The American people live in the same country. That does not mean they share a common reality. This inability to agree upon basic empirical facts and the nature of the truth is undermining the country’s democracy.
Moreover, a type of collective malignant narcissism, in which entire communities of people believe that their opinions supersede empirical reality and scientific fact, is undermining America’s present and future prosperity, stability and freedom, not to mention the basic health of our society.
To wit: A majority of Republicans apparently believe the Big Lie that Donald Trump won the 2020 election and that it was somehow “stolen” from him and his followers by Joe Biden and the Democrats.
Roughly 30 percent of Republicans claim to believe that Trump will be reinstated as president this year, something that is not possible under current U.S. law. In addition, 50 percent of Republican voters have convinced themselves that Donald Trump is still the “real” president.
Approximately one in four Republican voters believes in significant portions of the interlocking antisemitic conspiracy theories of the QAnon fictional universe, with its claims about a “deep state” that controls American society and the world through Satanic rituals and human sacrifice. Of course, in the QAnon universe Donald Trump is imagined as a great hero and leader who will defeat this evil plot and restore American “greatness,” not-so-subtly understood as a privileged state for white people.
In a season of death during which the coronavirus pandemic has killed at least 600,000 Americans, a new CBS/YouGov poll shows that 29 percent of Republicans will refuse the lifesaving vaccines. They have made this decision largely because of Trump and the right-wing media’s disinformation and outright lies about the coronavirus pandemic.
This crisis is far greater than what historian and political scientist Richard Hofstadter warned about in his seminal 1964 Harper’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” In a moment when a proto-fascist white supremacist Republican Party is waging a war on democracy and the truth, the white right’s conspiracist thinking represents an existential threat to the safety and security of the United States.
In a recent conversation with Salon about Trump and his followers, psychiatrist Dr. Lance Dodes offered this warning:
It certainly is a public mental health emergency, and one that has occurred many times in human history. Followers adopt the belief system of a populist tyrant which becomes the new permitted reality, spreading to others who are swept up by their need to be included. That belief system, however fantastical or delusional, remains accepted truth until it is finally shown to be false. Those who have been conned into believing the tyrant’s lies find comfort in their conviction that they know the truth, enabling them to feel superior to doubters.
On Jan. 6, right-wing conspiracy theories and other delusional ideas came together in a type of synergistic disaster in the form of the Trump regime’s attempted coup and the attack on the U.S. Capitol, as a mass of white supremacists, Christian fascists, right-wing paramilitaries and QAnon believers attempted to nullify the results of the 2020 Election. These groups and ideas are not altogether distinct; there is considerable overlap of ideas and believers between them.
Those outside of the right-wing conspiracy community are likely unaware of the other fantastical beliefs and delusions that played a role in the events of Jan. 6.
Jason Colavito is a professional skeptic, researcher and author whose essays have been featured at The New Republic and Slate. He has also appeared on the History Channel and the American Heroes Channel. Colavito is the author of several books, including “The Mound Builder Myth,” “Jason and the Argonauts Through the Ages” and the forthcoming “The Legends of the Pyramids: Myths and Misconceptions about Ancient Egypt.”
In this conversation, Colavito places these “new” conspiracy theories about QAnon and the Big Lie about the 2020 election — as well as the decades-long popular obsession with UFOs — in a larger context of fear and anxiety about social change in America, arguing that a particular version of insecure white masculinity (and white supremacy more generally) is central to many of today’s most widely believed conspiracy theories.
Colavito also details how right-wing extremists are using UFOs, “ancient aliens” and other supposedly “fun” conspiracy theories to radicalize and recruit new members, and discusses how figures like Rudy Giuliani and Tucker Carlson as well as the “Stop the Steal” plotters figure in that dynamic.
At the end of this conversation, Jason Colavito shares his thoughts about the soon-to-be-released Pentagon report on UFOs — which will almost certainly not report that the Earth is being visited by extraterrestrials.
QAnon, the “Deep State,” Donald Trump’s Big Lie and and now a report by the U.S. government on UFOs. How do you explain this confluence of events?
First, it’s important to understand that all these conspiracy theories are interrelated. It’s not like QAnon is completely separate from UFOs and that is completely separate from a conspiracy about Jewish bankers taking over the world — as Marjorie Taylor Greene suggested, by using “Jewish space lasers.” These conspiracies are all connected by this idea of rejected knowledge — that there is a secret body of knowledge that can tell a person how the world really works, and is being hidden away from the public by elites.
People who believe in conspiracy theories are searching for a means to understand a complex and changing world in a simple way, one that flatters their own particular prejudices, particular beliefs and feelings that they should be the ones at the center of the historical narrative.
