Plunging Into the Abyss
As even our smartest friends fall to conspiracy fever, we have to accept it’s not about logic or politics, but addiction

By Douglas Rushkoff. Published in Medium on 21 July 2021

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Itcomes in waves. A friend here, a co-worker there, getting curious about one conspiracy theory or another until they follow one too many trailheads, and end up over the edge. It’s a casualty of living in disorienting times, we tell ourselves. It will eventually pass.

But the hardest part is when the people we’ve traditionally looked to for their brilliance and insights fall into this paranoid trap, as well. They leave us wondering how this could happen to people smarter than ourselves. As Kurt Andersen tweeted over the weekend, “Strangers turning en masse these last decades into crazed crackpot conspiracy theorists has been bad enough, but an educated, talented, funny, sweet, cosmopolitan old friend plunging into that abyss is a really disturbing, depressing Invasion of the Body Snatchers experience.”

Many of us have been mourning the loss of some of our smartest friends to extremism. I would say “extremism on both sides,” but right now I am really just referring to the side we used to call Q or alt-right, which has now settled into a widespread belief that the compromises required to live together in society are an affront to human liberty.

Yes, most of these people still do believe that Trump is returning as president sometime in August, that Biden lost the election, that Obama and other Democrat operatives hacked voting machines remotely from Italy and Germany, that Covid was developed intentionally in a lab, that most versions of the vaccine are laced with nanobots, that the global pederasty rings are still about to be revealed, and that certain factions in the military are ready to take over when they get the signal. But these beliefs are not really the part that’s so distressing to those of us on the more conventional side of reality.

No, the disturbing part — at least to me — are not any of the particular fantasies they’re hanging onto, but the stiffness and intransigence of it all. The angry, dogmatic manner in which all this gets expressed and defended. There’s never a lack of sarcasm, or a reluctance to twist the knife. It’s never “I fault Biden for…” It’s always “of course a bumbling deep state crony like Biden would…” There’s never, ever, an assumption of good faith on the part of anyone making choices on our behalf. Worse, when I call out a possible logical or historical inconsistency in one of the narratives, the believer becomes defensive to the point of being enraged.

It reminds me less of a political extremist — right or left — than an addict defending their habit. And that’s why I think we may be wrong to categorize this as a cult phenomenon, rather than as an addiction.

To be sure, there are cult-like features in the fandom of Trump and the Qanon community. But there’s a point at which even a cult member can be swayed with logic, interventions, or the failure of the cult leader’s prophecies to come true. I’ve engaged with many cult members, and their demeanor is different. They spend more time trying to get me to join the cult than defending their beliefs against contradiction, or their right and obligation to defend those beliefs. They’re usually not so actively angry, but pacified and complacent. After all, they’ve found The Truth. They’re smiling, not griping or complaining that their griping has been deplatformed.

I’ve got lots of friends asking “how could someone so smart have come to believe this stuff?” But when you look at this through the lens of addiction, that question no longer makes sense. I mean, do you ever ask, “how could someone so smart have become an addict?” No, because addiction is triggered and maintained by a whole different part of one’s physical and emotional makeup. If anything, the addiction enlists the person’s intelligence to maintain the supply of drugs and justification for rejecting all efforts at helping them.

What are they addicted to? It’s not the Q myth, Trump, or any particular club or narrative. They’re addicted to staying online and reading and scrolling until they get that little dopamine rush that comes from connecting one dot to another. Fauci-China-Gates-Covid-Epsten…ah! It’s delightful. It makes temporary sense. And then if they post the idea, it gets a few hits and likes and comments from others, and ding ding squirt squirt….another hit of dopamine. And another and another.

If you challenge the narrative, or try to bring them back to sense, then you are undermining not just the story — the politics or ideology — but their justification for staying up all night trying to make connections. If, on the other hand, we are genuinely threatened by Soros, Hillary, Fauci, and the Deep State, then there is ample justification for sacrificing sleep, friends, work, and one’s mental health to the greater cause. Imagine if you could justify taking a swig that way?

This also explains the belligerence with which those depending on the anti-stories defend themselves. They don’t just defend their narratives, they defend their right to research, assemble, believe, and spread them. Your intervention becomes grist for the mill — part of the conspiracy, and fuel for the addictive cycle. For this activity — this process — is itself the addiction that they are so desperate to maintain.

