Distress: I’m Watching Friends Fall for Inexplicable Conspiracy Theories

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I recently had my memory jogged for a long-ago celebration of America’s 200th birthday. Two outdoors activists and I backpacked up to the top of Polallie Ridge in our state’s newly created Alpine Lakes Wilderness Area. One party member, a recent Evergreen College graduate, gleefully mugged against a backdrop of snow-covered peaks.

Forty-plus years later, the same guy sent out a post-2020 Tweet saying: “The elections were full of fraudulent votes in the US elections. The evidence is too strong to ignore.”  A few months later, as the COVID-19 pandemic hit, he was defending President Trump and saying that Bill Gates “created” the “Corona virus.”

I’ve watched with distress and fascination as onetime friends fall under the sway of conspiracy theories and “alternative facts.”  They have formed a worldview which, in a couple of cases, is nearly impossible to penetrate.  Why? They’re angry about one thing or another and become partakers when served up a menu of half-truths and total untruths.

My ridgetop friend has taken to following and echoing Robert F. Kennedy, Jr., son of the late senator and an anti-vaxxer who once came to Olympia to denounce efforts to tighten measles vaccination requirements for school kids. Lately, he has used the coronavirus to build what an Associated Press investigation called an “anti-vaccine juggernaut.”

Kennedy siblings have written a New York Times article begging him to stop, but RFK, Jr., has spun his theories in a book with the wordy title: “The Real Anthony Fauci: Bill Gates, Big Pharma and the Global War on Democracy and Public Health.” It has become a bestseller at a time when ICU wards are again filling with the unvaccinated.

That sinister message has resonated. My onetime hiking companion is resolutely part of a quarter of America that remains unvaccinated.  RFK, Jr., once an environmental lawyer/activist, has taken his anti-vaxxer message to far-right gatherings. Ex-President Trump was booed after telling a Houston rally that he’d received a booster shot. “Alternative facts” have lots to do with it. I’ve urged readings on another vaccine-wary acquaintance, only to have him urge material on me.  In his view, we must give equal weight to stuff because it appears on websites and is vouched for by self-described “experts.” “Alt facts,” in turn, are used to discredit the genuine scientific experts who have dealt with AIDS-HIV, Ebola, and COVID-19.   Or in words of this acquaintance, “The ‘experts’ are selling us a bill of goods. They always have.”

Another once-youthful hiking companion became deeply religious in late middle age, and a devotee of Fox News pundits Laura Ingraham and Tucker Carlson as well as EWTN, the ultra-conservative Catholic cable channel.  They, in turn, have given him an arsenal of attack lines, a bulwark of defenses, and a nest of villains. Donald Trump is flawed but a hero.

False equivalence is central. Sure, January 6 was a riot with prosecutions justified.  But the real riots came in the summer of 2020 after the George Floyd murder.  Why isn’t the FBI tracking down the rioters from Portland and Seattle and New York?  Why are the Fibbies concentrating on a crowd that consisted largely of patriots who love their country?

My friend is unaware of the desperate messages delivered by his favorite commentators to the White House in mid-insurrection.  One was Laura Ingraham’s words to Chief-of-Staff Mark Meadows: “Mark, the President needs to tell people in the Capitol this is hurting all of us – he is destroying his legacy.”

Once a Young Democrat, this friend has had his head turned by Tucker Carlson’s “Patriot Rage” documentary.  “It’s a perfect example of propaganda that weaves half-truths into a whole lie,” in the words of Jonah Goldberg, a conservative writer who quit Fox News over the program. The message of “Patriot Purge” is that the 1/6/2021 insurrection at the Capitol might have been a “false flag” operation orchestrated by the Deep State with assistance of the FBI. It concludes with the suggestion that “they” are coming after real patriots, Trump’s voters: “The domestic war on terror is here. It’s coming after half the country.”

I tried to get my friend to give his definition of the Deep State. He got as far as saying that Donald Trump was about to run out the power brokers who have run things “forever” in Washington, D.C.  I read to him a Tweet from the Rev. Franklin Graham, Trump’s chief shill on the religious right. Graham does say rioters who stormed the Capitol “were wrong,” but adds: “I blame the swamp . . .  If the ‘January 6 Committee’ wants to find the truth about who was behind the attack, they don’t have to look any further than Washington and its corruption.”

“Exactly right,” came the response.  “Deep State,” “swamp,” “false flag operation” — people believe this stuff or, more accurately, it is drummed into them. The easy explanation appeals.  Ordinary Americans are depicted as victims of a privileged elite, never mind that Fox News CEO Lachlan Murdoch paid $150 million for his Bel Air mansion, or Sean Hannity’s $25 million salary.

