A few weeks ago, before the sack of the nation’s Capitol thrust the twin dangers front and center, I wrote about the scourges of authoritarianism and conspiratorialism and the way they enable Trumpism. I asked readers if people in their lives had displayed propensities for either and, if so, why they thought that was.
Dozens responded, often in sorrow, to relate stories of family members or friends who have become unquestioning Trump zealots and who now believe things that are patently false.
Tom, from Southeastern Massachusetts, said that a longtime friend who has become a hard-core Trump supporter and believer in conspiracy theories displays the type of anxieties experts say push some toward authoritarian figures.
“In the lead-in to the 2018 elections, my friend kept harping on the caravan, the numbers of Latin Americans making their way to the border,” a major subject of conservative-media fear-mongering. “Prior to this past election, in 2020, he warned that Black Lives Matter was subsumed by antifa. He spoke adamantly against protests and violence and supported federal troops to disrupt peaceful protests.”
Russell, a retired Boston law professor, says a close friend, “a wholly decent man,” has become a strong Trump supporter for similar reasons.
“Fears dominate his political thinking,” he wrote. “He’s afraid of violence from the Black Lives Matter movement.” His friend wants “a strong leader who shares his views, will make him safe, and will stand up to the people and policies” that he believes threaten his middle-class lifestyle.
Another observation that came up multiple times from people with very religious family members was the attraction that Trump held for that subset of the population, particularly those whose beliefs qualified as evangelical or fundamentalist.
In her own family, “I’ve seen religious fundamentalism, especially evangelical Christianity, having a big role in driving people toward conspiracy theories and acceptance of an authoritarian leader,” e-mailed Kathy, from Acton.
There’s a reason for that affinity, suggested a Massachusetts psychologist.
“The attraction to authoritarianism is very much the same as the attraction to religion and, in particular, strongly ritualized religions,” he wrote. “Some people, particularly those who feel lost and disenfranchised in a complex world, long to be told both what to think and what to do.”
Kathy said one family member has already seized on the latest fast-developing conspiracy theory, one proffered almost instantly by former Alaska governor Sarah Palin, Republican Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida, and Fox News. That is, that it was antifa, not Trump supporters, who were behind the attack on the Capitol. Embracing that evidence-free assertion obviously allows a Trump backer to excuse Trump supporters for the violent attack on the Capitol, which left five dead. That includes Capitol Police officer Brian Sicknick, who died from injuries sustained during the insurrection.
Conversely, Bob, a mostly Republican presidential voter from the Fitchburg area, suggested that a professional focus on data, facts, and precise thinking might be an antidote to authoritarianism and conspiracy theories.
His old college friends, all engineers, all voted for Trump in the 2016 presidential election but had turned against him by 2020.
“They are data-driven and good thinkers, so logically, it’s easy to make the leap to where they are now,” he wrote. But not a cousin, who “suffers from both authoritarianism and conspiratorialism, with a touch of paranoia.” Bob has frequently tried to reason with his cousin, but with no luck. “For example, when I asked how he could reconcile the [dozens of] failed lawsuits by Trump to overturn the election with his belief that the election was stolen, he just parrots back his position. Quote: ‘Everyone knows it was corrupt.’ Or, ‘You’re a smart guy, you should be able to see the fraud.’ ”
A different take came from Stephen from Walpole, a conservative who voted for Trump in 2016 but not in 2020: conspiracy theories as a way to justify or inflict rhetorical revenge. Although he himself accepts the results of the recent election, he has been astounded by how many of his conservative friends do not.
“The more I hear, the more I’ve come to the conclusion that these conspiracy theories about the election are just cover for what they really want, which is political revenge,” he wrote. “Revenge for pussy-hat marches and nonstop investigations, impeachments, slimy tactics, and more negative coverage than any other president in my lifetime.” That view, of course, embraces the conservative assumption that the FBI/Mueller investigation and House impeachment, as well as critical coverage of Trump, were somehow unwarranted.
A MetroWest customer-service worker said he has both in-laws and friends, some well-educated, some not, who are under the sway of Trump and Trump-enabling conspiracy theories.
“Believing QAnon or other conspiracy theories is like believing in the tooth fairy or magic,” he said. “It becomes a simple explanation, and you can make up whatever you like.”
That strikes me as an observation that gets to the nub of things. Believing in conspiracy theories allows one to believe almost anything you want — and to blame almost anyone you want — no matter how baseless, factually untethered, or contradicted by facts.
And, as we saw last week, for some to justify violent lawlessness based on those beliefs.