Read part one here.
Suspending Your Beliefs is Partisan
The way that I see it with popular conspiracy theories among mainstream conservatives, such as the QAnon movement, is that they are relying on empathy for recruitment. After all, if you don’t care about other people, you won’t care about child sex slaves. The fact that QAnon followers do means that the base of them mean well. The problem is those good intentions don’t always lead to good results, and in the case of actionable conspiracies, the results tend to be horrifying.
To me, as an outsider, one glaringly obvious parallel to the conspiracies and conservatism is something that will undoubtedly invoke some animosity for even comparing in the first place: religious fundamentalism. In broad strokes, both strict religious lifestyles and deep-dive conspiracies require followers to follow without solid evidence. When it comes to the deepest levels of organized conspiracy theories — conspiracy ‘cults’ — they often require an all-or-nothing approach to members’ lifestyles just as fundamentalist religious groups do. Both require lifestyle changes associated with their belief systems. Both have a following that overwhelmingly leans to the right side of the political spectrum.
At the risk of being too personally invested: I am sorry for potentially offending religious readers. I’m no expert in faith or spirituality, but I will say this: The G-d I want to believe in is moral. To me, a belief system that encourages others to live a life where they’re kind to other people is immeasurably and profoundly good.
The Church of Scientology is a major world religion and one with official tax-exempt status in the United States. But, if you told me that you believed an alien named Xenu brought humans to earth 75 million years ago on a space ship and I had never heard of Scientology, I’d call you a conspiracy theorist.
I know I’m grabbing low hanging fruit by using what might be the worst of human spirituality to draw comparisons from, but you have to admit they do have an especially fun origin story.
Evidently, appealing to Evangelicals, in particular, is a popular recruitment strategy for the world’s largest conspiracy movement. The dean of Wheaton College, Illinois — a major Christian college — actually described QAnon as being “on the fringes of Evangelicalism”. To really hit the nail on the head, Evangelicalism and conspiracy theories have a proven, glaring overlap of followers, with 48% of Evangelicals surveyed at Wheton College believing in some of its key components.
However, that part of me that wishes for that divine intervention? Sometimes I think it’s the same part of me that hopes The Loch Ness Monster exists. It’s a sense of wonder that I hope I hold on to for the rest of my life. It’s the same part of me that treats anything new and unfamiliar with skepticism. I don’t believe that things that are good in the world need to be proven real to be wonderful, and that’s why even the most robotic people can have a soft spot for fiction like Tolkien or Star Wars.
Yet the harsh reality is that there are definitely parallels between conspiracy theories and religious belief systems. You can chalk it up to a coincidence, but I think it boils down to more than that. In order to fall down the rabbit hole of conspiracy theory networks like QAnon and flat earth groups, you need to be the type of person who is open-minded to believing in something without tangible proof. That’s one of two inconvenient (and arguably offensive) truths that I see when I look at conservatives who believe in far-reaching conspiracies. There’s a much larger “religious right” movement than there is a “religious left” equivalent.
The ‘I Got Mine’ Vote
Another parallel between conservatism and conspiracies is individualism.
Fair warning, this is also sort of a taboo subject in politics, but it’s one I think needs to be addressed far more. To be clear: Conservatism, when it’s authoritarian and especially when it’s libertarian, is at its core a belief that values individualism in government. Despite the principles of the origins of modern Conservatism, individualism is often a disputed topic to many that frequent the right side of the aisle because many aren’t really in it for themselves — they’re in it for their family.
Sure, traditional western conservatives root their platforms in ‘family values’, but I’d argue that voting to preserve or improve your own family’s quality of life is actually still a form of individualism. Your family members are an extension of your own world and bettering their lives doesn’t mean you value collectivism, necessarily.
In contrast, a broad example of supporting collectivism might be voting to protect the rights of strangers you’ll never meet at your own expense. That’s something that’s overwhelmingly more common as part of left-leaning platforms.
None of this is to say that conservatives are inherently selfish just because they’re individualists. In fact, many argue that giving to charity is the ultimate act of conservatism. But, individualism can often be sold very well to people who are selfish by nature. Subconsciously adding the word ‘my’ to the idea of ‘individual rights should be valued over the rights of a population’ changes the meaning quite drastically. Selfish people seek individualism because it often allows them to value themselves over others.
Historically, far-right ideology involves different sections of a population obtaining more rights than others. Of course, the hierarchy can be sold much easier when the person they are selling it to believes they are the ones who deserve those rights. We don’t see fascist governments making propaganda targeted at the people they’re planning on treating poorly, the whole appeal is to get people to think their lives will be improved at other’s expense. Selfishness can (and does) draw people to the right.
