It’s not hard to find reasons why people believe conspiracy theories. A good conspiracy theory does more than draw coincidental inferences between disconnected incidents. It gives believers a sense that they’re special. They’re the ones who really understand. They’re the one who see through the fog that’s blinded everyone else. And most of all, they’re the ones who know how an evil few are conspiring to keep them—them, personally—from reaching the happiness they know should be theirs.
As The New York Times makes clear, many of those waving Trump flags on Jan. 6 were old hands when it comes to believing in conspiracy theories. Brendan Hunt, who was arrested last week calling for the execution of Democratic leaders, was a big believer in Donald Trump’s lies about the election being stolen. He was also a QAnon follower. He called for killing police and officials who tried to enforce rules around COVID-19. He believed that the Boston Marathon bombing was a government conspiracy. He called the Sandy Hook shooting a fraud. And, yes, he was a 9/11 “truther.” Behind all of this, Hunt was a believer in one of the oldest conspiracy theories: that a cabal of powerful Jews secretly runs the world. When Hunt called for Democratic leaders to be “sprayed” with bullets and called on his fellow Trump supporters to “slaughter them all,” his justification was: “This is a ZOG government.” ZOG stands for “Zionist Occupied Government.” Hunt put that message in a video carefully timed to last 88 seconds, code for “Heil Hitler.”
Not only is Hunt far from alone, he’s all too typical. The worlds of QAnon, militias, and white supremacists aren’t distinct. In any Venn diagram, their circles—along with many other conspiracy theories—have enormous overlaps. After all, what drives many people to participate in militia groups isn’t a fetish for wearing camo and tramping around in the woods, it’s a belief that at some point they’re going to have to rise up to against a government that is controlled by others. White supremacists … are white supremacists. And QAnon is based on nothing less than a thinly disguised form of the Blood Libel, the anti-Semitic claim that Jews require human blood for the baking of their food and trade in the flesh of Christian babies.
In 2019, Rolling Stone looked at how Fox News in particular was involved in a “vicious cycle of conspiracy theories” along with Donald Trump. Trump was able to count on Fox to inflate—and sometimes originate—conspiracies that allowed him to persecute domestic opponents, justify anti-immigrant policies, and even conduct military operations. Republican or Democrat, inside the U.S. or around the world, Fox could be counted on to explain to their viewers why anyone who got crossways with Trump was a terrible person guilty of horrible actions.
But Fox is only the most visible portion of a conspiracy engine that extends across media, into churches, and across social organizations. The idea that the election was stolen and that Americans needed to take “strong action” wasn’t just coming from Trump’s twitter account, and wasn’t just featured on Tucker Carlson’s broadcast. It was in a thousand bulletin boards. A million Facebook pages. And in hundreds of churches.
There’s no doubt that some of those involved in the Jan. 6 insurgency will face serious charges. As The Wall Street Journal reports, the investigations being conducted by the FBI are increasingly moving past just putting names to the faces of those who flooded into the Capitol Building that Wednesday afternoon. Investigators are digging back along the chain of those who organized and promoted the attempted coup. That includes how multiple militia groups coordinated to plan and carry out their attack. It’s very clear that some of those involved are going to face serious charges of sedition and conspiracy that will net them years, if not decades, in federal prisons.
That’s good. But it’s not enough.
As many nations have discovered when oppressive regimes are overturned or militant coup attempts are put down, punishing those involved is not sufficient. In any truth and reconciliation effort, truth comes first. And with senators still promoting the Big Lie about election fraud, QAnon supporters still openly spreading their delusions in Congress, and right-wing media doubling down on lies about “antifa infiltrators,” there’s absolutely no sign that America is making any serious effort at pushing back against the real enemy—not the people who came to the Capitol waving the banners of conspiracy, but the people who sold them a mass delusion.