Here’s What Allows Conspiracy Theories to Take Root on the Right

I just want to add a quick note to my essay about the culture of conservative grievance from this morning. It’s this: plenty of conservatives believe crazy conspiracy theories. It starts with simple ones like the idea that Democrats orchestrated a detailed, clockwork plan to accuse Brett Kavanaugh of teenage sexual assault in order to derail his Supreme Court nomination. But there are plenty of others. There’s the ever popular “stand down” order in Benghazi. There’s the IRS scandal. There’s the Jade Helm conspiracy theory, which suggested that a large military exercise in the southwest was actually Obama’s first step in getting people used to seeing armed soldiers on their streets. There was the FEMA concentration camp conspiracy theory. And of course there was Pizzagate—which, just to refresh your memory, was a claim that Hillary Clinton and her friends ran a pedophile ring from the basement of a pizza place in Washington DC.

This just scratches the surface. But keep in mind that conspiracy theories are a symptom, not a root cause. After all, how could anyone possibly believe any of this crackpot stuff? It’s simple: these things become believable if you first believe that the opposition party is literally evil enough and well-funded enough to be capable of anything. If they are enemies of the state, dedicated to ruining everything good about America—and they have the power of Hollywood and universities and the press to provide cover—then weird conspiracy theories start to make a lot more sense.

That’s the root cause. The timeline goes something like this:

  • Starting in the early 60, liberals start up a culture war—and over the next 50 years they win it. We make huge strides in feminism, in civil rights, and LGBTQ rights At the same time, conservative lore insists that we banned prayer in public schools, we removed religious symbols from public buildings, we forced schools to hire gay teachers, we insisted on making buildings accessible to the disabled, we supported anti-white affirmative action in universities, we approved gay marriage, we sued everyone we can think of to make sure women made the same wages as men for the same job, and much more. At the same time, movies, TV, and universities pounded messages of over-the-top tolerance into our kids. Conservatives didn’t just lose the culture wars, they got their asses completely kicked.
  • For obvious reasons, white Republicans, especially older ones, are especially upset about this. And what makes it worse, they can’t get away from it. If they go to the movies, they see it. If they read a newspaper they see it. If they watch a TV show, they see it. It really does seem like it’s some kind omnipresent dark cloud of oppression engineered by smug liberal elites that can out-talk them and out-legislate them time and time again. They feel helpless.
  • Most of these changes seem inexplicable enough to ordinary people that it’s easy for them to be convinced that liberals are deliberately trying to weaken America. Women in the military? Black kids going to Harvard even if their SATs are 200 points too low? Hollywood movies that bash America and then get released abroad? And gay rights? That’s the final straw. Ordinary working-class folks—especially outside the cities—have grown up thinking that gay sex is degenerate, and now liberals want to advertise it far and wide. This is scary, morally decayed stuff, and in 2015 liberals actually persuaded the Supreme Court to legalize gay marriage nationwide! But what if your conscience doesn’t allow it? Tough luck. You issue the certificate or you’re out of a job. Ditto for hospitals and abortions. Ditto again for Obamacare and its individual mandate.
  • If it’s really true that liberals are deliberately trying to weaken America—and there seems to be plenty of evidence, doesn’t there?—then clearly this is a very powerful, very rich, very coordinated movement, most of which is probably hidden from view. And if they’ll do all the stuff you can see on the surface, God only knows what they’re trying to do beneath the surface in their shadowy meeting rooms in New York and Washington DC. It’s pretty plausible that they really do have control of the IRS. That they really did tell the Air Force to stand down and let the Benghazi tragedy unfold. That maybe FEMA really does have a plan for concentration camps. Or that liberals have the skill and power of a James Bond villain to construct a perfectly conceived and implemented plan to bring down Brett Kavanaugh in just a few days.
  • And of course, all of this is stimulated and encouraged by Fox News and Breitbart and Rush Limbaugh and the Drudge Report and Sean Hannity and Laura Ingraham. Evangelicals, who have been on the losing end of practically every aspect of the culture wars, and who are losing membership as their elder statesmen either retire or die, have been especially dispirited. In the middle aughts and during the Obama administration they were so distraught that many of them were ready to give up completely. But then, out of nowhere, came Donald Trump. Sure, he might not personally be the most religious guy in the world, but he brought them hope anyway. He was loud, he loved Christianity, and he promised to do everything they wanted. It was a miracle, and he was their savior. This is why evangelicals are his biggest supporters, all his faults notwithstanding.

Bottom line: if you believe the opposition is not just the opposition but the enemy, constantly working to destroy conservatism and weaken America, you’ll believe almost anything about them. None of these conspiracy theories make any sense at all without a belief in conservative victimization firmly lodged in your lizard brain. Get rid of that, and you get rid of (most) of the dumbest conspiracy theories.

POSTSCRIPT: The best evidence that liberals haven’t (yet) gone down the rabbit hole of treating Republicans as an enemy of the state is the fact that crazy conspiracy theories are so much less common on the left. They just can’t take root unless you believe that the opposition party is capable of pulling off such freakish (and well planned!) stuff.