Opinion

Opinion | What Drives Conspiracism

Here is an attempt to get at some of what’s behind conspiracism, the rising belief in and promotion of political conspiracy theories. In recent years those theories have been heavily associated with QAnon: that a cabal of child sexual abusers running a world-wide trafficking ring has been a major force in opposing Donald Trump; that “the storm,” the day the cabal is exposed and jailed, is coming. In the past year, it includes the charge the presidential election was stolen through state-by-state fraud. In the past week there is increasing talk of the coming “reinstatement,” in which proof of election fraud is revealed through state audits, previously reported results are overturned, and Donald Trump is inaugurated again.

Belief in these things is growing. An online poll this week from Ipsos reported 15% of Americans agree that the government, media and financial worlds are controlled by Satan-worshiping pedophiles. Not 15% of Republicans or conservatives, but of Americans. That’s a lot. Twenty percent believe in “the storm.” Axios last weekend quoted Russell Moore, the evangelical theologian, saying he talks every day to pastors of virtually every denomination “who are exhausted by these theories blowing through their churches.”

What is behind the growth of conspiracism? Many things. In no special order:

It is pleasurable to know and hold a higher knowledge—you get it, others don’t. In confusing times it’s good to have a Theory of Everything that explains it all to you. America has always had more than its share of cranks and crackpots—it’s the darker side of what gives us our gifts and original thinking. We’re open to the outlandish. America is a lonely place. When you hold to a conspiracy theory, you join a community. You’re suddenly part of something. You have new friends you can talk to on the internet to whom you’re joined at the brain. They see the world the way you do; it is a very intimate connection.

Church affiliation and practice have been falling for decades, but people always have a spiritual hole inside, and if God can’t fill it, Q will do. The unrealized and unhappy are always in search of a cause to distract themselves from the problems of their lives. And we like to be divided, too. We like to be in a fight—“Albion’s Seed”—and on a side. One of the enduring and revealing songs of America asks “Which side are you on / Which side are you on? / You go to Harlan County / There is no neutral there / You’ll either be a union man / Or a thug for J.H. Blair.”

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