Taking Comfort in Conspiracy Thinking

BY Karen Vo | March 7, 2024 | Student Essay Awards

In this essay, Vo shows that personal and critical reflection can build on one another to great persuasive effect. Linking an essay on conspiracist thinking to biased media coverage of COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter movement, Vo show how indoctrination can easily cross cultural bounds—particularly when “our levels of fear and uncertainty are beyond what our society and culture can succinctly explain.” Vo wrote the essay for Prof. Kim Voss’s Fall 2023 class, “From Berkeley to the Public: The Art of Writing about Contentious Politics.”

When I recall the summer of 2020, my memories are marked with deep anger and confusion. I was angry because of the mishandling of the nationwide COVID-19 response, the blatant racial injustices that were co-headlining the news with the pandemic, and the people who seemed not to take any of it seriously. The internet was my source of information and disdain, giving me firsthand footage of overcrowded hospitals and impassioned Black Lives Matter protests alongside Mitch McConnell’s and Tucker Carlson’s troublingly inaccurate takes on them. I thought it was inconceivable for so many people to dismiss science and support the Republican Party after this — until I looked up from my phone screen to see what my parents were watching.

They were watching the same firsthand footage that I was, but the commentary was different. Instead of seeing the Black Lives Matter protests as calls for racial justice, the conservative Vietnamese political commentators were decrying the protests as violent riots stoked by violent Black people. The Trump administration wasn’t doing a horrendous job mitigating the COVID-19 pandemic. Rather, Trump was doing a great job considering how the pandemic was the result of the Chinese government fumbling at best and being an evil orchestrator of global chaos at worst. In fact, he was doing such a great job that we voted for him to be president again — Biden’s a bumbling communist idiot.

In some respects, I’m lucky to have only had a few arguments with my parents over these right-wing beliefs. At its peak, the “Asian Americans with Republican Parents Support Group” on Facebook had multiple posts per day about its members being kicked out of their houses and disowned by their bloodlines for fighting back against their families’ increasingly right-wing beliefs.

I was perplexed as to why so many older Asian and Vietnamese Americans, who I thought would be the most empathetic to the issues that people of color in America face, were so willing to die on these hills grounded in hateful conspiracy theories. Why was my family so painfully ignorant when they’ve raised me to prioritize learning and to hold compassion close to my heart? The study “ ‘I’m Not a Conspiracy Theorist, But…’: Knowledge And Conservative Politics in Unsettled Times,” by Jennifer Carlson and Elliot Ramo, demonstrates how our image of a right-wing conspiracy theorist (à la QAnon and Alex Jones) may be more exaggerated than the reality, which is that conspiracy thinking is foundational to American conservative politics. Because conspiracies thrive on people’s sense of fear and insecurity — both of which were abundant during the COVID-19 pandemic — they can influence large swaths of people, even those who are otherwise rational and respected.

Carlson and Ramo conducted interviews with fifty gun sellers in the United States during mid-2020, asking about topics such as the COVID-19 pandemic, the subsequent surge in gun ownership, and opinions on the current state of American society and politics. While conspiracy theories weren’t an explicit interview topic, the interviews did focus on the sellers’ views on “information, knowledge, and truth,” which often pointed to their distrust of liberal-leaning entities including Democratic politicians and scientists. Interviewees reported seeking out sources that would justify their personal experiences, since they believed that “facts” from the mainstream were actually political propaganda — a sentiment best illustrated by Trump’s calling real information “fake news” (Carlson and Ramo 2022: 1662-1663). After analyzing the interviews, Carlson and Ramo determined that there were three key factors to right-wing conspiracy thinking: that it was a response to a personal sense of unease and fear, that it reflected existing conservative ideals, and that it ultimately reinforced the first two factors by encouraging individualism and the othering of political adversaries.

Carlson and Ramo found that there was a surge in gun sales in March 2020, but even the gun sellers that they interviewed were initially unsure of why this came to be. This surge wasn’t like when Hillary Clinton was running for president a few years ago and there was a fear that she would take away Americans’ guns. However, as the pandemic continued, it became clear to interviewees that people were buying guns to gain a sense of control and protection amidst the chaos surrounding COVID-19, the Black Lives Matter protests (often portrayed as violent riots), and other unknowns. This sense of “unsettled insecurity,” as Carlson and Ramo described it, became the rationalization for gun ownership for many. It was because of this unsettled insecurity that people then relied on conservative—and, by extension, conspiracist—thinking to cope with the chaos (2023: 1665-1667).

