The Grift Paradox

When the victims of right-wing populists get grifted, their response is to become even more devout

By Ryan McGreal

Posted October 28, 2022 in Blog (Last Updated October 28, 2022)

Modern movement conservatism is just obviously a blatant, shameless grift, but it has such a stranglehold on the emotional levers of its acolytes that even when they get grifted, their response is to become even more devout.

In Canada, Conservative Party leader Pierre Poilievre told his army of dudebros to move their money into cryptocurrencies to hedge against inflation - or as Poilievre insists on calling it, "Justinflation" (as if nearly every other developed country on earth doesn't have a similar or worse inflation problem).

But responsible financial observers had already noted that cryptocurrencies move in sync with the rest of the economy rather than hedging against it, and sure enough, when the market swooned, crypto swooned in lockstep.

Yet Poilievre appears to have paid no penalty whatsoever in the devotion and fidelity of his followers, who certainly lost hard-earned money to the extent that they listened to his reckless financial advice. If anything, getting fleeced has made them even more fervent supporters.

Counterintuitively, getting grifted seems to strengthen the emotional attachment of the griftee to the grifter by raising the cost of admitting that it was a grift. No one wants to feel like a sucker, and the sunk cost fallacy keeps us investing more and more into obviously bad ideas long after the rational choice would have been to cut our losses and walk away.

(Similarly, by the time you are presented with the idea of Lord Xenu, you're already ten years and a hundred grand in and everything you've heard to that point has primed you to accept the most absurd claims - and, more important, to regard any contrary voices with deep hostility.)

This is where conspiratorial thinking comes in - and why fascists and authoritarians and right-wing false populist grifters consistently rely on conspiracy theories to prime and motivate their base: it's the best way to shield the dupes against the kinds of contrary messaging that might force them to confront the grift itself.

If you can radicalize your base into believing that every source of knowledge you don't control is similarly corrupted by some vast, all-encompassing shadowy cabal, then you can train your base to pre-emptively discredit and dismiss the entire suite of arguments that might undercut your control.

Arguments and evidence only work if the people debating have a shared sense of what is real. Conspiracy ideology creates a new parallel 'reality' in which the trusted populist leader gets to decide unilaterally what is real and what is not.

We tend to assume that false beliefs are self-correcting when they collide with real events. After all, theories make predictions and predictions can be tested. But conspiracy ideologies are designed to reframe and subsume any and all real events into the terms of the ideology itself. Evidence that contradicts the narrative becomes "fake news" designed to trick you.

And perhaps most ingeniously, conspiracy ideology specifically projects its own tactics onto the world of real evidence. So according to the ideology, it is the mainstream media, the scientific literature, the courts - choose your institution - that are twisting facts to fit a nefarious "globalist" narrative.

Is there a reliable, repeatable combination of logical or rhetorical or interpersonal moves that have the ability to break through and reach radicalized people from the outside? I honestly don't know.

But this is one of the most important questions of our age: we can't meaningfully address the big challenges when we can't even agree on what is real. And we can't trust bad-faith actors to voluntarily give up rhetorical strategies that have been so successful at indoctrinating and radicalizing their followers.