America Is Letting Paranoia Win

The spread of QAnon and other conspiracy theories shows how easily people turn to superstition and panic when the world falls apart

Photo: Joe Raedle/Getty Images

Our baseline state is fear. This fall, as the Halloween decorations are starting to come out, the news feels like a nightmare from which we can’t wake up: The West Coast is blanketed by a hellish, apocalyptic red sky. Families flee their burning houses with their shoes melting on their feet. We walk through life, masked like medieval plague doctors, while a virus kills hundreds of thousands of people (the equivalent of one 9/11 attack every three days). Police violence and racism have always been part of American life, but we can now see it happening, as videos of Black people being killed by police are omnipresent on social media. Scientists may have found aliens on Venus, but we may have a much harder time living on this planet, as the climate change–induced collapse of our own ecosystem becomes increasingly likely.

It shouldn’t be surprising, under these circumstances, that people are allowing their fear to get the best of them, and more and more Americans are allowing their anxiety to blossom into outright paranoia. Talking about politics means entangling oneself in a thicket of conspiracy theories about rigged elections and elites deciding things behind our backs; the director of a Netflix movie is inundated with death threats and accusations of furthering a global child porn agenda; people terrified by coronavirus headlines start thinking that Bill Gates invented the coronavirus to inject Americans with secret microchips; a shared delusion of Satanic covens and blood-drinking monsters is now accepted as true, in whole or in part, by more than half of Republican voters.

The QAnon conspiracy theory, which has entered the mainstream on the back of coronavirus denialism, is the most obvious and frightening example of the increasing American tendency to allow fear to detach us from reality. It charges that the world is secretly run by a cabal of Satanic pedophiles who abduct children, rape them, and either eat them or drink their blood. These covens are often said to operate out of hidden tunnels or caverns and include Barack Obama, Tom Hanks, and Oprah. The only person who can stop them is Donald Trump, who supposedly speaks to QAnon devotees in code: For instance, if he tweets something beginning with “Q,” a devotee will assume he is confirming the existence of the conspiracy. We’re already seeing some dire consequences from QAnon’s spread. TIME reporter Charlotte Alter spoke last week to at least one man who said that, should Donald Trump lose the presidential election, “I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on and it would be over.” One woman has already been arrested for plotting an armed kidnapping of her own child after becoming involved with QAnon, and Anthony Comello allegedly shot mob boss Francesco Cali to death because he believed Cali was involved with the conspiracy. A Daily Kos poll found that 56% of Republican voters believe at least partially in QAnon; 33% agreed that it was “mostly true.”

The popularity of QAnon shouldn’t surprise us: This phenomenon is both new and very, very old. Some elements can be traced back to the 2016 election — for instance, the accusations of ritual blood consumption and pizza parlor–based child trafficking rings spread by the far right after the Clinton campaign’s emails were hacked. But during the Salem witch trials, America’s most famous example of mass hysteria, people also told stories about children being drawn out into dark places and corrupted by Satanic forces. During the Satanic Panic of the 1980s, they believed in vast evil conspiracies and widespread ritual child rape. Given how often believers invoke Jewish investor George Soros as a key figure in the supposed conspiracy, it bears noting that accusations of baby eating and blood drinking are as old as blood libel.

Conspiracy thinking isn’t stupid, or wicked. It’s human: a natural response when the world around us becomes too frightening to cope with.

What’s more: You know how this works. If you’ve ever played with a Ouija board at a sleepover and convinced yourself you were being haunted, or believed that a knife-wielding killer was breaking into your house when it was actually your dog knocking over her water bowl, you’ve essentially QAnon’d yourself. Our brains are wired to sense threats, and when we are frightened, they go into overdrive, stitching together unrelated pieces of information in an effort to create a big picture and help us come up with an appropriate response. The same thought process that tells you you’re dying of the coronavirus every time you get a sore throat also allows some people to go from reading a single Facebook post to believing that Hillary Clinton is queen of the vampire mole people — a belief that can become entrenched because it receives social reinforcement. Left-wing voters might be inclined to sneer, but if you believe that Melania Trump is a Russian agent who gives Donald Trump his marching orders, or if you jumped from frustration over Bernie Sanders’ 2016 primary loss to a rock-solid belief that the primary was secretly rigged against him by the DNC, you might want to check your sense of superiority.

Conspiracy thinking isn’t stupid, or wicked. It’s human: a natural response when the world around us becomes too frightening to cope with. Psychologists have several theories as to why some people are especially prone to get suckered by conspiracy theories, but one key element is powerlessness. People who are isolated, lack a sense of social belonging and connectedness, or report low self-esteem are all more likely to believe in conspiracy theories, because, according to one 2016 study, “conspiracy theories give a sense of meaning, security and control over an unpredictable and dangerous world.”

When whole societies feel powerless, whole societies can go bonkers. The Salem witch trials may have been a response to an environmental crisis; the accusations began during one of the coldest winters on record, and some historians believe there was a fuel shortage that made it harder for the people of Salem to heat their homes. The idea of the weather being controlled by a supernatural conspiracy suddenly felt plausible. (“The higher the misery quotient, the more likely you are to be seeing witches,” says historian Ted Baker.) The New England Vampire Panic of the 19th century came during a massive tuberculosis outbreak. Rather than accepting that the deaths were caused by disease, New Englanders began exhuming and destroying corpses suspected of being “vampires.” This chapter in history has long seemed inexplicable — people knew what tuberculosis was at the time, and belief in vampires was not common — but in 2020, it seems much more plausible that people driven to their limit by a terrible disease would start blaming it on imaginary blood-drinking monsters.

In the end, shaming the conspiracy-minded may be less effective than trying to understand what they get out of their alternate reality. Conspiracy theories, with their supernatural monsters and cosmic conflicts, can actually feel less frightening than our day-to-day chaos; by “researching” and forming elaborate fictional narratives, the theorist can feel as if they are in control of the situation. As scary as these crowdsourced nightmares are, they are less scary than the future, or the real world.

At least, they are for now. No matter how understandable our fear is, it has managed to detach vast numbers of Americans from reality and made the country a more dangerous place; the FBI has said that it expects QAnon to result in an increase of domestic terrorism and “criminal and violent acts,” making it one more thing for Americans in 2020 to be afraid of. When an individual enters the endless self-reinforcing cycle of panic, the usual advice is to disconnect, turn off whatever is frightening us, and remember all the logical reasons why the thing we’re afraid of won’t or can’t happen. But there is no way to turn away from fear in the America of 2020; there is no more comforting world to come back to. The most we can hope for is that we can keep each other afraid of the right things.

Author of “Trainwreck” (Melville House, ‘16) and “Dead Blondes and Bad Mothers” (Melville House, ‘19). Columns published far and wide across the Internet.

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