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The Para­noid Style in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics THE HIEROPHANT’S APPRENTICE

Ev­ery­one loves a good con­spir­acy the­ory th­ese days, which­ever side of be­lief or dis­be­lief they stand. In that re­spect con­spir­acy the­o­ries are a lit­tle like tales of unicorns and a lot like ur­ban leg­ends. All are fun, strad­dle the bor­der­line be­tween real and un­real, and can be ar­gued over from many a point of view. (We our­selves have no doubt of the re­al­ity of unicorns, as is well known.) What’s per­haps slightly less ob­vi­ous is that while var­i­ous con­spir­acy the­o­ries have en­joyed pop­u­lar – if usu­ally, and rel­a­tively, brief – ac­claim over the cen­turies, the emer­gence of a whole cot­tage in­dus­try de­voted to seek­ing out and ex­pos­ing con­spir­a­cies dates back only a lit­tle more than half a cen­tury, when as­sump­tions and al­le­ga­tions arose that US Pres­i­dent John F Kennedy’s as­sas­si­na­tion was the con­certed work of var­i­ous vil­lain­ous par­ties, and not of ‘lone gun­man’ Lee Har­vey Oswald’s one-man fir­ing squad. Then came the ‘Pen­tagon Pa­pers’, leaked by Daniel Ells­berg to the New

York Times in 1971, a se­cret of­fi­cial his­tory that in­di­cated that the US en­gage­ment in Viet­nam had been based on lies from be­gin­ning to end (and top to bot­tom of the mil­i­tary and po­lit­i­cal hi­er­ar­chy). Shortly af­ter that came Water­gate and the fall of Pres­i­dent Richard Nixon. Over the fol­low­ing decade and a half, the con­spir­acy in­dus­try got it­self up and run­ning, Water­gate hav­ing pro­vided the sus­pi­cious with a cer­tainty that the Es­tab­lish­ment never told the truth about any­thing. The Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion aside, the more baroque and byzan­tine of con­spir­acists’ con­clu­sions were cir­cu­lated among the faith­ful in news­let­ters, self-pub­lished books, and small-cir­cu­la­tion mag­a­zines. With the ad­vent of the In­ter­net, con­spir­acists were able to present their rare per­cep­tions to any­one who cared to look for them. What’s to be made of it all?

Con­spir­acism is by no means ex­clu­sive to Amer­ica, but the US has of late been sin­gu­larly pro­lific in pro­duc­ing pro­pos­als that an al­ter­nate, re­ally-real re­al­ity hides be­neath the skin of the world that the pow­ers-that-be wish to en­sure we take for granted, and for real, even if not all of us may like some of it much. Richard Hof­s­tadter, a pro­fes­sor of his­tory at Columbia Univer­sity, New York, was the first (or if not, the most in­flu­en­tial) to ob­serve, in the mid-Six­ties, that con­spir­acist think­ing was en­demic to Amer­i­can po­lit­i­cal life and stretched back to the late 18th cen­tury at least. In it­self this isn’t wholly sur­pris­ing, given the dis­trust of over­ween­ing gov­ern­ment, and by ex­ten­sion wari­ness of other pow­er­ful in­ter­ests, that is built into the Dec­la­ra­tion of In­de­pen­dence and the Bill of Rights. Con­spir­acism seems to be the in­evitable con­comi­tant vice of th­ese Amer­i­can virtues. Hof­s­tadter first pub­lished The Para­noid

