As over one-third of Oregon went dark in the state’s largest-ever power outage, my thoughts traveled back to the 1990s, to a brightly lit auditorium in Ellensburg, Washington filled with Holocaust deniers.
I had travelled over many rural miles in a Greyhound bus, ever-present anxiety my only companion, to enter that auditorium. The only visible person of color present, I already understood deep in my bones how morally repugnant and politically dangerous Holocaust denial was. But I did not yet know that this seemingly fringe conspiracy theory would become the template for conspiracy theories that would dominate American political discourse within the next two decades.
It’s time to face facts. The mainstreaming of conspiracy theories in America is no longer merely a war of words or a question of ideological differences. It is a deadly phenomenon that is costing lives.
It’s easy to discount the surreal and outlandish conspiracy claims of QAnon, except when they merge with coronavirus myths, are promoted in the U.S. Congress, and help to galvanize a deadly assault on elected officials.
As we somberly cross the half-million mark of U.S. deaths to Covid-19, it’s clear that it’s not just the virus that’s deadly. Conspiracy theories are killing Americans. The false theories that the virus is a hoax, that the Chinese should be punished, that masks and physical distancing and vaccines are ineffective — these theories have cost far too many lives.
THE DEADLY EFFECT OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The deadly effect of conspiracy theories is seen not only in the unnecessarily high death toll from Covid-19 and the rise of anti-Asian and anti-Semitic hate crimes over a year that saw more scapegoating than responsible action in response to the pandemic; we are only two months into 2021 and we’ve already witnessed the impact of conspiracy theories in two major national crises.
The conspiracy theory correctly named as The Big Lie — the fully-disproved notion that the presidential election was “stolen” — led directly to the storming of the U.S. Capitol on January 6th. Along with fatalities among insurrectionists and protesters, that Big Lie resulted in the deaths of three police officers (one homicide, two suicides) and serious injury of 140 more. As the Big Lie lives on in the grievance politics of Trump’s Republican party and the national security exposure of the January 6th siege of the Capitol, we can expect the fatality count connected to this false conspiracy to continue to rise. (I would be happy to be proven wrong in this prediction.)
With the nation still reeling from this assault on democracy, the ongoing pandemic and associated economic suffering, it was awful to witness so many Americans plunged into further distress with the winter storms of Valentine’s weekend. As with the coronavirus, the conspiracies spun around these massive infrastructure failures only compounded the suffering.
THE CONSPIRACY-FUELED BLAME GAME IN TEXAS
The failure of the power grid in Texas is tragic, but to be clear, it was avoidable. As the Texas Tribune reported, “Texas regulators and lawmakers knew about the grid’s vulnerabilities for years, but time and again they furthered the interests of large electricity providers.”
The death toll in Texas is still rising; the numbers are currently in the dozens. Two days into the catastrophic failure of his state’s self-managed energy system, Texas Governor Greg Abbott took time away from addressing the water, food, and heating crisis affecting millions of residents to go on Fox News to point the finger of blame anywhere but on corporate malfeasance and regulatory neglect. It was renewable energy, he said. “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.” His embrace of this conspiracy theory was immediately debunked.
While President Biden marshalled the resources of multiple federal agencies to assist hard-hit Texans, former Governor Rick Perry promoted the conspiracist view of the federal government as foe. Perry, who was U.S. Secretary of Energy under Trump, proclaimed “Texans would be without electricity for longer than three days to keep the federal government out of their business,” a statement that rivaled Senator Ted Cruz’s departure for Cancun in its callous disregard for the suffering and deadly peril faced by so many.
Tim Boyd, then Mayor of Colorado City, Texas, took this anti-government rhetoric to the local level when he posted, “No one owes you [or] your family anything; nor is it the local government’s responsibility to support you during trying times like this!” He continued, “Sink or swim it’s your choice! The City and County, along with power providers or any other service owes you NOTHING! I’m sick and tired of people looking for a damn handout.” Rather than face the consequences of his tirade, he then resigned.
It should be past time to discard climate change denial, with the scientific consensus about the real dangers of climate change fully established and climate chaos devastating community after community in unprecedented storms and fires. And yet we see catastrophic wildfires blamed on a space laser controlled by Jewish financiers, and freezing Texans blamed on renewable energy and Democrats.
CONSPIRACY THEORIES: DEEP ROOTS IN THE AMERICAN PSYCHE
The most dangerous conspiracy theories are the ones that have deep roots in the American psyche. These are the conspiracy theories that blame socialism and Jews for our suffering.
