It might be deplorable of me to say so, but conspiracy theorizing at the highest level of government gave me one of the greatest gifts of my childhood, a TV set. I once wanted to write an essay called “Thank God for Senator McCarthy!” about that time. In April 1954, my mother, a theatrical and political caricaturist, was asked by the then-liberal New York Post to draw the Army-McCarthy Hearings, about to be shown on ABC. I was almost 10 years old and televisions were just beginning to enter significant numbers of American homes, but not mine. I had to go to a friend’s apartment to catch the Adventures of Superman and other must-sees of that moment, while begging my parents (then essentially broke) for a set of our own.
The Post must have purchased that black-and-white TV for her so she could cover those dramatic hearings. Their focus: charges lodged against the U.S. Army by that anti-communist conspiracy monger Senator Joseph McCarthy for being “soft” on the Reds. He was a monster, but not quite of Trumpian proportions (not being the president of the United States). Still, I can remember walking in the front door of our apartment after school one day and seeing my mother sitting in front of that new TV, drawing the senator’s iconic face. His was, in fact, the first image I ever saw on a TV screen in my own house and, to me, he looked boringly normal — that is, belligerent and pugnacious like so many of the 1950s fathers I knew, including my own.
So I was both unfazed by and thankful to him. After all, though he brought misery to so many with his red-scare tactics and fantastically wild charges about commies in the government, he brought me Disney and Lucy and Ed Sullivan. As a result, I’ve been less surprised than some by the connection between our present conspiracy monger par excellence and the many screens and entertainments of our present lives — a blur of (mis)communication that puts that ancient black-and-white TV of ours to shame.
As TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser suggests today, while reviewing the history of the conspiratorial thinking of this country’s leaders since the Salem witch hunts, we now have the ultimate conspiracist-in-chief and TV personality in the White House. He’s far more belligerent and pugnacious than any 1950s dad I ever knew and, by the way, only recently labeled Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris a “communist.” I wonder how my mother might have drawn him as he continues to pump out manic tweets and videos in a haze of Covid-19 and a potentially steroidal euphoria. Tom
The United States of Paranoia
From the Salem Witch Hunt to Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump
By Steve Fraser
News is “faked”; elections are “rigged”; a “deep state” plots a “coup”; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suspiciously in bed with a pillow over his face; aides of ex-president Barack Obama conspire to undermine foreign policy from a “war room”; Obama himself was a Muslim mole; the National Park Service lied about the size of the crowd at the president’s inauguration; conspiracies are afoot in nearly every department and agency of the executive branch, including the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI (“What are they hiding?”). Thus saith, and maybe even believeth, the president of the United States.
Donald Trump is not the first commander-in-chief to believe in conspiracies. And some of those conspiracies were real enough, but he is our first conspiracist president. “Conspire” in Latin means to “breathe together.” Conspiracy thinking is the oxygen that sustains the political respiration of Trumpism. Oval Office paranoid fantasies metastasize outside the Beltway and ignite passions — fear and anger especially — that leave armies of Trump partisans vigilant and at the ready.
Members of the administration’s inner circle keep the heat on. Michael Flynn, whose career as national security adviser lasted but a nanosecond, tweets “New York Police Department blows whistle on new Hillary emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes with Children, etc… MUST Read.” Michael Caputo, now on leave from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services, uncovered a supposed “resistance unit” at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to undermining the president, even if it meant raising the Covid-19 death toll.
On a planet far, far away — but not so far as to prevent the president from visiting when he’s in the mood or the moment seems propitious — is QAnon, where the conspiratorial imagination really exhales and goes galactic.
The earliest moments of QAnon, the conspiracy theory, centered around “Pizzagate,” which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria where children were supposedly stockpiled in tunnels below the store. (There were no tunnels — the restaurant didn’t even have a basement — but that didn’t stop it from nearly becoming a murder scene when a believer in Pizzagate walked into the shop armed with an assault rifle and began shooting wildly.)
