When the pandemic devastated Melissa Rein Lively’s business, she went online to make sense of what was happening. Her doom-scrolling led to the baseless conspiracy theories of QAnon.
“It was serving your deepest fears and your curiosities, and giving you these answers that you were searching for, even though it was the worst possible answer you could imagine,” said Lively, 35, of Scottsdale, Ariz., whose public relations firm depended greatly on hospitality and tourism clients. “There was an odd comfort that it was the truth.”
It wasn’t, of course. Lively ultimately realized that the QAnon theories were false, but only after hitting bottom last summer, when she destroyed a coronavirus mask display in a Target store and posted video of the incident that went viral.
Her experience highlights how economic hardship and anxiety have served as accelerants in the radicalization of the Republican Party, experts said, part of a complex mix that includes racism along with other factors such as sexism and xenophobia and long-simmering resentment of the expansion of the federal government.
And being out of work leaves many people angry, with the time to latch onto conspiracy theories and get involved in politics.
“The economic component has brought QAnon to people who otherwise would never have been involved in it,” said Lively, who sought treatment afterward and now disavows QAnon. “It’s exploded in popularity because people are desperate.”
But researchers said the role of the economy in the rightward shift of many Republicans extends beyond the unemployment line, factoring into the insecurities of white Americans that began decades ago with the onset of globalization, as well as newly empowered people of color and women benefiting from the civil rights and feminist movements. They all helped fuel the Tea Party movement during the Great Recession, Donald Trump’s presidential campaign, and the rise of QAnon during the trauma of the pandemic.
An analysis this month by The Washington Post found almost 60 percent of the people facing charges in connection with the Jan. 6 insurrection at the US Capitol had signs of financial problems over the past two decades, including bankruptcies and unpaid taxes.
“We often see right-wing social movements when groups are experiencing economic loss, political loss, or status-based loss,” said Rory McVeigh, a sociology professor at the University of Notre Dame and author of the 2019 book “The Politics of Losing: Trump, the Klan, and the Mainstreaming of Resentment.”
The uneven recovery from the Great Recession, with wealthier people and regions bouncing back more quickly than the rest of America, created the conditions for Trump to exploit in his 2016 run for president, he said. The median wealth of middle-income families declined by a third from 2007 to 2016, while upper-income families saw their median wealth increase by 10 percent, according to the Pew Research Center.
“Why was the angry populist message resonating? Well, a lot of people didn’t really benefit from the recovery, and Trump was able to . . . appeal to that population,” McVeigh said. “The economic-populism message infused with racism, infused with sexism, spoke directly to the monster that had grown in the Republican Party.”
Experts caution not to overstate the impact of economic distress in radicalizing people. Some are just racists, resisting the diminished influence of white men in society.
“The data and a lot of the literature would suggest it’s more cultural and racial than economic,” said Antoine Banks, director of the Government and Politics Experimental Lab at the University of Maryland. “It’s not that economics wasn’t there, but it wasn’t the main fuel behind it.”
Christopher Sebastian Parker, a professor of social justice and political science at the University of Washington who has studied the Tea Party movement and Trump’s supporters, said complaints about economic circumstances are primarily just a cover for people who don’t want to acknowledge their racism.
“They feel like they’re losing their proprietary grip on America and it’s because of these rapid social changes,” he said.
In December, Parker and Rachel M. Blum, an assistant political science professor at the University of Oklahoma, surveyed nearly 2,000 supporters of Trump’s Make America Great Again movement whom they reached through social-media ads featuring the slogan. They found half had middle-class incomes and at least 60 percent were white, Christian, and male. The results echoed what Parker had found previously, including for his 2013 book, “Change They Can’t Believe In: The Tea Party and Reactionary Politics in America.”
The Tea Party movement proclaimed that it had economic underpinnings. It began amid the deepening Great Recession and the 2008 financial crisis, as well as the election of Barack Obama as the nation’s first Black president. Many Americans who already were struggling as manufacturing jobs shifted overseas and technological skills became more crucial in the workplace found themselves in dire economic circumstances. They focused their frustrations on Washington, opposing the federal government’s bank bailouts and Obama’s push to expand access to health care.
“The average Republican base voter is a middle-aged older white person, and the problem was their lives were changing, seemingly overnight. They were losing their jobs. They were losing their industries,” said Joe Walsh, an Illinois Republican who rode the Tea Party wave into Congress in 2011. “A lot of it was resentment at the way this 1954 life they loved was changing overnight.”
Polls showed that many in the Tea Party movement believed the lie promoted by Trump and others that Obama was not born in the United States. Walsh acknowledged there was a racism component of the movement, but said he doesn’t think it was the prevailing viewpoint.
Tea Party backers advocated reining in the federal government, which had shifted to full Democratic control in 2009, and reducing the national debt. But he said that Republicans, who gained the House majority in 2011 and the Senate’s in 2015 on the strength of Tea Party activism, were unable to enact the major changes the movement wanted. That opened the door for Trump to “radicalize” many of the activists amid a sluggish economic recovery, Walsh said.
“Tea Party people around the country got disenchanted, and Trump tapped the economic impact that people were feeling,” said Walsh, who lost reelection in 2012 after redistricting and launched a primary bid against Trump in 2019. “This whole economic nationalist strand took over.”
Former Tea Party supporters became some of Trump’s biggest backers in his 2016 campaign and through his first year as president, the Pew Research Center found in 2019. And their concerns about government debt, which continued to rise under Trump, largely disappeared after he replaced Obama.
“The insecurity is real in an economic sense, but the genius of Trump’s populism was to tie it into a notion that there’s an injustice,” said Adam Hilton, an assistant professor of politics at Mount Holyoke College who has studied the relationships between social movements and political parties. “He spoke to some legitimate and factually based questions about the economy, but also xenophobia and racism and immigration.”
Some political scientists refer to the dynamic as “status threat.”
“A Black president, an economic crisis, and massive forms of government intervention,” Hilton said. “That provided an opportunity for people to feel very nervous about living in a country that they don’t seem to recognize anymore.”
Lively said she didn’t have time for politics before the pandemic and didn’t even vote for president in 2016. She said she voted for Trump in November “solely on the basis of the economy and his support for Israel.’' But her views of him changed after the election.
“I have found all of the shenanigans post-Nov. 3 to be absolutely ludicrous and quite frankly embarrassing for anybody who espouses any sort of conservative values,” said Lively, who is writing a memoir titled “You Can’t Cancel Me — The Story of My Life.”
But during her darkest financial times last year, she was open to believing anything QAnon was espousing, she said.
“The reason why QAnon started with weirdos in basements is because all of the normal people were out living their lives before the pandemic, and the pandemic completely changed the paradigm,” she said. “When people are employed and people are busy there’s no time to be spending 10 hours a day watching conspiracy videos on YouTube.”
Jim Puzzanghera can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Follow him on Twitter: @JimPuzzanghera.