The most tumultuous and divisive presidency in modern American history culminated in an insurrection that left global citizens in shock and historians racing to sound the alarms. What happened in Washington, DC on January 6th, 2021 was the inflection point of a crisis decades in the making, and democracies ignore the insidiously infectious ideology of far-right extremist nativism that propelled such an event at their own peril. While many factors have intertwined to manifest the threats democracies face today, it has been the exploitative force of psychological propaganda employed by both state and non-state actors that has catalyzed the radicalization that led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Donald Trump may be rightfully viewed as the figure that metastasized the ideological illness engrained in his most extreme supporters, but it is important to acknowledge that the cancerous nature of his brand of far-right politics was a pre-existing condition in American politics well before he descended that infamous escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 to announce his candidacy for president. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” Hannah Arendt explored the conditions that drove Nazism and Stalinism in the 1930s and warned, “the mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded.” Written in 1973, Arendt’s words resonate deeply with the images of MAGA-hat-wearing, Confederate flag-bearing insurrections who the world watched desecrate a global symbol of democracy.
Though these images remain disturbing and have led the Biden administration to prioritize combatting nationalist threats from within, we must understand the sources driving a movement of mass radicalization. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign talk of Russian interference in the American democratic process instilled anxiety across the political divide and laid a foundation for questioning the legitimacy of our electoral process, which Trump would lean on in 2020. Evidence provided of Russian troll farms operating out of Eastern Europe prove that Russia has the capacity to implement complex propagandist strategies to manipulate the American psyche by using its own history and popular culture against it in the development of social media-based propaganda that spreads like wildfire on platforms like Facebook.
Examples of Russian propaganda from the 2016 presidential election showcase the authoritarian government’s ability to employ psychological propaganda to drive wedges between already fractured constituencies in America. This propaganda denotes an evolution from the anti-Semitic caricatures spread throughout Germany on posters in the Nazi era to an increasingly invasive web-based dissemination toolkit in the hands of the far-right.
While Russian interference dominated the conversation surrounding the 2016 election in the U.S., by 2020 it was becoming increasingly clear that the greatest threat to American democracy was rapidly proliferating amongst its own citizens on Twitter. Delving deep into conspiracy theories at the direction of Trump, a significant number of Americans began to look towards “Q” as their Messiah-like savior awaiting them on the horizon of the November election.
QAnon is an elaborate conspiracy theory that has pulled together multiple fringe groups under its expansive umbrella. Popularized by the re-Tweeting habits of a power-hungry, fact-denying president, QAnon began to infiltrate mainstream politics and political media in the lead up to the November vote. It even became the focus of discussion in a CNN townhall during which Trump refused to denounced the conspiracy network, further fanning the flames of an increasingly hostile and radicalized base of supporters.
The exploitative nature of the conspiracy theory is perpetuated through the psychologically informed methods of propagandists. As we have seen throughout history, authoritarians have built cults of personality around themselves or have identified societal outgroups to blame for the misfortunes of the masses. Effective propaganda is psychologically exploitative in its nature due to the underlying requirement that those subjected to it must be willing to defy reason and embrace the absurd. It hinges the foundations of its claims on partial truths and strategic lies that lead even the most objective of its subjects into clouded conjecture and false reasoning.
In “Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand” Nicholas O’Shaughnessy explains that propaganda exploits human psychological weaknesses as propagandists make claims with such confidence that it makes the rational-minded naysayers out to be the crazy and irrational; he concludes explaining that, “repetition is the precursor to success and simplicity is the key to the emotional and mental world of the masses.” In other words, when you say something enough, especially on major platforms such as Fox News, people will begin to accept a falsehood as fact. That helps to put Trump’s repetitive #StoptheSteal Tweets into perspective.
Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine American democracy through his constant delegitimizing of the electoral process and spreading of conspiracy theories served as a direct catalyst for mass far-right radicalization and the assault on the U.S. Capitol which left five Americans dead and a number of police officers permanently maimed.
Alarm bells having been blaring on seemingly deaf ears in the Republican Party for years. Following reports of increased hate crimes since Trump’s initial hate-fueled presidential campaign, news of foiled bombing plots against prominent Democrats, and the president’s failure to condemn far-right domestic terrorism after the Charlottesville attack, there is no credibility in any Republican’s claim that they could not foresee the terror that Trump was inspiring through his propaganda. The decision not to hold him accountable for an attempted coup which left U.S. lawmakers in fear for their lives marked a tipping point in the collapse of the modern GOP and amplified the very serious threats that domestic terrorism poses to the future security of the nation.
Conspiracy theories become dangerous when they cross into the realm of our mainstream reality as they did on January 6th. No longer is QAnon a fringe, radical element of a social media-driven conspiracy theory. It now represents a real and immediate threat to American democracy. The GOP’s embrace of “Q” and Trumpism have blurred the lines of what is true and what is false in the eyes of millions of Americans, and this is the primary objective of the propagandist.
