It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of stylemind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.
Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.
Now turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:
As early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. . . . Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.
Next, a Texas newspaper article of 1855:
. . . It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. . . . The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States. . . . These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here. . . .
These quotations give the keynote of the style. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.
Illuminism and Masonry
I begin with a particularly revealing episode—the panic that broke out in some quarters at the end of the eighteenth century over the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati. This panic was a part of the general reaction to the French Revolution. In the United States it was heightened by the response of certain men, mostly in New England and among the established clergy, to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt. Its teachings today seem to be no more than another version of Enlightenment rationalism, spiced with the anticlerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria. It was a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason. Its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges.
Americans first learned of Illuminism in 1797, from a volume published in Edinburgh (later reprinted in New York) under the title, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Its author was a well-known Scottish scientist, John Robison, who had himself been a somewhat casual adherent of Masonry in Britain, but whose imagination had been inflamed by what he considered to be the far less innocent Masonic movement on the Continent. Robison seems to have made his work as factual as he could, but when he came to estimating the moral character and the political influence of Illuminism, he made the characteristic paranoid leap into fantasy. The association, he thought, was formed “for the express purpose of rooting out all religious establishments, and overturning all the existing governments of Europe.” It had become “one great and wicked project fermenting and working all over Europe.” And to it he attributed a central role in bringing about the French Revolution. He saw it as a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”
These notions were quick to make themselves felt in America. In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, delivered a timely sermon to the young country, which was then sharply divided between Jeffersonians and Federalists, Francophiles and Anglomen. Having read Robison, Morse was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.
The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s and the 1830s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati. But whereas the panic of the 1790s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultraconservative point of view, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States, and was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. Although anti-Masonry happened to be anti-Jacksonian (Jackson was a Mason), it manifested the same animus against the closure of opportunity for the common man and against aristocratic institutions that one finds in the Jacksonian crusade against the Bank of the United States.
The anti-Masonic movement was a product not merely of natural enthusiasm but also of the vicissitudes of party politics. It was joined and used by a great many men who did not fully share its original anti-Masonic feelings. It attracted the support of several reputable statemen who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it. Still, it was a folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly.
The Paranoid Style in ActionThe John Birch Society is attempting to suppress a television series about the United Nations by means of a mass letter-writing campaign to the sponsor, . . . The Xerox Corporation. The corporation, however, intends to go ahead with the programs. . . .
The July issue of the John Birch Society Bulletin . . . said an “avalanche of mail ought to convince them of the unwisdom of their proposed action—just as United Air Lines was persuaded to back down and take the U.N. insignia off their planes.” (A United Air Lines spokesman confirmed that the U.N. emblem was removed from its planes, following “considerable public reaction against it.”)
Birch official John Rousselot said, “We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1964
As a secret society, Masonry was considered to be a standing conspiracy against republican government. It was held to be particularly liable to treason—for example, Aaron Burr’s famous conspiracy was alleged to have been conducted by Masons. Masonry was accused of constituting a separate system of loyalty, a separate imperium within the framework of federal and state governments, which was inconsistent with loyalty to them. Quite plausibly it was argued that the Masons had set up a jurisdiction of their own, with their own obligations and punishments, liable to enforcement even by the penalty of death. So basic was the conflict felt to be between secrecy and democracy that other, more innocent societies such as Phi Beta Kappa came under attack.
Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, it was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law. Masonic constables, sheriffs, juries, and judges must all be in league with Masonic criminals and fugitives. The press was believed to have been so “muzzled” by Masonic editors and proprietors that news of Masonic malfeasance could be suppressed. At a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault, Masonry was attacked as a fraternity of the privileged, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices.
Certain elements of truth and reality there may have been in these views of Masonry. What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. Anti-Masons were not content simply to say that secret societies were rather a bad idea. The author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man. . . . It may truly be said to be Hell’s master piece.”
The Jesuit Threat
Fear of a Masonic plot had hardly been quieted when the rumors arose of a Catholic plot against American values. One meets here again the same frame of mind, but a different villain. The anti-Catholic movement converged with a growing nativism, and while they were not identical, together they cut such a wide swath in American life that they were bound to embrace many moderates to whom the paranoid style, in its full glory, did not appeal. Moreover, we need not dismiss out of hand as totally parochial or mean-spirited the desire of Yankee Americans to maintain an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society nor the particular Protestant commitments to individualism and freedom that were brought into play. But the movement had a large paranoid infusion, and the most influential anti-Catholic militants certainly had a strong affinity for the paranoid style.
Two books which appeared in 1835 described the new danger to the American way of life and may be taken as expressions of the anti-Catholic mentality. One, Foreign Conspiracies against the Liberties of the United States, was from the hand of the celebrated painter and inventor of the telegraph, S.F.B. Morse. “A conspiracy exists,” Morse proclaimed , and “its plans are already in operation . . . we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts, or our armies.” The main source of the conspiracy Morse found in Metternich’s government: “Austria is now acting in this country. She has devised a grand scheme. She has organized a great plan for doing something here. . . . She has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money, and has furnished a fountain for a regular supply.” Were the plot successful, Morse said, some scion of the House of Hapsburg would soon be installed as Emperor of the United States.
“It is an ascertained fact,” wrote another Protestant militant,
that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.
Lyman Beecher, the elder of a famous family and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in the same year his Plea for the West, in which he considered the possibility that the Christian millennium might come in the American states. Everything depended, in his judgment, upon what influences dominated the great West, where the future of the country lay. There Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly. . . . ” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.” Many anti-Masons had been fascinated by the penalties involved if Masons failed to live up to their obligations. My own favorite is the oath attributed to a royal archmason who invited “having my skull smote off and my brains exposed to the scorching rays of the sun.”
Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths, the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.
Anti-Catholicism, like anti-Masonry, mixed its fortunes with American party politics, and it became an enduring factor in American politics. The American Protective Association of the 1890s revived it with ideological variations more suitable to the times—the depression of 1893, for example, was alleged to be an international creation of the Catholics who began it by starting a run on the banks. Some spokesmen of the movement circulated a bogus encyclical attributed to Leo XIII instructing American Catholics on a certain date in 1893 to exterminate all heretics, and a great many anti-Catholics daily expected a nationwide uprising. The myth of an impending Catholic war of mutilation and extermination of heretics persisted into the twentieth century.
Why They Feel Dispossessed
If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion. The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centers of American power. Their predecessors had discovered conspiracies; the modern radical right finds conspiracy to be betrayal from on high.
Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.
Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, the real mystery, for one who reads the primary works of paranoid scholarship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dangerous position but how it has managed to survive at all.
The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.
The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.
Perhaps the most representative document of the McCarthyist phase was a long indictment of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, delivered in 1951 in the Senate by senator McCarthy, and later published in a somewhat different form. McCarthy pictured Marshall as the focal figure in a betrayal of American interests stretching in time from the strategic plans for World War II to the formulation of the Marshall Plan. Marshal was associated with practically every American failure or defeat, McCarthy insisted, and none of this was either accident or incompetence. There was a “baffling pattern” of Marshall’s interventions in the war, which always conduced to the well-being of the Kremlin. The sharp decline in America’s relative strength from 1945 to 1951 did not “just happen”; it was “brought about, step by step, by will and intention,” the consequence not of mistakes but of a treasonous conspiracy, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Today, the mantle of McCarthy has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator. A few years ago Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our government”—note the care and scrupulousness of that “almost.” He has offered a full scale interpretation of our recent history in which Communists figure at every turn: They started a run on American banks in 1933 that forced their closure; they contrived the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in the same year, just in time to save the Soviets from economic collapse; they have stirred up the fuss over segregation in the South; they have taken over the Supreme Court and made it “one of the most important agencies of Communism.”
Close attention to history wins for Mr. Welch an insight into affairs that is given to few of us. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” he wrote some years ago, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” The job of Professor Arthur F. Burns as head of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors was “merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bosses.” Eisenhower’s brother Milton was “actually [his] superior and boss within the Communist party.” As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Emulating the Enemy
The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms—he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. The paranoid’s interpretation of history is distinctly personal: decisive events are not taken as part of the stream of history, but as the consequences of someone’s will. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
In his recent book, How to Win an Election, Stephen C. Shadegg cites a statement attributed to Mao Tse-tung: “Give me just two or three men in a village and I will take the village.” Shadegg comments: “ In the Goldwater campaigns of 1952 and 1958 and in all other campaigns where I have served as consultant I have followed the advice of Mao Tse-tung.” “I would suggest,” writes senator Goldwater in Why Not Victory? “that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.
On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.
Renegades and Pedants
A special significance attaches to the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause. The anti-Masonic movement seemed at times to be the creation of ex-Masons; certainly the highest significance was attributed to their revelations, and every word they said was believed. Anti-Catholicism used the runaway nun and the apostate priest; the place of ex-Communists in the avant-garde anti-Communist movements of our time is well known. In some part, the special authority accorded the renegade derives from the obsession with secrecy so characteristics of such movements: the renegade is the man or woman who has been in the Arcanum, and brings forth with him or her the final verification of suspicions which might otherwise have been doubted by a skeptical world. But I think there is a deeper eschatological significance that attaches to the person of the renegade: in the spiritual wrestling match between good and evil which is the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world, the renegade is living proof that all the conversions are not made by the wrong side. He brings with him the promise of redemption and victory.
A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates “evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.
Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivable pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.
The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies. Sometimes the right-wing striving for scholarly depth and an inclusive world view has startling consequences: Mr. Welch, for example, has charged that the popularity of Arnold Toynbee’s historical work is the consequence of a plot on the part of Fabians, “Labour party bosses in England,” and various members of the Anglo-American “liberal establishment” to overshadow the much more truthful and illuminating work of Oswald Spengler.
The Double Sufferer
The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies:
- “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect,
- wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet
- assured of ultimate triumph; the
- attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary;
- the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral;
- the obsession with inerrable prophecies . . . systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”
This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.
Since 2016, the Falun Gong-backed newspaper has used aggressive Facebook tactics and right-wing misinformation to create an anti-China, pro-Trump media empire.
For years, The Epoch Times was a small, low-budget newspaper with an anti-China slant that was handed out free on New York street corners. But in 2016 and 2017, the paper made two changes that transformed it into one of the country’s most powerful digital publishers.
The changes also paved the way for the publication, which is affiliated with the secretive and relatively obscure Chinese spiritual movement Falun Gong, to become a leading purveyor of right-wing misinformation.
First, it embraced President Trump, treating him as an ally in Falun Gong’s scorched-earth fight against China’s ruling Communist Party, which banned the group two decades ago and has persecuted its members ever since. Its relatively staid coverage of U.S. politics became more partisan, with more articles explicitly supporting Mr. Trump and criticizing his opponents.
Around the same time, The Epoch Times bet big on another powerful American institution: Facebook. The publication and its affiliates employed a novel strategy that involved creating dozens of Facebook pages, filling them with feel-good videos and viral clickbait, and using them to sell subscriptions and drive traffic back to its partisan news coverage.
