National surveys show that more than half of Americans believe in some kind of conspiracy. That the moon landing is a Hollywood production. That Obama and now Kamala Harris are not legitimate candidates. That the 9/11 attacks were orchestrated by the United States. Or that the coronavirus was manufactured and distributed by Bill Gates.
A recent low point is “Pizzagate,” distributed by the ultra-right conspiracy factory QAnon. Major Democrats, such as Hillary Clinton and Oprah Winfrey, are said to kidnap, abuse, and even eat children.
Conspiracy thinking used to be hard work. After all, all official information is suspect. I typically picture a retired engineer somewhere in a small attic room, tapping on a computer, surrounded by bookshelves full of thick files. On the wall a bulletin board with newspaper clippings, key words circled in red with many question marks. As with an onion, the layers of deception are peeled off one by one, until finally the hidden truth at the center is revealed.
All of this comes at a high price. To be a conspiracist is a lonely existence. Paranoid to the core, you don’t trust anyone or anything. You’re ignored by the rest of society that is trapped in stifling groupthink. Conversations between conspiracy theorists are therefore Babelesque confusions of tongues. Kennedy was killed by the military-industrial complex. No, it was the Cubans. Are you kidding, it was the Mafia.
But that was back then, in those good old crazy days, when conspiracy thinking was still a do-it-yourself job. Now, thanks to the blessings of the internet, social media, and Russian hackers, there is the ready-made theory. Why go through endless documents and come up with your own conspiracy from scratch, when you can pick it up right off the web?
But the new generation of political leaders, led by Donald Trump, is going one step further. They mix up all the conspiracies and bake them into a cake. You just have to warm it up at home and you’re done. No longer is there a need for tinkering with obscure pamphlets at shady gatherings. Trump’s genius insight is that by combining all the conspiracies, you can suddenly get a majority of the voters behind you: anyone who believes there are more things in heaven and earth than dreamt of in your regular news media. In this way, all the enemies of your enemy are suddenly your friends.
It is surprising how easily one accepts this instant conspiracy mix — actually a sign of great gullibility. Now, internal consistency has never been the forte of conspiracy theories. Climate skeptics fight against the scientific consensus, while claiming that there is no such as thing as a scientific consensus. The coronavirus is disregarded as just a harmless flu — but also regarded as a biological weapon developed in a secret Chinese laboratory.
America has always been a paradise for hydra-headed thinkers. The land of freedom, where you can let go of everything, including the elementary rules of logic. With its famous tolerance for intolerance, there is room for every crazy thought.
The ready-made conspiracy mix turns out to be a surprisingly successful export product, under the motto “Conspiracists of the world, unite.” Even my sober Dutch countrymen are not immune. We have our share of self-proclaimed Covid experts and political philosophers in the Netherlands. Just like the rest of the world, the Dutch no longer need to travel to America to get to know the typical Trump voters. They just live around the corner.
Pia de Jong is a Dutch writer who lives in Princeton. Her bestselling memoir, “Saving Charlotte,” was published in 2017 in the U.S. She can be contacted at email@example.com.