A few days ago, somebody on Twitter was criticized for repeating Russian propaganda. Instead of denying the charge, he accused his critic of “red-baiting”, i.e. attacking him for being a communist or some other kind of dangerous left-winger. A number of people pointed out the absurdity of his response.
He was reminded that the Soviet Union is long gone. Russia isn’t “red” in any sense of the word. Putin leads a right-wing, anti-democratic, authoritarian/populist regime like the ones in Hungary, Poland and Turkey (and Florida and Texas). His government trumpets “traditional” Russian values, is supported by the Russian Orthodox church, attacks gay and transgender people, and has made him and his pals incredibly wealthy. Segments from Tucker Carlson’s Fox News show are celebrated on Russian TV. The only red-baiting being done these days is by ridiculous Republicans who think Joe Biden is a socialist or even a commie.
I was reminded of this Twitter exchange — in which someone repeating Kremlin talking points claimed to be a victim — by two articles, one about the Republican Party, the other about life in a Russian prison. Both show how conspiracy theories and victimization play a major role in right-wing ideology.
First, from Brian Klaas for The Atlantic:
In Britain and the United States—and across most faltering Western democracies— democratic dysfunction is routinely chalked up to a catchall culprit: polarization….But Britain’s and America’s democratic woes are not at all the same. The problems in American democracy are worse….
Other countries, including the U.K., have polarization. America has irrational polarization, in which one political party has fallen under the spell of conspiratorial thinking. Polarization plus this conspiracist tendency risks turning run-of-the-mill democratic dysfunction into a democratic death spiral. The battle for American democracy will be a battle over reality.
Within the modern [Republican Party], conspiracy theories—about stolen elections, satanic cults, or “deep state” cover-ups—have replaced policy ideas as a rallying cry for [the] MAGA base….In Britain, far fewer people believe in conspiracy theories….
What’s really troubling about this political moment in America [is] that the delusions have infected the mainstream political leadership. The crackpots have come to Congress. When Kevin McCarthy finally became speaker of the House this week, one of the first photos to circulate was a selfie taken with Marjorie Taylor Greene, a former QAnon believer who once blamed a wildfire on Jewish space lasers.
Writing a similar sentence about modern British politics would be impossible. There’s just nothing like it. Instead, in Britain, conspiracy theorists are ostracized by the political establishment. Politicians may disagree about policy, but those who disagree about reality face real consequences.
Last week, for instance, Andrew Bridgen, a conservative member of the British Parliament, tweeted a graph from a conspiracy-theory website, spreading false information about the risks of COVID vaccines. The vaccination program, Bridgen wrote, was “the biggest crime against humanity since the Holocaust.” The response was swift. Bridgen was condemned across the political spectrum. His own party expelled him. The Tories, Britain’s ruling conservative political party, didn’t want to be associated with a conspiracy theorist.
Meanwhile, America’s political right is the leading global source of COVID conspiracy theories. The more outlandish, the better. Two years ago, in Ohio, in an almost exact parallel to Bridgen’s remarks, Republican State Representative Jennifer Gross compared mandatory vaccination to the Holocaust….She effusively praised the testimony of a quack expert who claimed that vaccines magnetize people, such that spoons will stick to your forehead following a shot. “What an honor to have you here,” Gross fawned, after the alleged expert testified that vaccines can “interface” with 5G cell towers. Gross faced no primary challenger and was recently reelected, with 64 percent of the vote.
Aside from the stupidity about the 2020 election, the biggest conspiracy theory on the right is that there’s a giant conspiracy to replace white people with non-white immigrants. Accepting the idea of the “Great Replacement” led to the idiots in Charlottesville chanting “you will not replace us” and ten people in Buffalo being murdered by the author of an anti-immigrant screed.
That brings me to the second article. It was written by Vladimir Kara-Murza, a Russian activist now being held in Moscow’s Pretrial Detention Center 5, after being arrested for criticizing the Ukrainian invasion:
It is a reality that Putin took a long time and put in a lot of effort to construct. He began early: Days after his inauguration as president of Russia in May 2000, he sent armed operatives to raid the offices of Media Most, at that time Russia’s largest private media holding. Its flagship outlet was NTV, one of the country’s most popular television channels, known for hard-hitting news coverage, sharp political satire, criticism of the war in Chechnya and exposure of government corruption. Within a year, NTV was seized by the state. Before the end of 2003, the Kremlin had silenced all of Russia’s independent TV networks, establishing a complete monopoly on the airways. From then on, it was a straight road to dismantling what was left of Russia’s democracy — and, ultimately, to where we are today.
This is how Wikipedia describes conspiracy theories:
A conspiracy theory is an explanation for an event or situation that asserts the existence of a conspiracy by powerful and sinister groups … when other explanations are more probable. The term generally has a negative connotation, implying that the appeal of a conspiracy theory is based in prejudice, emotional conviction, or insufficient evidence.…
Conspiracy theories are generally designed to resist falsification and are reinforced by circular reasoning: both evidence against the conspiracy and absence of evidence for it are misinterpreted as evidence of its truth, whereby the conspiracy becomes a matter of faith rather than something that can be proven or disproven.
Far too many Republicans (indulged by their leaders) and far too many Russians (brainwashed by their leaders) are convinced they’re the victims of conspiracies. Powerful forces are trying to replace white Americans! There is a war on Christianity! Vaccinations are worse than the disease! NATO’s purpose is to destroy Russia! Ukraine is the aggressor! For both groups, reality doesn’t count. What counts is the irrational fear that they are in serious danger, under attack by hateful conspirators who yearn for their destruction.