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On March 20, 2021, dozens of QAnon supporters, Proud Boys, and other far-righters gathered in Raleigh for the World Wide Rally for Freedom (Anthony Crider via Wikimedia Commons)

The Shadowy World of Conspiracy Theories is a Threat to Us All

An excerpt from Shane Burley and Ben Lorber’s new book, “Safety Through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism,” out now from Melville House.

Words: Shane Burley, Ben Lorber
Pictures: Anthony Crider
Date:

The right’s arsenal of conspiracy poses a threat to all marginalized communities and, indeed, to multiracial democracy itself. The far right builds momentum, bases of supporters, and political power with a narrative that “punches up” at imagined elite cabals, which are demonized as all-powerful threats to tradition, order, beauty, and the “common man.” When the right brings its friend-enemy distinction into the highest halls of power, catastrophe follows.

During the first years of the COVID-19 pandemic, to name just one example, right-wing leaders insisted the all-powerful Chinese Communist Party engineered the virus to subvert American dominance, and that a cabal of “globalist” elites in the West worked hand in hand with the CCP to open the borders, terrorize the public with draconian mask and vaccine mandates, and usher in a dystopian New World Order. The anti-China conspiracy proved very flexible — during the 2020 Black Lives Matter uprising, for example, conspiracists claimed the protests were a CCP-driven plot to destroy America. “It’s just following the script of antisemitic conspiracy theories,” Tobita Chow, an organizer campaigning against anti-China militarism, told us. “They took that model and swapped out the names.” These scapegoating narratives have inspired acts of violence against Asian American communities, and added fuel to a dangerous uptick in anti-China militarism.

Our society has now jumped headfirst into a new world of “alternative facts” and parallel realities. With Trump’s ascension, conspiracism became official state narrative, establishing what Barkun labels “stigmatized knowledge” as the foundation of MAGA’s political consciousness. Conspiracy mythologies gave Trump an advantage: If you don’t like the world you’re in, why not just invent a new one? There doesn’t even need to be a coherent theory to back up the conspiracy: unvalidated rumor will suffice.

Antisemitism

As the Capitol insurrection showed us, years of mass radicalization and entrenched conspiracism, bolstered by an insular media ecosystem, have summoned for the right a veritable army. Now, that army can be deployed against the government, vulnerable minorities, and progressive leaders, and its foot soldiers are increasingly convinced that violence might be the only way to wrest “freedom” from the clutches of the cabal.

Courtesy of Melville House
Courtesy of Melville House

Conspiracism jettisons our grip on reality as we confront vital issues. As the COVID-19 pandemic raged, right-wing media networks and QAnon forums convinced millions of Americans that the virus was either far less deadly than suggested or manufactured out of whole cloth. A network of rallies to reopen, often organized by Tea Party groups and supported by Republican leaders, insisted the government was lying about the crisis and using public health measures to exert despotic control over Americans. These conspiracy theories became one of the “strongest and most consistent predictors of vaccine hesitancy,” as one 2021 study put it.

As with all large-scale conspiracy narratives, the antisemitism was hard to miss. White nationalist Telegram channels exploded with allegations that the Jews were behind the coronavirus, working in concert with other named enemies, like the Chinese government, either to spread the virus itself or to engineer the “lockdown regime.” A 2020 British study found that 79% of anti-vaccine social media networks contained antisemitism. Right-wing leaders compared public health measures to Nazi policy, a form of Holocaust trivialization bordering on denialism.

Meanwhile, while onlookers were being distracted by such conspiracy theories, the 1% actually took advantage of the crisis to orchestrate one of the greatest upward wealth transfers in history. Instead of uniting to demand our political leaders provide families with the resources we needed to weather the pandemic, conspiracism kept working people fragmented, confused, and “punching up” at imaginary targets.

Today, these trends have only deepened. An August 2023 survey found that 60% of teenagers, and 49% of adults, agreed with four or more conspiracy statements. Among teenagers who self-reported spending four or more hours a day on social media, 54% agreed with the statement “Jewish people have a disproportionate amount of control over the media, politics and the economy.”

The Dangerous Appeal of Easy Answers

Conspiracism is alluring to many because it offers easy answers to pressing existential questions and deeply felt crises of political agency. Movements like QAnon, like the Protocols a century earlier, tap into the alienation, frustration, and rage felt by millions still reeling from two debilitating market crashes in just over a single decade, and living in one of the most vastly unequal societies in human history. The prospect of open revolt against a distant, larger-than-life cabal of diabolical elites can lend purpose, resolve, and hope when many are used to disempowerment. The world is chaotic and cruel, and so a shadowy cabal must be pulling the strings. What else could explain it?

In a sense, far-right conspiracy theories agree with the political left that things are not as they seem, that beneath the unassuming veneer of business-as-usual lies the truth of injustice. The left, after all, has its own critique of mainstream media as a producer of a kind of “fake news,” pushing support of US overseas wars, upward wealth redistribution, and other elite propaganda in order to “manufacture consent,” as Noam Chomsky famously put it. The conspiracists’ fiery charges of elite decadence, fever dreams of societal decay, and pining for apocalypse hold a mirror up to a broken society, begging for release from its clutches.

The world is chaotic and cruel, and so a shadowy cabal must be pulling the strings. What else could explain it?

But that’s where the resemblance to left social change ends. Conspiracy theories bypass the hard work of grappling with nuance and complexity, instead championing a cosmic battle between good and evil, with clearly named absolute enemies and ironclad certainty of the virtues of “our side.” Conspiracy theories often misleadingly hook on to small grains of truth, so that if one squints hard enough, reality can be “made” to appear like the conspiracy. For example, the 2018 revelations that liberal financier Jeffrey Epstein had long engaged in child sex trafficking, and that an array of elites may have been involved, dominated the news cycle, convincing many that QAnon’s broader narrative was surely true.

Tellingly, QAnon’s push to “save the children” rarely leads adherents to support meaningful policies to combat child sex trafficking, such as funding foster care and housing initiatives. This world of patient, grounded policy advocacy can be less viscerally thrilling than envisioning yourself as part of a small band of holy warriors, hot on the trail of an all-powerful Antichrist-cabal. Conspiracism usurps what fascism scholar Robert Paxton calls “mobilizing passions,” the emotional energies that lend social movements their force. When combined with the politics of resentment, white rage, misogyny, and other bigotry, the result can be explosive. But while conspiracy theories may promise to put you back in the driver’s seat, ultimately, nothing could be more disempowering. They leave you chasing shadows, rather than changing the world.

Published on June 4, “Safety Through Solidarity: A Radical Guide to Fighting Antisemitism” is now available via Melville House.

Shane Burley, Ben Lorber

Shane Burley is known for his work on the far-right and left-wing social movements. He is the author of Fascism Today: What It Is and How to End It (AK Press, 2017) and Why We Fight: Essays on Fascism, Resistance, and Surviving the Apocalypse (AK Press, 2021), and editor of the anthology ¡No pasarán!: Readings on Antifascism (AK Press, 2022). Ben Lorber has worked as a writer, organizer and movement-builder for over a decade. As a Senior Research Analyst at Political Research Associates, a progressive think tank that monitors far-right movements, Lorber helps social justice organizers understand and fight antisemitism and white nationalism. He has written extensively on these topics, and on Israel/Palestine and Jewish politics, for a variety of outlets including The Nation, Jewish Currents, Salon, The Forward, and more.

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