But QAnon was playing for bigger stakes than just child sex-trafficking. Q (him or herself a purported ex-government agent) supposedly relayed inside information on Trump’s heroic but hidden plans to stage a countercoup against the “deep state” — a conspiracy to stop a conspiracy, in which the president was being assisted by the Mueller investigation flying under a false flag.
QAnon supporters are only the best known among conspiracy-oriented grouplets issuing alerts about a covert CIA operation to spread lesbianism or alt-right warnings that FEMA storm shelters are really “death domes” and/or places where “Sharia law will be enforced”; or dark revelations that the “mark of the beast” is affixed to the universal price code, smart cards, and ATMs; or, even grislier, radio talk show performer Alex Jones’s rants about “false flag” events like the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where (he claimed) “crisis actors” were employed, paid by George Soros, to simulate a massacre that never happened.
The point of it all is to make clear how close we are to The End; that is, to the overthrow or destruction of the Constitution and the Christian Republic for which it stands.
President Trump flirts with such a world of conspiracy thinking. He coyly acknowledges an affinity with it, then draws back from complete consummation, still sensing that it’s good medicine for what otherwise threatens to shorten his political life expectancy. QAnon “members” show up in the thousands at Trump rallies with signs and shirts reading “We Are QAnon.” (And 26 QAnon-linked candidates are running for Congress this November.)
Conspiracy thinking has always been an American pastime, incubating what the novelist Phillip Roth once called “the indigenous American berserk.” Most of the time, it’s cropped up on the margins of American life and stayed there. Under certain circumstances, however, it’s gone mainstream. We’re obviously now living in just such a moment. What might ordinarily seem utterly bizarre and nutty gains traction and is ever more widely embraced.
It’s customary and perhaps provides cold comfort for some to think of this warped way of looking at the world as the peculiar mental aberration of the sadly deluded, the uneducated, the left-behind, those losing their tenuous hold on social position and esteem, in a word (Hillary Clinton’s, to be exact), the “deplorables.” Actually, however, conspiracy mongering, as in the case of Trump, has often originated and been propagated by elites with fatal effect.
Sometimes, this has been the work of true believers, however well educated and invested with social authority. At other times, those at the top have cynically retailed what they knew to be nonsense. At yet other moments, elites have themselves authored conspiracies that were all too real. But one thing is certain: whenever such a conspiratorial confection has been absorbed by multitudes, it’s arisen as a by-product of some deeper misalignment and fracturing of the social and spiritual order. More often than not, those threatened by such upheavals have resorted to conspiracy mongering as a form of self-defense.
There at the Creation
Witch-hunting, of which the president tediously reminds us he is the victim, began long, long ago, before the country was even a country. Cotton Mather, a leading Puritan theologian in a society where the church exercised enormous power and influence, detected a “Diabolical Compact” in Salem, Massachusetts, in 1692. There, Satan’s servants were supposedly conspiring to destroy the righteous (sicken and kill them) and overthrow the moral order. By the time the witch frenzy had run its course, it had infected 24 surrounding towns, incarcerated 150 people, coerced 44 into confessing diabolical designs, executed 20 of the irredeemable, left four to languish and die in prison, and killed the husband of an alleged witch by pressing him to death under a pile of heavy rocks.
Salem is infamous today, mainly as a cautionary tale of mass hysteria, but from its outset it was sanctioned and encouraged by New England’s best and brightest. Cotton Mather was joined by local ministers and magistrates eager to allow “spectral evidence” to convict the accused. Social fissures fueled anxiety.
Worries about uppity women (widows in particular), especially with their own sources of income and so free of patriarchal supervision, added to the sense of disorientation. Slavery and the undercurrent of fear and foreboding it generated among the enslavers may also have raised temperatures. Can it be a mere coincidence that the first to “confess” her knowledge of satanic gatherings was Tituba, a slave whose fortune-telling to a group of four young girls set the witch-hunt process in motion? Fear of slave conspiracies, real or imagined, was part of the psychic underbelly of the colonial enterprise and continued to be so for many years after independence was won.