The propagandist always has an end goal. Russia’s targeting of American democracy stems from its geopolitical interests in undermining Western democracy at-large. Putin wants his people to believe in his authoritarian-model of governance and he wants his nation’s geopolitical foes to be knocked down a peg. “Q” wants to instill division to manipulate the balance of power in American democracy. As a propagandist movement QAnon aims to disempower and eliminate the Democratic Party and uplift the most extreme adherents of the far-right, killing the moderate GOP in its path. “Q” is a clear and present danger to the preservation of American democracy.
Given the GOP’s tolerance for the seditionist behavior of Senator Ted Cruz and extremist rhetoric of newly elected congresspeople like Senator Josh Hawley, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Representative Lauren Boebert, it is clear that a decades-long realignment of the party towards the far-right has been actualized and expedited by the propaganda legitimized by Trump and his loyalists. Today, the future of American democracy rests in the masses ability to return to reality and condemn the extremist voices found everywhere from Twitter and Facebook to Fox News and the halls of Congress.
Right from the top, I can’t praise your analysis and writing skills enough; from the in-depth research, informative yet easy to understand writing, and professional layout, this felt like a magazine-worthy article. I think that almost anybody you might talk to has experienced the effects of the QAnon movement in one way or another, especially when it comes to having family members that have been radicalized. I’ve personally seen it happen, and I think this points to a larger trend across the United States and other democratic nations, where we see a shift away from liberal democratic values and towards authoritarianism. From McCarthyism, to Reagan-era conservatives, to QAnon conspiracy theorists, America has repeatedly seen Republican politics being pulled further and further to the right as time goes on. As you demonstrate, when the political spectrum widens, so too does the acceptance of strongman, authoritarian leaders; this brings us to Donald Trump.
The unique quality about Trump is not that he’s a populist, or anti-democratic, or embracing of extreme rhetoric; it is that he is simultaneously both a symptom and cause of increased polarization. Long before his candidacy began in 2015, the roots of anti-establishment authoritarian sentiment had already been planted and taken hold over the years. Following World War 2, a wave of fear over the threat of Communism, led by Senator Joseph McCarthy, gripped the nation and caused massive government and civilian surveillance of Americans, as well as a widely believed conspiracy that dozens of “card-carrying Communists” had infiltrated and secretly ran the government (sound familiar?). Around the time Ronald Reagan came into power, Republican Representative Newt Gingrich upended centuries-long traditions of decorum to run his campaign and office with divisive language and attacks on democratic norms. In 1978, he said to a group of constituents that, “One of the great problems we have in the Republican Party is that we don’t encourage you to be nasty,” and that politics should be a “war for power.” This rhetoric directly led to the oppositional party politics of the GOP and increased polarization that we’ve seen in recent years, especially following the election of Barack Obama. Immediately after his inauguration, top Republican officials, including Gingrich and Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell, held a meeting to make the party’s sole purpose to be blocking any and all progress made by the incoming Obama administration. By eliminating any pretense of bipartisanship, the GOP was transformed into the “Party of No,” forcing Democrats to either relinquish and acquiesce to the increasingly right-wing demands of the Republicans, or face government ineffectiveness and shutdowns. This pull towards the right resulted in increased polarization among citizens, who mostly now see Congress as slow and out of touch; all of these factors caused a political background that was ripe for Donald Trump to swoop in. The widening rift between Americans, dissatisfaction with government as it was, and increased acceptance of far-right views resulted in the election of a populist authoritarian who promised to “Make America Great Again,” “drain the swamp” that was establishment politics, and supported conspiracy theories popular with radical right-wing voters.
Now that we’ve seen how a candidate like Trump was able to come to power thanks to polarization, we can see how he is now causing it. Trump was elected in 2016, but the QAnon conspiracy theory/movement/cult was only created in 2017. This theory is explicitly pro-Trump, and plays upon many ideas put forth by Trump, with the founding post on 4chan referencing Trump’s repeated chant of “Lock her up” about Hillary Clinton. Donald Trump railed on his campaign against establishment politics and eventually started to blame the “Deep State” for controlling America from behind the scenes; a main tenet of the QAnon belief is that an evil cabal of Democrat insiders is secretly running the government (as well as eating babies), and that the only man who can stop them is, you guessed it, Trump himself. The line between Trump’s language and the formation and persistence of QAnon is about as short a line as you can draw. In addition to QAnon, Trump has caused increased polarization in the body politic by constantly attacking popular media outlets, which due to their (warranted) criticism of him, he branded as “the enemy of the people.” He also enacted/endorsed discriminatory laws against LGBTQ couples, transgender citizens and soldiers, majority African-American and Hispanic voting areas, and just about any minority one can think of. His actions and rhetoric have caused observable, studied increases in political rifts, distrust of government, and acceptance of authoritarianism and even martial law. These factors all came to a head on January 6th, a new date to live in infamy, when a violent coup, including a very large number of QAnon believers, attempted to try to overthrow the 2020 presidential election and replace our democracy with a dictatorship led by Donald Trump.
