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Secrets of the right-wing conspiracy playbook: Scary disinfo

The extremist right in America has always fed on real grievances that go either unaddressed or are mishandled by the mainstream system—by government, and in particular the federal government. In the 1980s and ’90s, they channeled discontent with badly malfunctioning federal farming and land-use policies in rural America into uprisings like the Posse Comitatus and Patriot/militia movements and their various offshoots, such as the Montana Freemen. This led to armed standoffs with federal agents and varying waves of domestic terrorism, all of it emanating from the American heartland.

What these extremists always tell their audiences is that there are simple reasons for their current miseries—inevitably, it is a combination of a secret cabal of elite conspirators running society like a puppet show at the top, crushing the middle-class working man from above, while a parasitic underclass saps his strength from below. This usually plays out, in the worldview of right-wing extremists, as being part of a secret conspiracy to enslave ordinary working people and destroy America.

What gives them special traction, however, is their knack for finding unaddressed grievances and exploiting them as examples of this conspiracy, thus manipulating working-class people who have legitimate problems. Their agenda comes wrapped in an appeal telling people that they not only feel their pain but have the answers to end it. And their strategy works, time and again.

In the twenty-first century, right-wing extremists became focused on a similarly dysfunctional immigration system as a means to recruit believers, in part because nativism is part of the genetic structure of the racist American right, dating back to the heyday of the Ku Klux Klan, and in part because it was such a ripe opportunity target. After all, American immigration policy in the past forty years and more has time and again proven a colossal bureaucratic bungle that no one has been able to untangle, which presents an opening for right-wing extremists to jump in and offer their toxic solutions. Moreover, as is always the case in such vacuums, it is ordinary working-class people who wind up paying the price for the problems that ensue from such bungles, and extremists have long honed their appeals to reach those disgruntled citizens. This was nowhere more evident than in the desert landscape of Arizona in the first decade of the new millennium. It was there that these misbegotten policies came home to roost, embodied in a flood of border-crossing immigrants who defied both death and the law—sometimes not successfully—in a desperate attempt to reach work north of the border, and who in the process trampled on people’s ranches and yards and inflamed not only resentment but the increasingly paranoid fears of the people already living there.

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