Elites, whether theocratic or secular, may be inclined, like Mather, to resort to conspiracy mongering and even engage in their own conspiracies when the social order they preside over seems seriously out of joint. Take the founding fathers.
Revolution and Counter-Revolution
Soon after independence was won, the founding fathers began conspiring against their fellow revolutionists among the hoi polloi. The Constitution is a revered document. Nonetheless, it was born in the shadows, midwifed by people who feared for their social position and economic well-being.
Most, if not all, of the revolution’s leaders were men of affairs, embedded in trans-Atlantic commerce as planters, ship owners, merchants, bankers, slave brokers, lawyers, or large-scale landowners. But the revolution had given voice to another world of largely self-sufficient small farmers in towns and villages, as well as frontier settlers, many of them at odds with the commercial and fiscal mechanisms — loans, debts, taxes, stocks and bonds — of their seaboard-bound countrymen.
Tax revolts erupted. State legislatures commanded by what was derisively referred to as the “democratical element” declared moratoria on, or cancelled, debts or issued paper currencies effectively devaluing the assets of creditors. Civil authority was at a discount. Farmers took up arms.
Men of property responded. They drafted a constitution designed to restore the authority of the prevailing elites. The new federal government was to be endowed with powers to tax, to borrow, to make private property inviolate, and to put down local insurrections. That was the plan.
Gaining consent for this, however, wasn’t easy in the face of so much turmoil. For that reason, the founding fathers met secretly in Philadelphia — all the windows and doors of Independence Hall were deliberately closed despite stifling heat — so no word of their deliberations could leak out. And for good reason. The gathering was authorized only to offer possible amendments to the existing Articles of Confederation, not to do what it did, which was to concoct a wholly new government. When the Philadelphia “conspirators” eventually presented their handiwork to the public, there was a ferocious reaction and the Constitution was nearly stillborn. Its authors were frequently labeled counter-revolutionary traitors.
Less than 10 years later the Constitution’s godfathers would themselves dissolve in fraternal enmity. Once again, charges of revolutionary and counter-revolutionary cabals would superheat the political climate.
John Adams and Alexander Hamilton would denounce Thomas Jefferson and James Madison as agents of godless Jacobinism, conniving in secret with revolutionary French comrades to level the social landscape and let loose a mobocracy of “boys, blockheads, and ruffians.” Jefferson and Madison returned the favor by accusing their erstwhile brothers of conspiring to restore the monarchy (some had indeed tried to persuade George Washington to accept a kingship), of being “tory aristocrats” seeking to reestablish a hierarchical society of ranks and orders. (Again, it was true that Hamilton had advocated a lifetime presidency and something along the lines of the House of Lords.) Everything seemed to hang in the balance back then, so much so that the feverish conspiratorial imaginings of the high and mighty became the emotional basis for the first mass political parties in America: Jefferson’s Republican-Democrats and Adams’s Federalists.
If you think Donald Trump has introduced an unprecedented level of vitriol and character assassination into public life, think again. Little was considered out of bounds for those founding fathers, including sexual innuendo linked to political deceit and scabrous insinuations about “aliens” infecting the homeland with depraved ideologies. It was a cesspool only a conspiracy monger could have completely enjoyed. Two centuries later those ventures into the dark side, even if largely forgotten, should have a familiar ring.
Conspiracy mongering may not have been the happiest legacy of the revolutionary era, but it was a lasting one. New England’s social and religious elites, for instance, feared the atheism that seemed embedded in the revolution and its implicit challenge to all hierarchies, not merely clerical ones. So, for example, Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale College and a pastor, had nightmares about “our daughters” becoming the “concubines of the Illuminati,” an alleged secret society, atheist to the core, whose members, it was claimed, used pseudonyms and arranged themselves in complex hierarchies for the purpose of engineering the godless French revolution.
Those “Illuminati” came and went, but the specter of atheism endured as a vital element of the pre-Civil War conspiratorial political imagination. An anti-Masonic movement, for instance, emerged in the 1830s to deal with the Freemasons, a secret order alleged to harbor anti-republican and especially unchristian intentions and to engage in pagan rituals, including drinking wine out of human skulls.