The elite are demonized by dog whistles. They don’t play by the rules they set. Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, D-N.Y., was seen dancing maskless in Florida over the New Year’s break, my second anti-vaxxer friend told me. Now AOC has tested positive for COVID-19.  Guests at ex-President Obama’s birthday bash went without masks on the dance floor.  President Biden was photographed at a restaurant with no mask on. Such is the fueling of resentment against “them.” The enemies list of the moment seems topped by Dr. Fauci, teachers’ unions, AOC and “The Squad” in the House, and a pair of ideological opposites calling out the Big Lie, Vice President Kamala Harris and Rep. Liz Cheney.

Coming undone is another longtime acquaintance. He’s one of those curmudgeons who believes the whole world is going to the dogs.  He forecasts imminent economic meltdown, warns that my mutual funds will collapse.  Gotta buy gold. The conspiracy theorists are targeting his mind and those of like mind.

Overt racism is out of fashion in America, but a conspiracy theory called the “great replacement” is giving a booster shot to white supremacy.  It goes like this:  Democrats and progressives are throwing open our borders to immigrants. The goal, in Laura Ingraham’s words, to “import new voters to offset and eventually replace all you old people.”  Or, as put by Tucker Carlson, “the replacement of legacy Americans with more obedient people from far-away countries.”

America’s demographics are changing. It’s being done for political gain?  My acquaintance has focused anger on our U.S. Rep. Pramila Jayapal, a South Asian immigrant of rising profile in the House. Immigrant women have become symbols in the selling of “great replacement.”

Extreme nativists and conspiracy-minded kooks have been around this country forever. When I was in college, I learned of fisticuffs between the Notre Dame football team and the Ku Klux Klan, back in the 1920’s when the kluxers briefly dominated Indiana. But it’s no longer marginalized. Conspiracies can now be peddled to a mass audience, and millions tune in to charlatans of the airwaves. 

Demagoguery is abroad in the country as never before. It has touched folks, not simply the gullible but once-sensible friends. The danger to the republic can be witnessed in people I know.

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I worked for Seattle Post-Intelligencer from 1973 until it ceased print publication in 2009, and SeattlePI.com from 2009 to 6/30/2020. During that time, I wrote about 9 presidential races, 11 Canadian and British Columbia elections‎, four doomed WPPSS nuclear plants, six Washington wilderness battles, creation of two national Monuments (Hanford Reach and San Juan Islands), a 104 million acre Alaska Lands Act, plus the Columbia Gorge National Scenic Area.

14 COMMENTS

  1. You should read and consider more Jonah Goldberg………

    Will be glad when anti-Trump rants are passe and Biden critiques are allowed. We will all come to a political understanding when newsmen write and talk about news without their Blue or Red tinted versions.

  2. Is it possible that there are just too many old people? Your friends included?

    I remember the ’70s when my maternal grandfather was quietly soaking up Communist conspiracy material like “None Dare Call It Conspiracy”, and my paternal grandfather thought we were poisoning our minds with the Seattle Times (because it was published by Hearst [really the PI he read was the one published by Hearst, as I’m sorry to have to mention].) Harmless old cranks.

    Now the old people losing their grip and with a lot of time on their hands are not only unusually numerous, they have access to technology a lot better than FAX machines.

    • The insurrectionists were not “old people”. The lunatics toting assault weapons to state Capitols were not “old people”. Kyle Rittenhouse is not even an adult. The people we need to worry about are not the “old people” at all.

  3. You do realize that the power in our national government is run by “Not so harmless old CRANKS” ……… Or are the “Cranks” the ones who don’t agree with your views ??

  4. Could our susceptibility to conspiracy theories have anything to do with the fact the most universities have largely eliminated the open consideration and debate of competing views? Could the almost complete polarization of the press into one ideological bubble or another have in any way raised our skepticism toward what we are now offered as “objective news reporting”?
    One outrageous distortion of fact begets another and both sides have chosen intentional distortion or omission of facts as their primary offering. I now look to the BBC when I want in depth, unbiased coverage of American politics.

  5. The filter bubble is real. It’s tremendously comforting to have one’s own worldview confirmed, and all other views shut-out. But eventually, the whiplash arrives for some. The camera zooms out, or we see the unedited video, and we realize that the initial portrayals weren’t quite as we were told. A thousand natural experiments are run, and efficacy of cloth masks at stopping an aerosol virus don’t seem to show up. The question is, what do we do in the face of new evidence? Double-down and seek the comfort of our tribe, or be willing to update our priors?