Style in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics in Harper’s Magazine in Novem­ber 1964, and a more ex­pan­sive treat­ment fol­lowed in a 1965 book of es­says. At var­i­ous pe­ri­ods, the usual sus­pects had been ac­cused of plot­ting to sub­vert and sub­ju­gate Amer­ica: the Il­lu­mi­nati of Bavaria (who had ac­tu­ally dis­banded by 1787 but car­ried the can for the French Rev­o­lu­tion), the Pope and his wicked Je­suit co­horts, the Aus­tro-Hun­gar­i­ans who, Sa­muel Morse (of tele­graph-code fame) feared in 1835 might soon in­stall a scion of the House of Haps­burg as Em­peror of the United States, ‘in­ter­na­tional bankers’ (al­ways code for Jews, al­though Henry ‘Model T’ Ford was more di­rect) and, from the mid 20th cen­tury, com­mu­nists, whose ma­jor pro­moter was the ju­nior se­na­tor from Wis­con­sin, Joseph McCarthy. Hof­s­tadter ob­served that while re­jected by the main­stream, the con­spir­acist right in­fil­trated and turned the Repub­li­can Party, which ul­ti­mately failed to im­press Amer­i­can vot­ers and re­sulted in Barry Gold­wa­ter’s mas­sive de­feat in the US Pres­i­den­tial elec­tion of 1964. This was para­dox­i­cally con­sid­ered a vic­tory by the ex­treme right (cf. the hard-left Mo­men­tum af­ter the 2017 UK Gen­eral Elec­tion).

In­ter­est­ingly, Hof­s­tadter doesn’t men­tion the grow­ing doubts about the Kennedy as­sas­si­na­tion, or right-wing doubts about Kennedy him­self, but he does have in­sights into the con­spir­acist mind­set that re­main true to­day. In the mid 20th cen­tury there was a shift of em­pha­sis in al­leged con­spir­a­cies that has never gone away: “…the mod­ern right wing… feels dis­pos­sessed: Amer­ica has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are de­ter­mined to try to re­pos­sess it and to pre­vent the fi­nal de­struc­tive act of sub­ver­sion. The old Amer­i­can virtues have al­ready been eaten away by cos­mopoli­tans and in­tel­lec­tu­als… the old na­tional se­cu­rity and in­de­pen­dence have been de­stroyed by trea­sonous plots, hav­ing as their most pow­er­ful agents not merely out­siders and for­eign­ers as of old but ma­jor states­men who are at the very cen­ters of Amer­i­can power. Their pre­de­ces­sors had dis­cov­ered con­spir­a­cies; the mod­ern rad­i­cal right finds con­spir­acy to be be­trayal from on high.” Among those de­nounced were Pres­i­dent Eisen­hower (“a ded­i­cated, con­scious agent of the Com­mu­nist con­spir­acy”) and John Fos­ter Dulles – who to the world at large looked as much like a hard­line leftist as the Red Queen with a hang­over. As Ho­fas­tadter says, wryly, “the real mys­tery, for one who reads the

pri­mary works of para­noid schol­ar­ship, is not how the United States has been brought to its present dan­ger­ous po­si­tion but how it has man­aged to sur­vive at all.”

Hof­s­tadter saw too how “the higher para­noid schol­ar­ship is noth­ing if not co­her­ent… It is noth­ing if not schol­arly in tech­nique… The en­tire right-wing move­ment of our time is a pa­rade of ex­perts, study groups, mono­graphs, foot­notes, and bib­li­ogra­phies.” So it re­mains to­day: al­though, as oth­ers have ob­served, con­spir­acists have a habit of cit­ing each other (Holo­caust de­niers are es­pe­cially adept at this), thus pro­vid­ing an im­pen­e­tra­ble bub­ble of self-re­fer­ring self-con­fir­ma­tion. Or as Hof­s­tadter put it: “The para­noid’s in­ter­pre­ta­tion of his­tory is dis­tinctly per­sonal: de­ci­sive events are not taken as part of the stream of his­tory, but as the con­se­quences of some­one’s will.” The un­stated corol­lary is who­ever ex­poses a wicked plot and its wil­ful per­pe­tra­tor(s) is, by im­pli­ca­tion, a hero de­feat­ing world-threat­en­ing dragons. This has a price, Hof­s­tadter con­sid­ers: “We are all suf­fer­ers from his­tory, but the para­noid [con­spir­acist] is a dou­ble suf­ferer, since he is af­flicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fan­tasies as well.”