One of the foundational issues involved in all of these conspiracy theories is white supremacy. It doesn’t always seem obvious. In many cases, some of the people who believe in one particular variety of conspiracy or another are not themselves motivated primarily by white supremacy, and may not even be aware of the connections to white supremacy. But at their core, many of these conspiracy theories revolve around ideas about the way things were in a semi-idealized past, whether that semi-idealized past was Donald Trump’s presidency, the 1950s, the 19th century or some other period. These were times when white people were at the center of the historical narrative in America and the West. In this worldview, everything was great and good and wonderful.
What we see in the United States are demographic trends which are causing a deep disconnect and deep concern among many white people who believe that they are losing economic power, losing status and losing their privileged social position. Of course this is not necessarily true in reality, because white people still control the overwhelming amount of political and economic power in the United States. However, they do see themselves as losing that power because in large measure the actual elites — the people who are running the economy, running politics and so on — have created a situation where the middle-class lifestyle of my generation’s parents and grandparents simply does not exist anymore unless you have multiple incomes and the kind of education that requires enormous amounts of debt.
There are all these different societal changes going on and conspiracy theories are a way to try to explain it that lets a person feel as though they are still in control of the narrative. When you look at conspiracy theories in the aggregate, that is the underlying motive behind all of the different expressions of weird and extreme ideas.
How do we explain these waves of conspiracy theories in a larger context?
This is something that we see in United States history over and over again. In the wake of social change people turn toward extreme ideas such as the supernatural and the paranormal and toward conspiracy theories.
Much of what we see today is very similar to what was going on in the 1950s and the 1960s. There was a confluence of paranormal and political conspiracies at the same time. The UFO panic emerged in the late 1940s through the 1960s and did not occur in isolation. It was happening at the same time that McCarthyism and the second Red Scare was burning through the country. People were seeing communists behind every bush and trying to use the power of government to destroy what they perceived to be communist infiltration of the country.
Joe McCarthy had stoked nativism, nationalism and many forms of bigotry in order to gin up a vast conspiracy theory that there was massive communist infiltration. McCarthy, incidentally, didn’t limit his hatred just to communists. He assumed that communists, being deviants, were close allies of the homosexuals and therefore he and his allies created a massive purge of gay people from government, leading to decades of oppression and some of the strictest anti-gay laws that the country has ever had. But while he’s doing this, the UFO panic is happening outside of Washington and eventually in D.C. itself.
That isn’t entirely a coincidence, because in both cases, what you’re seeing is that beneath the placid surface of what should have been the most prosperous, peaceful time in American history there is also a deep anxiety because World War II had shaken the foundations of the American Dream. While it was patched together with suburbia and sitcoms and all of those things that conservatives love to hold up as the idealized post-war world, in reality it was a Band-Aid over massive amounts of social change, particularly in terms of the role of women. Women had experienced great liberation during the war years because the men were off fighting abroad.
After the war, men tried to force women back into those pre-war gender roles. The postwar years also saw a growth in the African American civil rights movement.
This comes together with how these social tensions and changes manifest in almost a spiritual way when people look up into the sky and see saviors or demons flying in the heavens. UFOs, right from the beginning, were identified not just as space aliens. Some people thought they were angels harboring the end times of revelation. Others thought that UFOs were secret communist technology infiltrating our skies. This is an example of tensions and ideas that are percolating through politics and society being remixed in symbolic form and ascribed to a supernatural cause. What we’re seeing today, I believe, is closely related to that same process, that social tensions are driving a symbolic expression of tension as various conspiracies and supernatural occurrences.
How do we apply those questions of identity and agency to these current conspiracy theories?
It is important to recognize that many of the conspiracy theories are driven by people who are looking for ways to express control over the historical narrative. Most of what later became QAnon was already in circulation on the internet and on cable television years before it came together as a pro-Trump conspiracy theory. QAnon reaches all the way from “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion” straight through to UFO conspiracy theories, and draws in the Satanic panic and related ideas
These are narratives that we already found circulating on programs like “Ancient Aliens” or “America Unearthed” and other History Channel shows and cable TV series years before. This happened because the cable TV networks understood that their audience is primarily older and white, and in the case of the History Channel largely male, and they program towards that demographic.
To qualify my point: I do not think that cable TV networks were purposely planning to have white nationalist programming or anything like that. We are talking about TV networks staffed by hundreds of people using production companies around the world to produce content. But you have media all over the world driving toward the same ends because they’re chasing the same audience. And once you start trying to flatter your audience into thinking that they are empowered and that they are the dynamic drivers of history, you end up in the same place every time.
