The American democratic experiment is stuck in gridlock. It has become clear that Joe Biden will be the next president with a lead of over 4 million votes. More importantly, Biden has passed the 270 electoral vote threshold needed to win. However, Trump-style politics are still in favour with millions of Americans.
Even though the election has been called and Biden as the winner, Trump has assembled an army of lawyers ready to contest the results. Some states may even do a recount – drawing the results out even longer. This is a real test of faith for America’s republic.
It is often said that the USA is a divided country. This has been true since the founding of the country, but this is also true everywhere. No country is a monolith. What is true is the country is more polarized – its divisions are much more defined.
What has become clear is that American’s have still not outright rejected Trump-style, far-right politics. Trump has correctly pointed out that he has won the most votes ever for a sitting president. This, to anyone on the left, is a scary thought given all the harmful policies and actions he has taken over the past 4 years.
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Some common feelings among Canadians on social media have been of both relief and gratitude. Donald Trump has been defeated and many Canadians can now take a deep breath. We are thankful that it could never happen in Canada, right?
Don’t be so sure of that.
Donald Trump is not the root cause of America’s problems. He is a symptom of a much larger movement that has swept through Europe, Asia, and South America as well. This movement has shown its face in the form of anti-immigrant policies, xenophobia, nativism, and outright racism at times.
Examples of this can be found in the Covid-denying, military-dictatorship-supporting, Jair Bolsonaro of Brazil. In the Netherlands, the PVV party’s leader, Geert Wilders ran on a campaign fueled by Islamophobic, anti-immigrant rhetoric. During their last election, the party gained 5 seats and got the second most seats in their parliament, ultimately losing to a coalition party. Other examples of this movement can be found in the Philippines, India, Germany, France, and many more countries.
Canada first politics
Canada has been affected too – the Covid-19 pandemic has provided fertile grounds for the far-right and anti-lockdown folks to cultivate and collaborate. The party closest aligned to these ideals is the People’s Party of Canada, lead by Maxime Bernier. They lost in the last federal election with a feeble 1.6% of the vote.
While this may seem like an irrelevant, fringe party, this could have easily not been the case. It is extremely difficult for newer political parties to gain a foothold in Canadian politics. In lockstep with his counterpart down south, Bernier has joined the choir of democracy denial:
If we rewind a few years to May 2017, you may recall that Maxime Bernier came in a close second to Andrew Scheer during the Conservative Party Leadership race. It was a close call – Bernier finished with 49%, just behind Scheer with 51%. In the first round of voting, Bernier actually had the most votes.
What if, instead of losing and forming his own party, Bernier had won and become the Conservative leader? Would he have defeated Trudeau? Would he have gained a bigger following? What if it was someone more like Donald Trump?
These questions are asked in order to reveal how vulnerable our democracy is. Canadians need to stay vigilant because far-right populism has not gone away. A long chunk of modern Conservatives have aligned themselves with conspiratorial thinking.
Whether the ‘cancelling’ of Trump by his fellow citizens reverses this tide still remains to be seen. Canada’s electoral system is too similar to the USA’s for Canadian’s to shrug their shoulders at the last four years down south.
Canada needs to safeguard our electoral system and prevent the system from being undermined. Our system needs to be democratized further.
Jagmeet Singh, leader of the federal NDP has put forward his support for one reform that would help make our system more democratic. Instead of the winner-take-all first-past-the-post system that we currently have, proportional representation would be a great improvement to our democracy.
It may seem that a proportional system could make it easier for fringe parties such as the PPC to gain a foothold in Canadian Politics. If we look at the previously mentioned case of Geert Wilders in the Netherlands, ultimately they didn’t stand a chance. Left-wing or center-left parties can (and did) form a coalition to prevent them from taking power.
Reforms similar to this will help Canadians prevent this new, 2020 version of far-right politics from gaining traction. It is healthy for all of us to breathe a sigh of relief now that we know Trump will be gone. However, we cannot simply shrug our shoulders and think that it cannot happen here.
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.
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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.
Today is the day where we get our first glimpse of whether or not our neighbors to the south choose to vote out fascism. This new, 21st-century style of fascism has emerged in various places across the planet such as Brazil, Poland, Russia, Turkey, and others.
Make no mistake, even in Trump loses the election, Fascism and hate will remain. Let’s push it back into the shadows.
