If extremism is all about unbelievable conspiracy theories, how come four out of ten people in the U.S. population believe them? Canadian right-wing extremists can provide some insight into this. Yes, Canada also has them, and their beliefs are almost identical to U.S. extremists. But theirs are much less violent. Slightly more than half of Americans would not refute this statement: “A group of Satan-worshipping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics and media.” And more than one in three believe there is an opaque underworld inside the government, acting in sync to thwart Trump’s effort to protect our democracy (NPR/Ipsos poll).
When researchers asked Canadian law enforcement, and the extremists themselves, why they weren’t as violent they said they did not share the same enthusiasm for guns, militias, and survivalism. I dug into the ideologies and history to find out where that difference comes from. I found the answer in the myths we tell ourselves, and our children, about the armed revolution that led to our exceptional democracy. This answer also points us toward understanding and repairing many of the divides that separate us as a country.
The connection between children’s history and extremism origin stories
“The compression of history, the winnowing of history, may seem natural and neutral, but it is decidedly not. It is the means by which grade school history becomes our standard adult history.”
– Nancy Isenberg, author of The 400-Year Untold History of Class in America
Extremist values amplify and only slightly distort national historical myths. National narratives portray nostalgia for an era that extremist narratives bring to life.
An example is the myth of the American Revolution. For most children, the American Revolution is our first encounter with history. And unless you undertook a meaningful study of history as an adult, the stories most of us remember are the ones we were told as children. The Boston Tea Party, the Declaration of Independence, the midnight ride of Paul Revere, Valley Forge, George Washington’s apple tree — these are the stories that stay with us.
In this tale, an evil tyrant from a distant land extorts our colonist heroes with unfair taxation. Our honest heroes respond by declaring their principles and standing by their convictions. And taking up arms against the occupying British. The story of a successful rebellion against tyranny results in our Constitution, which is an unflawed edict written by our virtuous and wise founding fathers.
Far-right influencers such as Alex Jones, Steve Bannon, and Trump speechwriter, Stephen Miller, exploit this grade school history by reproducing it in extremist beliefs. We are the heroes needing to protect ourselves from a distant, tyrannical oppressor — a role previously played by the British Empire but now played by the U.S. government. In the face of this looming and unjust threat, owning guns and organizing militias is an appropriate and just response. So is preparing for a breakdown in societal order as this imminent rebellion fractures production and commerce, just as it did during the American Revolution. In the reproduction of this historical myth, survivalism and protectionism are natural responses.
From children’s stories to current policy
You’re faced with a duplicitous colonial government. It’s pretending to protect you, but it actually wants to oppress you. It wants to keep you from rebelling by taking away your guns. Therefore, any infringement on gun rights is seen as a way to undermine this rebellion. It may look like a rational background check. Or, it may look like it’s about those who are clearly not fit to own firearms. But we know that these are really steps in a larger plan to neutralize rebel forces and oppress freedom fighters.
This mindset looks at tragedies such as the Sandy Hook school shooting and refuses to see it as a tragedy. Instead, it has to be an elaborate hoax designed to undermine gun rights. 25% of Americans think the truth about the Sandy Hook shootings is being suppressed – another 11% are unsure. Some responsible gun owners reject these narratives, but they are in the minority. Instead, many believe public opinion is being manipulated and people are being lied to, brazenly. This calls for ever stronger resistance to gun control.
When we don’t understand the roots of this belief system, we are left with our current dialogue. Two opposing belief systems clash but never address each other. It escalates and doesn’t resolve. As public atrocities accumulate and the death toll climbs, the divide deepens.
Canada is so much like us, and so different…
Canada and the U.S. have much in the way of common history.
- Same geography: soil, terrain.
- Home to the same tribes of Native Americans.
- Colonized by the same empires.
- Exploited for the same raw materials.
- Displayed the same euro-centrism toward indigenous peoples,
- by decimating their populations and cultures.
- Settled by immigrants:
- from the same countries,
- in the same waves.
- Achieved independence from the British Empire, and
- Are democracies today.
Childhood history take-away #1: Armed rebellion is good
Here’s an example of this historical difference in action. The U.S. achieved independence by taking up arms and successfully rebelling against their distant, colonial government. In contrast, Canada achieved independence through diplomatic means while still maintaining a close relationship with Britain and today is a member of the Commonwealth.
Childhood history take-away #1: Vigilante justice is the real America
Another key difference is in how the ‘wild west’ was settled. In the U.S., the west was a relatively lawless region, and vigilante justice was often the only resource in dealing with hostile native tribes or criminal behavior. Settlement typically was encouraged before treaties were ratified. If there was a governmental intervention, it heavily favored the white settlers.
In contrast, “the Canadian government got to the West first,” as described by historian Craig Brown. The Canadian government encouraged settlement on the frontier only after tribal leaders signed treaties relinquishing territory. And the Royal Canadian Mounted Police functioned more as a police force than a standing army, arbitrating disputes between settlers, squatters, and natives by providing justice and emphasizing the rule of law.
(Please forgive this summation of Canadian history — Canada also committed its share of indigenous oppression, but that is beyond the scope of this article.)
This comparison makes clear that rebellion is in the DNA of American history. We don’t dress up our children as diplomats or peace-makers for Halloween.
Advice on how to talk to extremists
From the outside looking in, right-wing extremism looks like hate but from the inside looking out it more closely resembles a rebellion against injustice. The underlying issue is the mistrust of government power. Believers see oppression from the federal government as an increasing threat.
If you’re trying to change someone’s mind, you can’t do it by dismissing their opinions or debunking their myths. But you can encourage them to talk to you more rationally. How do you do that? By guiding the conversation so they can express their emotions.
Don’t allow them to continue talking about something they heard or saw in a video on social media — something that’s going to make them even more upset. Instead, summarize and paraphrase what they just told you. Then tell them how you would feel if you believed that was true. Your goal is to slow them down, empathize with them and get them to tell you exactly how they’re feeling — you don’t have to agree with their facts in order to empathize with how they feel.
This is harder than it sounds and seldom works the first time you try it.
You must get inside their heads and pay attention to the heart of what they believe and why they care about it. Do that, and you can often see that their morals and values are the same as yours.
If you want to learn the finer points on how to navigate the emotional landmines that misinformation triggers, I’ve created an eight-part video series that will help you see past the sensationalism of conspiracy theories and into the heart of what drives irrational beliefs.
I started creating the series in March, at the beginning of the pandemic in the U.S. because I knew conspiracy theories about a potential vaccine would thrive. I was right. Today, poll results show 1 in 4 people in the U.S. are afraid of the Covid-19 vaccine and are refusing it. Some of them, mostly on the right and some on the fringes of the left, believe conspiracy theories like the one where Bill Gates is using the vaccine to implant microchips in people (YouGov poll).
My video course, Translating Vaccine Resistance, includes step-by-step methods on how to talk to friends and relatives who are resisting the vaccine, without getting into an argument. I discuss the psychology behind conspiracy theories, why they’re so compelling and why so many people believe them. You can have these conversations without screaming and slamming doors.