Politics & Policy

COVID Conspiracists Are as American as Apple Pie

A Walmart pharmacist draws a dose into a syringe from a Moderna coronavirus vaccine in West Haven, Conn., February 17, 2021. (Mike Segar/Reuters)
Vaccine ‘skepticism’ and other coronavirus-related kookiness fit seamlessly in a long historical tradition.

The other day, I fell into one of those crazy Internet rabbit holes, in this case involving amateur day-traders who believe that the Fibonacci sequence gives them insight into the movement of stock prices. It’s pure digital bumf, of course, but one analysis found that there are more Fibonacci-aligned turning points in some highly speculative stocks than you would expect — almost certainly because the trade in the stocks in question is largely dominated by idiot day-traders all applying the same Fibonacci model. It’s like the prankers in Foucault’s Pendulum who create a conspiracy theory to amuse themselves (and make a little money) and, in doing so, accidentally bring a real-world conspiracy into existence.

I was reading up on this because I was thinking about an Uber driver I had some time ago who was engaged, at every red light and sometimes while zooming through traffic, with something on his phone. I assumed he was texting with a friend, or maybe using a dating app. (I’d be even more likely to guess “dating app” today: Condom sales have been skyrocketing as Americans abandon social distancing in the most primal way.) But that wasn’t it at all — he was engaged in foreign-exchange trading. On his phone. While driving me to the airport.

It wasn’t even a good phone.

I asked him about it, and he explained to me that he had a system. Kooks, cranks, and con artists always have a system to peddle, and this particular mark was on his second or third system, which he paid good money for, engaging a forex-trading guru to teach him how to outsmart the markets. I asked him how much money he had made. He’d lost a bit, but that was with an earlier system, not the new one. (Hope springs eternal!) I asked him to explain his system to me, and his answer was approximately astrology. I don’t think he understood what forex trading actually involves — he didn’t seem to grasp that there were foreign currencies in play.

But he had a system.

Do you know what Goldman Sachs has? It has an array of forex-trading offices around the world, staffed 24 hours a day by Ukrainian math Ph.D.s who have been doing nothing but think about forex trading since they were in the third grade and who are not driving for Uber in their off hours. That’s Goldman’s system. And while Goldman still manages to blow $1 billion on losing currency bets from time to time, you aren’t going to beat it from the front seat of your Toyota Camry with a free phone from Boost Mobile.

I am not a very good card player, but I want to play poker with that driver.

The allure of systems of the kind this gigging Gordon Gekko threw away his money on is fundamentally the same as the allure of conspiracy theories and conspiracy theory-adjacent political beliefs: secret knowledge. (A system applied to politics in a way that is sufficiently abstract is an ideology.)  The promise of secret knowledge is powerful: That’s why the cynical entrepreneurs hawking “courses” in this stuff promise to tell you the “The 5 Secrets of Forex Trading that Everyone Misses” (“Create a trading journal” and “Commit to the task”? Really?) or “17 Unknown Forex Trading Secrets Every Trader Should Know About.” Everybody loves a secret. Knowing a secret makes you special.

Secret knowledge is status-conferring. It marks you as a “real” insider, which is very attractive to people whose social situation and wealth do not appear super-insidery. “I’m not one of these ordinary sheeple — I know what the rich and the powerful are really up to!” (You’ll notice that almost no one is interested in a conspiracy theory involving his social inferiors — the attention moves almost exclusively in the opposite direction, toward people with more money and higher status.) This kind of thinking has always been a feature of American intellectual life and Western intellectual life more broadly, from tales of the Illuminati to the Lyndon LaRouche cult to 9/11 truthers and birthers and stop-the-steal devotees.

There is no one as thoroughly deluded as the self-deluded.

The less occult strains of conspiratorial thinking are part of the political conversation both on the right and on the left, from the dentists and lawyers who will “prove” to you that evolution and climate change are hoaxes to the old retired guys whispering darkly about COVID-19 vaccines over their pancakes and coffee to the dorm-room anti-capitalists who will explain to you how the United Fruit Company secretly pulls the strings of the world and its puppet governments from behind the scenes.

Conspiracy theories are distributed across a wide spectrum of respectability. Reptilian shape-shifters and tall tales involving the British royal family are déclassé, as are tales of conniving Jewish financiers — when they are trafficked in by people who are not Democratic members of Congress or political allies of Barack Obama. The anti-vaccine stuff got a slightly more tolerant hearing back when it was mainly the domain of celebrity dopes and Brooklyn macrobiotic types — it kind of got Willie Hortoned, becoming truly disreputable when unsavory Republicans (and is there any other kind?) took it up. But contemporary non-COVID medical-conspiracy theories get more liberal treatment: For example, unfounded claims that the pharmaceutical industry is preventing a cure for diabetes from being developed or brought to market get a remarkably generous hearing.

