“When called upon to believe that Barack Obama was really born in Kenya, millions got in line. When encouraged to believe that the 2012 Sandy Hook murder of twenty children and six adults was a hoax, too many stepped up. When urged to believe that Hillary Clinton was trafficking children in the basement of a Washington, D.C., pizza parlor with no basement, they bought it, and one of them showed up in the pizza place with a rifle to protect the kids. The fictions fed the frenzies, and the frenzies shaped the crises of 2020 and 2021. The delusions are legion: Secret Democratic cabals of child abusers, millions of undocumented voters, falsehoods about the Covid-19 pandemic and the vaccine.
While much has been said about the moral and political stance of people who support right-wing conspiracy theories, their gullibility is itself alarming. Gullibility means malleability and manipulability. We don’t know if the people who believed the prevailing 2012 conspiracy theories believed the 2016 or 2020 versions, but we do know that a swath of the conservative population is available for the next delusion and the one after that. And on Jan. 6, 2021, we saw that a lot of them were willing to act on those beliefs.
The adjective gullible comes from the verb to gull, which used to mean to cram yourself with something as well as to cheat or dupe, to cram someone else full of fictions. “Not doubting I could gull the Government,” wrote Daniel Defoe in 1701, and Hannah Arendt used the word gullible repeatedly in “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” published in 1951. “A mixture of gullibility and cynicism is prevalent in all ranks of totalitarian movements, and the higher the rank the more cynicism weighs down gullibility,” she wrote. That is, among those gulling the public, cynicism is a stronger force; among those being gulled, gullibility is, but the two are not so separate as they might seem.”