    More broadly, we in America have destroyed many of the cultural institutions of belonging, from churches to scouting to national pride to even, at times, the family itself. Today, the greatest sense of belonging comes often from cultural affiliation and political tribes. Virtue-signaling is an effort to say “See, I’m one of you. I belong.” For too many of these churches of belonging — you’ve got to buy into the whole enchilada or none at all.

    Technology has been all too happy to oblige. It’s never been easier or more effortless to wall oneself into an information silo, where no contravening fact may penetrate.

    So, I’m independent, and have been all my life. It’s lonely, but one great luxury of never donning the red or blue jersey in the first place is that we can look at the -evidence- for and against something, and update our priors based on new evidence. In fact, updating our prior assumptions in the face of new evidence is, I’d argue, the very essence of learning. We feel no compunction to buy into the entire panoply of ideas. It’s liberating.

    For me, the evidence — from November 3rd 2020 onward — pretty thoroughly confirms that Joe Biden is our duly elected president. And evidence debunks essentially all whacky things at the heart of QAnon.

    But facts are stubborn things, and they don’t favor team red or team blue.

    The preponderance of the evidence suggests that the Steele Dossier was a political hit job, initially undertaken by a Republican Trump opponent but then expanded upon by the Clinton campaign. And then, somehow, this completely unsubstantiated document somehow found its way into the highest levels of the FBI, and consumed much of the blue press — and therefore us — for three full years, until Robert Mueller was able to say there was nothing really there, there.

    The preponderance of the evidence also strongly suggests that the greatest pandemic in our lifetime may very well NOT have sprung spontaneously from wildlife, but perhaps accidentally from a lab in Wuhan. Twenty-plus year NYT Science writer Don McNeil’s piece is well worth a read, if it’s escaped readers’ filter bubble: https://donaldgmcneiljr1954.medium.com/how-i-learned-to-stop-worrying-and-love-the-lab-leak-theory-f4f88446b04d

    Accidents happen, even hugely consequential ones. Just as it was important to know precisely how Chernobyl happened, it is vital to know how the worst crisis in world health came to be. And in that, we have to ask the questions that we still haven’t yet gotten good answers to, such as, how precisely did US gain of function research find its way to Wuhan, despite an explicit moratorium against it? After following the evidence pretty closely, it’s not clear to me that Dr. Fauci deserves hagiographic status, because he’s been very unwilling to open the books on just how this happened. There’s also very substantial evidence he worked with Collins at NIH to shut down reasonable scientific debate about a different mitigation strategy than the one he favored. So no, I’m not sure those who criticize Fauci deserve to be tossed in with the crazies — that’s just not what the evidence currently suggests.

  6. Joel, you do not seem to realize the very progressive bias in your thinking and writing. It limits the value of your commentary.

  7. I would add another causal factor: Covid. It has thrown many lives into a tailspin, making folks open to an impetuous job-shift or a new explain-everything belief system. America seems to go through these identity crises, as with the 1930s and the 1960s.

  8. Brewster has nailed it.
    Yes we do have real USA problems but the inability to sit in, say, a coffee shop and hear different opinions is corrosive.

    • You are giving too much credit to Trump as he is not in Putin’s league, he is a pretender, a con man that followed Bernie’s populous messaging during a time when the elite political class of this country (Clinton) was in disfavor. IF we keep him in the news, most people will compare him to Biden’s record of pandering to become another LBJ, and he will get re-elected.

  9. Thank you Joel for sharing your experience with how some people struggle with discerning facts from notions where notions may really be fiction and that fiction can lead to harm. Some people find it so important to be “right” and do so by claiming others are “wrong”. Who cares about taking time to discern and potentially change course based on new information? You get demonized if you change your mind like that!

    Creating and then fighting over “alternative facts” is not a new phenom as you know and can be found on playgrounds to legislative hallways, college campuses to courthouses, taverns to temples. One thing that is sharper now is the lack of civility, the down right mean spirited and physically threatening the behavior has become. No surprise that the lies about the election lead to insurrection. I am surprised though at the continuing lies about best course of action to save lives from covid. The consequences of not being vaccinated and adopting the mitigation measures are real. Harm to others, hospitals full, death for far too many. We will get through this because most of us are pulling together. Working to do the right thing in the right way, helping our neighbors and friends because we love community.

    • For me, the resistance to public health action on COVID is part of a general picture of science denial, that has been fostered by industry interests and their representatives since the struggle over tobacco science a half century ago. That has become a stock in trade for the right wing, but to some extent as in other areas it has gotten out of their control, and it has become useful for anyone, even foreign enemies of our country. There will always be nutty ideas about anything, but the eagerness to believe them comes from a habitual posture of doubting the scientific establishment, and that doubt has been cultivated for financial gain.

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