Mat Staver, cofounder of the right-wing legal activist group Liberty Counsel, seems to think that he knows a lot about vaccines. In his new show, he’s taken to pushing lurid theories about how the Covid vaccination drive is part of a totalitarian plot. “COVID-19 was just the stepping-stone to this more global issue of controlling and vaccinating everyone and tracing and tracking every single movement,” he’s said.
Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us
Greg Locke, a pastor who whipped up the crowds at the #StopTheSteal-themed rallies in the lead-up up to the Jan 6th insurrection, seems to think that he knows the real story about social distancing. During an Easter service, he told his Tennessee congregation to “take them stupid masks off.”
What do these individuals have in common? They are, in the first place, advocates for Christian nationalist ideas—meaning that they promote the myth that America is by origin and by right a Christian nation, that it’s lost its way at the hands of a militant secular elite, and that white Christians in particular are now the principal victims of persecution in American society. They’re all committed and partisan Republicans. And finally, they are disposed to believe in—or at least to promote—unsubstantiated or disproven claims and conspiracy theories.
Humans have been unreasonable for a long time, of course, but the particular blend of religious nationalism, extreme partisanship, and bonkers-level irrationalism on display here is something new and dangerous in mainstream American politics. It’s some of the clearest evidence that one of America’s two major political parties is now an unmistakably authoritarian movement, and that it’s unlikely to be reformed in the near term. This is one of the key takeaways from David Neiwert’s essential book, Red Pill, Blue Pill (Prometheus, 2020).
Published in the shadow of an impending national election, Red Pill, Blue Pill didn’t receive the attention it deserved. But in retrospect, Neiwert’s investigation looks prescient. The author of several other books on the radical right, including Alt-America: The Rise of the Radical Right in the Age of Trump (Verso, 2017) and Eliminationists: How Hate Talk Radicalized the American Right (Routledge, 2009), Neiwert examines the appeal of conspiracy theories, the personalities that are attracted to them, and the damage they inflict on our society and politics. It’s a complicated story, to be sure, and Neiwert covers many of the angles and subplots.
It is now widely understood, as Neiwert explains, that one driver of conspiracist thinking is a perceived loss of social status. Conspiracy theories are essentially stories “about power: who has it, and who doesn’t.” By constructing fantastical theories that supposedly explain why their believers are being deprived of social status, conspiracists tend to misidentify false targets “as both demonic and a source of pollution, people fit only for elimination.”
It’s also well understood that social media has served to amplify the worst of the resulting cognitive dysfunctions. YouTube, Facebook, search engines—all profit from the algorithms that amplify obsessions and manipulate users. In a world of captured and monopolized information, in short, the profit motive has been invested in deepening an uncounted number of rabbit holes. Neiwert diagnoses the issue systematically, showing piece by piece how technology has helped conspiracy theorizing and delusional thinking slip from the fringe into the mainstream of American politics.
But Neiwert fortunately takes the analysis far deeper than these conventional reflections. The technological drivers of modern irrationalism, as he points out, can’t explain the huge partisan gap. Of course, there are plenty of conspiracists on the Left, too, as Neiwert is careful to note. But taken on the whole, the most dangerous forms of conspiracism in America today line up, to a shocking degree, with the Republican party and a right-wing political agenda. “Conspiracy theories are the one constant thread that runs through the backgrounds of every right-wing domestic terrorist of the past half-century,” he writes.
Why do so many of the nuts roll to the right? Money is a big part of the story. You can’t understand why Cleta Mitchell is such a vector for election fraud nonsense if you don’t take into account who is paying her. In fact, Mitchell is riding a wave of cash from groups like FreedomWorks and the Lynde & Harry Bradley Foundation that spills right out of the pockets of a subsection of America’s plutocrats. They pay for the crazy because the crazy pays off for them—at least in the short term, in the form of tax cuts for the wealthy, labor-busting judges and so on.
The other part of the story has to do with authoritarianism. As Neiwert shows, conspiracist thinking is often closely tied to an authoritarian disposition among individuals who don’t believe in equality as an important social value and would prefer a strongman who will punish the demonic cabal that they’ve been persuaded is responsible for all of their ills. Authoritarians can be found everywhere on the political spectrum, but they are concentrated decidedly on the right.
Although the specifics of today’s surge of misinformation are new, the bones are very old. In one of the most topical sections of the book, Neiwert dissects the current right-wing obsession with so-called “critical race theory” and “cultural Marxism.” He meticulously gathers the evidence to show how this strand of conspiracy came together out of fabricated texts and willful misrepresentations dating at least as far back as the 1990s. As Neiwert explains, Paleoconservative William S. Lind, an associate of the New Right leader Paul Weyrich, built a cottage industry around his ‘cultural Marxism’ theory. “Cultural Marxism is a branch of western Marxism, different from the Marxism-Leninism of the old Soviet Union,” wrote Lind. “‘It is commonly known as ‘multiculturalism’ or, less formally, ‘Political Correctness.’” Lind spread these ideas through speeches and videos, and at events including a 2003 Holocaust denial conference, where he pointedly told the audience, “These guys were all Jewish.”
Lind’s ideas were picked up by, among others, Patrick Buchanan, the paleoconservative former candidate for president, and Frank Ellis, a contributor to the white supremacist magazine American Renaissance, who cast “cultural Marxism” as an attack on the principles of free speech. The late Andrew Breitbart described his discovery of this theory, around 2007, as an “awakening.” On Fox News, Breitbart told Sean Hannity, “Cultural Marxism is political correctness, it’s multiculturalism, and it’s a war on Judeo-Christianity.”
Domestic terrorists including Anders Breivik, Dylann Roof, and Elliot Rodger absorbed these ideas and used them to justify their acts of mass violence. Each was widely characterized in the media as a “lone wolf.” In fact, as Neiwert carefully documents, they were very much creatures of certain misinformation systems. “Roof in particular left a social media crumb that was at once cryptic and clear,” Neiwert writes. “In his manifesto, he called black people ‘the group that is the biggest problem for Americans,’ but like most white nationalists, he also blamed nefarious Jews for creating it.”
Neiwert, who’s been writing about radical extremist movements at least since the 1990s, is a perceptive and scrupulous narrator. But he doesn’t just diagnose the problem. Drawing on the insight of deradicalization experts, Neiwert lays out “a toolkit that ordinary people could use to bring their friends and loved ones out of the dark world of conspiracy theories and back into the sunlight of reality.” The road ahead will not be easy, he notes, but the work of deradicalization has never been so important. Conspiracy is “a lethal combination that destroys the lives of the people it infects, and then destroys the lives of thousands of innocents whose misfortune places them within their sphere,” he writes. It is “quite literally killing us all.”