Political scientist Eric Oliver and historian Kathleen Belew approach similar themes in their research -- extremism, conspiracy theories, and fake news, topics that have also become common in headlines and social posts.
Oliver, a professor of Political Science, studies public opinion, political psychology, racial attitudes, and the politics of science in America. His most recent book, Enchanted America (2018) examines why people believe in conspiracy theories, why 2016 was a populist election, and what is happening to America's democracy.
Kathleen Belew, an assistant professor of US history and faculty affiliate for the Center for the Study of Race, Politics, and Culture, specializes in the recent history of the United States, examining the long aftermath of warfare. Her first book, Bring the War Home: The White Power Movement and Paramilitary America (2018), explores how white power activists wrought a cohesive social movement through a common story about the Vietnam War and its weapons, uniforms, and technologies.
Dialogo sat down with Oliver and Belew to discuss the current political climate and how once marginal groups have gained so much mainstream attention in recent years.
Dialogo: What led to your focus on these topics?
Oliver: The idea for Enchanted America started when I was in graduate school at Berkeley. I encountered a guy on the street who handed me a sheet of paper filled with writings about Queen Elizabeth, the Trilateral Commission, aliens, and this secret plot. At first I thought he was just another Berkeley crazy, but I kept thinking about him.
Then 10 years ago, I had some room on some surveys, so I asked some questions about conspiracy theories and got back these huge numbers. I thought maybe three-to-five percent of the country would believe in conspiracy theories, but it was more like half. I realized there was something there and started doing more survey work on the topic.
Dialogo: What did you discover?
Oliver: I found the biggest predictor of whether somebody believes in a conspiracy theory is whether they have a lot of supernatural or paranormal beliefs. They are also more likely to believe in organic foods, natural medicines, and horoscopes; they reject science, and they tend to be very ethnocentric and highly nationalist. I felt like there was something bigger going on so I started working on the book.
We found that American politics aren't simply organized by ideology, partisanship, or race but by world-view. On one end of the spectrum, we have rationalists, who rely on logic, reason deductions, and facts. On the other end of the spectrum are intuitionists, who have a pre-enlightened worldview that is heavily influenced by emotion, gut feelings, symbols, and metaphors. We developed a scale to estimate where people are in the space, and found that it was highly predictive of a whole host of belief systems like conspiracy theories, populism, supernatural beliefs, and paranormal beliefs.
Dialogo: How are these lessons reflected in the current administration?
Oliver: Donald Trump is the intuitionist candidate par excellence. I think what his emergence in politics represents is politics reorienting itself on this dimension. That's a little bit about that in the book and how we came to it.
Belew: I had a similar experience with my research moving from what I thought of as a study of the fringe to something that has become central to our public discourse after Trump's election. What you've just described in terms of intuitionist politics is a very apt way of thinking about some of the subjects I study.
People in this movement are responding to what they see as a series of threats to themselves and their race, in ways that are attached to ideas of apocalypse, conspiracy, and some of the same things that I think would appear in your discourse.
Dialogo: How did the idea for Bring the War Home emerge?
Belew: I came to the project through a series of questions I couldn't let go of.
I originally wanted to do something about the Truth and Reconciliation Commissions in the United States. At the time, the only one that had occurred was in Greensboro, North Carolina following the 1979 shooting of leftist demonstrators by the United Cadre of neo-Nazi and Klan gunmen. Throughout the TRC process, people from the Klan and neo-Nazi groups kept saying things like, "I shot communists in the Vietnam War so wouldn't I shoot them here?"
That to me was such a collapse of different kinds of meaning: it mixes wartime and peacetime, battlefront and homefront, and it melts different communist enemies into one racially amalgamated group. I couldn't let go of that idea. Then I found the massive paper archive generated by this movement where this idea appears throughout the discourse in people's writings.
Oliver: When you say “the idea,” do you mean enemies at home are the same as enemies abroad?
Belew: It is the idea that racial violence at home is a continuation of the project of warfare begun in Vietnam. At various moments they are saying that they're simply continuing the mission given to them by the state and therefore their violence should be legal.
Then after 1983, the movement makes an overt revolutionary turn and declares war against the federal government. Even that is still framed by the symbols and weapons of the Vietnam War.
After the 2016 election, the way that I thought about the project changed because a lot of these discourses became part of mainstream politics in a way that they hadn't been before. For me, the learning process has been in articulating the historical continuity between that earlier period and what we're seeing today.
Dialogo: How did you conduct this research?
Belew: It's all archival research. There are three university archives that hold ephemera and writings from the movement.
One is by an archivist who sent around a questionnaire that asked what people believe in, and requested they send him any relevant materials. He received boxes and boxes of all kinds of things. Another archive was compiled by a journalist who was looking at one incident of White power violence; and the third by people who infiltrated the groups and grabbed literature off the tables when they went to meetings. Interestingly, all three have basically the same materials, which as a historian provides a sense of coverage.
Dialogo: As you were both working on your books, did you see the evolution of political thought, idealism, and nationalism culminating in the election of Donald Trump?
Oliver: I was totally shocked. I don't think anyone could have predicted the Trump election because, in some ways, it's a big outlier. It hinged on so many particular factors that we really don't even know.
Though the signs were always there that this rumbling was taking place. Look at the conservative movement in the United States, and particularly the rise of new conservativism in the 1970s, which was animated by apocalyptic notions of the end times merged with anti-communist fears. It was an emotional kind of conservativism.
You can see it in the writings of Phyllis Schlafly starting in the 1960s and Pat Buchanan in the 1990s, and with the incorporation of the religious right into the Republican Party. The enthusiasm around Sarah Palin in 2008 was another indication.
