How Christian Nationalism, Conservative Psychology, Conspiracy Theories, & Online Radicalization Fueled an Insurrection
PART II: Conspiracy Theories & Online Radicalization
(See Part I here.)
Far be it from scientists and legitimate journalistic truth-seekers to report reality.
Instead, the Trump era gave way to a comical, fantastical, larger-than-life interpretation of everything from crowd sizes to the downplaying of COVID cases.
While Trump continued to assert that the COVID pandemic was “totally under control,” scientists — several of whom had been long made societally irrelevant by Trump’s policies or intentionally disregarded — warned of an impending onslaught of pandemic proportions.
All the same, the more extreme conservatives remained stalwart in their narrative that COVID was “no worse than the annual flu” in support of their pro-freedom — and anti-mask — assertions. Therefore, despite their inherent fear of death, they simply did not “believe” in the threat of COVID and therefore did not include that as a potential source of death.
My own amateur statistical analyses of CDC statistics for COVID by state during that time found that Republican leadership — and the inevitable resulting negative vaccination status — had a far greater impact on COVID cases and their outcomes than population density.
Of the states with the highest rates of cases and worst COVID outcomes, I found that 73% were located in the South and 80% had Republican governors despite having an average population density that was 43% lower than the U.S. average.
Conversely, Democratic states and those in the Northeast region of the U.S. had the best COVID stats in terms of both case rate and hospitalizations and deaths despite having a population density that was 1.7 times that of the U.S. average and 60% higher than the average for Republican-led states.
Therefore, many — if not most — of those present on January 6th were indifferent to or in denial of the threat of COVID, despite the fact that the vast majority of those on the conservative Christian Right describe themselves as being “pro-life”.
Similarly, conservatives’ intolerance of ambiguity stands as a point of explanation for why those who align with the Trump political narrative also exhibit an inherent need for a deeper explanation of life’s events, even if that explanation is as fundamentally flawed as the QAnon phenomenon.
People who believe in conspiracy theories broadly tend to adhere to politically conservative viewpoints.
In 2014, a study by researchers at the University of Chicago found that 50% of Americans believed in at least one conspiracy theory.
A German study from last year revealed a more nuanced view:
Almost a third of Americans (32%) say flat out that most conspiracy theorists are “crackpots,” but as many as 22% believe that when it comes to so-called conspiracy theories, “there is more to them than the official accounts of the events.”
One in four Americans also believes that the mainstream media “are not telling the truth about corona” and therefore prefers to obtain information from so-called “independent sources.”
The demographic findings of a study conducted in March 2021 are particularly notable.
Republicans were nearly three times more likely than Democrats to believe in the first statement indicated in the chart below, twice as likely to believe the second, and four times as likely to believe in the third.
Similarly, those whose primary source of media aligns with the far right are more than 2.5 times as likely to believe in QAnon ideas as other Americans on average, and 4–5+ times more likely than those whose trusted news source is broadcast networks or public television.
Republicans are 1.6 times as likely as all Americans and more than three times as likely as Democrats to identify as QAnon believers.
Clearly, information sources matter tremendously when it comes to determining fact from fiction, and the more biased toward the extreme that a news source is, the more likely its viewers are to believe in conspiracies. This effect is markedly more noticeable amongst conservatives than liberals.
On the other hand, liberals are far more likely than conservatives to exabit openness to experience; uncertainty tolerance; integrative complexity; and self-esteem.
This shouldn’t come as a surprise — political liberals are known for an embrace of progress, while conservatives mostly favor a return to a mythical point in history in which White, cisgender, straight, middle-class Christians were the majority and enjoyed the privileges of all that status entails.
Harkening back to the aforementioned statistics on Christian nationalism, the vast majority of those who espouse the Trump-era anti-LGBT and racist points of view also ascribe to the particular brand of politicized Christianity that has been wielded as a method of social control for so many years.
Disregarding for a moment the factor of self-esteem, let’s look at conservatives’ propensity against integrative complexity.
Integrative complexity is defined as:
Unique among cognitive complexity formulations in that it does not only consider the amount of different information, perspectives, or dimensions noticed and processed regarding one issue(differentiation) but also incorporates perceiving the connections among these divergent dimensions (integration).
These recognized connections may be interactions, trade-offs, synthesis, or belonging under a unifying schema. IC thus only refers to the structure of thinking and not its content; it considers how people think about an issue, independently of what they think about it. Consequently, any idea can be expressed at any level of IC (Suedfeld 2010).
In general, low IC is characterized by rigid, black-and-white thinking, intolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty, a desire for rapid closure, and not recognizing the validity of other viewpoints. Conversely, high IC is marked by ﬂexible, broad-thinking that recognizes multiple aspects and possible interpretations of an issue and sees connections and dynamic tensions between perspectives.