Common false claims put forward by Democratic politicians — e.g., that Republicans oppose gun control because the NRA bribes them to do so — are pure conspiracy-mongering, but they are generally treated as an ordinary part of the political discourse, judged to be hyperbolic at worst. The same is true for Democratic “Everybody who disagrees with me is somehow a white supremacist” nonsense. But these “respectable” conspiracy theories embedded in our politics probably are more destructive than the more exotic lizard-people stuff, because they undermine our institutions much more efficiently.

Conspiracy theories are a kind of social role-playing game in which the only thing that counts on the scoreboard is status. Secret knowledge raises your status, and imputing bad faith, self-seeking, greed, or other wicked motives to an enemy is intended to lower his status. Conspiracy theories create narratives in which “our side” is made up of intelligent, enlightened, good-faith truth-seekers and “their side” is made up of backward, dim, scheming miscreants, corrupt bribe-takers, Satanic pedophile cultists, etc. It is not enough that your tribe has better policies or that it wins elections — the other tribe must be held in contempt and reduced to an object of ridicule and scorn. If you turn on talk radio any day —you’ll probably need satellite radio to hear left-wing talk radio, but it’s out there, and it’s just heroically imbecilic —you’ll get an earful of this, along with an earful of conspiracy theories from the ordinary to the deranged.

Our conspiracy kooks like to call themselves “skeptics.” Skepticism is an intellectual virtue — sometimes. There are many kinds of skepticism: informed skepticism vs. ignorant skepticism, expert skepticism vs. amateur skepticism, good-faith skepticism vs. motivated skepticism. Skepticism is particularly useful to conspiracy hobbyists trying to maintain a decent place on the respectability continuum, because it is low-commitment: “I’m not saying the vaccine is a way of putting microchips in us! I’m just saying we should be skeptical!” Often this is followed by the advice: “Do your own research!” We have terms for people who are doing their own research about vaccines, climate change, and evolution: graduate students, postdocs, and other academics. You aren’t doing vaccine or climate-change research on Facebook — you are confirmation-mining, starting with a conclusion and then back-filling in whatever you can find that might pass for evidence.

I am surprised by how much “skeptical” anti-vaccine stuff I hear in casual conversation, from the young fitness trainer who insists that it’s all part of some dark plot to the elderly guy who shares his observation that the Pfizer and Moderna vaccines aren’t “real” because they use “chemicals.” (Everybody is into mRNA now, but I prefer the early stuff, before it went mainstream.) I will note here that approximately 100 percent of the anti-vaccine “skeptics” with whom I’ve had recent personal experience are conservative white guys, but I don’t want to read too much into that, because about 80 percent of my social interactions involve conservative white guys.

I used to have more confidence that markets would work to keep this sort of thing in check — people will say all sorts of crazy things, but they tend to be more cautious and realistic when their own money is on the line. And while I still think that’s true, I have less confidence in the strength of the economic mechanism than I used to. That guy pissing his money away on forex-trading “secrets” wasn’t running his mouth on a barstool: He was spending and losing his own money, and I assume that he didn’t have a lot of it to spare. (Maybe he drives Uber just because he enjoys meeting cheerful passengers like me.) As a wise engineer friend of mine says, “Stupid should hurt.” But in a very prosperous society, small losses can be endured without feeling too much pain. And if you are on the selling side of the conspiracy business rather than on the buying side, it can be a wildly profitable business.

But there are some externalities. In the first quarter of this year, while we were busy making Kulturkampf out of masks, vaccines, Anthony Fauci, the CDC, etc., some 165,000 Americans died of COVID-19. The second quarter looks like it will be radically better, but almost 9,000 have still died in April alone. If that’s your idea of a glass half-full, you have a sunnier disposition than mine.

We think of World War II as a time of great patriotic solidarity, when we “came together as a nation” to do what needed to be done, even if it meant making sacrifices in our personal lives. I do wonder how many of our liberty-loving vaccine-refusers would have opposed the World War II draft, bearing in mind that volunteers were a minority among the soldiers who fought in the war, nearly two-thirds of whom were drafted. Some 400,000 Americans died in World War II — a body count that has long since been surpassed by the number of Americans who have died of COVID-19, which sits at more than 570,000 as of this writing. You’ll notice that the mood out there in the dank and wooly wilds of America isn’t exactly victory gardens and Audie Murphy. And while World War II was in many ways a time of shared purpose, there was also a lot of talk about how we wouldn’t be in this mess to begin with it if weren’t for rich European Jews pulling Roosevelt’s strings. From that point of view, COVID conspiracism is merely a new blend of vintage American crazy.

It’s a particularly virulent mutant strain, if you’ll forgive the metaphor.


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