In an April 2017 email to the staff obtained by The New York Times, the paper’s leadership envisioned that the Facebook strategy could help turn The Epoch Times into “the world’s largest and most authoritative media.” It could also introduce millions of people to the teachings of Falun Gong, fulfilling the group’s mission of “saving sentient beings.”
Today, The Epoch Times and its affiliates are a force in right-wing media, with tens of millions of social media followers spread across dozens of pages and an online audience that rivals those of The Daily Caller and Breitbart News, and with a similar willingness to feed the online fever swamps of the far right.
It also has growing influence in Mr. Trump’s inner circle. The president and his family have shared articles from the paper on social media, and Trump administration officials have sat for interviews with its reporters. In August, a reporter from The Epoch Times asked a question at a White House press briefing.
It is a remarkable success story for Falun Gong, which has long struggled to establish its bona fides against Beijing’s efforts to demonize it as an “evil cult,” partly because its strident accounts of persecution in China can sometimes be difficult to substantiate or veer into exaggeration. In 2006, an Epoch Times reporter disrupted a White House visit by the Chinese president by shouting, “Evil people will die early.”
Stephen K. Bannon, Mr. Trump’s former chief strategist and a former chairman of Breitbart, said in an interview in July that The Epoch Times’s fast growth had impressed him.
“They’ll be the top conservative news site in two years,” said Mr. Bannon, who was arrested on fraud charges in August. “They punch way above their weight, they have the readers, and they’re going to be a force to be reckoned with.”
But the organization and its affiliates have grown, in part, by relying on sketchy social media tactics, pushing dangerous conspiracy theories and downplaying their connection to Falun Gong, an investigation by The Times has found. The investigation included interviews with more than a dozen former Epoch Times employees, as well as internal documents and tax filings. Many of these people spoke on the condition of anonymity because they feared retaliation, or still had family in Falun Gong.
Embracing Mr. Trump and Facebook has made The Epoch Times a partisan powerhouse. But it has also created a global-scale misinformation machine that has repeatedly pushed fringe narratives into the mainstream.
The publication has been one of the most prominent promoters of “Spygate,” a baseless conspiracy theory involving claims that Obama administration officials illegally spied on Mr. Trump’s 2016 campaign. Publications and shows linked to The Epoch Times have promoted the QAnon conspiracy theory and spread distorted claims about voter fraud and the Black Lives Matter movement. More recently, they have promoted the unfounded theory that the coronavirus — which the publication calls the “CCP Virus,” in an attempt to link it to the Chinese Communist Party — was created as a bioweapon in a Chinese military lab.
The Epoch Times says it is independent and nonpartisan, and it rejects the suggestion that it is officially affiliated with Falun Gong.
Like Falun Gong itself, the newspaper — which publishes in dozens of countries — is decentralized and operates as a cluster of regional chapters, each organized as a separate nonprofit. It is also extraordinarily secretive. Editors at The Epoch Times turned down multiple requests for interviews, and a reporter’s unannounced visit to the outlet’s Manhattan headquarters this year was met with a threat from a lawyer.
Representatives for Li Hongzhi, the leader of Falun Gong, did not respond to requests for comment. Neither did other residents of Dragon Springs, the compound in upstate New York that serves as Falun Gong’s spiritual headquarters.
Many employees and Falun Gong practitioners contacted by The Times said they were instructed not to divulge details of the outlet’s inner workings. They said they had been told that speaking negatively about The Epoch Times would be tantamount to disobeying Mr. Li, who is known by his disciples as “Master.”
The Epoch Times provided only partial answers to a long list of questions sent to its media office, and declined to answer questions about its finances and editorial strategy. In an email, which was not signed, the outlet accused The Times of “defaming and diminishing a competitor” and displaying “a subtle form of religious intimidation if not bigotry” by linking the publication to Falun Gong.
“The Epoch Times will not be intimidated and will not be silenced,” the outlet added, “and based on the number of falsehoods and inaccuracies included in the New York Times questions we will consider all legal options in response.”
Clarifying the Truth
Falun Gong, which Mr. Li introduced in China in 1992, revolves around a series of five meditation exercises and a process of moral self-improvement that is meant to lead to spiritual enlightenment. Today, the group is known for the demonstrations it holds around the world to “clarify the truth” about the Chinese Communist Party, which it accuses of torturing Falun Gong practitioners and harvesting the organs of those executed. (Tens of thousands across China were sent to labor camps in the early years of the crackdown, and the group’s presence there is now much diminished.)
More recently, Falun Gong has come under scrutiny for what some former practitioners have characterized as an extreme belief system that forbids interracial marriage, condemns homosexuality and discourages the use of modern medicine, all allegations the group denies.
When The Epoch Times got its start in 2000, the goal was to counter Chinese propaganda and cover Falun Gong’s persecution by the Chinese government. It began as a Chinese-language newspaper run out of the Georgia basement of John Tang, a graduate student and Falun Gong practitioner.
By 2004, The Epoch Times had expanded into English. One of the paper’s early hires was Genevieve Belmaker, then a 27-year-old Falun Gong practitioner with little journalism experience. Ms. Belmaker, now 43, described the early Epoch Times as a cross between a scrappy media start-up and a zealous church bulletin, with a staff composed mostly of unpaid volunteers drawn from the local Falun Gong chapters.
“The mission-driven part of it was, let’s have a media outlet that not only tells the truth about Falun Gong but about everything,” Ms. Belmaker said.
Mr. Li, Falun Gong’s founder, also saw it that way. In speeches, he referred to The Epoch Times and other Falun Gong-linked outlets — including the New Tang Dynasty TV station, or NTD — as “our media,” and said they could help publicize Falun Gong’s story and values around the world.
