Despite an ailing economy and a bungled pandemic response, polls show that President Donald Trump continues to enjoy strong support among white male voters. Could one reason be his affinity for conspiracy theories — a characteristic so many of his strong supporters share? In the past, the president has voiced his appreciation of QAnon, a bizarre set of right-wing theories involving satanism, pedophilia in the "deep state" and now baseless coronavirus notions. Just Monday, during a wild interview with Fox News host Laura Ingraham, Trump repeated another dangerous conspiracy rumor that had gone viral in far-right social media communities.
Referring to the Republican National Convention last week, Trump claimed, "We had somebody get on a plane from a certain city this weekend, and in the plane it was almost completely loaded with thugs, wearing these dark uniforms, black uniforms, with gear and this and that."
There is no such plane.
If you look closely, it's hard not to notice a pattern among those who believe narratives involving secret plots, planes full of armed "thugs" and groundless theories about the coronavirus's origins and seriousness: There are an awful lot of white dudes in this club. Looks a bit like white bread dipped in testosterone.
As we see with QAnon, conspiracy theories often overlap. QAnon may have started as a theory about the deep state and pedophiles, but we're seeing a lot of QAnon believers now also promoting lies about the coronavirus.
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All of these theories have potentially dangerous consequences. Rumors of armed antifa interlopers led Americans to congregate in Western towns this summer, armed to the teeth. Coronavirus conspiracies encourage Americans to disobey public health guidance, putting all of us at risk. Back in March, a poll by YouGov and The Economist found that 13 percent of Americans believed the COVID-19 crisis was a hoax — a number, said ethicist Matthew Stanley of Duke University, that could surely help the virus spread.
There's also a clear ideological nexus. Political affiliation seems to be one factor in embracing coronavirus conspiracies. Researchers speculate that because Trump, a Republican, is a longtime advocate of conspiracy theories and is under fire for his handling of the pandemic, people who identify with the GOP are more inclined to defend him by hopping aboard the COVID-19 conspiracy train.
This plays out with conservative media figures like Sean Hannity, Tucker Carlson and Rush Limbaugh, who float discredited claims that the coronavirus is not naturally occurring, that it was created to hurt Trump and that it is no worse than the flu. Or InfoWars founder Alex Jones, a Trump backer who has taken to bellowing through a bullhorn at Texas hikers that COVID-19 is a "power-grab hoax" and a "scam." And lately, the White House press office has been stuffing the president's daily news conferences with conspiracy mongers from alt-right media outlets — letting them jump the line and ask questions.
But there's another factor even more likely to predict the likelihood of embracing conspiracies, especially COVID-19 conspiracies: being a guy.
That's not to say women aren't also buying in. But men are, indeed, more attracted to coronavirus nonsense, according to new research published by Cambridge University Press — and it can't be explained just by the fact that more women identify as Democrats. The study details that there is a higher male susceptibly to a phenomenon known as "learned helplessness."
Researchers discuss that when men confront aversive events, they may be more likely to feel that taking action is futile because events are out of their control. This, in turn, leads to conspiratorial thinking: Maybe a secret cabal is controlling events behind the scenes. This makes sense when you look at the biggest conspiracies out there, which refer to large societal and political changes like a public health crisis or the mass protests against police brutality.
Even before the pandemic, many men, especially white men, felt the culture shifting around them as they perceived a loss of power to women and people of color. They may suffer from a sense of anxiety and futility.
So for men, the magic of conspiracy theories could be their way to restore a lost sense of power, status and solidarity. These narratives, after all, provide appealing consolations. They offer clarity in a time of economic and social confusion. They boost sagging self-esteem with a feeling of being "in the know" and belonging to an elite community. In a time of difficult social isolation, the group interaction of social media and message forums is particularly alluring. A chance to be seen again — to feel as if you matter. Armed antifa members are coming to attack your town? What better way to make yourself feel needed then to literally take up arms and defend your community?
It's true that conspiracies circulate in many communities. Former GOP presidential candidate Herman Cain, a Trump supporter, was a mask skeptic before he died recently from COVID-19. Entertainer Nick Cannon recently got in trouble for discussing anti-Semitic conspiracy ideas.
But while it can be challenging to pin down demographics on websites like Reddit, where users often post anonymously, studies of those active on forums associated with QAnon, to take one of our examples, have revealed a tight white male world.
Data crunchers at Vox noted, for example, that the relatively small group of hard-core QAnon users also gravitated toward forums about video games, cryptocurrency, men's rights and martial arts. The site found a substantial overlap between frequent QAnon users and those who hang out on pro-Trump forums. "It's not a reach," Vox concluded, "to say that they are predominantly white men."
Challenging and harassing scientists also seem to hold special appeal for many white men. An expert on weather and climate, Marshall Shepherd, a Black senior science contributor at Forbes, complained in 2018 about how many people called or emailed him with outlandish theories, often in a harassing manner. He observed that the "crackpots" were "100 percent men," and he asked fellow scientists on Twitter to weigh in with their own experiences. A flood of responses followed, such as one from the renowned climate scientist Katharine Hayhoe, who testified that she was frequently barraged by social media users who overwhelmingly appeared to be white males.
Shepherd speculated that men might be more prone to "arrogance, harassment and superiority complexes." He also observed that many of those aggressively challenging him and his colleagues with groundless theories appeared to be exaggerating their credentials.
You may not be surprised to learn that researchers have found a link between belief in conspiracy theories and narcissistic traits — specifically that proponents demonstrate a need to appear smarter and better than others and privileged with special access to the truth, particularly if they suffer from underlying insecurities. These men seem to need to appear to know more than everyone else and to have accomplished more in the world than they actually have.
Conspiracy theories are a shortcut to status, the cheap ticket to attention. Sound like Trump?
We all can be susceptible to conspiracy theories, because they often offer narratives that are easier to accept than only partly understood realities. But if you're feeling anxious about your position as a white male in America, you may be especially prone to accepting stories that put you at the center of things and make you feel, once again, like a person others can look up to.
One thing is clear: Figuring out how to cope with conspiracy theories may be just as vital to America's survival as beating the coronavirus.
Given that around 62 percent of white men voted for Trump in 2016, it could also be key to beating him in November.
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