Political scientist explains why so many people were susceptible to QAnon myths
These days, the term "far-right conspiracy theory" is often used in connection with the QAnon cult, "Infowars" host Alex Jones and other supporters of former President Donald Trump. Joseph Uscinski, a political science professor at the University of Miami, discussed conspiracy theories during an interview with Rolling Stone's Alex Morris — and he stressed that conspiracy theorists were around long before QAnon.
"We all have an uncle that believes that (President John F.) Kennedy was killed by the CIA or something like that," Uscinski, author of the book "American Conspiracy Theories," told Rolling Stone. "There's nothing abnormal about that. I mean, during the '70s, '80s and '90s, 80% of Americans bought into some form of it — it was just part of the culture. So, if I said, 'Hey, we're having a party. I'm going to sit you down next to this Kennedy conspiracy believer,' would you be concerned?"
Uscinski pointed out that some people are more inclined to buy into outlandish conspiracy theories than others.
"People have a bunch of psychological characteristics — some good, some not so good," Uscinski explained. "They have worldviews and identities. Those drive the conspiracy beliefs. So, if somebody is sort of sociopathic, then they're going to seek out ideas that are themselves sort of sociopathic."
Uscinski went on to say, "There's this style of reporting that's been out for a while, like, 'My cousin became a QAnon, and now, I don't know what to do.' These articles always start off with: 'My cousin used to be so normal.' What's really going on is the cousin was never normal, or you just didn't pay attention to the cousin — and he was probably weird, but you didn't have a word to put on that. But then, you hear 'QAnon' in the news. Now, you can categorize what your cousin is doing as something. You're like, 'Oh, my God, this thing just happened to him.' Well, no, it didn't just happen. Your cousin was always a wackadoo. I'm sorry."
QAnon believe that the United States' federal government has been infiltrated by an international cabal of child sex traffickers, pedophiles, Satanists and cannibals, and they exalt Trump as the heroic figure who was put in the White House to fight the sinister cabal. But as absurd as all of that sounds, there were — to illustrate Uscinski's point — people promoting absurd beliefs 50, 60 or 70 years ago.
During the late 1950s and 1960s, for example, the far-right John Birch Society promoted a variety of way-out conspiracy theories — including claiming that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a communist. The late National Review founder William F. Buckley was a blistering critic of the Birchers, who he dismissed as extremists and believed were a "menace" for the conservative movement.
What has changed from 50 or 60 years ago, according to Uscinski, is that "reporters are paying more attention to" conspiracy theorists than they did back then.
Uscinski, during the interview, also pushed back against the idea that the right is more likely to embrace outlandish conspiracy theories than the left. The political science professor told Rolling Stone, "We find in our analyses, largely, that QAnon is driven by people who just hate the entire establishment. I mean, when you watch the followers, these aren't normal Republican people. They're not conservative in any meaningful way. These are people who want to tear down the system because they feel alienated from it."
As Uscinski sees it, a major flaw in reporting on QAnon is that its supporters were "normal" in the past; Uscinski argues that they weren't "normal" to begin with.
"You're not getting this full picture of whatever that person might have been into before or what their other issues might be," Uscinski told Rolling Stone. "I mean, there was a write-up last summer about this woman who trashed the mask aisle at Target, and all they're talking about is social media, conspiracy theories, how conspiracy theories overtook her life. You have to get to paragraph 15 to find out that, oh, by the way, she's diagnosed with severe bipolar disorder, was off her meds for a few months, had lost her job, was facing severe anxiety and was suffering from isolation due to the pandemic. Well, OK, that should be paragraph one."
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