A key in­sight is this: “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.” This re­mains a fun­da­men­tal char­ac­ter­is­tic of to­day’s con­spir­acists. Whether they see the world’s af­fairs as ‘ac­tu­ally’ or­ches­trated by ‘the Jews’, or Gram­s­cian sol­diers of a furtive Marx­ist ‘long march through the in­sti­tu­tions’, or shape-shift­ing alien rep­tiles, or the Il­lu­mi­nati in charge of re­al­is­ing the New World Or­der – hardly an ex­haus­tive list of cul­prits – the no­tion of an im­mi­nent apoc­a­lyp­tic end to civil­i­sa­tionas-we-know-it is al­ways im­plicit and very of­ten ex­plicit. This was one theme picked up by Pro­fes­sor Michael Barkun in an­other ground­break­ing anal­y­sis, A Cul­ture of Con­spir­acy.

Apoc­a­lyp­tic think­ing per­me­ates cur­rent con­spir­acist thought. For ex­am­ple: in­dige­nous Euro­pean pop­u­la­tions are be­ing de­lib­er­ately re­placed by for­eign­ers, par­tic­u­larly Mus­lims; by mid-cen­tury we shall all suf­fer un­der Sharia law. Rather mys­te­ri­ously, given their gen­er­ally less than cor­dial re­la­tions with their fel­low Abra­hamists over the cen­turies, the Jews of­ten stand ac­cused of this plot when it’s not the schem­ing of the New World Or­der. More to the point, Barkun ob­serves that not all apoc­a­lyp­tic or mil­len­ni­al­ist move­ments have in­cor­po­rated con­spir­acist el­e­ments, while con­spir­acism in­cludes mil­len­ni­al­ism in its think­ing not as a bushy-tailed an­tic­i­pa­tion of a flo­res­cence of the good and the true but be­cause it is es­sen­tially Manichean. There are good guys and bad guys, and noth­ing in be­tween – and the bad guys may win. This will hap­pen in part be­cause noth­ing of­fi­cially stated can be be­lieved – “noth­ing is what it seems” – and the un­en­light­ened ma­jor­ity, who be­lieve the of­fi­cial story, will be suck­ered into a di­a­bolic sys­tem of gov­er­nance. We our­selves note at this point that the dis­trust of the demos, so of­ten ad­duced by con­spir­acists as an ad­junct to the machi­na­tions of the pow­ers-that-re­ally-be, is mir­rored in their own dis­dain for the be­nighted ig­no­rant – that’s us – for all their pro­fes­sions of alert­ing the in­ert to the Truth.

Barkun brings some use­ful new terms to the ta­ble. One is stig­ma­tised

knowl­edge, which com­prises “claims to truth… re­garded as ver­i­fied de­spite the marginal­iza­tion of those claims by the in­sti­tu­tions that con­ven­tion­ally dis­tin­guish be­tween knowl­edge and er­ror.” Among the sub­sets of stig­ma­tized knowl­edge per­haps the most im­por­tant to con­spir­acists is sup­pressed knowl­edge, “claims that are al­legedly known to be valid by au­thor­i­ta­tive in­sti­tu­tions but are sup­pressed be­cause the in­sti­tu­tions fear the con­se­quences of pub­lic knowl­edge or have some evil or self­ish mo­tive for sup­press­ing or hid­ing the truth.” Take away the fear and the no­tion of evil and this sounds much like what fas­ci­nates forteans – but then Fort him­self, on oc­ca­sion, was not averse to con­spir­acist think­ing, as we re­marked (some­where) in the Dic­tionary

of the Damned. Barkun notes that ‘sup­pressed knowl­edge’ “tends to ab­sorb all the oth­ers”, and the “con­se­quence is to at­tribute all forms of knowl­edge stigma­ti­za­tion to the machi­na­tions of a con­spir­acy.” One up­shot of that, given the im­mensely wide range of such ‘knowl­edge’, is to make con­spir­acy the­o­ries, es­pe­cially in their most florid form, un­fal­si­fi­able.