Two former employees recalled that the paper’s top editors had traveled to Dragon Springs to meet with Mr. Li. One employee who attended a meeting said Mr. Li had weighed in on editorial and strategic decisions, acting as a kind of shadow publisher. The Epoch Times denied these accounts, saying in a statement, “There has been no such meeting.”
The line between The Epoch Times and Falun Gong is blurry at times. Two former Epoch Times reporters said they had been asked to write flattering profiles of foreign performers being recruited into Shen Yun, the heavily advertised dance performance series that Falun Gong backs, because it would strengthen those performers’ visa applications. Another former Epoch Times reporter recalled being assigned to write critical articles about politicians including John Liu, a Taiwanese-American former New York City councilman whom the group viewed as soft on China and hostile to Falun Gong.
These articles helped Falun Gong advance its goals, but they lured few subscribers.
Matthew K. Tullar, a former sales director for The Epoch Times’s Orange County edition in New York, wrote on his LinkedIn page that his team initially “printed 800 papers each week, had no subscribers, and utilized a ‘throw it in their driveway for free’ marketing strategy.” Mr. Tullar did not respond to requests for comment.
Ms. Belmaker, who left the paper in 2017, described it as a bare-bones operation that was always searching for new moneymaking ventures.
“It was very short-term thinking,” she said. “We weren’t looking more than three weeks down the road.”
A Trump Pivot
By 2014, The Epoch Times was edging closer to Mr. Li’s vision of a respectable news outlet. Subscriptions were growing, the paper’s reporting was winning journalism awards, and its finances were stabilizing.
“There was all this optimism that things were going to level up,” Ms. Belmaker said.
But at a staff meeting in 2015, leadership announced that the publication was in trouble again, Ms. Belmaker recalled. Facebook had changed its algorithm for determining which articles appeared in users’ newsfeeds, and The Epoch Times’s traffic and ad revenue were suffering.
In response, the publication assigned reporters to churn out as many as five posts a day in a search for viral hits, often lowbrow fare with titles like “Grizzly Bear Does Belly Flop Into a Swimming Pool.”
“It was a competition for traffic,” Ms. Belmaker said.
As the 2016 election neared, reporters noticed that the paper’s political coverage took on a more partisan tone.
Steve Klett, who covered the 2016 campaign for the paper, said his editors had encouraged favorable coverage about Mr. Trump after he won the Republican nomination.
“They seemed to have this almost messianic way of viewing Trump as the anti-Communist leader who would bring about the end of the Chinese Communist Party,” Mr. Klett said.
After Mr. Trump’s victory, The Epoch Times hired Brendan Steinhauser, a well-connected Tea Party strategist, to help make inroads with conservatives. Mr. Steinhauser said the organization’s goal, beyond raising its profile in Washington, had been to make Falun Gong’s persecution a Trump administration priority.
“They wanted more people in Washington to be aware of how the Chinese Communist Party operates, and what it has done to spiritual and ethnic minorities,” Mr. Steinhauser said.
All In on Facebook
Behind the scenes, The Epoch Times was also developing a secret weapon: a Facebook growth strategy that would ultimately help take its message to millions.
According to emails reviewed by The Times, the Facebook plan was developed by Trung Vu, the former head of The Epoch Times’s Vietnamese edition, known as Dai Ky Nguyen, or DKN.
In Vietnam, Mr. Trung’s strategy involved filling a network of Facebook pages with viral videos and pro-Trump propaganda, some of it lifted word for word from other sites, and using automated software, or bots, to generate fake likes and shares, a former DKN employee said. Employees used fake accounts to run the pages, a practice that violated Facebook’s rules but that Mr. Trung said was necessary to protect employees from Chinese surveillance, the former employee said.
Mr. Trung did not respond to requests for comment.
According to the 2017 email sent to Epoch Times workers in America, the Vietnamese experiment was a “remarkable success” that made DKN one of the largest publishers in Vietnam.
The outlet, the email claimed, was “having a profound impact on saving sentient beings in that country.”
The Vietnamese team was asked to help Epoch Media Group — the umbrella organization for Falun Gong’s biggest U.S. media properties — set up its own Facebook empire, according to that email. That year, dozens of new Facebook pages appeared, all linked to The Epoch Times and its affiliates. Some were explicitly partisan, others positioned themselves as sources of real and unbiased news, and a few, like a humor page called “Funniest Family Moments,” were disconnected from news entirely.
Perhaps the most audacious experiment was a new right-wing politics site called America Daily.
Today, the site, which has more than a million Facebook followers, peddles far-right misinformation. It has posted anti-vaccine screeds, an article falsely claiming that Bill Gates and other elites are “directing” the Covid-19 pandemic and allegations about a “Jewish mob” that controls the world.
Emails obtained by The Times show that John Nania, a longtime Epoch Times editor, was involved in starting America Daily, along with executives from Sound of Hope, a Falun Gong-affiliated radio network. Records on Facebook show that the page is operated by the Sound of Hope Network, and a pinned post on its Facebook page contains a promotional video for Falun Gong.
In a statement, The Epoch Times said it had “no business relationship” with America Daily.
Many of the Facebook pages operated by The Epoch Times and its affiliates followed a similar trajectory. They began by posting viral videos and uplifting news articles aggregated from other sites. They grew quickly, sometimes adding hundreds of thousands of followers a week. Then, they were used to steer people to buy Epoch Times subscriptions and promote more partisan content.