Towards the end of his second term as President in 1952, Harry Truman denounced the use of the word “socialism” as a “scare word.” He said, in words as relevant today as they were 70 years ago, “Socialism is what they called public power. Socialism is what they called social security. Socialism is what they called the growth of free and independent labor organizations. Socialism is their name for almost anything that helps all the people.”
Socialism, in the American psyche, also serves as a code word for Jews. For 100 years now, anti-Semitic movements have promoted the idea that socialism is a Jewish plot.
The continued potency of anti-Semitic conspiracy theories brings us back to the most heinous conspiracy theory of them all: Holocaust denial, the idea that Nazi Germany did not exterminate 6 million European Jews.
Holocaust denial is an enduring strategy of the white nationalist movement. As long as the world understands the horror of the Holocaust, it provides a moral barrier against the rehabilitation of fascism as a legitimate political ideology. White nationalist strategists understand that if they could remove that barrier, they would face less backlash to their authoritarian aims.
It is no accident that a rising tolerance for authoritarianism in the United States and in democracies around the world is accompanied by a surge in conspiracy theories.
THE TEMPLATE FOR NORMALIZING THE BIG LIE
The kind of Holocaust denial I witnessed at that white nationalist conference in Ellensburg nearly 25 years ago set the stage for the normalization of today’s equally outrageous conspiracy theories.
Holocaust deniers couldn’t just outright deny the Holocaust. Instead they advanced the tactic of calling for an “open debate” cloaked in free speech protections. The goal isn’t necessarily to confirm new facts, it’s to raise doubts about established facts. Raising doubts helps to normalize what would otherwise be considered unacceptable. In the case of the Holocaust, these doubts foster the not-uncommon conclusions that it wasn’t intentional, it wasn’t as horrific as we think, and that it wasn’t any different than any other acts of genocide.
Holocaust revisionism created the template for the minimization and false debate that continues today as climate change denial, opposition to sensible, data-driven public health measures against the coronavirus, and the equation of the common good with the bogeyman of “socialism”.
The fact that civil society allowed antisemitism and anti-Semitic conspiracy to take root set the stage for climate denial to take root, which set the stage for the collapse of consensus about the largest public health crisis in a century, and unchecked irresponsibility in corporate stewardship of our economy and infrastructure.
ACCOUNTABILITY: SACRIFICED ON THE ALTAR OF CONSPIRACY THEORIES
The deadly cost of infrastructure failures, pandemic mismanagement, and ideological bias in law enforcement makes it plain: Conspiracy theories enable bad public policy. The allowance we make for entertaining conspiracy theories in public policy debates detracts from the real issues impacting us all, such as deregulation and greed.
Conspiracy theories give people a way to think they’re responding to the real anxieties and suffering of our times, but in misplacing accountability, they only serve to increase the danger.
We live in a capitalist system. One doesn’t have to agree with it, but we should at least acknowledge it as the dominant economic system in our world.
One of our agreements under capitalism is that we cede stewardship of our resources and energy and infrastructure to the private sector. We allow the private sector to generate significant profits from these common assets in exchange for their stewardship of that on which we all depend. That agreement may be well and good when it works. But when it doesn’t?
When corporate choices have contributed to the burning down of the West coast and 14 million Texans without safe drinking water a week after a winter storm, we need to name that these corporate choices are no longer acceptable.
Why are we not more outraged? How have our expectations come to be so low? I believe that the mainstreaming of conspiracy theories has gotten us here.
You don’t have to be a Holocaust or climate change denier or QAnon adherent to share responsibility for the narratives that have come to dominate our understanding of these times. It’s easy to adopt a scapegoating stance, even on the left, pointing the finger of blame towards the one-third of Americans who truly believe some or all of these outlandish theories.
Civil society needs to hold itself accountable, too, for looking the other way as revisionism, minimization, misplaced blame, and scapegoating have worked their way into the mainstream. This past year has shown that the big and little lies of white supremacy and male dominance continue to poison every institution in our country, to the detriment of our prosperity as a nation. At the same time, the ascendance and continued strength of white nationalism as a movement feeds on the systemic failures of unchecked corporate greed.
These belief systems and movements can only thrive as long as the rest of us — the people and institutions that make up civil society — buy into the myth of scarcity: that one group’s gains requires another’s losses. Our inclusive democracy must be based on the reality that each person’s well-being is connected to the well-being of all. Our inclusive democracy must foster unity around the values that most Americans share instead of splintering into narrow ideological camps.
How much more are we going to allow conspiracy theories to drive our decisions, America? If we recommit to the common good, conspiracy theories cannot divide us.