Amid the sprawling aftermath of the U.S. election, at least one element has flown somewhat under the radar: seven candidates for elected office who have a history of endorsing or promoting QAnon won their races, being elected either to Congress or to state legislatures. Most prominently, Lauren Boebert and Marjorie Taylor Greene were elected to the House of Representatives in Colorado and Georgia respectively. Both are Republicans: this development happened in the background of a more prominent narrative in which the president has openly whipped up conspiratorialism in order to shore up his vanishingly slim chance of retaining the White House. And of course this establishment endorsement of conspiratorialism has occurred as the consequence of a wider trend.
Recently, research for the civil rights activism group Hope Not Hate revealed that one in four Britons (that’s Britons—not even Americans!) believe in “QAnon-linked conspiracy theories",with the number rising to over two fifths of 25 to 34 year-olds. While only 6 percent of the 2000 people polled self-identified as Q supporters, 25 percent of those surveyed agreed that “secret satanic cults exist and include influential elites,” with 26 percent agreeing that “elites in Hollywood, politics, the media and other powerful positions are secretly engaging in large-scale child trafficking and abuse.” This correlates with other recent research that demonstrates a high incidence of belief in conspiracy theories worldwide, particularly surrounding COVID-19.
Obviously, I suppose, when we read stuff like this we are supposed to find it troubling: it should worry us that people are apparently so reluctant to buy the official narrative about COVID-19 infection rates and death tolls, that they are apparently so willing to believe that their lives are governed by some sort of secret—probably pedophilic—world government.
But on the other hand, the boundaries of what does or does not constitute a “conspiracy theory” hardly seem all that well-set. After all, one does not need to be a conspiracy theorist to believe that “elites in Hollywood, politics, the media and other powerful positions are secretly engaging in large-scale child trafficking and abuse.” This, in fact, is the only thing one might sensibly conclude from following the major and ongoing scandal surrounding Jeffrey Epstein, which has been widely reported in the press. Something similar goes for the belief that “Epstein didn’t kill himself”, which has been called a conspiracy theory, but to me feels closer to Occam’s Razor.
The kneejerk criticism of conspiracy thinking goes back to the philosopher Karl Popper, who referred pejoratively to the belief that “the explanation of a social phenomenon consists in the discovery of men or groups who are interested in the occurrence of this phenomenon… and who have planned and conspired to bring it about.” The idea that a conspiracy theory of this kind must always be a sign of faulty thinking, however, doesn’t stand up to much scrutiny. The philosopher of conspiracy theories Charles Pigden has claimed that you (or anyone) must logically be a conspiracy theorist, as either you believe the evidence of conspiracies that you read in history books or hear on the news—which would make you one—or else you think that all the evidence from history and current events is somehow false, which would itself imply the existence of a conspiracy to make this so.
Another thinker, David Coady, has argued (in his 2007 paper, “Are Conspiracy Theorists Irrational?”) that Pigden can’t quite be right about this—because the term “conspiracy theorist” implies some sort of active participation in uncovering various conspiracies: you wouldn’t call someone a “number theorist” just because they believe in numbers. But Pigden’s hermeneutic remains useful as a way of understanding the prevalence of conspiratorial belief in our time. We really do constantly posit the existence of conspiracies—and indeed, it is often useful to do so. Coady makes the point that the decision to invade Iraq in 2003, which many resisted, but whose dissenting voices were often patronizingly shut down in the press, had all the hallmarks of a conspiracy—a conspiracy which has since been (though with hardly sufficient consequences) exposed.
Coady goes on to argue that while the belief in conspiracy theories is often individually irrational, on a collective level, conspiracy thinking might be a healthy habit. If everybody unquestioningly accepted the honesty and good faith of powerful people, then this would hardly be a good thing. On some level, yes, it is dangerous to question COVID-19 death tolls, but it still seems useful, in an era where our governments seem all-too-hasty to take our liberties away in the name of (ostensibly, but often not very effectively) combatting a virus, to feel able to treat things like lockdown measures with a healthy skepticism. We do not want to find ourselves in a situation where our government has carte blanche to take our liberties away for no good reason.
Certainly, Coady argues, if conspiratorialism is at bottom irrational, then it is a more useful sort of irrationality to its opposite: the epistemic vice of being too willing to believe official narratives, of otherwise intelligent people going to extraordinary lengths to justify the actions of officials. This in many ways seems to be the instinct behind what is often referred to as “sensible centrism”: the sort of people who immediately suggested that the idea that “Epstein didn’t kill himself” must, just by virtue of challenging the line the authorities were putting out, be a delusional fantasy. In the literature, these people are sometimes referred to as “coincidence theorists” (people capable of thinking things like, “well, the first tower of the World Trade Center collapsed, and then the second did… but we have no reason to think these two things are linked, it was just a coincidence!”) But I think a better name for them would be “credulity theorists”. They tie themselves up in knots trying to be as gullible as possible. They have faith in the authorities, and are constantly trying to find reasons to justify this faith.
This brings us to what I think is the real problem with the rise and officialization of what is called conspiratorialism. In itself it is not a problem to believe things linked to, say, the QAnon conspiracy theory. The suggestion that “elites” are involved in sex trafficking is, given what we know about Jeffrey Epstein and his hangers-on, almost certainly true—although it is probably not the basic principle around which all government is built.
The problem really is that people who believe in Q also believe that the person who’s going to save the world from all this is, well… Donald Trump, a man who (it seems worth pointing out) was actually friends with Jeffrey Epstein, and is even on record as bragging about his pal’s predilection for young girls. All these peoples’ fevered peering behind the veil of reality amounts to is a deranged effort to find reasons to think that the transparently incompetent narcissist who currently wields literal executive power in the most powerful nation on earth actually is a plucky outsider governing with everyone’s best interests at heart.
The problem with QAnon is not that it is a conspiracy theory: it is that it is a credulity theory. What Q supporters want is to feel able to buy the idea that an element of the establishment—that which has coalesced around Trump, and which will continue to be organized in some sort of “Trumpist” way well after this year—is on the verge of righting all that is wrong in the world. Ultimately, their critical faculties are just as blunted as those of the establishment hacks who sheepishly parroted the official narrative being put out by the Bush White House and Blair’s Downing Street about why the West definitely needed to invade Iraq. That QAnon types end up seeming so lunatic is really just a testament to how much reality these days needs to be stretched in order for anyone to maintain that we’re being governed responsibly.
Tom Whyman is a philosopher and writer. His regular column for Logically addresses the news and how to live with it.