A pandemic is spiraling out of control and Donald Trump's reaction is to roll his eyes and say, "It is what it is." Unsurprisingly, polling data shows that his Democratic opponent, former Vice President Joe Biden, is pulling ahead, not just in national polls, but in a number of battleground states like Pennsylvania, Michigan and Florida, none of which Trump can afford to lose. After all, the incumbent has nothing real to run on. The economy is the worst it's been since the Great Depression of the 1930s, Americans are losing health insurance by the millions, and Republicans are responding by trying to shortchange unemployment benefits for the millions of people who've lost their jobs.
With nothing real to hang on to, it's no surprise that conservatives — already prone to spreading misinformation — are increasingly addicted to conspiracy theories, wallowing in paranoid fantasies to justify the ludicrous notion that there's any reason to keep on supporting Trump and the Republican Party.
Unfortunately, this turn towards even greater conspiratorial thinking on the right is also extremely dangerous. There's already a strong link between right-wing paranoia and right-wing violence. Add the increasing likelihood of Trump's defeat, the rising stress from the coronavirus, and a blitz of violent propaganda, and there's a real chance that right-wing conspiracism will lead to even more domestic terrorism, hate crimes and neofascist goons in the streets.
Alex Jones of Infowars, who still has a sizable audience despite having been de-platformed by many major social media companies, shamelessly encouraged his audience last week to lash out with murderous violence against the left.
Jones claimed to have reports that "Maoists" (which is fringe-right code for anyone to the left of Republicans) are stockpiling "explosives and weapons and trucks loaded with ammonium nitrate and chlorine gas" in the cities in preparation to wage war against all true-believing Americans. So "the best thing to do in a defensive way," Jones said, "is kill as many of them as quickly as possible."
Jones of course insisted that he was only talking about "defensive" tactics and warned viewers about not "jumping first," but that rhetoric is mostly a weak attempt at ass-covering to disguise an effort to incite terrorist violence from the right.
For one thing, Jones is just making up the threat that his audience is supposed to be "defending" themselves against. No leftists are not stockpiling weapons or bomb-making materials, and there is no progressive conspiracy to wage war on right-wingers. For another thing, Jones painted a clear picture of the kinds of people he imagines killing as quickly as possible, specifically naming "the establishment perverts and pedophiles" who he believes run society, as well as people who "show up in black uniforms and burn down your local courthouse."
The former is a reference to Democratic politicians, whom far-right conspiracy theorists have been accusing, under the banner of "Pizzagate," of running a secret pedophile ring for at least the last four years now. The latter is a reference to Black Lives Matter protesters and anti-fascist activists, the vast majority of whom are peaceful. The right has been demonizing them as violent because of some graffiti and sporadic episodes of vandalism. Neither group is involved in a plot to kill conservatives (or anyone else), but by claiming that they, Jones is setting up a narrative clearly meant to incite or justify violent attacks.
On the Christian right side of things, similar conspiracy theories about progressives are spreading. As Right Wing Watch has documented, popular Christian right activist Scott Lively has claimed that "Democrat-controlled population centers" will soon be burned to the ground, as part of an elaborate conspiracy by liberals to get out of paying pensions to police officers.
Unfortunately, there's good reason to fear these wild and violent theories are gaining even more traction than usual on the already paranoid far right. On Tuesday, Axios reported a massive surge in online interest in QAnon, which is basically an umbrella movement that organizes all these various right-wing conspiracy theories into one narrative that has become so elaborate and consuming for its followers that it's almost a religion at this point.
Online searches for QAnon have reportedly exploded tenfold. Similarly, "QAnon pages and groups on Facebook had nearly 10 times more likes at the end of last month than they did last July" and there has been "a 190% increase in the daily average number of tweets with popular QAnon hashtags since March as compared to the seven months prior."
QAnon followers believe that a shadowy "elite" — which they conflate with Democrats — runs both the country from the shadows and, oh yeah, that they also have a massive pedophilia ring, and that Trump is secretly masterminding a plot to destroy this elite cabal. (In real life, Trump's reaction to people who run pedophile rings is to say they like "beautiful women" on "the younger side" and also to say "I wish her well.") It's a testament to the kinds of pretzels people will tie themselves into in order to believe that there's anything noble or moral about Donald Trump, or some valid reason to support him.
The rise in interest in QAnon isn't surprising, as the White House is actively encouraging their voters to get involved with this unified-field conspiracy universe. As Media Matters has reported, Trump has retweeted QAnon Twitter accounts at least 185 times, and "members of Trump's family, his personal attorney, current and former campaign staffers, and even some current and former Trump administration officials have also repeatedly amplified QAnon supporters and their content."
Honestly, the supposedly mainstream conservative network Fox News is just as dangerous at this point. Most Fox News hosts are careful to avoid overtly endorsing QAnon, but network content in recent weeks has been perfectly situated to validate and amplify the paranoia about Democrats and progressives who are supposedly gearing up to wage war on conservatives.
Day in and day out, Fox News has broadcast scary images of protesters fighting with police, clouds of tear gas and people running through city streets in the middle of the night, all to make rural and suburban viewers, who are even more shut-in than usual, believe that American cities are war zones right now. Fox News is also blatantly lying to its viewers, blaming "radicals" and "antifa" for the scary images, and not telling viewers that in most cases what they're seeing is cops provoking conflict, often by chasing down, beating and tear-gassing peaceful protesters.
As those of us who actually live in American cities can attest, they don't look like war zones, but pretty much like the same places they were before the pandemic and the protests (with a lot less traffic). Even when it comes to the protests themselves, despite some looting and vandalism back in early June, the vast majority of protests have been entirely nonviolent, at least as long as law enforcement isn't attacking protesters without cause.
In spreading this bald-faced propaganda, Fox News — which tries to position itself as the voice of the Trump-era mainstream right — is working in tandem with cuckoo-for-Cocoa Puffs conspiracy theorists like QAnon and Alex Jones. Fox News viewers see all these misleading images and hear all this talk about "antifa" and the "radical left," and it feels like concrete evidence that the conspiracy theorists are right and that "progressives" or "radicals" are starting a civil war. This not only reinforces conspiratorial thinking, but encourages more conservatives to seek out these outrageous theories.
Taken together, the Trump White House, the online conspiracy fringe and Fox News are enveloping Republican voters in this paranoid fantasy that they're under violent assault from the leftists — and that they need to "defend" themselves through pre-emptive action. There's already been a rash of violence against protesters, who have been run over with cars or shot down in the streets. Rather than toning it down, Trump and his allies in both "mainstream" and fringe right-wing media have ramped up their rhetoric, painting a lurid and entirely false picture of the supposed threat. Either implicitly, as on Fox News, or explicitly, as with Alex Jones, conservatives are being encouraged to respond to this imaginary threat with violence.
There's no reason to expect this situation to improve as the November election nears — or after that either, quite likely. Right-wingers are sore losers on a good day, but now they've whipped themselves into a paranoid frenzy that is utterly detached from reality and could lead to tragic violence.