America’s Conspiratorial Delusions Weren’t Born Under Trump

False realities have been part of the U.S. political scene for decades.

A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally
A person wears a QAnon sweatshirt during a pro-Trump rally in the borough of Staten Island in New York City on Oct. 3, 2020. Stephanie Keith/Getty Images

As the United States slowly wakes from the Trump administration, millions of Americans—including congressional representatives—linger in a delusional reality. In their world, their leader won, but his victory has been denied by traitorous enemies of the people. Evil forces lurk, empowered by a Biden administration that is at best communist and at worst demonic—though in this worldview the two are generally synonymous. The most visible representative of these fantasies, recently applauded by around half of sitting Republican members of Congress, is Rep. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a QAnon supporter and believer in Jewish space lasers. But she is just the tip of the iceberg of theories that have been fermenting inside the United States for decades.

Former President Donald Trump lost the election, but he won the election cycle. His conspiracy-mongering and high-profile support of right-wing propaganda outlets have left an indelible mark on American culture. But while Trump may be the undisputed champion of these tactics, he didn’t create them. Far-right politicians and media personalities have been creating false realities for decades, and they’ll keep doing it as long as possible—regardless of whether it spurs extremist groups or even terrorist attacks.

The most violent members aren’t the only concern. Normal people are being recruited into fringe groups, immersed in alternate realities, and convinced that the world is a terrifying place ruled by child-molesting cannibals and the servants of demons. They become isolated from dissenting friends and family, making them even more vulnerable to brainwashing tactics. Among other things, they’re frequently manipulated into ignoring their own safety during a deadly pandemic. My grandfather’s steady diet of Fox News propaganda caused him to dismiss the coronavirus as a hoax and refuse hospitalization even as he was collapsing under its effects. Fortunately, he received quick treatment and survived, but others have been less fortunate.

Most extremist groups are unstable and short-lived, and many collapse after they achieve their purposes—although they never seem to lack for successors. The alt-right and the Proud Boys popularized open support for white nationalism and have attacked left-wing demonstrators. QAnon has lured millions of people into a cult, including half of all Trump supporters. They’ve also gotten representation in Congress. The language of violent extremism has become the norm in many white evangelical churches, which tap into a legacy of both Confederate resentment and extreme Christian nationalism to justify the language of revolt against a supposedly unjust government.

And yet, none of this is new, however much some recent converts away from the Republican Party might want to present it as such. Activism against former President Barack Obama served as a breeding ground for conspiracy theories and hatred. Birther conspiracy theorists claimed then-candidate Obama was born in Kenya and not eligible for the presidency, and many continued to suggest his presidency was illegal after his election. Some conservative pundits continuously emphasized that his middle name is Hussein as a racist dog whistle, continuing even as Obama and his allies embraced the name.

Franklin Graham, a right-wing evangelical and future Trump ally, falsely claimed Obama was born a Muslim, tying his genetics to a religion long used by conservative commentators as a hated boogeyman. A few figures inside the party at the time, such as Sen. John McCain, spoke out against this so-called birtherism—but many more embraced it or winked at it. By the end of Obama’s presidency, 72 percent of Republican voters claimed to have doubts over the president’s citizenship—roughly the same percentage as embraced false claims about the 2020 election. They were the fuel for Trump’s election run.

The political kidnapping and assassination schemes against politicians and election officials aren’t new, either. In March 2010 in my own district, Tea Party members posted what they wrongly believed to be liberal Rep. Tom Perriello’s home address on Facebook. They invited his opponents to “drop by” and “express their thanks” for his vote on the Affordable Care Act. Someone took them up on that, slashing a propane line on the home’s screened-in porch, and the residents received a threatening letter in the mail. When confronted with the news that the address belonged to Bo Perriello, the representative’s brother, local Tea Party leader Nigel Coleman unconcernedly called it “collateral damage.”

The Tea Party’s tolerance for extremism and false narratives didn’t diminish their political effectiveness. Tom Perriello lost his reelection campaign, defeated by voters who had overwhelmingly bought into the core beliefs of the local Tea Party, if not their methods. Republicans have held the seat ever since, and when Democrat Jane Dittmar mounted a serious challenge in 2016, an armed Republican protester intimidated her staffers, and internet trolls bombarded her with rape and death threats.

And before the Tea Party, there was the white evangelism that powers the Republican base—which from the 1970s onward increasingly disappeared into conspiracy theories.

Her opponent, then-state Sen. Tom Garrett, initially denied any responsibility and changed the subject to unverified DUI allegations against her. He later made a tepid joint call for civility before easily defeating her. While his success can be largely attributed to campaigning and the down-ballot effects of Trump’s victory that year, it certainly didn’t hurt that the Dittmar campaign had been worn down by a barrage of threats.

And before the Tea Party, there was the white evangelism that powers the Republican base—which from the 1970s onward increasingly disappeared into conspiracy theories. The obsessive symbol-finding of QAnon is a descendent of the hunt for Satanic influence that reached a peak in the 1980s, when chain letters—the ancestors of today’s Facebook groups—regularly claimed that Procter & Gamble was in league with the Church of Satan. Before that, in turn, there were the fantasies of the John Birch Society, which believed in vast communist conspiracies driving the civil rights movement. None of these ideas ever entirely disappear; they merge and fuse into each other over time.

Over and over, irresponsible politicians spread conspiracies, use violent rhetoric, and claim that dissenters are puppets of fake news conjured up by enemies of the people. When their followers take things to their logical violent conclusion, they feign ignorance and issue weak condemnations while the extremists celebrate and interpret their comments as directives from their leaders. In the absence of real political or legal consequences for their actions, they only stand to benefit from this pattern.

Trump’s pandering to extremists may be the most obvious source of the problem. But that’s only because he lacked the self-discipline and political subtlety of ideological allies like Sen. Mitch McConnell and former Attorney General Bill Barr, both of whom acted to sabotage President Joe Biden’s legitimacy without tweeting their plans to the world. Future right-wing politicians will fine-tune their messages and orchestrate more deniable intimidation campaigns, and it’s entirely possible that the smaller left-wing extremist movements will swell up in response as more people give up on democratic norms. This may not cause the U.S. system of government to collapse, but they can certainly make the next few decades unpleasant.

This outcome isn’t inevitable, but responsible Americans from all parties need to act swiftly. Deceitful politicians need to be held accountable at the ballot box, and right-wing grifters need to see their profits dwindle. Most importantly, all Americans need to be aware of the supposed alternate realities that dominate so many lives.

Emily Brumfield-Hessen is a writer in Virginia.

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