The Right's Troubling Turn Toward Conspiracy Theories and "Invasion" Language
Shikha Dalmia and Berny Belvedere on two disturbing trends within right-wing discourse
Shikha and I wanted to share with you our recent CenterClips, which are short commentary pieces in audio form. Shikha’s clip is about the right’s increasing use of “invasion” talk to describe immigrants crossing into the U.S. from the southern border. My clip is about the right’s increasing appetite for conspiracy theories, and how the “Taylor Swift is a psy-op” narrative is a perfect encapsulation of this turn.
You can listen to the clips by visiting our CenterClip profiles (Shikha | Berny). Or, since we’re also presenting them in written form below, you can skip the audio and read them as you would any other piece.
Senior Editor, The UnPopulist
Why The Right Is Increasingly Turning To Conspiracy Theories (Taylor’s Version)
By now, everyone on the planet is aware that pop megastar Taylor Swift is dating Kansas City Chiefs tight end Travis Kelce. What’s less well-known is why, after the Chiefs defeated the Ravens to advance to the Super Bowl nearly two Sundays ago, a flurry of right-wing personalities decided to flood the discourse with brain-melting conspiratoria about both Taylor Swift and the NFL.
Vivek Ramaswamy, Jack Posobiec, and Benny Johnson—who collectively boast 6.5 million followers on X alone—insisted to their audiences that Taylor Swift is a White House psy-op to ensure Biden gets re-elected. Why did they and others go full Tinfoil Mode here? An NBC News poll from late last year found that Taylor Swift has the highest favorability marks among all public figures in the entire country—why alienate all these people with your bizarroworld theorizing? The Kansas City Chiefs are playing in their fourth Super Bowl in six years—why suggest that it’s shadow government forces, rather than dynastic dominance, that is responsible for their success this year?
First, it all starts with the fact that there is great demand for conspiratorial analysis on the right. Whereas in the past, unhinged conspiracists like Alex Jones lived on the margins of right-wing discourse, they’re mainstream now. Right-wing audiences have increasingly sent signals to their preferred information dispensers that not only will they not punish them for peddling conspiracy theories, they will actively reward them with clicks, follows, and subscriptions.
Second, to meet this demand, the right’s misinformation merchants have developed conspiratorial frames flexible enough to allow any current event, anything in the news, to potentially serve as “evidence” for their claims. For example, one such frame is the outlandish—and, crucially, unfalsifiable—idea that liberals exercise control of America by rigging cultural and political institutions in their favor. You can see how a news story that involves Taylor Swift, a pop megastar who has endorsed Democrats in the past, Travis Kelce, a vocal supporter of the Covid vaccine, and the NFL, which allowed its players to kneel for the National Anthem, could be deployed to support the “liberals have rigged society to stay in power” conspiracy frame.
Third, not only is there right-wing demand for conspiratorial analysis, and right-wing content creators who develop powerful conspiracy templates to meet this demand, you also need a discourse ecosystem that allows and even facilitates all of this. In other words, this only works in a disintermediated information environment. News publications have a disincentive to promote manifestly unserious conspiracies like the ‘Taylor Swift is a psy-op’ one. Supermarket checkout lane tabloids like National Enquirer would print this kind of thing, to be sure, but nobody took them seriously. In our social media age, where Benny Johnson has a direct line to his audience, with no editorial or institutional oversight to serve as a check against his lunacy, we get X-Files-level analysis about a pop star dating a tight end really being a Biden plot to rig the election in his favor.
The right-wing information space rewards—and rarely ever punishes—conspiratorial analysis. This gives their take merchants the green light to let the conspiracies flow. They’ll suffer reputational damage all right, but not from the people who matter: their in-group, their audiences.
So to normie commentators, who rely on boring old factual analysis, the relationship between a pop star and a football player is relatively straightforward. But to red-pilled take merchants, there is a hidden layer of reality that the captured institutions won’t show you. To the untrained eye, the Chiefs got to the Super Bowl with their superior play. To the tinfoil-gilded observer, however, Joe Biden’s fingerprints are all over the Chiefs’ success.
Invasion Rhetoric Is Radicalizing The Right
Texas Governor Greg Abbott is once again upping his rhetoric to describe the situation on the southern border. He’s calling the surge of migrants Texas is experiencing an “invasion.” He has summoned the Texas national guard to put up barbed wire fencing to stop these alleged invaders. The Biden administration has begged him to take this fence down so that federal border patrol, whose constitutional responsibility it is to mind the border, can do its job. But Abbott is not budging.
Many commentators have pointed out the absolute absurdity of comparing poor and destitute migrants escaping persecution and destitution to invaders. They don’t have weapons, don’t belong to an organized military, and have no intention of seizing any U.S. territory. To the contrary, they are coming to the U.S. in search of security themselves—and of course jobs.
That they are doing so is a vote of confidence in the U.S. economy. Their presence lowers the prices of all kinds of goods and services: child care, senior care, lawn mowing, hospitality, many areas where Americans don’t even want to work. All of this immeasurably improves the lives of American consumers while helping the migrants put food on the table. It’s a win-win. In a sane world, Abbot would roll out the red carpet and hand them instant work permits—not erect barbed wire to rip their skin.
Economist Michael Clemens has shown that if Western countries would relax their border controls just a little and allow merely 5% of the people living in poor countries to move, they would expand the world economy by several trillion dollars every year. Every year! The immigrants would be richer and the host country would be richer.
But that’s a topic for another day. Today what I want to point out is that the kind of rhetoric that Abbot is deploying is radicalizing the right and making it impossible to forge a reasonable immigration compromise that does not involve the total militarization of the border.
Rush Limbaugh, you will recall, single-handedly turned amnesty into a dirty word and killed many an immigration reform effort by affixing the “a” word on it for offering legal status to some undocumented immigrants. But the undocumented problem exists because the demand for foreign labor exceeds the legal channels available. The rational and humane way to deal with it is not to build walls and launch deportation raids. It is to create more legal avenues.
But Limbaugh wanted an “enforcement first” approach. And now Abbott and Donald Trump have upped the ante and moved to an “enforcement only” approach.
And they need even more inflated rhetoric to service their more radical agenda. Like Abbott, Trump has doubled down on the “invasion” metaphor in his stump speeches. He just told congressional Republicans to back off the bill that they’ve been working on for months to hand aid to Ukraine in exchange for enhanced border security. This bill gives Republicans almost everything they want on the border from more Border Patrol agents to more deportation flights.
But when you are selling the idea of an invasion, anything short of a line of soldiers—standing shoulder to shoulder all along the Rio Grande—with machine guns in hand ready to shoot is not going to be enough. If Trump is reelected, the upshot of this kind of radical talk will be that he and Abbott will unleash unspeakable brutality on the border. They will launch an ever-escalating war against an enemy that is not even fighting back. This will be sad—a tragedy.
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