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.