WHEN ADOLF HITLER committed suicide on 30 April 1945, thousands of Germans followed his example. The most famous copy-cats were Joseph Goebbels and his wife, Magda. Not only did they take their own lives, but also those of their six children. The idea of surviving the Fuhrer, being held accountable for everything he, and they, had done, seeing National Socialism overthrown and accepting the inevitable ruin of everything they had hoped for and fought for, was simply too overwhelming for many fanatical Nazis to contemplate.
Good riddance! Well, yes, that’s one response. But just consider the following excerpt from US writer, Eric Levitz’s “QAnon Is Madness: But Believing It Can Be Rational” article posted on The Intelligencer website of 23/9/20:
“Speaking with voters in Wisconsin this month, Time reporter Charlotte Alter heard conspiracy theories from about 20 percent of her interview subjects. Many of these Wisconsinites were not familiar with QAnon but subscribed to its basic tenets. Tina Arthur, a small-business owner, told Alter that she was not a follower of QAnon but did believe that the Democrats were in league with a cabal of blood-drinking child rapists and that ‘if Biden wins, the world is over, basically … I would probably take my children and sit in the garage and turn my car on, and it would be over.’”
What the hell is going on, when a businesswoman from the Mid-Western United States is willing to wipe out her entire family rather than face the prospect of living under a Democratic President? Because, when all is said and done, “Sleepy Joe” Biden is a very far cry from Joseph Stalin, and even the most strident antifa protester is nowhere near as dangerous as the vengeance-seeking soldiers of the Red Army. How did as many as 20 percent of Americans end up tumbling down this dangerously hallucinatory rabbit-hole?
According to Levitz, conspiracy theories have much more to offer confused and frightened citizens than may, at first glance, be apparent:
“The tendency toward conspiracism is deeply rooted in the human psyche. It manifests across time and geography and is likely a product of evolutionary pressures. On an emotional level, human beings tend to find the idea of being threatened by forces beyond their comprehension or control much more upsetting than being threatened by an intelligible enemy. Social psychologists have found that when fearful people contemplate potential misfortunes, they tend to feel helpless and pessimistic, but when angry people contemplate the same, they feel a sense of optimism and control. And one simple way to transmute fear into anger is to perceive an evil agent behind whatever development is causing you uncertainty and disquiet.”
With this in mind, we begin to appreciate the powerful psychological insight behind the New Zealand Government’s “Unite Against Covid-19!” campaign. By personifying the virus, transforming it into an “evil agent” which New Zealanders could defeat collectively, the Government and the Ministry of Health headed-off the sort of QAnon craziness that has turned so many fearful Americans into gibbering paranoiacs.
The other key factor in this country’s success in preventing the widespread uptake of insane conspiracy theories was the regular 1:00pm briefings from Prime Minister Jacinda Ardern and Director-General of Health, Dr Ashley Bloomfield. Fear grows exponentially in the absence of timely and reliable information. New Zealand was, therefore, especially fortunate in having the “Jacinda and Ashley Show”. These two particularly gifted and credible communicators were able to deliver on an almost daily basis the answers and reassurance their frightened fellow citizens were so eager to receive. Such anger as was generated out of public fear tended to be directed against those who refused to “unite against the virus”. Not only did this popular enforcement of the Covid-19 Lockdown impede the disease’s spread, but it also served as a useful safety-valve for the tensions occasioned by the extraordinary limitations of individual freedom which the fight against the pandemic necessitated.
The comparison with the United States could hardly be more stark. Rather than the consistent and uplifting communications of Jacinda Ardern, the Americans were exposed to the constantly changing, often contradictory, messages of President Donald Trump. Also a formidable communicator, Trump deployed his talent in ways that fed, rather than calmed, his people’s fears, and fuelled their anger with hyper-politicised bulletins of unprecedented malignancy.
It would be wrong, however, to suggest that New Zealanders have been unanimous in their acceptance of the measures adopted to “stamp out” the virus. Although upwards of three-quarters of the population have registered either their “support” or “strong-support” for the Government’s handling of the Covid-19 crisis, that still leaves a quarter of the population unconvinced.
Some of these were the sort of hyper-individualists so often found in the upper reaches of societies dominated by the ideology of neoliberalism. Such people (most of them men) find the idea of standing in solidarity with the “sheeple” abhorrent. Equally unappealing, from the perspective of these “One Percenters”, is the unhelpful example set by the all-too-obvious success of collective intervention. Well-positioned to communicate their opposition, these Covid sceptics have been unceasing in their efforts to undermine the Government’s solidaristic appeals to “The Team of Five Million”.
The other pool of scepticism and resistance is fed by the fear and ignorance of New Zealand’s least educated and most marginalised citizens. With little cause to trust a state which bitter experience has taught them to regard as an alien and hostile entity, these folk remained largely untouched by the Government’s campaign against Covid-19. In terms of social-psychology, they are precisely the people who feel “threatened by forces beyond their comprehension or control”. Looking for “an intelligible enemy” to blame for their shitty world becoming even shittier, they have every reason to believe, and insufficient intellectual resources to refute, the conspiracy theories fed to them by the algorithms of social media and the political predators who so adroitly exploit them.
Once inside the rabbit holes of the conspiracists; once supplied with the identity of the “evil agents” against whom their now inflamed emotions can be directed; once filled with the optimism and sense of control that makes being angry in the company of like minds so much more bearable than being alone and frightened; once the hallucinations have become more compelling than reality; what then is the incentive to stop seeing things that aren’t there? Better by far to expand the rabbit hole until in encompasses the whole world.
And if reality reasserts itself: either in the form of the Fuhrer’s death and the Red Army’s victory; or in the person of President Biden and a Democratic Party-controlled Congress; then what is the point of going on? Better to grab the kids, administer the poison, and avoid shouldering the unbearable heaviness of being exposed as a true believer in a false god.
This essay was originally posted on The Daily Blog of Friday, 25 September 2020.