The Conspiracists

Published April 16, 2024

Public Discourse

In an incident that will surprise no one, a man sitting near me on a Manhattan subway began shouting incoherently at passersby. He spent much of the brief ride rambling about immigration, Bidenflation and the like. He also repeatedly displayed a large wooden cross on a necklace while declaring, “May Auschwitz be with you!” I exited the train after one stop to the sound of him shouting “Welcome to Auschwitz!” to new arrivals. 

In New York City in 2024, subway lunatics are expected. This episode, though, stood out; it was almost as if a Twitter “groyper” had assumed human form. 

I recognized this peculiar form of madness from our fevered online culture; there is little doubt that China, Russia, and Iran plant extreme conspiracy theories on social media, psychological weapons meant to destabilize the West. Social media influencer and talk show host Jackson Hinkle, who features an American flag emoji in his X (formerly Twitter) profile, boasts more than 2.4 million followers and may well be a foreign plant: he is pro-China, pro-Russia, and pro-Palestinian. Among countless wild claims, Hinkle insists that the U.S. or Israel secretly arranged the recent ISIS-led terrorist attack in Moscow. His posts are vague, erratic, and image-driven—he employs countless emojis and memes to make his points. In short, he offers up a kind of agitated delirium to a large, apparently eager audience. 

The madness fostered by Hinkle and others has taken hold of an untold number of real people; we ignore it at our peril. It is worth examining how online conspiracists draw people en masse, and what they really offer.

Before her March 2024 departure from the Daily Wire, political commentator Candace Owens had established herself as a leading conspiracist of this sort. She appears to glory in epiphanies that entail realizing you have been lied to all along. A former leftist turned right-wing media star, Owens confessed to Dave Rubin, in a 2017 appearance on his talk show, that her political conversion occurred following a failed attempt to launch a nonprofit (the story of this organization, “Social Autopsy,” is about as odd and nefarious as the name suggests). She realized then, she explained, “that my friends were my enemies and my enemies were my friends.” There was a “conspiracy element,” she said, to the negative media coverage that contributed to Social Autopsy’s downfall.

This led her to support Donald Trump for president in 2016, as she felt he had been treated unfairly too. It also led her to reconsider her positions on a wide range of issues—including a host of conspiracy theories. She has repeatedly argued that the moon landing was fake, for example. After news broke of the recent death of Putin opponent and political prisoner Alexei Navalny, apparently at the hands of Kremlin operatives, Owens proclaimed on X that “the entire story makes no sense and the people I distrust trying to turn him into some kind of martyr makes it even more suspicious.” 

On almost any given day, a quick scroll through Owens’s social media reveals similar ambient distrust: the notion that enemies within media, government, tech, and Big Pharma are always lurking, surveilling, calculating, deceiving. The Daily Wire scrubbed recent episodes of Owens’s podcast in which she insisted that Brigitte Macron, France’s first lady, is a biological man in disguise. Owens announced on X that she would stake her “entire professional reputation on the fact that Brigitte Macron is in fact a man. Any journalist or publication that is trying to dismiss this plausibility is immediately identifiable as establishment. I have never seen anything like this in my life. The implications here are terrifying.”

Among the most revealing texts from Owens’s oeuvre is an X post from March 4, 2024. It includes a photo of African American rapper Kid Cudi in heavy makeup, wearing a white lace bridal ensemble and holding hands with Eli Russell Linnetz, the Jewish designer of Cudi’s curious outfit. Owens offered this caption: 

When I see demonic rituals like this done to black artists and then I research who is behind it (a perverted “designer” that used to work for Woody Allen)—I truly cannot fathom how the media has brainwashed some black Americans to believe I’m the enemy. 

Open your eyes.

The specific noxious connotations of this post—that Jews are corrupting the fashion industry or black men—are almost beside the point. (It is worth noting, though, that Christian Siriano has for years crafted famously elaborate evening gowns for Billy Porter—who, like Cudi, is a black male celebrity. Siriano is not Jewish.) It’s more useful to consider what Owens’s conspiratorial messaging offers people. 

In this post, Owens posed a typical challenge to her nearly five million X followers: Open your eyes. See what I seeConnect the dots as I do. This is a form of flattery, belligerent though the tone may be. You are intelligent enough to see past the surface—and you can do so without much effort. Owens also suggests that she is divulging secrets that powerful forces wish to keep hidden. I am letting you in on something. This, too, can be flattering. Note that Owens does not criticize Cudi for his get-up—his clothing choices were apparently imposed upon him by his designerThis is also an insidious form of flattery; conspiracy theories often neatly absolve people of responsibility for their own behavior. Finally, such theories can charm the imagination; they appeal on the level of storytelling. 

Owens may or may not be a thoroughgoing anti-Semite; her winking approach to Jew hatred has been well documented. In just one example, she “liked” a twelve-word tweet joking about Jews drinking Christian blood. She later insisted she hadn’t read past the first four words. Owens never publicly apologized for this or similar incidents; she has defended herself at length without expressing regret. (Former UFC fighter Jake Shields, who boasts nearly 650,000 followers on X, is less coy; he has spread multiple blood libels with impunity.) But to focus on the Right’s growing antisemitism, and to protest it as antisemitism qua antisemitism, is to miss the bigger picture. 

