theory was baseless. Many Democrats still see the 2000 election result as fraudulent, after the Supreme Court ordered a halt to Florida’s recounts. Hillary Clinton holds the Russians responsible for Trump’s 2016 victory, and Trump believes that a vast Democratic conspiracy threw the 2020 election to Biden.
All of these elections ended with the winning candidate taking office and the public, albeit grudgingly, accepting the outcome. Perhaps that’s a good sign we should not put too much weight on the persuasiveness of conspiracy theories in overtaking most Americans’ innate common sense. That doesn’t stop analysts, however, from exaggerating the theories’ impact.
A Rumor of War
Take for example “Jade Helm 15,” a 2015 military wargame in southwestern states in which 1,200 special forces practiced irregular warfare against designated targets. Some conspiracists got their hands on the map, which seemed to show an assault on “red” states, a notion eagerly promoted by Jones’ Infowars. To appease some worried constituents, Texas’ governor asked the Texas State Militia to observe the exercise. Texas media outlets covered the operation, and The New York Times got it right when it concluded that most Texans didn’t pay Jade Helm much attention. As a Texas resident at the time, I never heard anyone mention it. Most Texans strongly support the military and saw the exercise for what it was.
Nevertheless, Muirhead and Rosenblum prominently feature Jade Helm in “A Lot of People Are Saying” as a conspiracy theory that unduly panicked people. Even a former director of the CIA, Michael Hayden, claimed the Russians probably saw the alleged disinformation success of Jade Helm as encouragement to disrupt the 2016 presidential election.
There is no denying the damage done by some conspiracy theories. Jews and other minorities have long borne the brunt of many odious conspiracies, as Charles Lipson detailed in Discourse last year. The Manichean worldview often associated with these theories isn’t conducive to accepting democratic outcomes and could inspire violence.
It is hard to argue that more education will solve this problem. Some 90% of people in the U.S. age 25 or older have completed high school, the best level in history. More Americans have bachelor’s degrees or advanced degrees than ever before.
Democracy Soldiers On
Perhaps more resources committed to mental health might help limit the ill effects of malignant conspiracy theories. Social media companies also could change their algorithms to avoid encouraging conspiracists to visit similar sites. Muirhead and Rosenblum urge politicians to “speak truth to conspiracism” by acting more publicly respectful of processes and institutions.
We should nevertheless avoid being too dismissive of some conspiracy theories. The widely ridiculed 1940s and ’50s “Red Scare” about communist infiltration of the U.S. government was validated by the release of the National Security Agency’s Venona intercepts in the 1990s. Even arch-conspiracist Donald Trump appears to be right that the U.S. government spied on his 2016 presidential campaign. And we still are far from having all the CIA and FBI files on the Kennedy assassination declassified.
Although solutions to more toxic conspiracy theories may be elusive, we should take some solace in that American democracy today is more inclusive and representative than ever. The turnout for national elections has been rising. In 2020, despite a pre-election barrage of propaganda that the election might be fixed, 66.8% of eligible Americans went to the polls, the best turnout of this century. Americans may say they believe elections are stolen, but they act as if voting matters. Somehow, our habitual dabbling in conspiracy theories hasn’t overtaken our common sense.