The day after she was stripped of her committee assignments in the U.S. House of Representatives, Marjorie Taylor Greene said that she found the whole thing very funny. “I woke up early this morning literally laughing thinking about what a bunch of morons the Democrats (+11) are for giving some one like me free time,” the congresswoman from Georgia tweeted on Friday, referring to the lawmakers—the “+11” are fellow Republicans—who voted to penalize her for endorsing baseless conspiracy theories that fueled the insurrection at the Capitol. The replies to her post were swift and plentiful, and the gist of many of them was simple: We’re the ones laughing—at you.
“Looney tune!” one commenter declared. Another shared an illustration of Greene in circus makeup and labeled her a “Qlown,” a reference to her endorsement of QAnon. One meme listed other conspiracy theories that Greene has promulgated: Barack Obama is a secret Muslim; Sandy Hook and the Las Vegas massacre were staged; California wildfires were started by space lasers. Emblazoned in red lettering next to a photograph of her face were the words Crazy Marjorie.
Crazy is a word often attached to Greene. But although the ideas she endorsed as she shot to national prominence are ludicrous, they didn’t come out of nowhere—which is to say that they make a perverse kind of sense. Pull back the absurdist veil and you’ll find fears and bigotry so familiar, they’re downright American. And even the most outlandish conspiracy theories can be stepping stones to dangerous extremism. None of us should be laughing.
Conspiracy theorists aren’t just cranks in tinfoil hats drifting around the margins of society. A December poll found that fewer than half of Americans would say that the core idea of QAnon—“a group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media”—is definitively false. Nearly 40 percent believe the QAnon tenet that the “deep state” is out to get Donald Trump. Almost half agree with the lie that the majority of the summer’s Black Lives Matter protests were violent, and one-third believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.
Who constitutes these fractions matters just as much as how big they are. People tend to embrace conspiracy theories because they’re experiencing fear, ostracism, or a sense of losing control. They seek stories to explain what’s happening in a way that suits their needs and convictions, and those narratives become sources of power, validation, even superiority. Perhaps, then, given the country’s diversifying demographics and liberal mores, it’s no surprise who is flocking to conspiracy theories: people like Greene, who are white and on the right. Despite their enduring privilege, many white Americans feel left out or left behind. A sprawling disinformation ecosystem—including Fox News, Breitbart News, YouTube channels, and Facebook groups—reinforces their grievances ad nauseam.
What the data on conspiracy theories don’t always reveal, though, is the DNA of the lies plaguing America. Today’s most prominent falsehoods are really just variations on old themes. Embedded in QAnon’s depiction of a conniving global cabal, for instance, is ZOG, or Zionist Occupied Government, a white-supremacist fantasy dating back to the 1970s in which powerful Jews are conspiring to run the world. ZOG draws from the same wells of prejudice that Nazism did—and those waters run centuries, even millennia, deep. The space-laser theory endorsed by Greene, which elicited so many LOLs online, has shades of ZOG in its claim that a secretive corporate league, including “Rothschild Inc,” controls the imaginary machines.
QAnon’s mandate to #SavetheChildren may seem benign on its face, but then so do the 14 Words: “We must secure the existence of our people and a future for white children.” That influential white-supremacist slogan, coined in the late 20th century, sounds a whole lot like a passage in Mein Kampf : “What we must fight for is to safeguard the existence and reproduction of our race and our people, the sustenance of our children.” Similarly, the Ku Klux Klan pledged in its founding principles “first, to protect the weak, the innocent, and the defenseless”—including white children.
Meanwhile, the notion that the election was stolen from Trump, and thus from MAGA believers, has echoes of the Lost Cause—power and purpose unjustly ripped from the lives of good, God-fearing white Americans. Never mind that a cataclysmic war was fought over those Americans’ right to hold fellow human beings in bondage, or that Trump’s administration, by turns cruel and incompetent, inspired a record-breaking number of people to go the polls to remove him from office. Why face reality when you can take comfort in a lie?
Conspiracy theories’ shared DNA not only points to the racism, anti-Semitism, and other bigotry that begat so many of today’s falsehoods—it also shows the dark places where ideas dismissed as “crazy” can lead. Conspiracy theories are gateways: Belief in one elaborate lie can lead a person to believe another, and another, in a race to the ideological bottom.
The internet is full of stories of people radicalized this way—some high-profile, others not. Andrew Anglin, a neo-Nazi troll who founded the website The Daily Stormer, became a white supremacist by way of Infowars. “I grew up with a pretty serious sense of personal alienation in the modern Jewified society,” Anglin once said in an interview. “I went and looked for answers of why this was happening. Nothing really felt right about the way the world worked. It was a process. The first thing I came across was Alex Jones.” Anglin isn’t alone: David Neiwert, a reporter who has covered the far right for many years, told Reveal that extremists now “functionally live in the same alternative universe, the epistemological bubble, concocted and controlled by a mini-media industry of conspiracy theorists ... And the No. 1 purveyor in all this, the man who took the marketing of his bubble mainstream, and in the process ruined millions of people’s lives, is Alex Jones.”
Other examples of radicalization via conspiracy theorizing are Lana Lokteff and Henrik Palmgren, the proprietors of the alt-media platform Red Ice. The married couple started out broadcasting shows about UFOs and secret societies, before going full white supremacist. They now peddle conspiracy theories such as “white genocide,” which asserts that enemies of the white race are trying to eradicate it, and feature guests who tell racist lies, including a shock jock who said that Dylann Roof’s massacre of Black church parishioners in Charleston, South Carolina bore the “telltale signs of stagecraft.” Some of the conspiratorial ideas that Red Ice has been promoting since at least 2014 found their way into the conservative mainstream during the Trump era, propagated by Republican lawmakers and highlighted on Fox News.
Lokteff is well aware of how people wind up on Red Ice. “They search around online,” she told me. “They’ll find some of the bait and some of the memes out there and kind of go down this little rabbit hole, and they find us.” Those who go down the rabbit hole might begin by wondering why there are a growing number of Spanish-language TV channels, why public schools let Muslim students wear hijabs, or why white women are having so few children—and then ask themselves if something bigger is going on, something nefarious, something that people in positions of power don’t want everyone else to see. Red Ice gives them the answers they crave.
If a person is already primed to accept conspiracy theories, the descent from strange beliefs to overtly hateful ones can happen particularly fast, which is why the post-inauguration period is so scary. QAnon’s many followers thought that a “storm” was coming—a reckoning that would destroy the pedophile cabal once and for all. When that didn’t happen on January 20, acolytes were left asking why. Some realized their grievous error in judgment; others doubled down in their zealotry. Another cohort was left to seek a new dogma. They are easy prey for extremist hucksters eager to sell them a new lie. Already, researchers are noting chatter among white supremacists geared toward recruiting QAnon’s low-hanging, disillusioned fruit.
In her February 4 remarks on the House floor, protesting her pending removal from legislative committees, Marjorie Taylor Greene said that she regretted “being allowed to believe things that weren’t true,” including QAnon. Make no mistake—she chose to believe them, and endorse them. Even people prone to conspiratorial thinking have agency.
So please, don’t laugh at Greene. Be angry at her choice. Be angry that she encouraged violence against her Democratic colleagues. Be angry that so many Americans agree with her. There is nothing funny about who Greene is, what she stands for, or what she and other conspiracists are capable of. “In this Democrat tyrannical government, Conservative Republicans have no say on committees anyway,” Greene tweeted on Friday. “Oh this is going to be fun!”