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Why is America so obsessed with conspiracy theories?
It goes way back before Donald Trump.
This is a guest post by Brian Klaas, a political scientist at University College London and a contributing writer for The Atlantic. Brian writes on Substack too, in a newsletter called The Garden of Forking Paths.
The United States is a nation obsessed with conspiracy theories. Among rich democracies, we’re an outlier — a country where millions of people are convinced that something is lurking in the shadows and nothing is as it seems.
In recent years, that conspiracism has infiltrated the political mainstream, transforming one kooky wing of the Republican Party into its political core. Marjorie Taylor Greene, a crackpot who has peddled lies about Jewish space lasers and QAnon, is far more representative of the Trumpian MAGA base than, say, Mitt Romney or Mitch McConnell, who are derided as RINOs partly because they won’t indulge the extreme lunacy that has taken over their party.
There is, of course, an easy and satisfying explanation for this recent turn in the GOP and it’s named Donald Trump. But that simplistic explanation lets history off the hook. Instead, as we’ll see, the history of conspiracy theories in America has a long past, and we’ve been a nation obsessed with imagined secret plots, lurking out of sight, since the very beginning.
American conspiracism is even older than the nation’s founding
There are different flavors of American conspiracy theories. For much of America’s history, conspiracism has been concerned with ethnic and religious groups — the “other” — who were usually accused of secretly plotting to undermine the dominant group in society.
But such fears have, over time, morphed into paranoid suspicions focused on the government, the deep state conspiracies that worry that a shadowy, unknown hand is the real power behind the throne in Washington.
Sometimes, as is frequently the case in modern politics, these two branches fuse — producing theories that involve a minority group in cahoots with or favored by government operatives, working to undermine the “real America.”
Such ideas sound familiar to us, as we’re living through an era of American politics that’s defined by conspiratorial thinking. But America’s conspiratorial roots can be traced back to the nation’s founding — and even before that, to the earliest settlers who came from Britain.
As Kathryn S. Olmstead, a historian at UC-Davis, writes:
The British colonists in Virginia and Massachusetts feared conspiracies against them from the moment they landed in America. They worried that Catholic immigrants were plotting to undermine their governments and turn them over to French or Spanish control. They fretted that enslaved Africans planned to organize and inflict upon their masters the same violence that their masters perpetrated against them. After the creation of the American republic, the list of Americans’ internal enemies grew even longer. Mormons, Masons, anarchists, Wall Street financiers, and many more …
In 1797, a book called Proofs of a Conspiracy warned about plots from European members of the Illuminati against the newly formed United States. The plot, allegedly, would involve an attempt to “insinuate their Brethren into all offices which gave them influence on the public mind.” It would have been, to the late 18th century paranoid mind, the original “deep state.”
The following year, Congress enacted the Alien and Sedition Acts, which was partly motivated by fear of those foreign — and particularly French — members of the Illuminati. From the beginning, the United States was a conspiracist nation.
RELATED: The first edition of Public Notice featured a conversation with Klaas about the fragile state of US democracy
During the 1830s, fear of the freemasons based on conspiracy theories about their secret machinations became so widespread that an Anti-Masonic political party was formed. The party successfully captured two governorships, a few congressional seats, and a swath of districts in various state legislatures.
During the American Civil War, another deranged conspiracy theory took root, in which some delusional people feared that northern industrialists would form something they called the “slaveocracy,” in order to enslave free white people.
After World War I, however, there was a marked shift in the typology of conspiracy theories. It wasn’t just the ethnic or religious other that was to be feared, but the government itself. We became a country obsessed by shadowy plots not by people who looked different or had different beliefs, but by those who lurked behind closed doors at the centers of power.
As Olmstead points out, part of the reason for this shift was the government’s enforcement of the “Espionage and Sedition Acts” during World War I, in which hundreds were imprisoned for “disloyal, profane, scurrilous or abusive language” against the government. This new crackdown on critiquing the government, combined with the rise of J. Edgar Hoover and his aggressive tactics in the FBI, set in motion a series of events that amplified a new paranoid fear for the conspiratorially minded Americans.
But crucially, most of these fears were being voiced by ordinary citizens — and conspiratorial thinking had not yet become politicized. The crackpots were not in Congress. Until they were.
“The Paranoid Style”
With the rise of McCarthyism and the red scares of the late 1940s and 1950s, the Republican Party became increasingly defined by delusions of plots and secret infiltration. Historian Richard Hofstadter called this turn the “paranoid style in American politics.” This new term was the basis of one of the most influential lectures and essays on the topic of conspiratorial thinking in American history.
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Hofstadter was writing shortly after the McCarthyite scare, in which the Republican senator from Wisconsin surmised that the American government was subject to “a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.” In fact, there was no conspiracy.
When McCarthyism began to wane, the mantle was taken up by the John Birch Society, a radical right group founded by Robert Welch, which warned of the imminent creation of “a world-wide police state,” a trope that persists in right-wing conspiracist circles today.
As Kurt Andersen highlights in his book Fantasyland: How America Went Haywire, the combination of McCarthy, John Birch, JFK’s assassination, and the Vietnam War created an environment ripe for America’s longstanding affinity for conspiracy theories to intensify. Films such as The Manchurian Candidate dominated at the box office. Books like “None Dare Call It a Conspiracy” sold millions of copies. The novel “Gravity’s Rainbow,” a cautionary tale of militarism linked to the Illuminati, won the 1974 National Book Award. These trends got further politicized in 1994, when the GOP became Newt Gingrich’s party, bringing conspiracy theories associated with the “New World Order” to Washington.
But the most worrying shifts have happened in the Trump and post-Trump era. While there’s limited evidence that more Americans believe conspiracy theories than in the past, conspiratorial thinking has become more politically influential. It’s now warping every aspect of our politics.
And partly, that’s because a lot of people get rich by spreading conspiracy theories.
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Before going bankrupt due to lawsuits, Alex Jones became fabulously rich by pushing the most outlandish claims, including that John Kerry had secretly split a hurricane in half by firing a laser beam from Antarctica. (When this allegation was put to Kerry, he denied it, quipping that the laser beam, was, in fact, fired from the North Pole).
The problem with these views becoming embedded in the right-wing political mainstream is that it makes compromise impossible because the stakes are so high. After all, if you believe in the delusions of QAnon, who would want to compromise with a party that — you believe — drinks the blood of children?
In the 1960s, Hofstadter highlighted this dynamic with a prescience that fits our current political dysfunction well. “The paranoid spokesman sees the fate of conspiracy in apocalyptic terms — he traffics in the birth and death of whole worlds, whole political orders, whole systems of human values. He is always manning the barricades of civilization.”
You’re not imagining it: you do hear about conspiracy theories more often these days. But the reason isn’t necessarily because more people believe in them, but rather, because one of the two main political parties in the country has now made conspiracism a crucial part of its identity.
Conspiracy theories have always been an American phenomenon. But the asymmetric politicization of conspiracism has its roots much more recently — in two waves, first in the 1950s/60s, and then with the rise of Donald Trump. And we’re going to be stuck with all that crazy for many years to come.
That’s it for today
I’ll be back with more Monday. Have a nice weekend.