What did you see in the events of Jan 6. when Trump’s followers attacked the U.S. Capitol? In particular, what did you make of the “QAnon shaman,” who is a known figure in the right-wing conspiracy world.
The QAnon shaman — who goes by a couple of different names, by the way — represented not just the neo-pagan theme in the QAnon movement and the white nationalist-adjacent conspiracies, but he was appropriating, to himself, other themes and ideas as well. The QAnon shaman has a series of videos that he put up on YouTube and other video-sharing platforms prior to the Jan. 6 attack in which he talked about a vast number of bizarre conspiracy theories.
There he cites people who had appeared on the History Channel by name, discussing a conspiracy theory that was popular among the ancient aliens crowd about “the secret space program.” This is the idea that there is a secret space program in which the United States is engaged in warfare with one group of space aliens with the help of another group of space aliens. There is a spiritual component as well, which involves psychic powers.
The secret space program conspiracy theory has been circulating for years. But the QAnon shaman, in his videos, claimed to believe that he had been recruited, apparently against his will, into the secret space program because of his great psychic powers. He also claims that he was using those powers to combat space aliens on behalf of the U.S. government by traveling to another dimension.
Yes, it is easy to make fun of such claims, but such conspiracies played a role among the people at the Capitol rioting on Jan. 6. Incidentally, at least one of the Capitol rioters was wearing an “Ancient Aliens” sweatshirt with Giorgio Tsoukalos’ face on it. [Tsoukalos is a ufologist who has frequently appeared on “Ancient Aliens.”] I do not believe that was entirely a coincidence, because it is the same set of conspiracy theories about the “deep state,” space aliens, secret cults and how elites are hiding things from the public that animate both the ancient conspiracy theories and the QAnon conspiracy theories. There is significant overlap, where some QAnon beliefs are derived directly from beliefs that also appear on “Ancient Aliens.”
One of the huge failures of the mainstream news media is that they are not paying attention to what people are actually consuming. Among the most extreme fringes of American political and social life there is see a very deep and abiding interest in these conspiracy theories, and we don’t see the U.S. mainstream media engaging with that enough — especially not before the 2016 election, and not even fully until after the Jan. 6 riot.
It is easy to say we’re not going to take this seriously, but something can be both ridiculous and dangerous at the same time.
For example, QAnon is an antisemitic conspiracy theory. It is also a white male power fantasy. More generally, how are these right-wing fantasies a space for a particular type of white masculinity?
The History Channel adventure mystery shows tend to have the same aesthetic. They feature very big blocky fonts, lots of dramatic music. These shows also feature middle-aged white men in either Indiana Jones cosplay or in tactical military gear marching around, having adventures and bonding in brotherhood over historical mysteries that flatter their own prejudices, mysteries that just happened to find that white men were here before Columbus and built this country from scratch even before Native Americans had come to the Americas.
The aesthetic is laughable, but it is also one that’s desirable for a certain demographic in the United States. There is also an important overlap between these shows and their political consequences. A man named J. Hutton Pulitzer, who also goes by Jovan Pulitzer and a couple of other names, appeared on “The Curse of Oak Island” and some other ancient mystery-style shows, described as a treasure hunter, a historian and many other titles. On “Curse of Oak Island” they went looking for the Ark of the Covenant. Pulitzer’s persona at the time was “the treasure force commander,” who was supposedly leading a “crack team of historical investigators as they hunted history’s greatest artifacts.”
Where did he go next? Rudy Giuliani and the Donald Trump campaign used his ideas about ballot fraud to help create the recounts that we see in Arizona and the ongoing efforts to do the same in Georgia. In both instances, Pulitzer is being paid as a consultant to find evidence of ballot fraud through his amazing technology of looking for bamboo in the ballots to prove they came from China. This also involves looking for creases in what Pulitzer calls the “origami ballots” to “prove” that they were folded up by Asian people.
This guy went right from the History Channel straight to a Trump conspiracy world. While he might be the most direct line between History Channel conspiracies and the extreme right-wing pro-Trump community, he’s not the only one. Just the other day, Nick Pope, one of the ancient-astronauts theorists from the “Ancient Aliens” show, appeared on Rudy Giuliani’s podcast. There you have the former lawyer for Donald Trump talking UFOs with a guy from “Ancient Aliens.” Tucker Carlson was also on “Ancient Aliens” talking to Nick Pope. Carlson has UFO theorists from the History Channel on his show.
What is Tucker Carlson’s relationship to the UFO and ancient aliens conspiracy world?