Anti-Masonic sentiments became a real force and even developed into a political party (the Anti-Masonic Party), which exercised considerable leverage in New York, Pennsylvania, Vermont, and elsewhere — yet more evidence of how easily the specter of conspiracies against God could inflame public life. We are reliving that today.
Along with American culture more generally, the conspiratorial imagination of the upper classes became increasingly secular as time passed. What most came to alarm them was class rather than spiritual warfare. From the years after the Civil War through the Great Depression of the 1930s, this country was the site of a more or less uninterrupted battle, in the phrase of the time, between “the masses and the classes”; between, that is, the exploited and their exploiters or what we might now call the 99% and the 1%.
One way to justify dealing harshly, even murderously, with the chronically restless lower orders was to claim that scheming among them were the covert agents of social revolution. If there were uprisings by anthracite coal miners in Pennsylvania, blame and then hang the Molly Maguires, alleged Irish terrorists imported from the old country. If there were hunger demonstrations demanding public relief and work during five miserable years of economic depression in the 1870s, blame it on refugee subversives from the Paris Commune, workers who had only recently taken rebellious control of that city and now threatened the sanctity of private property in the United States.
If there were nationwide strikes for the eight-hour day in the 1880s, it must be the work of secret anarchist cells inciting “mongrel firebugs” — immigrants, also known to respectable opinion as “Slavic wolves” — to riot in the streets. It was okay in 1913 for the Colorado National Guard and the Rockefeller company’s private army of guards to machine gun a tent colony of striking Colorado miners, including their wives and children, killing at least 21 of them, because they were, after all, the pawns of syndicalist plotters from the Industrial Workers of the World (colloquially known as “Wobblies”) who advocated One Big Union for all working people.
Upper-class hysteria, which consumed the captains of industry, leading financiers, the most respectable newspapers like the New York Times, elders of all the mainstream Protestant denominations, hierarchs of the Catholic Church, and politicians from both parties, including presidents, ran amuck through World War I. It culminated in the infamous Red Scare that straddled the war and post-war years.
Mass arrests and deportations of radicals and immigrants; the closing down of dissenting newspapers and magazines; the raiding and pillaging of left-wing headquarters; the banning of mass meetings; the sending in of the Army, from the Seattle waterfront to the steel country of Pennsylvania and Ohio, to suppress strikes — all were perpetrated by national and local political elites who claimed the country was mortally threatened by a global Bolshevik conspiracy headquartered in St. Petersburg, Russia. Attempts to overthrow the government by force and violence were, so they also claimed, just around the corner.
So it was that the conspiratorial mentality in those years became weaponized and the night terrors it conjured up contagious, leaping from the halls of Congress and the cabinet room in the White House into the heartland. A Connecticut clothing salesman went to jail for six months for saying Russian revolutionary leader Vladimir Lenin was smart. In Indiana, a jury took two minutes to acquit a man for killing an “alien” who had shouted, “To hell with the United States.” Evangelist Billy Sunday thought it might be a good idea to “stand radicals up before a firing squad and save space on our ships.”
The Great Fear
Attorney General A. Mitchell Palmer best expressed the imagined reach of “the Great Fear,” an all-embracing dread of a fiendish conspiracy that supposedly sought to strike at the very foundations of civilized life. Denouncing “the hysterical neurasthenic women who abound in communism,” he warned of a hellish conspiracy “licking at the altars of churches, leaping into the belfry of the school bell, crawling into the sacred corners of American homes to replace marriage vows with libertine laws.”
You can hear something similar echoed in Donald Trump’s recent inveighing against “socialism” and the way Joe Biden and the Democrats threaten God, family, and country.
Arguably, America never truly recovered from that first Red Scare.
A generation later that same cosmological nightscape, brought to a fever pitch during the early years of the Cold War by the claims of Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy that communists lurked in the highest reaches of the government, would terrify legions of Americans. His notorious “conspiracy so immense” reached everywhere, he claimed, from the State Department and the Army to movie studios, the Boy Scouts, advertising agencies, and the Post Office. No place in America, it seemed, was free of red subversion.