American conservatism is marked by its beliefs in anti-elitism — specifically the belief that politicians and media corporations don’t understand the needs of the “real” American people, and that the information and guidance coming from them are propaganda. Many gun sellers reported feeling increasingly frustrated at how COVID-19 guidance was always changing and causing fear, leading them to conclude that “it’s the media and the government trying to scare people. And keep them kind of under control” (2023: 1668). However, their skepticism was limited to Democratic politicians and other parties supposedly in collusion with them, such as China and the World Health Organization. Conservative politicians and media organizations had positioned themselves as skeptics alongside your everyday conservative, so they were immune from becoming the subjects of skepticism themselves.

This is why it makes sense for a conservative Vietnamese American simultaneously to disavow China, support Donald Trump, and be an immigrant person of color in the United States. Many older Vietnamese Americans have vivid memories of fleeing their home country during the Vietnam War, and they place the blame on the communist Vietnamese government for having made their country so war-torn that they had no choice but to leave. Additionally, many Vietnamese people hold disdain for China because of the country’s historical colonization of Vietnam, as well as modern-day disputes between the two countries over ownership of the South China Sea (“Vietnam under Chinese Rule”; “What is the South”2023). As a result, many older Vietnamese Americans feel that they’re different from other people of color in the United States because they are war refugees and are therefore the legal or “good” immigrants. They heavily identify with Donald Trump’s platform because he, too, disavows China and communism. Therefore, he is their martyr against shared adversaries, and they wholeheartedly believe his claims that COVID-19 and the Black Lives Matter protests are hoaxes led by violent communists.

This sense of individualism and othering is not unique to Vietnamese Americans; it is a major factor in the conspiracist thinking that Carlson and Ramo document. The researchers used the term “epistemological individualism” to describe how their interviewees placed more weight on their personal experiences than on guidance from politicians and scientists. Specifically, after having contracted the virus themselves and experienced only mild symptoms, some interviewees concluded that politicians and the media were exaggerating the effects of COVID-19 to control the masses. Because of this distrust of “top-down knowledge,” interviewees described seeking “bottom-up knowledge,” meaning that they believed they could conduct more accurate research online than those they perceived as power-hungry scientists. Carlson and Ramo describe this individualism as going hand in hand with “epistemological othering,” or the way in which interviewees described liberals as irrational and emotional beings who were “duped” into believing big politicians and media outlets. Phil, a gun seller interviewed by Carlson, further demonstrates this othering by calling the Black Lives Matter protests a result of “some kind of underlying dark force” rather than seeing the protests as legitimate calls for racial justice (2023: 1670-1674).

While Carlson and Ramo interviewed mostly white, right-leaning gun sellers, their findings are applicable to American conservatives more broadly, including Asian and Vietnamese American conservatives. In an effort to understand how my family and I strayed so far on the political spectrum, I considered that they may lack a proper understanding of U.S. politics and may regularly encounter misinformation from non-English news sources. However, that still doesn’t explain why Vietnamese political commentators would lean into right-wing conspiracies instead of left-wing or even centrist viewpoints. Carlson and Ramo’s study illustrates how, in times of uncertainty such as the COVID-19 pandemic, fear can overtake us and our rationality. If our levels of fear and uncertainty are beyond what our society and culture can succinctly explain, then we may be inclined to seek solace wherever we can find it—even in the realm of conspiracy thinking.


Carlson, Jennifer, and Elliot Ramo. “ ‘I’m Not a Conspiracy Theorist, But…’: Knowledge and Conservative Politics in Unsettled Times.” Social Forces 101, no. 4 (2023): 1658-81.

“Vietnam under Chinese rule.” Encyclopedia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/place/ Vietnam/Vietnam-under-Chinese-rule.

“What is the South China Dispute?” 2023. British Broadcasting Network. https://www.bbc.com /news/world-asia-pacific-13748349.

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