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Canada is not immune to this export of ideology and we must be vigilant. During our short period as a blog, Northern Currents has published a few pieces on the rise of the far-right. This includes Qanon, anti-maskers, xenophobes, and more. See the following links:
From my childhood to today, I have always enjoyed a good conspiracy theory. Alternative theories about the moon landing, UFO sightings, and discussions about cryptids were and are — to this day — fascinating to me.
So, if you’re rage reading this, know that I’m not trying to shame you. I don’t even think believing in unproven theories is necessarily unhealthy. We all need something to believe in. I, for one, have believed some pretty crazy shit in the past.
In fact, I don’t have any difficulty believing that there are a lot of rich assholes, including Hollywood elites and politicians, involved in unproven sex trafficking rings. Powerful people can get away with doing horrible things, no question.
Now, does that mean that I believe every popular conspiracy theory about those elitist sex trafficking rings, including that The Queen and Hilary Clinton are using it to murder infants so they can consume their blood and live forever? Definitely not, but hey, I’m trying to meet those of you who do believe in them halfway.
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The Big Amalgamation
The conspiracy about celebrities drinking the blood of youth is no joke. Although it’s inception is most often credited to a recurring joke by Hunter S. Thompson that started 1971, it wasn’t until the mid 2000s — the age of internet access and Photoshop — that it reached large circles.
The theory revolves around a gross misunderstanding of the compound adrenochrome, with some believing that drinking large amounts of it can actually make people age slower. The most popular modern interpretation of the theory is that children and infants produce the most amounts of adrenochrome when they’re scared, and that people implicated in the theory such as Tom Hanks will rape children to extract the greatest volume of drinkable adrenochrome. Some believers also maintain that infants and/or children are often killed immediately after being raped.
The fantasy gained (and is still gaining) some traction following certain movies like Monsters Inc., as conspiracy theorists maintained that the plot of that movie — and others — were a way for whistleblowers in Hollywood to bring attention to adrenochrome harvesting from children. Ie. the fuel used in Monsters Inc. was really being used to cheat death, and that the real monsters were Hollywood actors and high profile politicians.
If that ruins a timeless Pixar movie for you, I’m really, really sorry.
Since 2016, we’ve all been hearing about it a hell of a lot more because of the popularity of Qanon. If you hear the name often but you’re unfamiliar with the specifics, Qanon is the label sometimes used for the conspiracy theories touted by an anonymous 4Chan user and his/her/their followers. I can’t possibly summarize the movement in one article but there are two key points about the theories themselves that are crucial to the movement:
1. There is a large ring of celebrities and politicians that are part of a cult-like child sex-slave trafficking ring.
2. Donald Trump is leading a secret battle to stop them.
To anyone thinking through the key points in Qanon’s belief system for five to ten seconds, an obvious problem with posting these theories on social media (as they’re often spread) is that if Trump is waging a secret war, working undercover to expose child sex traffickers, talking about it on 8Chan, YouTube, and Facebook would probably blow his cover.
Unless, perhaps, you’re a Qanon follower and you subscribe to a belief system that means all of the world’s most powerful heads of government have the means to run international pedophile rings, but not the means to watch your public YouTube video about it.
There are millions of Qanon followers, and while they might seem somewhat funny to follow at first, there are very serious, real world consequences to the movement’s actions. In the mid-2000s when my friends and I read adrenochrome conspiracy theory threads, they were something we treated as a sick joke from internet trolls. Now, people are shooting up pizza parlors over them.
Qanon followers have organized all over social media and in towns across the United States and recently made headlines for being labelled as a “domestic terror threat” by the FBI. Which shouldn’t have been a surprise, really. After all, if you believed that there were hundreds of children being kept as slaves underneath a pizza parlor, wouldn’t you feel obligated to free them?
According to one recent study of over 1500 United States voters, only 16% of Trump voters would dismiss the movement entirely, with even fewer — 12% — saying that they did not believe in Qanon’s core belief*. Any way it’s measured, a large fraction of Republicans believe in some part of the ideology.
*Worded in the form of the question: “Do you believe that President Trump is working to dismantle an elite child sex-trafficking ring involving top Democrats?”