Want to hear a specific example of someone doing something seemingly against the idea of individualism?
Bill Gates giving most of his personal wealth and a great deal of his time to fight AIDS.
If you’re not familiar with Bill Gates conspiracy theories, know that the vast majority of them do not paint him in a good light, to say the least. The general story circulating in anti-mask and anti-vaccine groups is that Bill Gates’ humanitarian efforts were only a charade to secure world domination. He didn’t actually want to just give most of his money to life-saving causes, it’s all part of a plan to control the world. His methods, depending on which network you’re part of usually include secretly microchipping vaccines that The Bill and Melinda Gates Foundation distributes, and/or funding the creation of man-made viruses, including Covid-19.
Sure, it’s far-fetched and it might be easy to just dismiss that narrative as comedic relief. But, when you look at the radical conspiracies surrounding Bill Gates and those that follow some other rich conspiracy darlings — including George Soros, Barack Obama, Oprah Winfrey and even Steven Spielberg — it’s not just that a disproportionate amount of them are black and Jewish (well, that is definitely part of it but it’s not what I’m getting at today). It’s that the majority of them have a history of humanitarian efforts, contributions to the art world, and have spent either some of their personal wealth or their livelihoods on something other than just themselves.
Oh, and it’s also no coincidence that very few of the conspiracy targets are conservative.
Even though Jeff Bezos has approached 200 billion dollars in net worth, conspiracy theory networks are suspiciously quiet about him. His mentions in QAnon forums are far less frequent than that of Tom Hanks or Hillary Clinton. They’re notoriously easy on Donald Trump, who is quite famously not a charitable person, to say the least. Trump’s namesake non-profit was caught stealing from a children’s cancer fund and he is one of Forbes least charitable Billionaires. In fact, very few conservative icons, billionaires included, are the target of any mainstream conspiracy theories. Even Elon Musk, for all of the admiration that young conservative men in commerce give him, remains somewhat absent (although his name will occasionally pop up).
The message that conspiracy theorists send to philanthropists is clear: How dare you pretend to care about other people?
But, why is that partisan?
What links the right-wing to conspiracy theories at its core is the belief that other people can be selfless. I’m not saying that what Oprah does isn’t necessarily for herself (I certainly don’t know her personally, maybe she’s really an awful person). I’m saying that it’s hard to say with certainty that she, or any other major QAnon target, didn’t at least do something for other people. Soros might have a personal agenda for influencing American politics, but at least he’s not quite so narcissistic as to buy a painting of himself with funds designated for charity (that we know of, at least).
So, if you’re like me and you believe that Bill Gates spent his time and money fighting AIDS because he had the time and the money to do so, you’re among those who believe that other people can choose selflessness over their own wealth and power. And if you don’t, you’re assuming he’s too individualistic to not have an ulterior motive. Like any possible way that we as humans can try to rationalize other people’s behaviour, it makes a hell of a lot more sense to us when it’s something that we would do. Bill Gates’ philanthropy seems far less irrational if we don’t assume other people are selfish.
What Does This Mean for Conspiracy Theorists?
I’ve seen far too many conspiracy theories that seemed harmless at first become extremely partisan over the last few years. And with far-right ideology on the rise, I don’t think it’s any coincidence. Russian hackers and troll accounts famously used misinformation in the form of conspiracy theories to influence the 2016 U.S. presidential election. They knew that (specifically) right-wing voters were prone to voting based on conspiracies and they weaponized it. It’s impossible to measure exactly how much of an impact conspiracy theories had and is still having on people’s votes.
To be honest, at this point I’m starting to think the exact level of influence is almost irrelevant. Trump might have been the first, but the reality is that more conspiracy theorists are getting into office solely because of their roles as arbiters of (pardon my French) baseless horse shit. And the fact that most or all of them are also conservative politicians running in conservative districts means that the problem needs to be addressed as a problem with specifically conservative politics today.
In 2021, two new members of the United States Congress will be sworn in while one president may be sworn out who started their political careers as conspiracy theorists. In Canada, members of Maxime Bernier’s Peoples Party of Canada, independents, and Progressive Conservative exiles such as Randy Hillier are already staking their political careers on far-out ideas about Covid-19 and racist, baseless claims that their critics are terrorists.
With Covid-19 deaths reaching historic levels and rising, a long winter ahead of us. Thousands of Canadians are doubting the intentions of medical professionals in favour of whack jobs like Hillier. Conspiracy theories are going to continue being a problem until we all take the problem seriously.