Beginning with Donald Trump’s “birther” dalliance, the conservative intellectual movement has spiraled ever faster down the drain, flushed by Republicans increasingly swayed by conspiracy theories.
The primary campaign victory of a Colorado congressional candidate sympathetic to the QAnon community represented just another cycle around and down the bowl.
The QAnon conspiracy posits that a well-positioned official nicknamed “Q” has spent the past several years reporting on efforts to undermine Trump by “deep state” officials pervasive throughout the government.
Incubated like a virus in the brackish waters of 4Chan, various strains of the conspiracy slowly began seeping into much larger social networks like Facebook and Twitter. Preying on the feeble-minded and willfully-ignorant, the exponential growth has created a “dunce state” large enough to attract vote-seeking politicians.
Conservatives need to take a page out of their past, stand athwart recent history and yell Stop.
This is, of course, the mandate enunciated by William F. Buckley Jr. upon the occasion when he launched his bastion of printed conservative thought, National Review, in 1955.
No stranger to bellicose carnival-barkers spinning untethered theories within the big tent he sought to erect, Buckley would have recognized the danger to the conservative movement that permeates the current political circumstance.
Just like the liberal left, the conservative right has always had embers of fact-resistant conspiracy theories smoldering at its fringes. It is both a natural consequence and condition of individual thought and liberty.
But in the run-up to the 2016 presidential election, Trump gleeful piled combustibles upon the pyre. When he ran out of wood, he used gasoline and jet fuel. Now the flames have jumped the enclosed fire pit and erupted into a vast forest fire that threatens the houses of conservative thought men and women like Buckley spent decades erecting.
The current moment does not mark the first time conservatives needed to douse their movement with cold-water in order to save it. Buckley himself spent years actively denouncing the John Birch Society.
The JBS promoted the belief that malevolent individuals had achieved “penetration into the highest echelons of the U.S. government” and “that 50 to 70 percent of the United States” fell under their malignant control. Sound familiar?
The QAnon and JBS tenets rely heavily on a mashup of “Enemy Within” and “Enemy Above” conspiracy theory archetypes outlined by Jesse Walker in The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. The former archetype is comprised of “villainous neighbors who can’t easily be distinguished from friends” while the latter seeks to identify puppeteers “hiding at the top of the social pyramid.”
Both elevate fear and division over intellectual rigor and discipline. Or rather, they pit the two approaches against each other. That explains why Buckley’s ideological descendants – conservative intellectual thinkers like George F. Will and Bill Kristol – have found themselves divorced from the Republican Party and under attack from GOP activists.
It is why dedicated conservatives have banded together to form groups like the Lincoln Project, focused on Trump’s defeat, despite the wailing protestations of Q-colytes on the right.
Caught within the scythe-arc swung by Trump and his supporters, conservative intellectuals found their knees no longer beneath them when Trump successfully gaslit his base to believe that objective truth could be replaced by more convenient “alternative facts.”
The underpinning of traditional conservative thought has always relied on a fixed nexus provided by a shared reality to test its principles in the marketplace of ideas.
By eliminating that nexus, Trump and QAnon “believers” have effectively pulled up stakes and relocated to their own black market. They peddle chintzy ideals and knockoff ideologies to those too lazy or weak to demand authenticity.
And when the dumb and duped coming looking for a refund after their purchase falls to pieces, they are likely to find the stall packed and gone as the proprietors move on in search of other members of the dunce state to swindle.
Buckley warned the conservatives of his time that they must resist the “paranoid and unpatriotic drivel” espoused by conspiracy theorists or become yoked with “a great weight on the back of responsible conservatives.” It is a message even more important to anyone hoping to save the conservative intellectual movement today.
Mario Nicolais is an attorney and columnist who writes on law enforcement, the legal system, health care and public policy. Follow him on Twitter: @MarioNicolaiEsq
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