Jew hatred is revealing; it arrives in different iterations at different times and can be used as a mirror reflecting particular fears. In Chapter 1 of the Book of Exodus, the new Egyptian king, “who did not know Joseph,” suspects the Hebrews of a potential military uprising on the basis of their population growth alone; Pharaoh’s suspicions reveal his insecurity about maintaining power. Sometimes, Jews are cast as despicably weak and feckless; in the ongoing Israel–Hamas war, they are cast as vainglorious oppressors. Antisemitism, perhaps the world’s oldest conspiracy theory, is an adaptable sickness of the soul.

And conspiracy theories are attractive, maybe especially in the age of AI image manipulation and other mind-warping technologies. As noted, these theories flatter—they can help people feel insightful or powerful or as if they are a part of something. They provide easy, lightly researched answers to deep anxieties. They can also give people “permission” to deflect responsibility for challenges in their own lives—and this can be especially appealing for people who lack authority or control or trust in institutions.

Much of the wariness and resentment reflected by figures like Hinkle or Owens is justified; that’s partly why this moment of paranoia is so alarming. The transgender movement, for example, was embraced by leading medical establishments despite being predicated on a profound and supremely obvious falsehood—the consequences of which have damaged people in permanent and immediately apparent ways. The COVID-19 pandemic, too, was marked by countless petty tyrannies: restaurants were forced to close while political leaders secretly dined out; houses of worship were subject to severe attendance limits while retail stores were not; hospital nurses held masks over the faces of women in labor. There is serious evidence that the federal government censored political speech to subvert an election. All this has served to radicalize people, perhaps in underappreciated ways. Rather than rely on perfidious elites who disdain them, many turn to figures like Owens or Hinkle, who encourage disdain for institutional authority.

They are not all wrong. And paranoia is certainly not new in American life. Almost exactly sixty years ago, in November 1964, Harper’s published “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by historian Richard Hofstadter. Hofstadter sought to examine our “political psychology through our political rhetoric,” and argued that American “politics has often been an arena for angry minds.” He used the term “paranoid” not in a clinical sense, but rather to evoke a particular kind of “heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy.” Just over twenty years later, in 1985, then–U.S. Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan reflected on Hofstadter’s argument in “The Paranoid Style in American Politics Revisited,” published in The Public Interest. As Moynihan writes (in part quoting Hofstadter):

The distinguishing feature of the paranoid style is the sense of persecution, which expresses itself in elaborate theories. 

While the clinical paranoid lives in a world he is convinced is out to get him, the paranoid in politics, wrote Hofstadter, sees the conspiracy “directed against a nation, a culture, a way of life. His sense that his political passions are unselfish and patriotic, in fact, goes far to intensify his feeling of righteousness and his moral indignation.”

These people “tend to be overheated, oversuspicious, over-aggressive, grandiose, and apocalyptic in expression” and yet socialized, functioning individuals. 

It is important to recognize that Hinkle, Shields, Owens, and others are appealing to the American imagination at a time when we are starved for meaningful stories or symbols of national health. Their approach is dark, even nihilistic, but they are offering Americans something important. It is no accident that their key slogans include “America First” and “Christ is King.” It is telling that these resonate with so many. 

Most Americans are not dispositionally anti-Semitic. But it is vital to recognize that American pride has been wounded by a “thousand natural shocks,” which include seemingly minor events like West Point dropping the words “duty, honor, country” from its mission statement. It is in this environment that conspiracists like Owens step into the breach, appealing to wounded pride through puffery and the manipulative misuse of innocuous catchphrases.

The response cannot be simply to insist that people like Owens are antisemitic and to attack them on those grounds. We must strive to understand what they are getting right about the American psyche. Owens and Hinkle tap into a legitimate feeling that decent, normal Americans have been misused by the elite, that their way of life is being subverted. Some of Owens’s criticisms, including of the ADL, are apt.

The “redpill” movement does something similar—it acknowledges genuine misery among men, perhaps largely a result of feminism. It responds poorly by pitting men against women and casting the latter as uniformly devious gold-diggers. There is no redeeming vision for relations between the sexes, no sense that they each offer something vital. Owens also gestures toward enemies of America but offers no serious road to redemption.

As Yuval Levin notes in his 2013 book The Great Debate, Edmund Burke “refused to cede the language of nature in politics to Paine and the French and English radicals, because he grounded his case for resisting radical political disruption in a notion of nature quite different.” There is no reason to cede language invoking American civic or religious pride to the worst actors on the Right, and no reason not to cultivate comparable slogans toward more hopeful and noble ends. We cannot abandon the art of storytelling to the nihilists, in other words. This of course must be done alongside the serious, perhaps generations-long work of reforming elite institutions—the project of doing away with DEI at the academy, for example, is underway. But even the most cynical redpillers warm to phrases that reflect a positive vision; “America First” might easily be taken to invoke West Point’s abandoned “duty, honor, country.”

In short, we must restore or replace corrupted institutions. We should also recall Lincoln’s appeal to the “better angels of our nature” and “mystic chords of memory.” Heeding Lincoln’s advice need not be a lofty or arduous task; as Moses insists in Deuteronomy, “It is not baffling or out of reach; it is not in the Heavens.” No: “It is close to you, on your lips and in your heart.” This moment, among other things, may call for something as banal as looking around, embracing and underscoring the figures and images that capture what is enduringly good about normal American life.

Devorah Goldman is EPPC’s Tikvah Visiting Fellow. Her work focuses primarily on medical policy, culture, and public bioethics.

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