What This Means For Canadians
In Canada, roughly 40% of Progressive Conservative party voters identify close enough with United States Republicanism to support Trump from abroad. Support is growing every day for Maxime Bernier’s PPC, a further right party with views on immigration that more closely mirror U.S. Republicanism. But, right wing voting blocks aren’t necessarily the entirety of Canadian susceptible to fall in to right-wing conspiracy rabbit holes.
There’s a growing anti-truth, anti-journalism sentiment in every spectrum of Canada’s political landscape. Lockdowns and layoffs have left Canadians in vulnerable positions to be targeted for recruitment. Being out of work and having ample time to browse social media channels that breed conspiracy theories, while also suffering from unmatched anxiety, is the perfect storm to fall in to a conspiracy cult.
Before being kicked off of Facebook for spreading dangerous misinformation about Covid-19, Canada’s largest anti-lockdown group, which had loose connections to some prolific Neo Nazis, recruited more than 20,000 members. From spending a great deal of time there, I can say with confidence that the vast majority of those I’ve spoken with and have observed from a distance don’t consider themselves alt-right. Anti-lockdown rallies in Vancouver featuring antisemitic speakers and dense alt-right presence have went from gathering dozens to gathering thousands in only a few months.
Our southern neighbors are at a boiling point with a torrent of racial unrest and questions about whether or not the current president will honor the results of the upcoming election. Xenophobia and racism has been a central theme of the current administration. As a result of this, the United States is no longer a safe country for many people of color, immigrants, and refugees.
In 2004, Canada and the USA entered into an pact called the Canada-US Safe Third Country Agreement. The central purpose of this agreement was to control the flow of refugees, mandating that refugees entering into either country make their asylum claim in the first country they arrive in. That is, a refugee could not arrive in the USA, and then travel to Canada to make an asylum claim.
This agreement requires that signatory countries have a good human rights record. Countries are also required to have signed onto the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Convention Against Torture. Refugees are extremely vulnerable as they are by definition, not protected by their own governments.
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One does not have to look to hard in order to find obvious violations of this agreement by the United States, by leaders both current and past.
Torture was standard operating procedure during the (illegitimate) Iraq war under George Bush, and cheered on by American news commentators on a nightly basis. One right wing war hawk, John Bolton, was a key proponent of the use of torture during the Bush Administration. He was then given a spot in the White House under the current Trump administration as a national security advisor. Although he has since left the administration on less-than-friendly terms, this signifies that the current president does not consider human rights to be relevant when choosing his team.
Stephen Miller, the not-so-subtle white nationalist, also currently enjoys a seat at the table of the Trump administration. Indeed, he has been very influential in any race or immigration related policy in recent years. He is known to be a powerful mastermind behind such programs as the Muslim travel ban, refugee intake reduction, hiring over 10,000 more ICE agents, and separating children from their parents at the Mexico-US border. Miller also went as far as to block a white house study that found that refugees had a net positive effect on government revenues.
Clearly, with people like this in the White House, the USA is not a safe country for immigrants and refugees.
The Covid-19 pandemic deepens the problem too. Immigrants and refugees are more likely to contract the virus for a variety of reasons. Those unfortunate enough to be detained in ICE detention facilities are often kept in over crowded and unsanitary conditions. An astounding 20% or more of detainees have tested positive for the virus. How is that not torture?
The Canadian Immigration and Refugee Protection Act (IRPA) requires the continual review of all countries designated as safe third countries. Canada’s federal court has made a landmark ruling that the Safe Third Country Agreement infringes on the rights of asylum seekers coming into Canada. This ruling has been suspended for six months in order to give Parliament time to respond. “Refugee claimants turned away at the Canada-U.S. border face grave human rights violations in the United States, notably atrocious conditions in immigration detention,” said Alex Neve, Secretary General of Amnesty International Canada. Have we heard much from parliament about this?
Abolishing the Safe Third Country isn’t an outlandish call to action either. Refugees from Haiti that were resettled in the USA are already trying to escape to Canada. This is due to the very real fear of being sent back to Haiti due to president Trump’s decision to end their protected status in the USA.
It is clear that Canada must disband from this agreement for the sake of refugees fleeing persecution from around the world. Even if a Biden administration successfully takes power in January, it is too late. The damage has been done already – xenophobia and racism have been unleashed by Trump. White supremacists have been emboldened, and are on the hunt looking to recruit from conspiratorial minded groups.
Canada is not immune to racism and xenophobia, but we will be better suited to take in refugees for a long time to come.