In a speech that Tucker Carlson gave a while ago, he said that after the 2016 election, he was so completely dumbfounded by the unlikely probability of Donald Trump winning that he started to think that other improbable things might be true. As a result he developed an interest in UFOs and flying saucers. But in a more practical sense, Carlson has been all in on pushing flying-saucer conspiracy theories, in large measure because flying-saucer conspiracy theories have long been associated with right-wing extremism.
Now, that is not to say that everyone who is interested in UFOs and flying saucers is a right-wing conspiracy theorist — but right-wing extremist groups have made a concerted effort to infiltrate flying saucer and UFO communities in order to use that belief in conspiracy theory as a wedge issue to draw more people into that type of conspiratorial thinking.
What happens is that UFO and flying saucer beliefs become a wedge issue that draws people into more extreme beliefs, because once you feel that one conspiracy theory may be true, it becomes easier to believe that the next conspiracy theory may be true. When you see Tucker Carlson going all in on UFOs and flying saucers, he is creating a situation where people can embrace one conspiracy theory and be led to another.
How have you been processing this new hysteria about UFOs (which are now described by the U.S. government as “UAPs”) and the soon-to-be-released Pentagon report?
What we can do is emphasize what we know, what we don’t know and what needs to be investigated. Many of these videos of UFOs can be explained in conventional terms. Now, that doesn’t mean that they are necessarily conventional, but if you can explain it that way, that is a very strong indication that we shouldn’t be looking at space aliens.
In the case of claims that we have wreckage of flying saucers and other alien artifacts, you need to listen to what the experts, the involved parties, are actually saying. [Former Senate Majority Leader] Harry Reid has repeatedly said that he keeps getting misquoted. He does not in fact believe that there is any wreckage. Moreover, all of the supposed alien metal that has ever been seen in public and tested turned out not to have extraterrestrial composition. The only tests that were made publicly available indicated that the alleged alien metals were in fact industrial waste. This has happened several times over the decades, going all the way back to 1947.
What we need to do as science educators, journalists and historians is to educate the public — not necessarily on the specifics of each and every case but on the rules of evidence, the burden of proof and how experts come to an understanding of what something is or what it could be. That’s a difficult task. It’s a lot easier to say, “Could be aliens,” or “Maybe not aliens,” than to say, “There are a range of possibilities. Some are more likely than others. We base our conclusions on a preponderance of evidence and so on.” That is complicated and hard, and it does not fit in a 30-second soundbite.
The Pentagon report on UFOs is probably going to be sufficiently vague. People are going to see what they want to see in it. What do you do with that moment when you read the same report and conclude that there is no proof of alien visitations, and true believers conclude the opposite? In essence, true believers will default to the script that lack of sufficient evidence is in fact proof of the conspiracy.
I wish there were a good answer for that. But unfortunately, what you suggest is likely going to be the outcome. People will see in the report what they want to see, and it will just move on to the next stage of the conspiracy. This is what happened with all previous government reports that found no evidence of space aliens and no UFO threat. The UFO community will take that as more fuel for their belief system. They’ll look for ways to spin it into a focus for a new round of conspiracy theories, a new round of demands for disclosure and research, and a new round of accusations that the government is hiding the truth.
Perhaps the most devastating answer of all is that the government doesn’t actually have the truth, because government is made up of people, and people have many different belief systems and ideas. You will find people in government who believe that flying saucers and UFOs are alien spacecraft. You will find people in government who think that they’re Satan’s minions and could provoke the forces of hell. You will find people who believe that flying saucers are nothing but optical illusions and misidentified drones and weather phenomena. Just because the government says something does not give it the weight of holy writ. The government and its reports are the work of people, and as such are fallible.
The New York Times preview of the report’s content seems to suggest that the government will say that they don’t know in some cases — but that’s been the case for the last 70-some years. Each and every report has said that there are a number of UFO cases that cannot be explained. Being unexplained doesn’t mean they’re unexplainable, it means that we don’t have the knowledge or the information to make a determination right now, and maybe not ever.
Sometimes you have to live in the ambiguity and to understand that the preponderance of evidence is sometimes the best that we can do. Science, after all, isn’t a complete description of the entirety of existence. It is the best description we have at any one time, and sometimes you just have to live with the fact that there are going to be some things that don’t quite fit in, some things that it may take years or lifetimes to fully investigate and understand.
So far, we haven’t had any evidence that indicates space aliens. Until one of those space aliens decides to let us see a flying saucer and the aliens waving inside, we’re going to have to go with the best evidence that we have and the preponderance of evidence and what it indicates.