I’ve semi-seriously discussed quasi–pseudo-academic debate of monopuppyist versus duopuppyists i.e. was science fictions attempted right-wing coup in 2015 one movement (with internal differences) or two movements (with some shared features). One reason I keep looking at those events (and those distinctions) is the way they were a microcosm of broader ideological movements among the right.
Taking stock of those broader movements, similar issues arise. How are things different and how are things the same? There is scope for error in lumping diverse beliefs together and in becoming too focused on points of difference to see the commonalities. I spend a lot of time reading rightwing websites and comment sections (not just former Sad Puppy related ones) and two things stand out as commonalities:
- Unmoored anti-leftism. ‘Unmoored’ because while the anti-leftism is common the rationalisations offered are not. For example, left opposition to the Bush Jr. Iraq war remains a sore point for many on the right (who ignore Democrat support for the war) but is ignored by the section of the right who also opposed the war (who don’t ignore Democrat support for the war but do ignore left opposition to it).
- Common mythology. By this, I mean a set of beliefs about the world that are quasi-factual in nature.
The common mythology is a social glue and also a medium of cultural exchange. These are beliefs about how the world is that are:
- Very specific, i.e. more specific than economic or social models that may be more ideological in nature.
- By their nature beliefs that can be examined critically against facts but…
- …which are either NOT examined critically against facts or more often run counter to established facts.
That such mythological-like beliefs exist among the right isn’t a new observation. However, many which we might associate with the right lack this common currency aspect. For example, many people in this broader right I’m discussing are not creationists (although most creationists are of the right), likewise Holocaust denial is still regarded as objectionable by many on the right. Anti-vaxxer beliefs are drifting more rightwards but still cross ideological boundaries. However, a broad habit of believing things that just aren’t so has become entrenched on the right.
I’d like to suggest the following as a core-common shared set of mythologies that act as a means of group identity. These ideas are shared uncritically in diverse parts of the US/Anglosphere right and questioning them too much leads to social ostracisation.
- Global warming data and theories have been corrupted by politically active scientists. Note this isn’t quite the same as denial of global warming but obviously works very closely with it. The belief that temperature records and other aspects of global warming have been meddled with allows discussion of the reality of global warming to be avoided.
- Universities and colleges routinely indoctrinate students with Marxist social theories. This belief over-extrapolates the existence of actual courses (perhaps a course somewhere on queer theory) and asserts that this is the norm for all students. The belief has a bedrock of fears by evangelical Christians about their children becoming less religious at college or exposed to things like evolution but in the form, I am describing is more general and less tied to religion.
- The Democratic Party routinely engages in mass voter fraud at a highly organised level. The belief is very pertinent today given the headlines but the work on this idea is constant and on-going. US conservatives are primed to believe this idea against any facts to the contrary.
- Mass illegal immigration is an intentional policy of leftists and foreign governments. This deeply disturbing myth and surrounding rhetoric about ‘invasion’ is widely believed and extends beyond the alt-right & more overtly ideologically racist parts of the right.
- Europe is on the verge of (or already is) being controlled by or dominated by Islam. There’s a vagueness here as to what the actual proposition is. Partly this is due to the age of the claims. 10 years ago, claims about an imminent Islamic take over of Europe were very common on the right and 10 years later the claims are similar. In the face of ridicule of some claims (e.g. ‘no-go’ zones in places that aren’t ‘no go’ zones), the broader beliefs have become vaguer and less open to immediate refutation.
- Cities are places of rising violent crime. At some point, of course, this idea gets to be true. Crime stats go up and down but what is remembered is the ‘ups’ and what is ignored is the ‘downs’ as well as general trends. What marks this belief as mythology is that it remains unchanged over decades: violent crime is always rising but somehow the point where violent crime was low shifts around.
- Home invasions and violent attacks on middle-class suburbs or rural areas are common and imminent. These two form a pair and of course relate closely to gun ownership and NRA propaganda.
There are other beliefs that I could list but which I feel are more clearly ideological. For example beliefs around public healthcare relate to specific policy positions overtly advanced by conservatives for decades. Similarly, beliefs around affirmative action or even ‘PC culture’ have a closer connection with ideology. There is a common thread of seeking to avoid facts or to examine these ideas critically that gives them a similar quality of belief that would only be true in a parallel universe.
A relevant question is whether these beliefs are sincere. Salon writer Amanda Marcotte had a recent Twitter thread where she examined some of the anti-factual claims of the right and argues that they are insincere i.e. overtly lies:
Her argument is a strong one and there’s a longer analysis in this 2016 piece she wrote: https://www.salon.com/2016/09/26/its-science-stupid-why-do-trump-supporters-believe-so-many-things-that-are-crazy-and-wrong/
Clearly, some of these viral claims are trolling. The argument that ‘birtherism’ was insincere holds water. However, I think the ones above are held with sincerity of a kind. There is a lot of advocation of beliefs that don’t stand up to critical scrutiny going on that CAN’T be primarily about trolling people on the left. I can be confident of that because these are often beliefs that people on the right do not wish to discuss with the left or raise with the left. To point out factual or logical errors in particular beliefs is seen as trolling BY the left rather than the left being trolled. Readers familiar with the Sad Puppy debarkle will have many ready examples to hand.
Marcotte also raises the group identity aspect as part of the issue i.e. that asserting false or dubious beliefs ties people together, as they act as a marker of loyalty. However, in addition, the soup of false beliefs fostered by creationism on one hand and corporate propaganda on issues such as pesticides, smoking, guns and global warming has entrenched confused thinking as a habit among the right. These poor cognitive habits encourage the ‘grift’ culture I’ve talked about before within the right, that often makes them prone to both perpetuate and be victims of scams and dubious money-making schemes. Marcotte points out Trumps willingness to say what he is thinking is often mistaken for honesty and forthrightness by his supporters. This kind of uncalculated, unhedged speech without weasel words can be refreshing in a world where many people try to avoid being caught in a literal lie. Meanwhile, the new acting Attorney General of the USA was himself part of a company that deliberately targetted military veterans in a scam https://www.theguardian.com/us-news/2018/nov/09/matthew-whitaker-acting-attorney-general-wpm-scam
What’s trolling, what’s an Emperor’s New Clothes kind of public misbelief, what’s a scam and what’s people being scammed and what is just the inevitable confused belief of poor thinking habits is hard to disentangle. What the shared mythology has in common is that I think these are largely internally believed and which act as defence mechanisms for other beliefs or expressions of fears. In particular fears about race and social change among conservatives who see themselves as ‘libertarian’ and ‘not-racist’ require hoop jumping rationalisations that they can express by changing classifications (racial fears changed to fears about violent people in cities or rule-breaking immigrants). The ‘scam’ part here is that more openly racist parts of the right (i.e. the parts that are more willing to own the label ‘racist’) can control those fears via propaganda.