Several of the pages gained significant followings “seemingly overnight,” said Renee DiResta, a disinformation researcher with the Stanford Internet Observatory. Many posts were shared thousands of times but received almost no comments — a ratio, Ms. DiResta said, that is typical of pages that have been boosted by “click farms,” firms that generate fake traffic by paying people to click on certain links over and over again.
The Epoch Times denies using click farms or other illicit tactics to expand its pages. “The Epoch Times’s social media strategies were different from DKN, and used Facebook’s own promotional tools to gain an increased organic following,” the outlet said, adding that The Epoch Times cut ties with Mr. Trung in 2018.
But last year, The Epoch Times was barred from advertising on Facebook — where it had spent more than $1.5 million over seven months — after the social network announced that the outlet’s pages had evaded its transparency requirements by disguising its ad purchases.
This year, Facebook took down more than 500 pages and accounts linked to Truth Media, a network of anti-China pages that had been using fake accounts to amplify their messages. The Epoch Times denied any involvement, but Facebook’s investigators said Truth Media “showed some links to on-platform activity by Epoch Media Group and NTD.”
“We’ve taken enforcement actions against Epoch Media and related groups several times,” said a Facebook spokeswoman, who added that the social network would punish the outlet if it violated more rules in the future.
Since being barred from advertising on Facebook, The Epoch Times has moved much of its operation to YouTube, where it has spent more than $1.8 million on ads since May 2018, according to Google’s public database of political advertising.
Where the paper’s money comes from is something of a mystery. Former employees said they had been told that The Epoch Times was financed by a combination of subscriptions, ads and donations from wealthy Falun Gong practitioners. In 2018, the most recent year for which the organization’s tax returns are publicly available, The Epoch Times Association received several sizable donations, but none big enough to pay for a multimillion-dollar ad blitz.
Mr. Bannon is among those who have noticed The Epoch Times’s deep pockets. Last year, he produced a documentary about China with NTD. When he talked with the outlet about other projects, he said, money never seemed to be an issue.
“I’d give them a number,” Mr. Bannon said. “And they’d come back and say, ‘We’re good for that number.’”
‘The Moral Objective Is Gone’
The Epoch Times’s pro-Trump turn has upset some former employees, like Ms. Belmaker.
Ms. Belmaker, now a freelance writer and editor, still believes in many of Falun Gong’s teachings, she said. But she has grown disenchanted with The Epoch Times, which she sees as running contrary to Falun Gong’s core principles of truth, compassion and tolerance.
“The moral objective is gone,” she said. “They’re on the wrong side of history, and I don’t think they care.”
Recently, The Epoch Times has shifted its focus to the coronavirus. It pounced on China’s missteps in the early days of the pandemic, and its reporters wrote about misreported virus statistics and Chinese influence in the World Health Organization.
Some of these articles were true. But others pushed exaggerated or false claims, like the unproven theory that the virus was engineered in a lab as part of a Chinese biological warfare strategy.
Some of the claims were repeated in a documentary that both NTD and The Epoch Times posted on YouTube, where it has been viewed more than five million times. The documentary features the discredited virologist Judy Mikovits, who also starred in the viral “Plandemic” video, which Facebook, YouTube and other social platforms pulled this year for spreading false claims.
The Epoch Times said, “In our documentary we offered a range of evidence and viewpoints without drawing any conclusions.”
Ms. Belmaker, who still keeps a photo of Master Li on a shelf in her house, said she recoiled whenever an ad for The Epoch Times popped up on YouTube promoting some new partisan talking point.
One recent video, “Digging Beneath Narratives,” is a two-minute infomercial about China’s mishandling of the coronavirus. The ad’s host says The Epoch Times has an “underground network of sources” in China providing information about the government’s response to the virus.
It’s a plausible claim, but the video’s host makes no mention of The Epoch Times’s ties to Falun Gong, or its two-decade-long campaign against Chinese communism, saying only that the paper is “giving you an accurate picture of what’s happening in this world.”
“We tell it like it is,” he says.
Millions of Americans continue to actively participate in multiple conspiracy theories. Why?
A conspiracy theory promulgated by Donald Trump, the loser of the 2020 presidential election, has gripped American politics since Nov. 3. It has been willingly adopted by millions of his followers, as well as by a majority of Republican members of Congress — 145 to 108 — and by thousands of Republican state and local officials, all of whom have found it expedient to capitulate to the fantastical claim that the election was stolen by the Democratic Party, its officeholders, operatives and supporters.
Trump’s sprawling conspiracy theory is “being reborn as the new normal of the Republican Party,” Justin Ling wrote in Foreign Policy on Jan. 6.
A Dec 30 NPR/Ipsos poll found that “recent misinformation, including false claims related to Covid-19 and QAnon, are gaining a foothold among some Americans.”
According to the survey, nearly a fifth of American adults, 17 percent, believe that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.” Almost a third “believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.” Even more, 39 percent, agree that “there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.”
The spread of these beliefs has wrought havoc — as demonstrated by the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, as well as by the overwhelming support Republicans continue to offer to the former president.
Well before the election, on Aug. 22, 2020, my news-side colleagues Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman described the rising strength of conspiracists in Republican ranks in “The Republican Embrace of QAnon Goes Far Beyond Trump”:
A small but growing number of Republicans — including a heavily favored Republican congressional candidate in Georgia — are donning the QAnon mantle, ushering its adherents in from the troll-infested fringes of the internet and potentially transforming the wild conspiracy theory into an offline political movement, with supporters running for Congress and flexing their political muscle at the state and local levels.
Conspiracy theorists are by definition irrational, contradictory and inconsistent. Polarization, the Covid-19 pandemic and the specter of economic collapse have engendered suspicion. Many on the right see “liberal elites” pulling strings behind closed doors, and paranoia flourishes.