— Suedfeld, 1985
Conservatives’ propensity for “rigid, black-and-white thinking” and “intolerance for ambiguity and uncertainty” makes them ill-suited for integrative complexity, or the degree to which thinking and reasoning involve the recognition and integration of multiple perspectives and possibilities and their interrelated contingencies free of what they think or believe about something.
In other words, their need for things to be as they want and expect them to be prohibits them from seeing them as they are.
That inherent need for closure has led to the unbridled expansion of domestic terrorism, specifically, white supremacy, within the U.S.
What begins as seemingly innocent intrinsic motivations and desires quickly evolves into violent action when the wild fires of extremism are added in.
Most Americans probably believe that they are immune to extremist conversion.
What they just as likely don’t realize is how fundamentally benign political extremism begins on an individual level.
According to Daryl Johnson’s book Hateland: A Long, Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart, during the 1980s, a record number of foreclosures occurred on American farms.
Due to a variety of contributing factors — a drop in the value of farmland, large debts for expensive equipment, a surplus of commodities that led to low prices, and a decline in exports, to name a few — the economic status of the U.S. agricultural industry was at a low. By 1985, agricultural banks accounted for over half of the bank closures in the country.
As a result, rates of alcoholism, divorce, and child abuse in many of the affected areas skyrocketed, and suicides among failing farmers reached record numbers.
According to USA Today, more than 900 farmers died by suicide in five upper Midwest states over the course of the 1980s farm crisis. Mental-health counseling and suicide hotlines sprang up across the country, but after the crisis passed, the programs dried up.
During that time, a journalist named Joel Dyer began traveling with and documenting the work of psychologist Glen Wallace, who ran a suicide hotline for farmers. In his experience, these people, almost exclusively men, chose one of three options: counseling, suicide, or shifting their guilt to blame other groups.
Wallace and Dyer noticed an interesting phenomenon — other groups were showing up at the very places they were called for counseling. These included Christian Identitarians and members of the Posse Comitatus, both of which were far-right, conspiracy-minded groups that espoused anti-government and anti-Semitic messages in support of white Christians who believed their social and political rights were being attacked.
When people are desperate for someone to blame for their situations, it is especially easy to get them to target individuals who are beneath them on a socioeconomic level or who are otherwise marginalized in society — especially when the groups that are recruiting frame it in terms of social support that alleviates personal blame rather than in the name of ideological extremism.
Immigrants, they were told, were taking their jobs, and therefore their income.
It wasn’t their fault; it was the inevitable result of a system that gave undue support and favoritism to certain groups of people for their skin tone alone — it was no wonder that poor, white farmers were bearing the brunt of the situation.
Following the Oklahoma City bombing in 1995, Dyer set out to search for reasons for the recent spike in right-wing extremist activity.
What he found was startling — roughly 80% of the people Dyer met on suicide watch during the farm crisis were affiliated with some kind of extremist group by then.
Those individuals had suffered so much damage to their economic and social inhibitors — family, employment, social networks, and future goals — and and a strengthening of personal destabilizers — anger, grievances, and isolation — so that they were extremely vulnerable to radicalization.
Extremist groups gave the farmers that had found themselves down on their luck a community and a support system that shared their concerns, or at least provided them convenient ones on which to hang their frustrations.
Unique to this particular radicalization event, though, was its massive scale.
What were normally individual-level personal factors were suddenly external factors that reached huge numbers of people simultaneously. The economy became a massive force that manipulated the inhibitors and destabilizers of millions of people, and though the farm crisis of the 1980s was not the only factor, its economic devastation sowed the seeds of radicalization that emerged in the 1990s.
In April 2009, the Department of Homeland Security released a report entitled Rightwing Extremism: Current Economic and Political Climate Fueling Resurgence in Radicalization and Recruitment.
In it, the Extremism and Radicalization Branch, Homeland Environment Threat Analysis Division in coordination with the FBI warned that the same macro-conditions that led to extremist activity in the 1990s were also evident in 2009.
After all, by 2008 the U.S. was experiencing the most serious financial crisis since the Great Depression.
The stock market plummeted and 8.8 million jobs and $19.2 trillion were lost in household wealth.
According to the aforementioned author Daryl Johnson,
“For DHS analysts, the warning seemed prudent and evidence-based. The correlation between broad economic and political trends and radicalization was well-established among experts that monitor extremist groups.
In hindsight, the warnings accurately predicted a sustained spike in right-wing extremism. At the time, however, the report was met with scorn and fierce resistance from conservatives.”
— Hateland: A Long, Hard Look at America’s Extremist Heart
Washington Times reporter Michelle Malkin, he says, referred to the “piece of crap report” as a “sweeping indictment of conservatives.” Because the threats outlined in it were not explicitly linked to specific organizations, she feared it could be used to target any group with right-wing ideologies, like the contemporaneously popular Tea Party.
