America is a conspiracy nation awash with guns. It is an exceptionally deadly combination.
The antisemitic QAnon conspiracy theory, for example, has been linked to many incidents of lethal violence, most notably the Jan. 6 coup attempt at the Capitol orchestrated by Donald Trump.
The white supremacist great replacement theory is an absurd and fantastical lie that there is a plot by Democrats and other so-called multiculturalists working in the name of diversity to eliminate white people and replace them with Black and brown people in the United States and Europe. It has been propagated by the likes of Fox News' Tucker Carlson, the network's biggest star. And it has been directly linked to hate crimes like the May 2022 massacre of 10 Black people in a supermarket in Buffalo by an avowed white supremacist.
And while extreme beliefs have grown increasingly common among Republicans, new research by the United States Secret Service sounds the alarm about the link between such widespread conspiracy theories and the country's plague of mass shootings.
A full 26% of the attackers studied from 2016 to 2020 were motivated by conspiracy theories or a "hate-focused belief system." A Christmas Day 2020 bomber, the Secret Service determined, was motivated by a conspiracy theory. "The day before Memorial Day was chosen by one attacker because, according to a conspiracy theory at the time, this was the day before society would collapse," the report explains.
The Secret Service report specifically points to the role played by misogyny and other forms of hatred against women in mass shootings:
Gender-based biases and extreme misogyny continue to pose a threat to women. As stated earlier, though not all who possess misogynistic views are violent, viewpoints that describe women as the enemy or call for violence against women remain a cause for concern. At least 35 attackers (19%) displayed misogynistic behaviors prior to their attacks, including calling women derogatory names, engaging in sexual harassment, and threatening sexual violence. …
As described in prior NTAC publications, including Hot Yoga Tallahassee: A Case Study of Misogynistic Extremism (2022), those who subscribe to extreme misogynistic belief systems often communicate about, promote, and consume these views across various online communities. In some instances, some of these community members go beyond simply advocating on behalf of men, expressing extreme ideologies involving the sexual objectification of women and calls for violence against women.
The report also highlights loneliness and other forms of anti-social behavior among mass shooters, with approximately one-third of them fitting that profile.
The increase in mass shootings and other forms of anti-social behavior in the Age of Trump is a symptom of deep cultural problems in the United States.
More than one-third of the mass shooters were bullies or had a history of harassing other people.
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A new op-ed in the New York Times by Jillian Peterson and James Densley echoes the Secret Service's findings. "We Profiled the 'Signs of Crisis' in 50 Years of Mass Shootings. This Is What We Found" focuses on the role of what social scientists and other experts describe as "the deaths of despair." Often used to explain increasing mortality rates among predominantly middle-aged white men caused by suicide, drug overdose and alcohol abuse, Peter and Densley say the term "also helps explain the accelerating frequency of mass shootings in this country."
The Republican Party's willing surrender to neofascism is a type of permission for violent and pathological behavior across American society.
White Americans as a group are much more vulnerable to the "deaths of despair" than are Black and brown Americans because white privilege and other unearned advantages have left many white people unable to confront the challenges and disappointments of life. (Black and brown people are instead barraged by racial battle fatigue.)
In their op-ed, Peterson and Densley offer this warning and advice about mass shootings and an American society that is literally gun crazy:
Mass shooters are not the victims. But in order to prevent future tragedies we must treat the underlying pathologies that feed the shooters' despair.
Mass shootings must no longer be written off as "inexplicable" episodes of "unthinkable" violence.
Our communities and governments need to find ways to reduce social isolation more broadly and improve access to mental health care and substance abuse treatment.
These steps must be taken not in place of but in addition to passing widely supported gun safety laws like background checks, longer waiting periods, safer gun storage requirements and red flag laws.
Instead, we have allowed mass shootings to become normalized in American culture, and ask our children to participate in active shooter drills and pass through metal detectors on their way to class.
We say "never again" and yet less than 48 hours elapsed between the shootings in Monterey Park and Half Moon Bay, Calif. "Again" keeps happening because mass shooters are not monsters who appear out of thin air.
Mass shooters live among us. They are us. They are for the most part the men and boys we know. And they can be stopped before they pull the trigger.
The increase in mass shootings and other forms of anti-social behavior in the Age of Trump is a symptom of deep cultural problems in the United States. As Richard Slotkin, Roxanne Dunbar-Ortiz, Carol Anderson, and other experts have examined in great detail, America's gun sickness is centuries old. The other causes are more immediate, like the rise of Trumpism, neofascism, and an illiberal and larger anti-democracy political project that views violence as a legitimate and necessary means of obtaining and keeping political and social power.
The gun is the ultimate conversation stopper.
The Republican Party knows that the public as a whole rejects its policies. As a response to that reality, political violence is viewed as a "reasonable" and "necessary" tactic and strategy for imposing their will on others in what they believe is an existential battle for "the future of the country." In that way, the Republican Party's willing surrender to neofascism is a type of permission for violent and pathological behavior across American society. Ultimately, the Age of Trump represents the normalization of deviance and a permission function for the worst of human behavior.
Donald Trump may, and hopefully will soon, disappear from American life but what he and his movement have encouraged and given permission for will remain for a very long time to come.
America is very sick; the rot is down in the bones. Unfortunately, America's leaders and most everyday people do not want to do the necessary and hard work to get better. Even worse, many of them are not able to discern the difference between healthy and unhealthy behavior. Sick societies produce sick leaders and America is no exception.