According to Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders, professors of political science at the University of Miami and the University of Louisville, conspiracy theorists do not “hold coherent, constrained policy positions.” In “Who Supports QAnon? A Case Study in Political Extremism,” Uscinski explores what he identifies as some of the characteristics of the QAnon movement: “Support for QAnon is born more of antisocial personality traits and a predisposition toward conspiracy thinking than traditional political identities and motivations,” he writes, before going on to argue that
While QAnon supporters are “extreme,” they are not so in the ideological sense. Rather, QAnon support is best explained by conspiratorial worldviews and a predisposition toward other nonnormative behavior.
Uscinski found a substantial 0.413 correlation between those who support or sympathize with QAnon and “dark” personality traits, leading him to conclude that “the type of extremity that undergirds such support has less to do with traditional, left/right political concerns and more to do with extreme, antisocial psychological orientations and behavioral patterns.”
The illogic of conspiracy theorists is clear in the findings of a 2012 research paper, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” by Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, members of the psychology department at the University of Kent, and Michael J. Wood, a former Kent colleague. The authors found that a large percentage of people drawn to conspiracy thinking are willing to endorse “mutually incompatible conspiracy theories.”
In one study, for example, “the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. Special Forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive.” In another study, “the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.” For those who hold such beliefs, the authors wrote, “the specifics of a conspiracy theory do not matter as much as the fact that it is a conspiracy theory at all.”
Douglas, in an email, wrote that “people are attracted to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not being met.” She identified three such needs: “the need for knowledge and certainty”; the “existential need” to “to feel safe and secure” when “powerless and scared”; and, among those high in narcissism, the “need to feel unique compared to others.”
Uscinski and two collaborators, in their 2016 paper, “What Drives Conspiratorial Beliefs? The Role of Informational Cues and Predispositions,” describe how they identify likely conspiracy believers by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statements:
- “Events like wars, the recession, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us”;
- “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places”;
- “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway”;
- “The people who really ‘run’ the country, are not known to the voters.”
Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.
Lack of evidence of a conspiracy, or positive proof against its existence, is taken by believers as evidence of the craftiness of those behind the plot, and their ability to dupe the public.
There are five common ingredients to conspiracy theories, according to Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Mark van Vugt, professors of psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in their paper “Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms.”
First, they write,
- Conspiracy theories make an assumption of how people, objects, or events are causally interconnected. Put differently, a conspiracy theory always involves a hypothesized pattern.
- Second, conspiracy theories stipulate that the plans of alleged conspirators are deliberate. Conspiracy theories thus ascribe intentionality to the actions of conspirators, implying agency.
- Third, a conspiracy theory always involves a coalition, or group, of actors working in conjunction. An act of one individual, a lone wolf, does not fit the definition of a conspiracy theory.
- Fourth, conspiracy theories always contain an element of threat such that the alleged goals of the conspirators are harmful or deceptive.
- Fifth, and finally, a conspiracy theory always carries an element of secrecy and is therefore often difficult to invalidate.
Van Prooijen elaborated on his analysis in an email:
Conspiracy theories are a powerful tool to demonize opposing groups, and in extreme cases can make people believe that violence is necessary. In this case (Jan. 6), the crowd clearly believed that the elections were stolen from their leader, and this belief incited them to fight for what they believed was a just cause. Most likely the conspiracy theories make them perceive themselves as a sort of “freedom fighter.”
Van Prooijen sees conspiracy thinking as deeply rooted in the evolutionary past.
Our theory is that conspiracy theories evolved among ancestral humans to prepare for, and hence protect against, potentially hostile groups. What we saw here, I think was an evolutionary mismatch: some mental faculties evolved to cope effectively with an ancestral environment, yet we now live in a different, modern environment where these same mechanisms can lead to detrimental outcomes. In an ancestral world with regular tribal warfare and coalitional conflict, in many situations it could have been rational and even lifesaving to respond with violence to the threat of a different group conspiring against one’s own group. Now in our modern world these mechanisms may sometimes misfire, and lead people to use violence toward the very democratic institutions that were designed to help and protect them.
Why, I asked, are Trump supporters particularly receptive to conspiracies? Van Prooijen replied:
For one, the Trump movement can be seen as populist, meaning that this movement espouses a worldview that sees society as a struggle between ‘the corrupt elites’ versus the people. This in and of itself predisposes people to conspiracy thinking. But there are also other factors. For instance, the Trump movement appears heavily fear-based, is highly nationalistic, and endorses relatively simple solutions for complex problems. All of these factors are known to feed into conspiracy thinking.
The events of Jan. 6, van Prooijen continued,
underscore that conspiracy theories are not some “innocent” form of belief that people may have. They can inspire radical action, and indeed, a movement like QAnon can be a genuine liability for public safety. Voltaire once said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” — and he was right.
In their 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories,” Uscinski and Parent argue that “Conspiracy Theories Are For Losers.” They write:
Conspiracy theories are essentially alarm systems and coping mechanisms to help deal with foreign threat and domestic power centers. Thus, they tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness or disunity.
To illustrate how the out-of-power are drawn to conspiracy theories, the authors tracked patterns during periods of Republican and Democratic control of the presidency:
During Republican administrations, conspiracy theories targeting the right and capitalists averaged 34 percent of the conspiratorial allegations per year, while conspiracy theories targeting the left and communists averaged only 11 percent. During Democratic administrations, mutatis mutandis, conspiracy theories aimed at the right and capitalists dropped 25 points to 9 percent while conspiracy theories aimed at the left and communists more than doubled to 27 percent.
