One of the more remarkable developments of the last few years has been the conservative movement’s reliance on outlandish conspiracy theories even as they maintain control of most levers of governmental power. It’s deeply unusual in a modern democratic society, but much more typical in totalitarian developing countries. And it bodes very ill for what is likely to happen to the Republican Party after it inevitably loses power.
To be a modern conservative is to adopt an entire liturgy of paranoid beliefs: that scientists are manufacturing climate change research for grant dollars; that doctors and epidemiologists are pretending that masks work and overstating the number of COVID deaths for extra money and influence; that hundreds of thousands of people are committing voter impersonation fraud in concert with county elections officials; that the “deep state” is framing Trump, his associates, his family and even Vladimir Putin for their own nefarious ends; that modern political polling is a subversive act of conservative voter suppression; that gun control activists are part of a secret conspiracy to disarm conservative white Americans in preparation for race riots and/or Communist dictatorship; that George Soros and various “others” are paying protesters to oppose police violence as a cover for destabilizing America; and so on.
And that’s all before starting in on QAnon, the all-purpose hodgepodge conspiracy cult rapidly taking over the Republican Party. What started as a deranged belief in a top-secret Trump official posting numerology on 8chan to build a digital army to prepare Americans for Trump secretly working with Robert Mueller, Jeff Sessions and even a long-deceased JFK Jr. to expose a global ring of cannibal pedophiles among celebrities and top Democrats, has now evolved to encompass nearly every pocket and strain of conspiracy belief in America. The QAnon pantheon now encompasses NESARA enthusiasts, flat earthers, anti-vaxxers, lizard people watchers, and much more, with each subcommunity’s adherents grafting onto the larger conspiracy theory scheme like a rolling snowball of social media validation.
It can be difficult, as punch drunk as so many of us are by the various shocks of the COVID and Trump years, to acknowledge how strange it is that this is happening while conservatives are in power. Historically, conspiracy theories are usually the province of those who feel the most powerless and disconnected. People who feel the world is in chaos and that they have no friends in high places tend to want the comfort of believing that someone is in control–even if that someone is an evil cabal of space aliens. But in this case, the conspiracy theorists are those with the most power, those who find themselves overrepresented in government compared to their actual numbers in our democracy. Trump runs the Executive Branch. Bill Barr runs the Justice Department as Trump’s personal law firm. The Senate is run in aggressively partisan fashion by Senate Leader Mitch McConnell. Republican appointees have a majority on the Supreme Court, and are about to have a radical 6-3 Federalist Society supermajority.
It is truly bizarre to postulate a conspiracy theory, as QAnon does, in which your allies control the presidency, the Justice Department, the Supreme Court and the Senate, and in which all those people have documented evidence of unspeakable crimes by the Evil Cabal, and yet do nothing about it! It is weirder still to believe that these ultra-powerful people are waiting for anonymous online message boards to prepare the ground for releasing the information they’ve been sitting on for years, and that the President and Attorney General continue to allow the Cabal to practice cannibal pedophilia unstopped (or, alternately, that the arrests already happened years ago in secret) while waiting for the anonymous message boards to change hearts and minds without evidence. The only thing more ludicrous than the conspiracy theory itself, is the notion that conservative allies in government would spend years doing nothing about it if it were real.
How much worse will this conspiracy trend among conservatives become when Republicans actually lose power? Just yesterday an actual Republican member of the House of Representatives, one Clay Higgins (R-LA03) tweeted this:
My wife has the gift of premonition. Last night she dreamed that Federal squads were in our home seizing guns, knives, “unauthorized foods” and stored water. They said we had been “reported”. Becca awoke crying. What happened to our freedom? She asked. What indeed.
This is a man whose party is in power at nearly all levels of government. Or what of Fox News analyst Greg Jarrett, who yesterday went into the street in front of his home to tweet because he suspected that Biden allies might be interfering with his home wifi?
Much of center-left and center-right rhetoric is currently predicated on the notion that Republicans will come back to their senses after Trump is gone. The Lincoln Project is an explicit attempt to remove Trump and his allies in order to re-empower a supposedly more rational old guard. Biden himself has repeatedly demonstrated his commitment to potentially nominating Republicans to his cabinet and working across the aisle with Republican lawmakers, despite progressive outrage.
But it’s far likelier that Trumpism will in retrospect be the high-point of Republican rationality and responsibility over the next few years or even decades. If Democrats do succeed in winning a 2020 landslide and reversing some of the structural inequalities in American democracy (such as the filibuster, gerrymandering, voter suppression, the electoral college, Senate malapportionment, and the imbalances on the courts), the current version of the GOP will cease to be viable as a national political party.
But base Republican voters who adore Trump and who are increasingly aligned with QAnon-style beliefs aren’t going to change their views just because party leaders who can read polling want them to. That’s how Trump won the 2016 nomination in the first place, despite the post-2012 autopsy urging Republicans to do more to attract young voters and voters of color. Nor will the incentives of Fox News and AM Radio change in a Biden, Harris or Ocasio-Cortez presidency: Rupert Murdoch does not require Republican to win elections for Fox News to make a profit. All Fox News and ClearChannel need is a dedicated, furious and fanatical audience eager to buy pillows, guns and reverse mortgages. And it has become shockingly obvious that Fox News is not the media arm of the Republican Party, but rather that the Republican Party is the legislative arm of Fox News. Tucker Carlson is likelier to become the 2024 GOP nominee than Tom Cotton, Tom Cotton likelier than Nikki Haley, and Nikki Haley likelier than, say, Massachusetts governor Charlie Baker.
A Fox News base that is suddenly locked out of power and threatened with the loss of anti-democratic apartheid affirmative action in government will only become more dangerously conspiratorial, not less. And Democrats would be foolish to assume otherwise.