David Neiwert, “Red Pill, Blue Pill: How to Counteract the Conspiracy Theories That Are Killing Us” (2020) – Dave Neiwert has a possibly unique reputation in antifascist circles- he’s a liberal, a “lib” who is skeptical of militant antifascism, but all the serious antifascists I know admit, without any grudging, that he knows his shit. He’s been following the far right for years, does good research, and doesn’t go beyond the research (for instance, into having a great many opinions about antifascism that he expounds upon, as many liberals do with less basis).
His new book is about conspiracy theories and there’s good reason why. It’s goddamned everywhere and anyone my age or older has had the creepy experience of watching conspiracy theory migrate from the drolly amusing margins of life to the center. It’s especially hard on liberals, who put so many chips on the idea that a rational, informed public can steer public life without much in the way of dangerous mucking about with power structures. The rise of Trump and QAnon is like a zombie movie turned real to them. Hell, I’ll admit, I’m not so far from liberalism — or maybe just the idea that the sort of irrationality and fanaticism you now see cropping up in the Trumpist/QAnon/antivaxx/CRT-panic formations is a “those people” thing, something for the South or abroad, not a thing that would affect New Englanders or people who remind me of New Englanders — to be unable to relate.
Among other things, Neiwert makes an interesting point- conspiracy believers have undertaken virtually every mass casualty attack in western countries for the last twenty years. Incels, “white replacement” Nazis, he doesn’t mention them but ISIS guys usually believe conspiracies, too. That’s a relevant fact, but Neiwert doesn’t push it too hard- after all, more and more people have been drawn into the world of conspiracy theory (not talking about thinking something is fishy with the Warren Report or that Epstein didn’t kill himself, but hardcore world-organizing conspiracy theory) and most of them don’t do any violence. We could also point out that when you leave the twenty-year cutoff, mass shootings seem orthogonal to conspiracy thinking- I’ve never heard that the Columbine killers or other school shooters of that era were particularly into conspiracies, for instance.
Mass shooters are the tip of the iceberg. Since conspiracy theory lurched towards the center of right-wing politics, conspiracy theory can do even greater damage when it winds up behind the wheel of policy. Immigration, climate change, the basic administration of justice and basic governing functioning… as the Republican Party enters into a dynamic where it needs to feed its conspiracy-mad base more and more red meat, who’s to say how much can get thrown into a cocked hat by conspiracy-inflected thinking?
And this is where Neiwert slips up, and where his liberalism, no impediment to seeing the problems of the right, trips him up. Advice on trying to deprogram your conspiracy-minded family and friends dominated the last part of the book. It’s fairly sensible stuff about being empathetic but firm, giving them alternative stuff to believe, dealing with underlying hurts, etc. You can see why people whose relatives have been stolen from them by Fox News and Infowars would want that advice. But it isn’t a meaningful political solution. Neiwert even grants that it’s dicey enough as an individual solution. But it seems to be what liberalism offers.
Not to be a broken record, but I’ll stake a claim: it’s about power. What will break the grip of conspiracy? Maybe stuffing every Fox News casualty’s mouth with gold could do it, reassure their anxieties, but A. certainly not for all of them and probably not for enough of them and B. The pricks they vote in won’t let us do that until we have enough power to actually overthrow them. Really, I think, especially given the linkages between conspiracism, authoritarian politics, and authoritarian cultural strains (there’s also an “authoritarian personality” supposedly, and I can believe it, but that’s not my field), there needs to be an alternative pole of power that can command allegiance, respect, or failing those, silence. It doesn’t have to be the silence of the censor: the sullen silence of knowing you’ll be laughed at for your challenge will do it, at least keep the conspiracists on the margins where they belong. And if you have that kind of power, you don’t need to worry that your whole setup can be knocked down by a senile ex-game show host and his febrile fans. That’s what we need- to the extent nice conversations with your chud relatives can help build that, good. To the extent they can’t, well, we know where to drive the old cart and plough. ****