She and others also took issue with the fact that the report warned of the threat posed by far-right extremists with military backgrounds specifically, accusing the authors of “left-wing antimilitary bias” and said it was offensive to veterans.
Despite the accusations, the report’s warnings were not unfounded.
As I pointed out in Part I, 13.3% of those charged for their roles in the January 6, 2021, attack on the Capitol have current or historical ties to law enforcement or the military, while 16.9% have documented ties to extremist fringe groups — and, unfortunately, there is a significant overlap between those two groups.
Many of the members of the Three Percenters militia group, for example, are current and former military members, police and border patrol agents.
Even so, that means that 83% of those charged in the events at the Capitol did not have known extremist group connections.
Instead, it seems that they have formed their own distinctive organizational ties — the kind that are broadly conspiracy- and far-right-oriented.
The January 6th insurrectionists seem to have taken on a wide swath of the ideas related to Christian nationalism I described in Part I as well as the the more specific conspiratorial views of the QAnon phenomenon.
Without getting too deep into Q, its foundational belief is that there is a network of Satan-worshipping pedophiles in liberal politics, entertainment, and the business world that participate in child trafficking and control the inner workings of our society, and that Trump was chosen to save the United States from impending doom during a “storm” in which the participants would be arrested and executed and he would be restored to his “rightful” role as President.
“Q” is the common moniker given to “Q Clearance Patriot”, the poster who claimed to be a high-level government official (with Q-level clearance, supposedly) who issued cryptic clues on the popular right-wing platform 4chan, and later on 8chan, which was shut down after being tied to several domestic terrorism events. The postings were then moved to 8kun, but no new post from Q has appeared since December 8, 2020.
What’s interesting about followers of QAnon (or as someone referred to them, Qcumbers) is that they are more willing to believe the outlandish proposition that liberal figures are drinking the blood of terrified children for their adrenochrome (an oxidized form of adrenaline) — presumably either to get high or stay young, depending on the source — than they are to believe sexual abuse allegations that include court cases with established facts against their conservative counterparts.
They conveniently ignore, for instance, the sexual assault allegations against self-proclaimed p*ssy grabber Donald Trump, the accusations of child sexual assault against Alabama Supreme Court justice (and twice-failed Republican Senate candidate) Roy Moore, and the sex-trafficking investigation by the Department of Justice against Florida’s Republican Representative Matt Gaetz — all of whom have been accused of sexual misconduct involving underage minors in recent years.
Regardless, the QAnon phenomenon has undoubtedly played a part in the extremist beliefs and resulting actions of far-right perpetrators, and it hasn’t disappeared yet.
Even though there have been no “Q drops” in over a year, even as the goal posts keep moving for the impending “storm” as the agreed-upon dates come and go without incident and hundreds of thousands of people have left the conspiracy group, QAnon remains a threat for the same reasons that any semi-organized faction with extreme beliefs does.
While it’s hard to determine exactly how many QAnon followers exist at any given time, polls have revealed that there might have been hundreds of thousands, if not millions, a year ago, and according to the March 2021 poll I cited previously from the Public Religion Research Institute, 15–20% of Americans believe in the central tenants of the conspiracy.
Robert P. Jones, the group’s founder and CEO, noted in a tweet that the 15% of Americans who believe in QAnon amounts to about 30 million people. “If QAnon were a religion, it would be roughly the same size as white evangelical Protestants or white mainline Protestants,” he added.
Let that sink in — QAnon is as popular as some major religions.
The relative power of an ideological group that size, no matter their relative level of organization, cannot be underestimated, especially when those people are among the voting public — or worse, running for office.
According to Business Insider, there are at least 36 QAnon-supporting candidates for Congress in 2022. The majority, unsurprisingly, are running as Republicans, while the others are either running as independents or are undecided.
That is concerning on a number of levels.
Because of these people’s support of — and in some cases, connections to — Trump, they might draw a considerable amount of votes from his base, even from voters who might not believe in QAnon themselves.
Their frequent self-designation as “patriots” and their obvious nationalism and claims to conservative values could easily be attractors for more mainstream Republicans who otherwise wouldn’t vote for conspiracy theorists.
And the thought of anyone with ties to “anti-government, identity-based and fringe political conspiracy theories," as the FBI described QAnon, being in positions of power and responsible for writing and passing our nation’s laws is terrifying.
Going back to the earlier PRRI poll, 28% of Republicans and 15% of Americans overall believed that “Because things have gotten so far off track, true American patriots may have to resort to violence in order to save our country.”