To be sure, true believers on the Left and social justice extremes have their own problems. I know many well-meaning but under-informed activists who are more interested in prosecuting whoever they’re told is the oppressor than learning about colonialism, post-colonialism, theories of change, why Martin Luther King turned his attention to class struggle, or the neoliberal roots of today’s non-violent protest movements. But we don’t “lose” friends to social justice in quite the same way, and there are pro-market and pro-hegemonic people on the other side of the ideological spectrum for them to argue against (the folks we used to call conservatives).

These conspiracy obsessives are addicts, pure and simple. But addiction doesn’t occur in a vacuum. Like most addicts, deep down they are especially sensitive human beings, responding inappropriately to the pain they’re experiencing in their environment. And these days, that doesn’t just mean their family, but our whole society.

That’s why when I read their posts and articles, I try to ignore the superficial, incorrect facts in order to hear the texture and sense of the distress fueling them. And what I hear them saying is that the human soul is withering under the weight of an increasingly atheist technocracy. Between digital technology’s perfect memory and capitalism’s ruthlessness, we were all being turned into thought criminals and jobless workers. Q’s global pederasty narrative served as a great metaphor for life under international neoliberalism — how we are infantilized and shafted simultaneously, by godless billionaires. The real point was that Americans need to wake up to the corrupt global system — the military industrial complex — we are tacitly supporting. If we really saw how it operates, we would be horrified. This would be what Q people call the Great Awakening.

Likewise, Covid may not have been released intentionally by friends of Fauci in a Chinese lab, but it is at the very least a symptom of a highly technologized, interconnected world that lacks the transparency required to keep us safe. Governments hide necessary information, the media is an entertainment business, and our health departments seem more committed to manufacturing consent for their vaccination recommendations than accurately conveying the risk-reward ratios for various activities.

Addicts are very often the canaries in the coal mine. Their belligerence usually just masks the tortured, vulnerable, and desperate person underneath. They’re addicted not because the substance they’re taking works, but because it does not really work.

All that our seemingly unreachable friends are trying to do is make some sense of a world that is not functioning sensibly. Why would so much of the world be “business as usual” if climate change were real? Why would homes on Miami Beach be selling for millions of dollars if that property were really going to be underwater in a decade? Why is the stock market going up during a global plague? Why are all our computers made in China if they’re spying on us?

Nothing makes sense, and the most vulnerable among us have become addicted to temporary, provisional sense-making online as a substitute for the real thing.

So what can we do to help them? We can begin to acknowledge the inconsistencies leading people to fall into this abyss. Things are not going well, and we’re all a part of the problem. Every time we buy a cheap t-shirt we are supporting slave labor and putting someone out of a real job. Every time we drive a car when we could walk, we are contributing to both climate change and oil wars. Every time we move to a “better” neighborhood to ensure quality education for our kids, we are perpetuating a classist system that denies privileges to those without money.

Every time we let our leaders convince us that invading another country is in our best interests, we kill people — including our neighbors’ children.

These connections are real, and that is, to be sure, on us. But just as the Czar used the antiSemitic fantasy Protocols of the Elders of Zion to distract people from the real crimes of his regime, Trumpists are using these new conspiracies to distract people from their own kleptocratic corruption and efforts to reinstate mobster rule. That’s just the cynical exploitation of a widespread mental health problem.

Indeed, Qanon gives people as guilty as the rest of us an excuse to feel superior and enlightened. As if tweeting mutual disdain for child sex traffickers somehow absolves them of their association with the rest of humanity. They think their messages will slowly brace us for the inevitable comeuppance, the Great Awakening that reveals how everything is connected, and how the governments of the world have been united in an effort to extinguish the human soul through sexual programming, vaccinations, media hypnosis, and online censorship. In other words, they are fighting a war to defend this very obsession with reading and posting crazy stuff on social media.

Those of us back here in reality must work together to enact a Gentle Awakening for our friends and loved ones who have gotten addicted to this video game. There is no man behind the curtain, no secret cabal controlling our destinies, no marvelous or nefarious plan driving Covid, vote counting, or global affairs. They need to awaken to something way way more frightening than politicians eating children: shit just happens, no one is in charge, and chaos reigns. There really is no scapegoat — never was. The only way through is to find ways of coming together, instead.

One step, and one day at a time.