The Real Problem Isn’t Conspiracy Theories

Josh Marshall has a members only post at Talking Points Memo that warns us not to think of QAnon as a conspiracy theory.

Q is not a “conspiracy theory”. The faked moon landing was a conspiracy theory. Perhaps birtherism was a conspiracy theory, though one with similarities to QAnon because of its strong ideological valence. But Q is not a conspiracy theory. It’s a fascistic political movement which predicts and advocates mass violence against liberals (and everyone else outside its definition of true Americans) in an imminent apocalyptic political reckoning. What we call the ‘conspiracy theories’ are simply the storylines and claims that justify that outcome. They could easily be replaced by others which serve the same purpose.

I think one way to understand this is that the fantastical stories that make up much of the Q phenomenon are not the source of the problem. The problem is that a whole lot of people are alienated and confused and fearful and enraged and, yes, bigoted, and the Q stories are a post-hoc explanation that justifies their feelings. As Josh Marshall says, another set of completely different stories would serve the purpose.

It’s not a misunderstanding. It’s a form of aggression. Things like the Q phenomenon are just this aggression writ large. I say you’re a pedophile because it is itself an act of aggression but also because it dehumanizes you. It’s a storyline that makes hurting you or killing you make more sense and be more exciting.

In the several years now that I’ve been writing this blog, I’ve written many posts about how the U.S. right wing tends to “think” in symbols, archetypes, and allegories rather than rationally and conceptually. The most recent such post is from November 2020. In this, I quote a friend who points out that if you ask a Trump supporter why they like Trump, they don’t talk about policy or programs, at least not real ones. They talk either about how he makes them feel or who he is going to “own” or “get tough” with (e.g., nonwhites, libs, uppity women, elites, China).* Maybe they’ll claim he built the wall, even though he didn’t, but the only reason they want a wall is to lock out brown people. “While Democrats are calling, texting, trying to persuade—Trumpists just drive around waving his name and snarling,” my friend wrote. “Democrats are talking healthcare and Covid-19–Trumpists are driving around shouting ‘Hunter Biden!’ out their car windows.”

(*I have to note that I observed the same thing to be true of Ronald Reagan supporters in 1980. If you asked them why they were voting for Reagan, the answer was either some variation of how he made them feel, or else “He’s going to kick the bums off welfare!”)

And, of course, the Hunter Biden who lives in their heads is an archetype that represents something; they probably know next to nothing about the actual Hunter Biden. See also Why There Are Trump Trains, also from November 2020.

The social-psychological foundations of all this mess have been with us for a long time. And the Republican Party has been feeding this beast for a long time, because it helps them win elections without having to do anything useful for anybody who isn’t a wealthy capitalist. However, a wise person told me once that anything you feed will grow. Donald Trump didn’t create the beast, but he — on some instinctual level — recognized it and took it over from the party just as it had gotten too big for its cage. And now it’s his.

See also What’s Left Of The ‘Mainstream’ Republican Party Is Looking Around And Getting Nervous by Kate Riga at TPM. Republicans still in office are used to thinking of themselves as the “party of ideas,” even though I doubt they’ve had any new ideas since McKinley. See Lawrence Glickman, Boston Review, December 2020, How Did the GOP Become the Party of Ideas? Glickman writes that the GOP’s celebrated “ideas” from 1970s onward were just warmed-over anti-New Deal talking points. And now that those have run their course as serious governing principles, Republicans have nothing left. But there are a few in the GOP who aspire to be serious policy makers, and they’re looking at Marjorie Taylor Greene and thinking, What the hell happened?

Even if the spell breaks, and his supporters grasp that Trump is not a superhero but just a bumbling con man, I suspect most of them will easily fall behind some other cult leader rather than be restored to sense. The origins of the problem are older than Trump, and bigger than Trump.

Now, let’s move on to How Trump Unleashed a Domestic Terrorism Movement—And What Experts Say Must Be Done to Defeat It by Mark Follman at Mother Jones.

The mob assault on Congress that left five people dead, scores injured, the Capitol building desecrated, and American democracy deeply shaken was the culmination of a campaign of terrorism. It was led by the president of the United States.

The description of Trump as a terrorist leader is neither metaphor nor hyperbole—it is the assessment of veteran national security experts. Trump, those experts say, adopted a method known as stochastic terrorism, a process of incitement where the instigator provokes extremist violence under the guise of plausible deniability. Although the exact location, timing, and source of the violence may not be predictable, its occurrence is all but inevitable. When pressed about the incitement, the instigator typically responds with equivocal denials and muted denunciations of violence, or claims to have been “joking,” as Trump and those speaking on his behalf routinely made.

Do read the article linked in the quote above on stochastic terrorism, a term I just learned. And as Follman writes, addressing this problem, shrinking the beast, is going to take a lot more than law enforcement functions. It’s going to take a whole-government, whole-society approach. And as it’s been festering for a long time, it’s going to take a long time to tone it down.

I also want to call your attention to Movie at the Ellipse: A Study in Fascist Propaganda by Jason Stanley at Just Security. This is an analysis of a slickly produced video shown at the January 5 rally on the Ellipse, before the mob stormed the Capitol. The article begins:

On January 6, Trump supporters gathered at a rally at Washington DC’s Ellipse Park, regaled by various figures from Trump world, including Donald Trump Jr. and Rudy Giuliani. Directly following Giuliani’s speech, the organizers played a video. To a scholar of fascist propaganda, well-versed in the history of the National Socialist’s pioneering use of videos in political propaganda, it was clear, watching it, what dangers it portended. In it, we see themes and tactics that history warns pose a violent threat to liberal democracy. Given the aims of fascist propaganda – to incite and mobilize – the events that followed were predictable.

Before decoding what the video presents, it is important to take a step back and discuss the structure of fascist ideology and how it can mobilize its most strident supporters to take violent actions.

I’ll let the article speak for itself. It’s very good, and very disturbing.

There’s still a lot about what happened January 6 that needs to be investigated and exposed. I trust the Biden Department of Justice will not drop that ball. But yes, the real problem is that we’ve got a large fascistic political movement on our hands.

A woman holds a QAnon flag as protesters gather outside Governor Kate Brown’s residence in Salem, Ore., on April 25, 2020, calling for novel coronavirus restrictions to be lifted so that people can get back to work. (Photo by Alex Milan Tracy/Sipa USA)(Sipa via AP Images)

Has Oil Peaked?

Before any more time goes by, I want to point to this segment from the February 3 Rachel Maddow Show.

Is there a chance the stranglehold of the oil industry on our democracy is getting looser? See also The First Step Is Admitting You Have a Problem by Michael Patrick F. Smith at the New York Times. He does a magnificent job pointing out how much we are surrounded by petrochemicals, and how much oil industry jobs tend to be short-lived and dangerous. He’s a bit short on solutions, though. I don’t think returning to a hunter-gatherer economy is going to happen right off.