The “loser” thesis received strong backing from an August 2020 working paper, “Are Conspiracy Theories for Losers? The Effect of Losing an Election on Conspiratorial Thinking,” by Joanne Miller, Christina E. Farhart and Kyle Saunders, political scientists at the University of Delaware, Carleton College and Colorado State University.
They make the parallel argument that
People are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that make their political rivals look bad when they are on the losing side of politics than when they are on the winning side, regardless of ideology/partisanship.
In an email, Miller compared polling from 2004, when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, to polls after the 2020 election, when Trump lost to Biden:
A 2004 a Post-ABC poll that found that 49 percent of Kerry supporters but only 14 percent of Bush supporters thought that the vote wasn’t counted accurately. But this year, a much larger percentage of Trump voters believe election fraud conspiracy theories than voters on the losing side in previous years. A January 2021 Pew poll found that approximately 75 percent of Trump voters believe that Trump definitely or probably won the election.
Over the long haul, Miller wrote, “I find very little correlation between conspiratorial thinking and party identification or political ideology.” But, she quickly added. “the past four years are an outlier in this regard.”
Throughout his presidency, Miller wrote,
former President Trump pretty much governed as a “loser.” He continued to insist that he would’ve won the popular vote in 2016 had it not been for widespread election fraud. So it’s not surprising, given Trump’s rhetoric, that Republicans during the Trump presidency were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than we’d have expected them to, given that they were on the winning side.
The psychological predispositions that contribute to a susceptibility to conspiracy thinking are complex, as Joshua Hart, a professor of psychology at Union College, and his student, Molly Graether, found in their 2018 paper “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories.”
Hart and Graether contend that “conspiracy theorists are more likely to believe that the world is a dangerous place full of bad people,” who “find it difficult to trust others” and who “view the world as a dangerous and uncontrollable.”
Perhaps more interesting, Hart and Graether argue that conspiracy theorists are more likely “to perceive profundity in nonsensical but superficially meaningful ideas,” a concept they cite as being described by academics in the field as “b.s. receptivity.”
To test for this tendency, psychologists ask participants to rank the “meaningfulness” of such incoherent and ludicrous sentences and phrases as “the future elucidates irrational facts for the seeking person,” “your movement transforms universal observations,” “the whole silence infinite phenomena” and “the invisible is beyond all new immutability.” The scale is called “Mean perceived meaningfulness of b.s. sentences and genuinely meaningful sentences,” and can be found here.
Adam Enders argued in an email that:
There are several characteristics of QAnon acolytes that distinguish them from everyone else, even people who believe in some other conspiracy theories: they are more likely to share false information online, they’re more accepting of political violence in various circumstances.
In addition, Enders writes,
QAnon followers are, in a sense, extremists both politically (e.g., wanting to overthrow the U.S. government) and psychologically (e.g., exhibiting many antisocial personality traits).
Polarization, in Enders’s view, when joined with conspiracy thinking, produces a toxic mix:
As polarization increases, tensions between political parties and other groups rise, and people are more willing to construct and believe in fantastical ideas that either malign out-groups (e.g., “Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles”) or bolster the in-group (e.g., ‘we only lost because you cheated’). Conspiracy theories, in turn, raise the temperature of polarization and make it more difficult for people from different partisan and ideological camps to have fact-based discussions about political matters, even those that are in critical need of immediate attention.
Conspiracy thinking has become a major internal, problem for the Republican Party, which is reflected by the current turmoil in party ranks over two newly elected congresswomen, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, QAnon sympathizers with long records of florid, antagonistic conspiratorial accusations.
There is some evidence that the Republican establishment has begun to recognize the dangers posed by the presence in that party of so many who are preoccupied — obsessed is not too strong a word — with denying the incontrovertible truth of Trump’s loss and Biden’s win in the 2020 election.
Even Mitch McConnell, perhaps the most cunning and nefarious member of the Republican establishment, has come to see the liability of the sheer number of supposedly reputable members of the United States Senate caving in to patent falsehoods, warning colleagues earlier this week of the threat to their political survival posed by the “loony lies and conspiracy theories” voiced by allies of QAnon in the House of Representatives.
“Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality,” McConnell declared. “This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
McConnell has a history of bending with the wind, accommodating the extremists in his party, including Trump and Trump’s allies, and he voted in support of the claim that Trump’s second impeachment trial is unconstitutional. If the conspiracy wing of the Republican Party becomes strong enough to routinely mount winning primary challenges to mainstream incumbents, McConnell may well abandon his critique and accept a party moving steadily closer to something many Americans (though not all) could never have imagined: the systematic exploitation of voters gullible or pathological enough to sign on to preposterous conspiracy theories in order to engineer the installation in Washington of an ultraright, ethnonationalist crypto-fascist white supremacist political regime.
The problem of keeping the extremist fringe at arm’s length has plagued the Republican Party for decades — dating back to Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society — but nothing in recent American history has reached the crazed intensity of Donald Trump’s perseverating, mendacious insistence that he won a second term in November. That he is not alone — that millions continue to believe in his delusions — is terrifying.
After the Capitol Hill riot, the divide between reality and fantasy may become too wide to bridge.
For a long time, people have predicted the crackup of American conservatism, the end of a Republican Party dominated by the conservative movement as one of the major powers in our politics. Demographic trends were supposed to permanently marginalize the right. Barack Obama’s 2008 victory was supposed to signal conservatism’s eclipse. The rise of Donald Trump was supposed to shatter Republican politics the way that slavery once broke the Whigs.
Conservatism survived all these prophecies, always clawing back to claim a share of power, maintaining unity and loyalty by offering a bulwark against liberal ambition even as its own agenda became more and more threadbare.
