QAnon began with an anonymous poster on 4chan who alleged that they were a government official in the US. The Conspiracy Theory that was described includes a paedophile ring involved in child sex-trafficking, the involvement of government agencies, Democratic politicians, and Hollywood celebrities who are all plotting against President Trump who is fighting them. The plotters, of course, are an elite who really run the world. This built on the earlier Pizzagate Conspiracy Theory with which it is now merged. While Donald Trump is seen as a “flawed Christian” he is also a “Messiah”, and planning a “day of reckoning” when the thousands of members of this cabal will be arrested; this event is called The Storm. True Believers see it as therefore vital that Donald Trump continues in office to continue the fight against the “deep state”, despite him having (supposedly, fraudulently) lost the Presidential election.
Some months before this election, Donald Trump expressed considerable doubts about the legitimacy of the process. He advised his supporters to vote in person; his challenger, Joe Biden advised his supporters to mail-in their votes because of the Covid-19 epidemic and the desirability of social distancing. Most confusingly, mail-in votes have been described as both more secure than voting in person, and as being less secure — take your pick. Mail-in votes were counted after those cast by voters in person; Trump called for the counts to be stopped before the mail-in votes had been tallied and counted. Each state has differing laws around mail-in votes, and by what date after the election they are valid, adding a further degree of confusion. The election was “called” by the broadcasting networks before all votes were counted, when it was clear that the challenger had won both the popular vote and the Electoral College votes.
Nonetheless, Trump did not concede, and to date still hasn’t conceded. He tweeted repeatedly alleging electoral fraud, and that the election had been “stolen”. Electoral fraud has been analysed in the US, with estimates of between 0.000004% and 0.0009% of votes. In this election this equates to between about seven cases with 1,500 as a maximum. In other words, electoral fraud does happen, but the numbers are very small; the total number of votes in this election was nearly 160 million. To be precise, it was 159,633,396. Even 1,500 fraudulent votes would not affect the outcome. Trump’s allegations of fraud would require between tens of thousands and several hundred votes in each state. No explanation of how such a large task could be achieved was ever given; just how many corrupt tellers and officials would be needed for this?
Donald Trump also launched several dozen legal challenges; while he alleged fraud, his advocates were very careful not to allege this in court. In the US, such cases have to be argued “with particularity”, that is the who, what, where, when and how the fraud was perpetrated. An advocate who alleges fraud in court but cannot substantiate it in this way is at serious risk of being debarred. Almost all the law suits were lost.
After the votes have been certified by each state (and Washington DC), a slate of Electoral College voters is chosen; they cast their votes on the basis of the winner of the popular vote in the state — winner takes all, except in Maine and Nebraska which do things slightly differently. Following this, the Electoral College votes are forwarded to Washington DC, where they are ratified in a joint session of Congress; this procedure is normally a piece of ceremonial theatre. This year the ceremony was on 6 January.
President Trump held a rally near the White House on 6 January, having mobilised his supporters previously on Twitter, as usual. During his address he said he would “never concede” the election, and he “instructed” them to walk to the Capitol. He also said:
“You’ll never take back our country with weakness. You have to show strength, and you have to be strong. We have come to demand that Congress do the right thing and only count the electors who have been lawfully slated. I know that everyone here will soon be marching over to the Capitol building to peacefully and patriotically make your voices heard today.”
He said he would be joining them, but in the event he didn’t, returning to the White House. Once at the Capitol, his supporters including white supremacists, QAnon adherents, members of the Proud Boys and others stormed the crowd control barriers, and entered the building where the ratification was taking place in the Senate chamber. Their aim was to annul and reverse the votes of the Electoral College, thus making Trump the winner. It took several hours and the mobilisation of the National Guard before order was secured; the ratification eventually resumed. There had been damage to the building, and there was looting. Much of this was “live streamed” to the fascinated horror of viewers. Five people died.
There was no forthright, immediate condemnation of this by Trump. In one tweet he said that the actions of the rioters were:
“The things and events that happen when a sacred landslide election victory is so unceremoniously & viciously stripped away from great patriots who have been badly & unfairly treated for so long”.
