Tuesday, July 21, 2020

Conspiracy theories and authoritarianism...a highly toxic cocktail


A convergence, in both time and substance, is raising the tide of the rushing political waters with the potential of resulting in a metaphoric flood of significant proportions.
On the one hand, there are more commentators shining a light on what they call “conspiracy theories” while at the same time, others are framing their analysis around the notion of “authoritarianism.” It seems that these two currents in political/cultural observation, diagnosis, analysis and potential path forward out of the wilderness are, not necessarily just single and isolated, but rather fused, and mutually interdependent, if not co-dependent. Just last evening, Fareed Zakaria hosted a ‘special’ on CNN dedicated to an expose of the roots, actors, and dangers of conspiracy theories from both a historical perspective as well as through a contemporary lens.

McCarthyism, the search for a communist in every office in the State Department, by a Republican Senator resulted, finally, in his censure by his own party for his relentless, and demonstratedly hollow campaign to rid the United States of communists. Conspiracy theories, so the documentary contends, continue to surround the assassination of President John F. Kennedy, by an allegedly ‘lone assassin,’ given the notion that many Americans believed back in 1963 and others still contend today, that a single person would not and could not carry out such a scheme against the president, with the aid and support of others.

It cannot come as a surprise to many that the highest feature on the list of categories on which the current candidate for re-election to the Oval Office seeks to campaign is selling the concept of “fake news”. If you will pardon the pun, the trump political campaign was conceived and delivered (birthed if you will) on the lie that former president Barack Obama was born in Kenya and not in Hawaii, as his birth certificate disclosed. Black, brilliant, the editor of the Harvard Law Review, and bearing the middle name “Hussein” shortly after the United States had become embroiled in a catastrophic war against Saddam Hussein, the former head of the Iraqi government, the very word, “Hussein” connoted visages of profound hatred, and contempt for what many considered a mortal enemy with his purported weapons of mass destruction, as well as a convenient launch pad for a campaign of political character assassination, delivered by trump against Obama, a campaign that continues to this day.

Thunderous megaphoned acolytes were then eager and willing to jump onto the lie, promulgating its venom into the homes and the coffee shops across the heartland of the U.S. Acolytes of trump like Alex Jones, a right-wing American radio host and prolific anti-government conspiracy theorist thrive in American political life, and not exclusively underground. Public declaring the mass shooting of elementary school children and teachers at Sandyhook a staged event allegedly to curtail Americans’ gun rights, Jones is considered by some to be one of, if not the most influential of the ‘sources’ the current president references, mostly by re-tweeting his vitriol. Jones also promulgates the theory that 9-11 was perpetrated by the U.S. government, that “Parkland FL high school student survivors were ‘crisis actors’ paid by the Democratic party and George Soros.” (From adl.org website, the anti-defamation league). 

The initial spark that resulted in an attempted attack to root out child molesters allegedly operating in the basement of a pizza parlour (referred to as Comet Ping Pong) as part of the Hillary Clinton’s alleged sinister mind, Jones’ words have resulted in prison sentences and violence. Banned from several social media platforms, Jones nevertheless continues to command a sizeable audience.

“Trump spent his holidays retweeting QAnon and Pizzagate accounts

The president is normalizing conspiracy theories that portray his political opponents as satanist pedophiles”
reads the headline on a Jan. 2, 2020 story in VOX by Aaron Ruper.
Ruper’s story continues:
In December 2015, Donald Trump  infamously appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s Infowars show, praising his amazing reputation, and vowed that ‘I will never let you down.’….on December 27 alone, he (Trump) posted about 20 tweets from accounts that have promoted QAnon….
And it is on QAnon that Zakaria’s documentary focused.
What is QAnon?
The Atlantic, June 2020, in a riveting piece by Adrienne LaFrance, entitled Nothing can Stop what is coming carries this subtitle:
QAnon is a conspiracy theory with messianic overtones and dark predictions. It’s legions of followers are growing and it’s a harbinger of a world where facts are reality don’t matter. (p. 27)
Another highlight from the LaFrance piece: The destruction of the global cabal is imminent, Q prophecies. One of its favorite rallying cries is “enjoy the show—a reference to a coming apocalypse. (p. 32)
Lafrance details:

Many of the people most prone to believing conspiracy theories see themselves as victim-warriors fighting against corrupt and powerful forces. They share a hatred of mainstream elites. This helps to explain why cycles of populism and conspiracy thinking seem to rise and fall together. Conspiracy thinking is at once a cause and a consequence of what Richard Hofstader in 1964 famously described as ‘the paranoid style’ in American politics.  But do not make the mistake of thinking that conspiracy theories are scribbled only in the marginalia of American history. They color every major news event: the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the moon landing, 9/11. They have helped sustain consequential eruptions, such as McCarthyism in the 1950’s and anti-Semitism at any moment you choose. But QAnon is different. It may be propelled by paranoia and populism, but it is also propelled by religious faith. The language of evangelical Christianity has come to define the Q movement. QAnon marries an appetite for the conspiratorial with positive beliefs about a radically different and better future, one that is preordained. (p. 37)

LaFrance continues:

In his classic 1957 book, The pursuit of the Millenium, the historian Norman Cohn examined the emergence of apocalyptic thinking over many centuries. He found one common condition: This way of thinking consistently emerged in regions where rapid social and economic change was taking place—and at periods of time when displays of spectacular wealth were highly visible but unavailable to most people. This was true in Europe during the Crusades in the 11th century, and during the Black Death in the 14th century, and in the Rhine Valley in the 16th century, and in William Miller’s* New York in the 19th century. It is true in America in the 21st century.