Still, it’s instructive to remember that McCarthy’s Cold War conspiracy culture was, in fact, set in motion soon after World War II not by him but by highly positioned figures in the administration of President Harry Truman, as loyalty oaths became commonplace and purges of the government bureaucracy began. And note the irony here: it wasn’t communist conspirators but the national security state itself, in particular the Central Intelligence Agency, which first conducted an ever-expanding portfolio of mind control and behavioral modification experiments, while launching disinformation campaigns, assassination plots, coups, and every other variety of covert action globally. That, as it happened, was America’s true new reality and it was indeed as conspiratorial as any on offer from the lunatic zone.
All of this nationalized the conspiratorial mindset at the highest levels of our society and helped make it into a permanent part of how millions of people came to understand the way the world works.
The Conspirator-in-Chief Lost in Space
Donald Trump might then be seen as but the latest in a long line of the empowered who either believed in or, for reasons of state, class interest, or political calculation, feigned a belief in grand conspiracies. Yet, as in so many other ways, Trump is, in fact, different.
Past conspirators offered a general worldview, which also came with meticulously detailed descriptions of how all the parts of the conspiracy supposedly worked together. Sometimes these proved to be dauntingly intricate jigsaw puzzles that only the initiated could grasp. Such cosmologies were buttressed by “evidence,” at least of a sort, that tried to trace links between otherwise randomly occurring events, to prove how wily the conspiracy was in its diabolical designs. And there was always some great purpose — a Satanic takeover or world domination — for which the whole elaborate conspiracy was put in motion, something, however loathsome, that nonetheless reached into the far beyond where the fate of humankind would be settled.
None of this characterizes the reign of the present conspirator-in-chief. Trump and his crew simply load up the airwaves and Internet with a steady flow of disconnected accusations, a “data set” of random fragments. No evidence of any kind is thought necessary. Indeed, when evidence is actually presented to disprove one of his conspiracies, it’s often reinterpreted as proof of a cover-up to keep the plot humming. Nor is there any grand theory that explains it all or points to a higher purpose… except one. Abroad in the land is, in Senator McCarthy’s classic 1950s phrase, a “conspiracy so immense” to — what else? — do in the Donald. The Donald is the one and only “elect” without whom America is doomed.
We live in conspiratorial times. The decline of the United States as an uncontestable super-power and its descent into plutocratic indifference to the wellbeing of the commonwealth is the seedbed of such conspiracy-mindedness. Soldiers are sent off to fight interminable wars of vague purpose against elusive “enemies” with no realistic prospect of resolution, much less American-style “victory” whatever that might mean these days. “Dark money” undermines what’s left of democratic protocols and ideals. Gross and still growing inequalities in the distribution of wealth and income are accepted year after year as business as usual.
All of this breeds entirely justified resentment and suspicion.
To the degree that political conspiracies take root among broader populations today, it is in part as a kind of folk sociology that tries to make some sense, however addled, of a world in which real conspiracies flourish. It’s a world where the complexities of globalization threaten to overwhelm everybody and a sense of loss of control, especially in pandemic America, is now a chronic condition as mere existence grows ever more precarious.
Trump is the chief accomplice in this to be sure. And his narcissism has produced a distinctive, if degraded and far less coherent version of the grander conspiracies of the past. Still, as in the past, when we try to come to terms with what one historian of the CIA has called this conspiratorial “wilderness of mirrors” we are all compelled to inhabit, we might better turn our attention to America’s “best and brightest” than to the “deplorables” who are so easy to scapegoat.
Steve Fraser, a TomDispatch regular, is the author of Mongrel Firebugs and Men of Property: Capitalism and Class Conflict in American History. His previous books include Class Matters, The Age of Acquiescence, and The Limousine Liberal. He is a co-founder and co-editor of the American Empire Project.
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Copyright 2020 Steve Fraser