The Hydra of Suspicion: Conspiracy Theories and the Radical Right

Conspiracy theories have frequently played a significant role in radical right ideologies, narratives, and agendas. In recent years, conspiracism linked to the radical right has made a striking and often deadly comeback. During his 2016 presidential campaign, Donald Trump peppered his rally speeches with conspiracist claims, such as the assertion that Barack Obama founded ISIS. In 2018, anti-liberal sentiment and antisemitic conspiracy theories about George Soros motivated Viktor Orbán’s Fidesz government to expel the Central European University out of Hungary. In an extreme case, “The Grand Replacement” theory inspired a terrorist attack on a mosque in Christchurch, New Zealand. Evidently, we need to identify the key characteristics of radical right conspiracism, and propose an appropriate and ambitious response to it.

In Right-Wing Populism in America: Too Close for Comfort, Chip Berlet and Matthew N. Lyons define conspiracism as a “particular narrative form of scapegoating that frames the enemy as part of a vast insidious plot against the common good, while it valorizes the scapegoater as a hero for sounding the alarm.” Nearly every conspiracy theory depicts political and cultural events as a titanic struggle between the forces of Good and Evil. As Berlet and Lyons explain, “elites” (bankers, politicians, and aristocrats) and “subversives” (radical left political groups, ethnic minorities, and LGBTQ+ folks) are often cast as the agents of Evil. Consequently, conspiracism neglects the structural causes for oppression and domination, and depends on scapegoating as a tactic for representing power.

Although the radical right is not inherently conspiracist, their ideological and intellectual frameworks tend to be uniquely receptive to conspiracy theories. Many radical right groups vilify the “metropolitan elite” and “political establishment,” and stigmatize ethnic and religious minorities.

The so-called global liberal elite are a frequent target of radical right conspiracism. Although there are legitimate and logical critiques of economic hierarchies and political elitism, many radical right conspiracy theories suffer from fundamental misconceptions of power and history. For instance, Kerry Bolton’s Revolution from Above argues that a nefarious cabal of global plutocrats controlled and orchestrated numerous significant historical events and organizations, such as the Russian Revolution and the Women’s Liberation Movement. Although political conspiracies have existed (COINTELPRO and Iran-Contra are two prominent examples), they have never become the sole and omnipotent driving force of history. Nonetheless, this anti-elite scapegoating functions to delegitimize democratic institutions, discredit liberal politics, and (in theory) promote the oppositional politics of far-right groups.

Not only do radical right conspiracy theories vilify the global liberal elite, they also stigmatize minorities and marginalized populations. The political scientist Julien Giry observes that these forms of conspiracist “othering” spring from a “non-random victim selection process,” which tends to target specific ethnic and religious groups, such as Jews and Muslims. Since the widespread publication of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion in the early 20thcentury, Jews have been repeatedly depicted both as the cunning puppeteers of the global banking system and the subversive agents behind the international movement of Communism. As Reza Zia-Ebrahimi argues in “When the Elders of Zion Relocated to Eurabia,” Muslims have increasingly taken the place of Jewish people in this process of “conspiratorial racialization.” In this light, conspiracy theories attempt to construct narratives that justify existing racial and nativist prejudices.

Along with this demonization of the global liberal elite and the procedure of conspiratorial othering, radical right conspiracism constructs apocalyptic narratives and pursues metapolitical aims. The apocalypticism of radical right conspiracism is twofold. The writer and filmmaker James Davis distinguishes between the “disease-catastrophe” and “cure-catastrophe.”Members of the radical right perceive “advances made by social movements of the left” as a social disease that has infected the hitherto “healthy” community, nation, or civilization. For example, Bat Ye’ or’s notorious Eurabia: The Euro-Arab Axisargues that the European Union—in cooperation with Muslim-majority countries in North Africa and the Middle East under the auspices of the Euro-Arab Dialogue—uses “multiculturalism” to promote and exacerbate the “Islamification” of Europe. Allegedly, only a cure-catastrophe—often in the form of terrorism—can rescue the people—usually defined in purely ethnic or racial terms—from the disease-catastrophe. In his manifesto 2083—A European Declaration of Independence, the Norwegian terrorist Anders Behring Breivik cited Ye’ or’s Eurabia conspiracy theory as one of the motives for his brutal attack. The apocalyptic narratives of these conspiracy theories frame the radical right as a redemptive force that will restore order to civilization as soon as the barbarians (elites and subversives) are eliminated and exiled.

Yet, these conspiracy theories are not designed to circulate solely within radical right groups. The metapolitical purpose of radical right conspiracism is to develop ideas and narratives that will slip into mainstream political discourse and influence public opinion. Earlier this year, the Conservative MP Suella Braverman promoted the “Cultural Marxism” conspiracy theory and seemed unaware it was once propagated by the far-right British National Party. Researchers of the radical right must remain alert, and criticize these moments of metapolitical creep. Radical right conspiracism has prospered as a metapolitical project because it offers alternative and seductive explanations for uncertainty, inequality, and precarity. Persistent income inequality and economic alienation encourages distrust of the political class and wealthy liberal elites. The conspiracy theorists of the radical right profess to defend a pure and innocent “us” against a nefarious and nebulous “them.”

Current strategies of de-platforming and debunking confront the outcomes of radical right conspiracism without acknowledging the root causes. Without political reforms that address economic alienation, social atomization, and cultural animosity, scholars of radical right conspiracism will be reduced to the monotonous task of beheading the hydra without killing it. We may never be able to eliminate conspiracy theories entirely, but we can attempt to get rid of the conditions under which they spread, grow, and flourish.

Mr Andrew Woods is a Doctoral Fellow at CARR and a Doctoral candidate at Centre for the Study of Theory and Criticism, University of Western Ontario. His profile can be found here:

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