The world was supposed to breathe a collective sigh of relief in 2021—at least when it came to extremist, radicalized thinking. Donald Trump was out of office. QAnon, that cult-like movement operating under the belief that a secret pedophile cabal runs the world, was losing steam. Vaccines were going to bring an end to the pandemic. But far from seeing the demise of cultism and extremist movements, 2022 will usher in their increase—and QAnon will prove to have been the first baby step, rather than the culmination, of the rising appeal of extreme fringe organizations and sectarian politics.
The growth of increasingly radical fringe beliefs will be fueled by a rising distrust in authority and expertise. This skepticism isn’t new—we have been primed by “fake news” headlines for a number of years. Next year, though, a potent ingredient will be added to the mix: the exhausting, continuing uncertainty surrounding the Covid pandemic.
Historically, cults have flourished in times of flux, when behavioral norms shift and stability is elusive. If anything has characterized 2021, it has been the sense of constant displacement engendered by a novel disease. We have all experienced endlessly changing official narratives and communication strategies about Covid-19. We have also seen death tolls continue to rise and social institutions break under the strain. This will resume in 2022, despite our hopes that the pandemic would be relegated to the past. Even the least extremist-minded of individuals will struggle to maintain their equilibrium.
Added to that instability is the sense of isolation we have all experienced in 2021, and extremism feeds on this kind of exclusion and loneliness. In the early days of this year, we have already seen people denied social contact because of lockdowns, and some have turned instead to the most improbable of alliances, looking for groups that will validate and channel their anger and frustration.
This will continue to be the case. It’s difficult for the human mind to deal with uncertainty during the best of times. We crave certainty and hard numbers—not evolving knowledge and statistical caveats. And this is far from the best of times. “They are lying to us!” is the battle cry of conspiracy theorists. In 2022, this will grow in volume and lead to an explosion of extremist activity.
Already, we are seeing the nascent roots of what 2022 will look like—in the coalescing and increasingly radical voices of the anti-vaccine community, in the anti-mask protests we are seeing across the world, and in labeling governments like Australia’s “fascist” for subjecting their citizens to continued lockdowns. These are the seeds for an extremism that will be sticky, lasting, and difficult to uproot—tied, as it has become, to core personal identity.
Cult-like extremist movements appear to provide an antidote to the potent mixture of isolation, uncertainty, changing narratives, and fear we have experienced during the pandemic by offering a skewed form of safety, stability, and certainty, along with a cohort of people who are just like us, who believe us and believe in us. As the activist David Sullivan—a man who devoted his life to infiltrating cults in order to extricate loved ones from their grip—pointed out, no one ever joins a cult: They join a community of people who see them. In 2022, this appeal of cults will only grow, and those that arise next year will make QAnon seem like the good old days.
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