The Hate at the Heart of Conspiracy Theory
Liberty can survive intense disagreement. But it cannot survive pure hate.
Something bothers me about the most common explanations for why conspiracy theories are spreading on the American right. When trying to account for the rise of the Q-Anon movement, for example, pundits and social scientists tend to use terms like “distrust.” But to understand how so many Americans can believe that “they” have dark and evil designs, we need to resort to a more primal emotion: hate.
Here’s what I mean. I don’t trust my car dealer. When it comes to matters like car pricing, car repairs, and car warranties, I adopt Ronald Reagan’s mantra from the days of the Cold War: “Trust, but verify.”
But though I don’t trust my car dealer, I don’t dislike anyone at the dealership. So if you told me that the guy who sold me my 2018 Honda Accord was part of a global pedophile ring that cannibalizes slaughtered children—central elements of the Q-Anon conspiracy theory—my first response would be total confusion. Distrust alone wouldn’t come close to preparing me to hear those words. I’d have to hate him before I believed something so evil.
To be sure, conspiracy theories are nothing new in American life. But I’m continually stunned by how gross the allegations now shared by many Americans—including plenty of people I know—are. There are the occasional references to Q. But there are also claims that the lockdowns were implemented for the sole purpose of destroying the economy and harming Donald Trump, or that the virus “will go away” the day after the election.
Behind it all is a simple conviction, an unstated premise that lends credibility to any claim, however outlandish: “they” are so evil and so loathsome that they’d happily unleash an epidemic on the world or crush the livelihoods of millions merely to obtain a political advantage.
These are not the convictions of a healthy society. These are the convictions of people consumed by rage and fear.
This week I release my new book, Divided We Fall. It posits that the American union is growing increasingly fragile. Exposure to hate inspired me to write the book—and expanding levels of partisan hate are daily reaffirming its thesis. But it’s not just any kind of hate that should alarm Americans; it’s the kind of enmity that is rooted in a narrative of deep and abiding grievances. This, for example, is a common view of the world on the American right:
They hate us, they lie about us, and they use all the instruments of their power to deprive us of our rights and our livelihoods.
Even worse, in the name of social justice and so-called reproductive freedom, they have legalized killing on a mass scale. In the years since the unelected Supreme Court read a right to abortion into a Constitution that’s utterly silent about the topic, tens of millions of innocent children have died in the womb. And leftists are fanatics about “the right to choose,” resisting even the most modest attempts to restrict the deadly practice—and using their economic power to sanction states that resist.
The left tramples individual liberty. In the name of “tolerance,” they restrict free speech. In the name of “justice,” they limit due process. In the name of “peace,” they seek to limit the fundamental human and constitutional right of self-defense.
And they’ll enlist any means in the ruthless pursuit of these goals. If they have a social media account, they’ll shame and humiliate you online. If they own a company, they’ll impose economic punishments on states, cities, and towns. If they run a university, they’ll openly discriminate against conservative and Christian students and faculty. They’ll harass people in restaurants. They’ll harass people at movie theaters. They’ll harass people in their own homes.
Leftist anger breeds violence. Remember the flames in Ferguson, Baltimore, and Charlotte? Remember the police officers ambushed in Dallas and Baton Rouge? Did you see antifa beating journalists? And who can forget the angry leftist who almost changed history with his attempted massacre of Republican congressmen on a Virginia baseball field?
And now they disrespect the constitutional order. They abused the counterintelligence surveillance powers to obtain a warrant against a former campaign aide, they used a fake dossier full of Russian disinformation to spread conspiracy theories and undermine public trust in the president, and then they rushed to impeach that same president for—at worst—a minor diplomatic mistake, one that was corrected before any harm was done.
If you see these facts, how can you not be alarmed? Isn’t it obvious that our political opponents are dangerous? Wouldn’t it be foolish to believe they mean well?
If you read this narrative with an open mind, you should immediately notice a few things.
First, it is rooted in multiple events that are real and, in fact, unjust. Cancel culture is real. These acts of violence were real. The misconduct in the Russia investigation was real. Many lies flower from seeds of truth.
Second, it collectivizes guilt. When we see atrocities from “our” ideological side, we claim they’re exceptional: Don’t judge the many by the few. But when we see atrocities from the opposing tribe, they’re emblematic: the natural and inevitable result of a bankrupt ideology. So the same people who would be indignant if you ascribed the sins of the Proud Boys to Donald Trump are also convinced that Antifa is inseparable from Joe Biden.
Third, this narrative completely omits how the opposing side views the world. In my book, I also walk through the left’s case against the right. Trust me, it’s every bit as compelling and infuriating: a long tale of hypocrisy, corruption, and violence—rooted in truth, yet caricatural in its simplicity.
All of this helps to explain why it is so difficult to use reason and evidence to rebut conspiracy theories. When you don’t approach a conspiracy theorist from within their frame of reference, they will think that you are the one who is naïve: Your basic regard for their opponents—your insistence that many of their actions can be explained with reference to good intentions and decent values—is by itself disqualifying and discrediting.
In quality, if not in intensity, the mutual hatred between liberals and conservatives in today’s America reminds me of the conflict between Shias and Sunnis I observed during my deployment to Iraq, where I interacted with members of every Iraqi faction.
The animating spirit of that civil war wasn’t law, policy, or even theology. It was a laundry list of very real and very recent grievances: “The Sunnis killed my cousin.” “The Shia killed my uncle.”
Oh, and what else characterized the culture of that conflict? The fervent belief in lurid, fantastical conspiracy theories.
Liberty can survive disagreement even when it is very intense. But it cannot survive pure hate. For when you despise your adversary, you cease to see how any form of mutual tolerance or forbearance could be morally justified. “How is it compatible with the ‘common good’ (or ‘social justice’) if we permit these vile and dangerous people to speak? The very thought that those monsters might win converts makes what they say a clear and present danger to the body politic!”
This is why a full-spectrum defense of the liberal order requires not just a commitment to a particular doctrine, like freedom of speech, but to a particular disposition: an openness to the world, a determination to see opposing points of view, and a degree of grace and tolerance even in the face of profound disagreement.
Even if you successfully cultivate this disposition, you may not be able to persuade fervent conspiracy theorists, many of whom are in the grips of late-stage hatred. But if all of us show a little more tolerance and forbearance towards our ideological adversaries, we might just be able to undercut the hatred that allows conspiracy theories to have such wide reach in the first place. The best inoculation against the viral spread of hate is not education; it is humanization.
If the appeal of conspiracy theories like Q-Anon were based on mere distrust, we should be able to handle them. But those minds that are sliding ever deeper into darkness are fueled by hate. Unless we can contain the spirit of mutual loathing and contempt, these theories will continue to consume our country.
David French is a Senior Editor at The Dispatch and a Member of Persuasion’s Board of Advisors. His new book is Divided We Fall: America’s Secession Threat and How to Restore Our Nation.