Not surprisingly, in the vortex of rivers of ink and choruses of talking heads concentrating on conspiracy theories, Anne Applebaum, a writer at The Atlantic, has published a new book, “Twilight of Democracy: The Seductive Lure of Authoritarianism. In his review in the New York Times, Bill Keller writes, in the July 19, 2020 edition of the paper. (The book) “is concerned less with the aspiring autocrats and their compliant mobs than with the mentality of the courtiers who make a tyrant possible: ‘the writers, intellectuals, pamphleteers, bloggers, spin doctors, producers of television programs and creators of memes who can sell his image to the public. (The “clercs” to Applebaum).Applebaum believes the usual explanations for how authoritarians come to power—economic distress, fear of terrorism, the pressures of immigration—while important, do not fully explain the clercs…

A resident of Poland, Applebaum, notes that “the right-wing nativists of the Law and Justice Party (came) to power in 2015,  the country was prosperous, was not a migrant destination faced no terrorist threat. ‘Something else is going on right now, something that is affecting very different democracies, with very different economics and very different demographics, all over the world,’ she writes. (Keller, NYT, op. cit.)

Appearing on Morning Joe on MSNBC, Ms Applebaum notes the appeal of authoritarianism among a wide cross-section of people, including intellectuals, and is discussing possible reasons, includes, with prompting from Mike Barnicle, the desire to simplify in a highly complex and cluttered world of many messages.

Writing in the Guardian, July 9 2020, John Kampfner, in reviewing Applebaum’s book, writes:

History lesson number one: authoritarians need mass support, but as with 1930’s fascists, they also need the collaborations of people in high places. (Quoting Applebaum) ‘Given the right conditions, any society can turn against democracy…indeed if history is anything to go by, all of our societies eventually will.’
Conspiracy theories, the rise of populist, nativist, right-wing oligarchs, fueled by resentful men and women of both ability and presumed entitlement, combine in and through the vortex of social media, where, lacking appropriate government regulation and mature and reasonable self-governance, words that espouse any theory, even the most heinous and reason-defying conspiracy theory, coalesce into a highly toxic political propaganda conflict.

No longer boundaried by national jurisdictional lines, and no longer exclusive to either the rich or the poor, and paradoxically and ironically dependent upon and inflaming the resentments of many people of various demographics, autocrats riding into power on the force of evangelical apocalyptic beliefs embedded in nuclear, if blind, commitments and emotion might well prove to be a political virus with which many democratic governments are ill-prepared, if not completely unprepared to cope.

When Michael Flynn publicly takes the oath to something highly suspiciously linked to the QAnon conspiracy, and trump not so secretly appears to be enamoured by the potential of the influence of such a conspiracy movement, and when so-called Republican sycophants persistently demonstrate an ideological and almost religious fervor of support for an oligarch like trump, what are the rest of us to think?

Memories of evangelical, pontifical, absolutist religious bigotry spewed from the pulpit in a church in my home town, fueled by a similar kind of obsequiousness of new-found converts, easily interpreted as sycophants to the personage of the homilist and his pursuit of numbers of converts. In this marketing/evangelizing campaign these mostly men then scurried to find holy writ to enable, support and inflame their converted spirits and their commitment to recruit new converts. It was then, as it is now with trump, an evangelism founded on judgement of those who did not and would not drink the kool-aid of conversion. And for a while, the movement filled both pews and coffers while underscoring a religious bigotry against Roman Catholics and a homophobic bigotry. Even more than a half-century later, I have learned that that church has never tolerated the gay community, as either laity or clergy.

Deeper memories abound of an absolutist matriarch whose religion was laced with righteous superiority over those less fortunate, those unemployed, those suffering from drug and alcohol dependencies, and those, including within the family, who might be suffering some illness who were classified as ‘cry-babies’ by this domineering and highly skilled nurse. Introduced to both an evangelical racist and a domineering matriarch early, I have remained distanced from and skeptical of any and all voices that resounded with the absolute conviction of their own superiority, whether based on a distorted version, interpretation and exegesis of Christianity, or a conspiracy theory of the Second Coming and the fear of the final judgement.

Undergirding both conspiracy theories and the highly radioactive language that transports them into the hearts and minds of people of all minds, spirits and psyches, lies deep and profound fear, anxiety and the overwhelming need to find something to cling to. And for those needs, there will always be both people needing such sycophancy, and followers who need the support and encouragement of highly committed masses of others. It is this toxic and threatening inter-dependency of neuroses/psychoses that might need a collaborative initiative to release its grip on millions.

 *William Miller was a Baptist preacher in rural New York in 1831 who predicted that the Second Coming of Jesus was imminent, settling on a date: October 22, 1844. The Millerites became the Adventists, who in turn became the Seventh-day Adventists who now have a worldwide membership of more than 20 million. (LaFrance, p. 38)


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