Another pivotal moment was with the end of the Fairness Doctrine, which said that if you had a political viewpoint on public airwaves, you had to view the other side. When the Federal Communications Commission relaxed the Fairness Doctrine, we got talk radio and Rush Limbaugh. That gave voice to a constituency that had been pretty fragmented and wasn't getting attention in curated media.
We often hear that we live in a post-truth world, but it's the ascendancy of this worldview in spite of a scientific claim. That is my take on it.
Dialogo: Professor Belew, did you hear similar rumblings?
Belew: From my research, it seemed very likely there would be future upsurges in white power violence, both because of what violence means to the people I study and because there has been a lack of any real change in public understanding, or durable change in law and policy that would stall this kind of organizing. There is a generational continuity between activists, and a continuing use of new technologies to further white power activism over time, so continued violence seemed likely to me.
The thing that took everyone by surprise, I think, is the way that white power activism in the present has reframed itself as a more mainstream manifestation and has come into public debates in ways that are acceptable again, which I think few predicted before 2016.
Dialogo: Are there lessons from the past that might help people predict what's going to happen next?
Belew: The people I look at in the book are an array of fringe groups and activists who had not been able to come together in common cause before the Vietnam War. They include neo-Nazis and Klansmen, radical tax protesters, and later skinheads and militia.
In the period I studied, these groups mobilize support and occasionally do things like run for office, but their end goal is not about politics. From 1983 forward they are focused on mobilizations that are meant to incite a race war against the federal government, and they talk about this outright at many different moments.
They say things like, "We have to move from the ballot to the bullet," and they talk about abandoning electoral change in favor of race war. They fill this all in with a series of conspiratorial belief systems and radical imaginary futures like we find in The Turner Diaries and other cultural fictional texts, to think about a world that would be fundamentally different.
Dialogo: Has the current political environment caused you to think differently about your next projects?
Belew: I've been thinking a lot about what to do with acts of mass violence that are not overtly political and ideological. The question is how to approach a history of gun violence, and particularly the Columbine shooting in Colorado in 1999, not as an event out of context but as part of a history that looks at other kinds of violent experience. But how to do that is very up in the air at the moment.
Oliver: I'm very curious about extremists, and thinking about extremism as both having policy goals that are far outside of the norm but also rejecting the rules of the game. It's not simply that their preferences are deviant but also that they reject the common ways of doing things, they reject democracy.
I'm curious to know what percentage of the population we can describe as being an extremist and what brings them to these often costly and transgressive beliefs. Why do they sustain and bear that cost? I'm intrigued by that.
Dialogo: Do you see intersections between your work?
Belew: I'm really interested in your intuitionist category. In my research, there is this big crisis of belief after the end of the Cold War where all of these people have been going around with this deep-seated belief that the world might end at any moment. When the agent of the end disappears, the belief system swings around to feel like an apocalypse in search of a narrative.
Oliver: Or an apocalyptic longing.
Belew: Yes. People in the '90s put all kinds of enemies in the driver's seat of that narrative. One of them is the state, but there's a lot of ways that ordinary people are mobilized by this apocalyptic gap.
Oliver: There is an apprehensiveness of American political culture that goes back to colonial times. You have people in a new place where the old rules are gone. In that vacuum, there's a real sense of anxiety and spinning of narratives to rationalize that anxiety. This apprehension vacuum gets filled with conspiracy theories, apocalyptic narratives or great awakenings and the religious revival movements that periodically appear.
Belew: As a historian, I find a grain of hope in that so many people across time have been absolutely sure that they were facing the end of the world and an insurmountable apocalyptic moment, and then it hasn't happened, so far. Of course, we are facing climate change now, but from the long view, there's a hopefulness in the human relationship with the idea of the apocalypse I think.
Dialogo: How do you address these issues with your students?
Belew: I have a class right now called History of the Present, which is about trying to use history to better understand where we are and how we got there.
There are a lot of things in the news right now that have deep and complex histories behind them, like gun violence, which is tied to the long history of the Second Amendment. There's a history of how guns have changed, what violence itself is, and how it has changed over time. All of that is relevant to how somebody could approach thinking about the present moment.
For me, in that class, the major takeaway is whether we can get students to think about what they encounter in their newsfeed or on Twitter from a historical standpoint, and begin to use some tools of historical thinking to take apart what they're seeing and consider how they are using interpretations of history in their everyday lives. That's something that people do all the time. I'm trying to get them to recognize when that's happening and then evaluate the merit of the historical argument.
Dialogo: Do you have any predictions about the next election and the evolution of these political trends?
Oliver: I think it depends on what happens with the economy. If Trump brings the Republican Party to a certain place that loses credibility, there may be a new element that springs up in the Republican Party. You may have a number of republicans who begin to identify as democrats.
What scares me is when you have an ideological movement that becomes dominated by intuitionism, which has a lot of anti-democratic impulses. Intuitionists are very reluctant to extend any kind of tolerance or civil liberties to people they disagree with. They're not fans of democratic process and compromise and consensus. Those are rationalist ideas, and modern democracies are a rationalist enterprise. That, to me, is worrisome.
As long as the economy is good it covers up I think a lot of these internal strains. The moment that goes south, I think those strains will exacerbate.
Belew: Historians are notoriously reluctant to predict the future, but I do think this is a moment when the past has a lot to teach us about what is possible, and about a different set of outcomes that we might consider. Especially in regard to the white power movement, the archive shows us what hasn’t worked to contain this violence, and conveys the urgency of learning more about this history to prevent violence in the future.