Twitter later permanently suspended his account because of the “risk of further incitement of violence”.
The QAnon Conspiracy Theory, and Trump’s own Conspiratorial claims of a “stolen” election combined to produce a mob and all the appearances of an attempted coup d’état, one actively promoted by the President. If you had ever thought that Conspiracy Theories were harmless diversions, I cannot stress this enough: Conspiracy Theories are dangerous.
The psychological processes that foster belief in Conspiracy Theories are, perhaps surprisingly, not pathological but are a natural defence to fear and uncertainty. We use such defences when we are threatened by terrorism, natural disasters, wars, financial and social crises, and epidemics. These defence processes are the same as those that give us astrology and palmistry, and represent a simplification of complex events. They are intuition based rather than logical and analytical; they are Fast rather than Slow thinking. Our responses to threats include increased vigilance, self-preservation and self-interest; in these circumstances we are not altruistic. We use these defences for self-relevant harms; events in faraway countries, such as the genocidal massacre in Rwanda, have little effect. However, terrorist attacks elsewhere when the motivation is comparable to what we have experienced locally will reinforce existing Conspiratorial ideation.
Conspiracy ideation, fake news, misrepresentation, and alternative facts are “weapons” in the armoury of populist leaders. Such leaders, who are often destructive and despotic, present themselves as “the voice of the people” when in reality they are an elite who often despise ordinary people — Trump called the rioters inside the Capitol “low class”. They use simple messages, “one liners”, three-word-slogans; they “tell it as it is”, giving simplistic answers to complex problems. Such messages are repeated in the red-top tabloid press, giving them an apparent verification. Donald Trump used Twitter as a megaphone to broadcast to his followers; repetition increases belief.
We can identify education and leadership style as factors which should reduce belief in CTs. Education should increase rationality, replace pessimism with optimism, give people a sense of empowerment, making them feel “in control” and able to influence their own destinies. It’s very easy to say that; but we are realistically talking of a generational change — a generation is usually reckoned to be 25 to 30 years. While our politicians always talk of improving education, it is noteworthy just how many are products of top public schools and Oxbridge. Is it really in their best interests to properly educate “the people”, for won’t this then threaten “the elite”? To put it another way, how much effort is there in education to reproduce in the state sector all the advantages of Eton, Harrow, or Roedean, and fund to this level? Are we all in this together or are we not?
A constructive leader should be participative, offering empowerment etc; we can expect this to reduce the belief in CTs. A charismatic leader would be “neutral” in respect of CTs. But above all, our leaders need to recognise that Conspiracy Theories are dangerous, and be prepared to listen to and take advice from real experts — rather than decrying them — and be prepared to genuinely act on such advice. Is this really too much to ask?
Real conspiracies, often the work of government “overreach” have been identified by whistle-blowers and investigative journalists. Whistle-blowers are at risk of legal actions by their employer, and may even be forced out of their job and subject to “gagging” injunctions. Investigative journalism doesn’t come cheap, and many traditional news media are little more than vehicles for entertainment. They rely on “press handouts” for their news, which they often parrot uncritically. Further, much of the traditional media is the hands of a very few moguls with their own agendas — these are almost always way off to the right. The BBC, long regarded as impartial, now has increasing competition from television stations with agendas; the future of the licence fund arrangements is uncertain.
Finally, let me once more repeat: Conspiracy Theories are dangerous.
I am very grateful to SeaanUiNeill for his advice and suggestions during the drafting of these two posts.
Selected internet resources and bibliography:
“The 65 days that led to chaos at the Capitol”: https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-55592332
Quassim Cassam; Conspiracy Theories, Polity Press, Cambridge; 2019
Michael Butter; The Nature of Conspiracy Theories (translated by Sharon Howe), Polity Press, Cambridge; 2020
Jan-Willem van Prooijen; The Psychology of Conspiracy Theories, Routledge, Oxford; 2018
James McConnachie and Robin Tudge; The Rough Guide to Conspiracy Theories, Rough Guides, London; 2013
Richard J Evans; The Hitler Conspiracies: The Third Reich and the Paranoid Imagination; Allen Lane, UK; 2020
Robert Campbell is a retired surgeon.