Now imagine someone who is already prone to conspiratorial thinking — someone who fundamentally sees connections and responsibility where there are none — believing that resorting to violence to “save our country” from those things, from fictional operations and issues, may be necessary.
These are people who have the power and ability to approve of engaging our nation in war in addition to approving and funding (or not) research and programs that monitor and prevent their own brand of extremism and domestic terrorism…again, it’s a terrifying prospect given what happened on January 6th.
Even without official approval, though, radicalization is easier and more convenient than ever for terrorist groups given the popularity of social media and the infinite reach of the internet.
While Facebook and other social media sites have committed to banning QAnon-related pages, groups, and profiles, those people have been quick to move to platforms that are popular with conservatives, like Parler, which describes its mission as “protecting against the authoritarian powers of Big Tech, Big Government, and cancel culture,” and Telegram, which the German government has considered shutting down if it “continues to prove popular with far-right groups and people opposed to pandemic-related restrictions continues to violate German law,” Interior Minister Nancy Faeser said today. Telegram has over 500 million users worldwide.
Parler and Telegram, along with other far-right-frequented sites like 4chan and Gab, have been used to organize events like the Million Maga March in November 2020 and the violence on January 6, 2021 in addition to the 2017 Charlottesville “Unite the Right” rally and the shootings at both the Pittsburg synagogue and the mosques in Christchurch, New Zealand.
The same things that attract conservatives to these platforms in the first place —a “freedom of speech” that includes almost no content moderation and the fellowship of like-minded individuals — are the very things that make them so dangerous.
When false information is allowed to run rampant and there are no dissenting voices to offer opposition, echo chambers (an environment where a person only encounters information or opinions that reflect and reinforce their own) are easily created, fueled by confirmation bias, which is the tendency to favor info that reinforces existing beliefs.
Extremist groups take advantage of those echo chambers to stoke the fires of far-right and fringe ideologies and recruit members for their causes.
ISIS, for example, has been incredibly successful at online radicalization and recruitment. Studies of the group’s tactics have revealed that rather than advertising their terrorism and extremist activities, ISIS’s success has come from playing up their positive messaging.
According to researchers at Columbia,
“The vast majority of ISIS’s Twitter followers were inspired by propaganda emphasizing the personal benefits that people could supposedly enjoy by joining the group — benefits like getting a free home in the caliphate, finding a spouse, and feeling camaraderie with fellow fighters. Every time ISIS released messages extolling such ‘material, spiritual, and social’ perks of jihadism, the researchers write, the Internet lit up with tweets declaring people’s intentions to join the group.”
— COLUMBIA Magazine
A 2016 NATO report confirmed this point, as summarized by an article entitled “Stopping ISIS from Luring People into Terrorism”:
One of the easiest ways is to encourage mental support and personal belief for the self-proclaimed Caliphate — rather than to ask for direct action from the potential recruit. ISIS uses religion, convictions, and social narratives to stress how important the intentions are for jihad.
In many of its official publications, ISIS avoids to ask to participate in suicide missions or to engage on the battlefield. As such, the organization adopts a more accessible profile and effectively lowers the private acceptance threshold for those that still doubt whether they should support the organization.
— The German Marshall Fund of the United States
All of these studies have emphasized the role that the internet has played in radicalization from terrorist organizations in recent years.
The speed at which information is spread and the ease with which communication, even across national and language divides, is facilitated by platforms like Telegram and Gab has dramatically shortened the length of time the radicalization process takes.
“Where in the past jihadist groups would spend months approaching, evaluating, and radicalizing potential recruits, ISIS succeeded to combine old-fashioned ways of communication, internet-based technologies, and an understanding of the global audience to accelerate a very effective pattern of support.
Indeed, it should not only be the broad extent of their reach that should worry us, but also the speed at which they are able to recruit new fighters.”
— The German Marshall Fund of the United States
The tactics that ISIS has utilized for expanding their membership mirror those used by the white supremacist organizations that recruited desperate farmers during the ’80s.
Rather than emphasizing their extremist ideology at the onset, these groups provide a community and a support system for potential recruits whose thinking then becomes radicalized over time — and therein lies their success.
Most people, after all, don’t actively seek out extremist groups without first possessing extremist beliefs, so the potential convert pool is greatly expanded if these organizations first offer confirmation of their complaints and the validity — and righteousness — of their existing feelings and beliefs.
In fact, I would venture a guess that most of the people who stormed the Capitol on January 6th didn’t set out to become political extremists turned domestic terrorists.
Instead, it is more likely that over time, their individual personal stressors and inhibitors became imbalanced, making them vulnerable to more and more extreme ideas and to being propelled to action by the belief, no matter how factually errant, that the 2020 election was “stolen” and that the only way to save “their” country was through violence.
It seems the irony of their violation of our democratic process in doing so was lost on them.