While the attack of January 6th was thankfully a failure, the cracks in democracy have nevertheless been exposed to the world. We can follow a seed of anti-democratic sentiment that grew out of McCarthyism and finally sprouted into the Trump administration, and, as a direct result, dangerous beliefs such as QAnon. While the nation is left reeling from the effects of the last four years and the attempted coup, the question now is how do we move forward? How do we de-radicalize the millions of followers of QAnon, and how do we return our system of government back into the democracy it is supposed to be? Rarely in American history have political questions such as these been so important to the average citizen, and only time will tell if the failed experiments of Donald Trump’s authoritarianism and QAnon’s violent lunacy will remain just that, failures.
Hello, Matthew, really enjoyed your commentary on how Qanon propaganda has played a pivotal role in the erosion of American democracy and has harmed the GOP party. I also think propaganda and conspiracy theories have had a large role in the polarization of American democracy, and overall led to the January 6th riots. However, I think a fundamental part of understanding why these conspiracy theories are so powerful in creating democratic backsliding is the people who believe and uphold conspiracy theories. The people that believe in conspiracy theories have a very potent distrust in government and have a lot of cross-cutting demographic cleavages with other anti-democracy uprising signs. Therefore, I believe the damage of conspiracy theories comes much prior to the January sixth riot, the damage was already written well within America’s internal flaws. Thus, I think it’s important to analyze who is consuming these conspiracy theories, and how a populist leader can unify this demographic to increase polarity and tension.
First, why are people believing conspiracy theories at alarming rates? Foremost, we must analyze the demographic who believe conspiracy theories. These individuals tend to be poorer individuals, less educated with general angst for the institutions. They aren’t inherently rational when conspiring, instead fueled by spite. This is because these people are less prone to logic and associate education with elitism. Instead, most confine in faith-based reasoning. Theories without proof logical evidence therefore may seem more believable because of the unfalsifiable nature of faith, and faith can provide ambiguous evidence for beliefs.
There are also noticeable empirical flaws in reasoning. For example, they tend to have large in-group biases, they believe in information from people who share similar thoughts, and people who tend to be under the same socioeconomic pressures. Furthermore, the media consumed by conspiracy theorists is media that tells them what they want to hear. As you mentioned, Fox News plays a large role in the legitimacy of conspiracy theories because as an established news source with a large support base, they are highly influential. Their reporting gives confirmation bias to its listeners validating their theories as realistic possibilities due to its media status.
The rate that conspiracy theories spread is also notable in the rise of conspiracy believers. Social media has played a pivotal role in the increased spread of conspiracy theories. As Nathan Persily writes in his analysis of the 2016 election “The 2016 U.S. Election: Can Democracy Survive the Internet” social media allows public figures like Donald Trump Jr., Kellyanne Conway, and Corey Lewandowski to share fake news with little to no fact check. This was prominent in fostering the Hillary Clinton is a member of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory as their “verified” Twitter status allowed them to share to masses and legitimize false information. Their posts were also spread at an alarming rate, around election time Pro-Trump fake news was spread almost 12 times more often on social media.
This appeal of conspiracy to soothe information gaps or resentment of elites has been more prevalent in materialist, religious conservatives. As Inglehart and Norris write, post-materialists have created a culture of progressive acceptance through the rapid economic growth America has undergone. As more economic security has been achieved, there has been a rise in education and pressure to change the status quo. Materialists feel left behind by this new generation. They have a disdain for this era of change, and an authoritarian who will restore norms soothes them. The universe then spits out a populist leader who will indulge their xenophobic, racist ways under the guise of being a “common man like them” and it was a match made in heaven. A leader like Donald Trump allowed materialists to seize more control and security, all while further alienating post-materialist. To materialists, electing Donald Trump was simply a “Protection of America”.
Furthermore, Donald Trump was the perfect enabler for anti-democratic conspiracy theories to spread and wouldn’t have been elected without his shared abhorrence for the institution. Much like his son and Kellyanne Conway, Trump was very active on social media. While this also helped cultivate the spread of conspiracy theories, it also helped him establish that he was a leader for the people. He was not distant, speaking down from a pedestal but rather using mass media accessible and understandable language for the “common folk”. He mentioned conspiracy theories in debates, bringing up Obama’s birth and Hilary’s emails countless times. He also used conspiracy theories to scapegoat his political shortcomings. For example, job loss would be scapegoated to immigrants and globalization rather than the growing income inequality within our country. This is damaging because, as Mueller writes in “What is Populism”, this type of leadership and delegitimizing government is inherently antidemocratic. By delegitimizing Bidens victory he created an anti-pluralist divide, and pluralism is essential to American Democracy. To his followers, this meant No Trump = No America, hence the atrocious act on the capital. He made millions of people believe that “dead people were voting in Michigan” and “millions of fake votes in Pennsylvania”, fabricating an even larger dissonance from his followers and institutions.
Overall, the rise of Qanon and conspiracy theories have attributed to greater polarization and a more fragile democracy. Most importantly to combat this the GOP needs to protect democratic norms and cannot let party officials like Ted Cruz or Taylor Greene delegitimize democrats. The next candidate must be one dedicated to protecting the democratic norms of mutual toleration of opponents and not one spreading harmful false accusations. On a more intimate level, we must combat the socioeconomic divide that is creating this resentment. This involves more even wealth distribution, more local blue-collar jobs, and more accessible paths to higher education.