This morning as we sat on the couch with our coffee, Stephanie looked up from her phone and asked, “Did we get right-wing propaganda in our mailbox this week?” She was referring to The Epoch Times, a well-funded anti-Chinese “newspaper” that has been one of Donald Trump’s biggest supporters. According to the Reddit thread she was reading, it has been showing up in mailboxes in Newfoundland. Curious, I stepped outside and checked—and sure enough, there it was.
As I flipped through it with distaste—seeing headlines claiming that Mark Zuckerberg donated $500M for the purposes of undermining the U.S. Election, or “With Coronavirus, Chinese Regime Launched a Geopolitical Masterstroke,” authored by none other than Conrad Black, and my personal favourite, “The Destructive Fallout of Male Emasculation” (to be distinguished, presumably, from female emasculation)—Stephanie read out loud some of the comments being made. While many of them were helpful suggestions about what to do with the paper, such as using it to kindle your wood stove or clean shit from your boots, there were of course the inevitable commenters yelling about how The Epoch Times got it right and that Canada is on its way to being a wholly owned subsidiary of the Chinese regime.
My favourite one, however, was the person castigating the naysayers with every conspiracy theorist’s favourite term of derision—“sheeple”—and suggesting that we wake up and engage in a little critical thinking for once.
I love it when conspiracists tell me to think critically, especially considering that I wrote a doctoral dissertation on conspiracy theory in American literature and popular culture. I appreciate the concern that we should think critically, but it’s the “wake up” that is the more familiar refrain of the conspiratorially-minded.
Conspiracist thinking is magical thinking: it is predicated on the promise of revelation. In this respect it possesses an element of religiosity, to say nothing of religious fervour. This should not, perhaps, be surprising, given that conspiracy is usually figured as vast, omnipresent, and omniscient, while simultaneously being all but invisible, revealing itself only in elusive but suggestive fragments that mean nothing to the casual observer but everything to the conspiracist. Belief in conspiracy thus functions as a kind of displaced theism. Sociologist Karl Popper suggested that conspiracism becomes more prevalent when societies become more secular—that with the waning of religion as a life-organizing principle, in its place there arise cabals of shadowy figures who are the true, secret power of the world. Or, as novelist Don DeLillo put it more succinctly, “Conspiracy is the new faith.”
Conspiracy as a trope in fiction is animated by the promise of revelation, that what was hidden will be seen. There is no more perfect articulation of this premise than a scene from Thomas Pynchon’s The Crying of Lot 49 when his protagonist Oedipa Maas—just before she is to get caught up in the machinations of the mysterious conspiratorial group the Tristero—has something approaching a vision when she looks down on the city of San Narciso:
She looked down a slope, needing to squint for the sunlight, onto a vast sprawl of houses which had grown up all together, like a well-tended crop, from the dull brown earth; and she thought of the time she’d opened a transistor radio to replace a battery and seen her first printed circuit. The ordered swirl of houses and streets, from this high angle, sprang at her now with the same unexpected, astonishing clarity as the circuit card had. Though she knew even less about radios than about Southern Californians, there were to both outward patterns a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning, of an intent to communicate. There’d seemed no limit to what the printed circuit could have told her (if she had tried to find out); so in her first minute of San Narciso, a revelation also trembled just past the threshold of her understanding.
Aside from being one of my favourite passages in prose fiction, Pynchon conveys the hallucinogenic quality of conspiracy, and its allure: the promise of secret and arcane knowledge (“a hieroglyphic sense of concealed meaning”).
If conspiracy in fiction trades on the promise of revelation, in real life conspiracism is animated by the conviction of having experienced that revelation, of having had the scales fall from one’s eyes and seen the true, malevolent shape of things. It’s not coincidental that one of the filmic touchstones of conspiracism, especially amongst its “men’s rights” iterations, is The Matrix—a film whose premise is a veritable apotheosis of the conspiratorial imagination. In it, the world as we know it is false, a computer program humanity inhabits that keeps them ignorant of the reality that they are being used by intelligent machines as a power source. The choice Morpheus gives Neo—a blue pill, that will let him remain blissfully ignorant, or a red pill, which will make him “wake up” to reality—has passed into conspiracist jargon. For the men’s rights advocates (MRAs) and other virulently anti-feminist fellow-travelers, to be “red-pilled” is to come to the realization that women effectively run the world and men are the true victims. Though the metaphor of the red pill is specific to the so-called manosphere, the sense of waking up to the true, conspiratorial reality of the world is held in common across the broad range of conspiratorial thinking.
Such thinking, I would hope it goes without saying, is the antithesis of critical thinking. It is the difference between theology and dogmatism, both of which entail a basis of faith—”the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen” (Hebrews 11:1)—but the former of which entails the intellectual labour of sorting through ethical and moral armatures by way of dialectical reasoning; the latter is slavish devotion to an idea and does not brook heresy.
Like unthinking piety, conspiracism is not easily persuaded by facts or logic. It is sobering to think of the number of American voters who probably agree with many of the policies Democrats mean to pursue in the coming years, but still voted for Trump because they just couldn’t get past the fact that Joe Biden is a human-trafficking pedophile who drinks the blood of children. That, in a nutshell, is the core belief of the QAnon fantasy: that such high-ranking democrats as Biden, Obama, and the Clintons are the heart of an evil cabal that also includes George Soros and economic and political elites the world over, and that Donald Trump is the bulwark against their malevolence, that he has been working throughout his presidency to bring these malefactors down. QAnon covers probably the largest amount of real estate on our conspiracy Venn diagram, but overlaps with the Proud Boys, neo-Nazis, Three Percenters, Oathkeepers, MRAs, and a host of others eluding my memory right now, in its anti-Semitism, white grievance and white supremacism, anti-feminism, anti-globalism, and above all in its veneration of Donald Trump—who has become an unlikely standard-bearer for all of these people.
Why Trump? How did such a preening, vain, manifestly physically unfit whiner whose only clothing choices seem to be overlarge blue suits and golfingwear become the object of adulation for hordes of masculinist ammosexuals given to paramilitary cosplay? I think there are any number of answers to that question—not least is the fact that he gave them license to say the quiet part of their racism and misogyny out loud—but I think a big one is that he’s the perfect amorphous vessel for their hatred, resentment, and longing for something that makes sense. In all of the articles I’ve read about the people who stormed the Capitol, all of the interviews with such people I’ve seen, not one person has offered a coherent account of what they want, and what sort of alternative they envision to the current system. They talk a lot about freedom and seem pretty convinced that Biden and his people are determined to take that freedom away, but nothing of what they say bears even a passing resemblance to reality. As for the “coup,” it further appears that the only concrete political goal they have is more Trump. In the QAnon lexicon, Trump is the “god-emperor,” and while that is typical of QAnon’s absurdly hyperbolic discourse, the larger MAGA devotion to him is indiscernible from religious fanaticism.
Which means that for a not-insignificant number of Americans, Donald Trump is their revealed truth. Which does not bode well for the Republic.