Barkun also gives us the use­ful ex­pres­sion im­pro­vi­sa­tional mil­len­nial style, which es­sen­tially means pick­ing up and adding to the jig­saw any piece of sup­posed in­for­ma­tion that will fit the nar­ra­tive to hand. His prime ex­am­ple is the fac­ti­tious ex­cite­ment over the end (it wasn’t) of the an­cient Mayan cal­en­dar in De­cem­ber 2012, in the ser­vice of whose jus­ti­fi­ca­tion all and ev­ery man­ner of al­ter­na­tively-ac­cu­rate ‘facts’ were brought to bear (see

FT285:33-47, 300:33-43). By this time, the mil­len­ni­al­ist cherry-pick­ing had long since crossed over to con­spir­acy the­o­ris­ing, and from that om­niv­o­rous tech­nique there de­vel­oped the ‘su­per-con­spir­acy’. There were some sur­pris­ingly early ex­po­nents of this mode of think­ing, al­though it is dif­fi­cult to know how wide­spread, or how widely ac­cepted, was their join­ing of their cho­sen dots. Be­tween 1976 and 1979, peri­patetic preacher John Todd (see

FT307:38-43) re­vealed the labyrinthine work­ing soft he Il­lu­mi­na­tion Satan’ s be­half: such het­ero­ge­neous en­ti­ties as the Roth­schilds (of course), the United Na­tions and the Com­mu­nist Party were abed and hard at it with the FBI, the ul­tra­right John Birch So­ci­ety, and the Knights of Colum­bus, to men­tion a few. Todd may have missed the Young Jaycees and the Boy Scouts. As Barkun re­marked, Todd’s scheme seemed to have more or­gan­i­sa­tions within it than with­out. And in 1978, one Stan Deyo hauled UFOs and Al­ter­na­tive 3 into this orgy in a bar­rel of red her­rings. In his sce­nario, the Il­lu­mi­nati would de­mor­alise the world by engi­neer­ing all man­ner of crises from the econ­omy to the en­vi­ron­ment, and (hav­ing dis­cov­ered anti-grav­ity propul­sion), stage a mas­sive, fake alien land­ing, then use their fly­ing saucers to leave the Earth, which they now con­trolled. This set the stage for the cross­over con­spir­acy the­o­ries of Bill Cooper, who man­aged to mix UFO-re­lated shenani­gans with sur­vival­ist mili­tia pol­i­tics. (As Barkun ex­plains, the UFO con­nex­ion brought po­lit­i­cal con­spir­acy the­o­ries to a far wider au­di­ence than be­fore.) Pos­si­bly the most con­vo­luted the­ory en­tan­gling the usual sus­pects with aliens and UFOs was gen­er­ated by John Grace, aliasValVa­le­rian, in his se­ries of mas­sive Ma­trix vol­umes pub­lished (at no less mas­sive ex­pense to the reader) from the late 1980s. Out­do­ing even Todd, Grace stirs the Gestapo, the Hell­fire Club, the Theosophists and the revo­lu­tion­ary so­cial­ist In­dus­trial Work­ers of the World into his cock­tail of evil col­lud­ing op­po­sites.

We can’t leave with­out a men­tion of David Icke. Barkun pro­vides a pub­lic ser­vice by trac­ing the ori­gins in science fic­tion of Icke’s trope of shape-shift­ing-alien-rep­tiles-in-charge, and deals in­ci­sively with Icke’s slith­ery, self­con­tra­dic­tory re­la­tions with anti semitism. We’ve said be­fore that con­spir­acy the­o­ries are net­works of found sig­nif­i­cances. Hof­s­tadter and Barkun ex­plain how some things are more sig­nif­i­cant and tempt­ing than oth­ers, and what they are. Oth­ers have come later to il­lu­mi­nate more brightly why some peo­ple so need to be tempted: see next episode.

Richard Hof­s­tadter, The Para­noid Style in Amer­i­can Pol­i­tics and Other Es­says, Al­fred Knopf 1965; reprinted, Vin­tage Books, 2008

Michael Barkun, A Cul­ture of Con­spir­acy: Apoc­a­lyp­tic vi­sions in con­tem­po­rary Amer­ica, Univer­sity of Cal­i­for­nia Press 2003; se­cond edi­tion, 2013


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