So it would be a foolhardy prophet indeed who looked at the Jan. 6 riot at the Capitol and assumed that this time, under this pressure, the conservative coalition will finally break apart, sending the Republican Party deep into the wilderness and reshaping American ideological debates along new lines.
But breaking points do come, and the violent endgame of the Trump presidency has exposed a new divide in the conservative coalition — not a normal ideological division or an argument about strategy or tactics, but a split between reality and fantasy that may be uniquely hard for either self-interest or statesmanship to bridge.
At the same time, it has cast the key weakness of conservatism into even sharper relief: the growing distance between right-wing politics and almost every nonpolitical power center in America, from the media and culture industries to the old-line corporate suites to the communications empires of Silicon Valley.
But the implicit bargain of the Trump era required traditional Republicans — from upper-middle-class suburbanites to the elites of the Federalist Society — to live with a lot of craziness from their leader, and a lot of even crazier ideas from the very-online portions of his base, in return for denying Democrats the White House. And it’s not clear that this bargain can survive the irruption of all that crazy into the halls of the Capitol, and the QAnon-ification of the right that made the riot possible.
Even before Jan. 6, the difficulty of balancing normal Republican politics with an insistence that Mike Pence could magically overturn a clear election outcome helped cost the party two Senate seats in Georgia. Even before the riot, finding post-Trump leaders who could bridge the internal divide, bringing along his base but also broadening the party, was going to be an extraordinary challenge.
But the Republican Party that lost Georgia a week ago still looked competitive enough to count on holding, say, 47 Senate seats even in a tough election cycle. A week later, it seems the party could easily break harder, and fall further.
Here’s how it could happen. First, the party’s non-Trumpist faction — embodied by senators like Mitt Romney and Lisa Murkowski, various purple- and blue-state governors and most of the remaining Acela corridor conservatives, from lawyers and judges to lobbyists and staffers — pushes for a full repudiation of Trump and all his works, extending beyond impeachment to encompass support for social-media bans, F.B.I. surveillance of the MAGA universe and more.
At the same time, precisely those measures further radicalize portions of the party’s base, offering apparent proof that Trump was right — that the system isn’t merely consolidating against but actively persecuting them. With this sense of persecution in the background and the Trump family posturing as party leaders, the voter-fraud mythology becomes a litmus test in many congressional elections, and baroque conspiracy theories pervade primary campaigns.
In this scenario, what remains of the center-right suburban vote and the G.O.P. establishment becomes at least as NeverTrump as Romney, if not the Lincoln Project; meanwhile, the core of Trump’s support becomes as paranoid as Q devotees. Maybe this leads to more empty acts of violence, further radicalizing the center right against the right, or maybe it just leads to Republican primaries producing a lot more candidates like Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia, to the point where a big chunk of the House G.O.P. occupies not just a different tactical reality from the party’s elite but a completely different universe.
Either way, under these conditions that party could really collapse or really break. The collapse would happen if Trumpists with a dolchstoss narrative and a strong Q vibe start winning nominations for Senate seats and governorships in states that right now only lean Republican. A party made insane and radioactive by conspiracy theories could keep on winning deep-red districts, but if its corporate support bailed, its remaining technocrats jumped ship and suburban professionals regarded it as the party of insurrection, it could easily become a consistent loser in 30 states or more.
Alternatively, a party dominated by the Trump family at the grassroots level, with Greene-like figures as its foot soldiers, could become genuinely untenable as a home for centrist and non-Trumpist politicians. So after the renomination of Trump himself or the nomination of Don Jr. in 2024, a cluster of figures (senators like Romney and Susan Collins, blue-state governors like Maryland’s Larry Hogan) might simply jump ship to form an independent mini-party, leaving the G.O.P. as a 35 percent proposition, a heartland rump.
None of this is a prediction. In American politics, reversion to the gridlocked mean has been a safe bet for many years — in which case you’d expect the MAGA extremes to return to their fantasy world, the threat of violence to ebb, Trump to fade without his Twitter feed and the combination of Biden-administration liberalism and Big Tech overreach to bring the right’s blocking coalition back together in time for 2022.
But if Biden governs carefully, if Trump doesn’t go quietly, if MAGA fantasies become right-wing orthodoxies, then the stresses on the Republican Party and conservatism could become too great to bear.
I woke up last Wednesday thinking that the G.O.P. had survived the Trump era, its power reduced but relatively stable, with some faint chance to redeem itself — by carefully shepherding it supporters back toward reality, while integrating elements of populism into the reality-based conservatism that our misgoverned country needs.
A week later, that hope seems like as much of a fantasy as QAnon. Instead, it feels as if the Republican Party survived Trump’s presidency, but maybe not his disastrous and deadly leaving of it.
On Jan. 6, for the first time in more than two centuries, Congress was attacked and overrun, this time by its own citizens. The PBS NewsHour’s anchor and managing editor Judy Woodruff talks to correspondents Lisa Desjardins, Amna Nawaz and Yamiche Alcindor about what they saw as they reported from inside the Capitol, the grounds that surround it and the White House, respectively– and what they and other Americans will remember from that day.
The truth is the anti-vax community is powered by Bill Gates and Soros to make sure all those who question the government don't vaccinate and die in pandemics. This way they can depopulate the free thinkers who wouldn't get vaccinated. https://t.co/Qw6UdsdNDq
— Beau of The Fifth Column (@BeauTFC) July 12, 2020
Krystal Ball rips Tucker Carlson for his monologue on protesters from the ‘radical left’ and draws parallels of his fear mongering coverage of BLM protests to Russiagate.