Working on my book about paranoia in film, I inevitably wound up reading a lot about it in real life.
Not clinical paranoia but political paranoia. As the historian Richard Hofstadter put it, the clinical paranoid thinks someone’s poisoned their beer; the political paranoid thinks fluoridating our water is a communist plot. Political paranoia goes back a long way, as I learned from The Bavarian Illuminati in America: The New England Conspiracy Scare 1798 by Vernon Stauffer (though I didn’t read it until well after I finished Screen Enemies).
The Bavarian Illuminati were a Masonic group founded on July 4, 1776, something that obsesses political paranoids for obvious reasons. Bavaria, at the time, was tightly under Jesuit control; the Illuminati pushed for greater freedom for Bavarians, though the exact goals are hard to separate out from all the myths (according to a friend of mine whose judgment in these matters is usually solid). When they were suppressed a few years later, that gave fresh fuel to longstanding anti-Masonic paranoia: why would they be suppressed unless they’d been up to no good?
Over time right-wing imagination would develop this tiny group into a conspiracy stretching back centuries (they gave the Sanhedrin the thirty pieces of silver to pay Judas!) and across the globe; Pat Robertson invoked them as the schemers behind The New World Order in a 1990s book, with the added wrinkle they were agents of the International Jewish bankers.
The Illuminati panic in 1798 was much more modest. Religious leaders in New England were horrified by calls to end tax support for established churches, and outraged at what passed for moral laxity at the time. Could this all be coincidence? Of course not; one of the basic fuels for conspiracy theory is that when random events work against you, there’s a reason — an eeevil reason. This, as I think I’ve mentioned before, was one of the fuels for the anti-communist witch hunts of the 1950s: China couldn’t possibly have gone communist after all America’s work to clone our democracy there so it must have been reds in our own government! As David Aaronovitch points out in Voodoo Histories, if specific people have engineered our defeats, all we have to do is take them down to fix things.
It worked the same way in the 1790s. There were already theories floating around that the Illuminati had been behind the French Revolution; now they were targeting New England Christianity, that shining city on a hill. Nobody could fail to see the established church was in the right in this dispute — unless they willfully chose not to see. Who would refuse to see the truth but evil people, am I right?
Unlike many later conspiracies, however, this one flamed out. The conspiracy theorists sided with the Federalists so anti-Federalist newspapers found the holes in their claims and ripped them apart. On top of which, lots of the Founding Fathers were Freemasons; George Washington, for instance, was proud of his membership in the brotherhood. That made it politically unacceptable to suggests that Masonry as a whole was allied with the Illuminati; without that, there was nobody the theorists could point out and say “See, they’re the ones!” Still, it shows how long Americans have been grappling with conspiracy theory nonsense.
The Politics of Unreason: Right-Wing Extremism in America, 1790-1970 by Seymour Martin Lipset and Earl Raab makes it clear that while the Illuminati panic died, fear of conspiracy and subversion would continue on down to the present. I read this book in my teens and tried to find it while working on Screen Enemies of the American Way. As I couldn’t remember the name, I had zero luck but I stumbled on it a few years ago and finally reread it.
Even though it came out fifty years ago, it’s depressingly timely. The authors argue the problem isn’t simply the delusional fantasies of political paranoids that make them a problem but their anti-democratic solutions. Their goals are the will of the people, therefore obstacles such as procedural safeguards, legal mandates and even voting are disposable if they get in the way.
Lipset and Raab acknowledge this kind of thinking turns up on both the left and the right, but with different motives. Left-wing extremism is fueled by redistribution of money, power or status, and it’s been less of a factor in the U.S. than the right-wing drive to preserve money, power or status. The “preservationist” impulse fueled the Anti-Masonic Party, the Know-Nothing Party and the 20th century’s John Birch Society, among other groups.
The book chronicles how at various points the subversive Other has been Catholics, Jews, blacks and immigrants in general; if the paranoia about them dies and the group makes it inside the tent, members often turn around and embrace the same views about the next Other. A Catholic friend of mine rants constantly about Muslims; I’ve pointed out nothing she says is any different from what the 19th century said about Catholics but she refuses to see it (she eventually blocked me on Facebook).
Typically the Other has two faces. There’s the sinister, powerful conspiracy — the Jesuits and the Catholic Church, the Elders of Zion — and ordinary individuals who provide a convenient target to lash out at. Maybe good Protestant Americans can’t do anything about the Vatican’s evil plans but they can damn sure force those Catholic immigrant kids to listen to Protestant prayers in school! It makes me wonder how well QAnon will last — it’s got the shadowy cabal but does making Tom Hanks and Hilary Clinton among the faces of evil provide enough of a target? Interestingly, there’s already one book out (at least) blaming the Illuminati for the supposed plague of Satanic pedophilia.
Authors Nancy L. Rosenblum and Russell Muirhead argue in A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy that QAnon and similar current theories are more “conspiracism” than classic conspiracy theory. The classic theories connected dots in nonsensical ways; conspiracism dispenses with dots and builds its theories based on zero evidence. QAnon, for example, has offered no victims, no stories of “I was captured by Satanic pedophiles” (unlike many past Satanic panics). Birtherism — the belief Barack Obama wasn’t born in the U.S. — never had any evidence either, just a refusal to accept The Black President could be legitimate. And no amount of court defeats and election audits can convince the hardcore Stop the Steal believers that Donald Trump was not re-elected.
The authors argue this is worse than classic conspiracy thinking as it attacks the very idea of legitimacy, science or authority —the claims of QAnon devotees are “alternative facts” that are just as good as real facts. The book says the best way out is for Republican leaders to denounce the bullshit but I doubt they’re surprised that ain’t happening.
In Sandy Hook: An American Tragedy and the Battle for Truth, Elizabeth Williamson looks closely at one particular conspiracy theory, that the Sandy Hook shooting was a “false flag” and the kid victims maybe didn’t die or even exist. Slimey InfoWars host Alex Jones presented this idea in a textbook example of conspiracism: sure, he had no hard and fast proof or any evidence whatsoever, it’s just that something about it felt wrong. Through the power of the Internet and social media, this deranged based-on-nothing bullshit spread wildly, thereby foreshadowing Pizzagate, QAnon, anti-vax paranoia and Stop the Steal.
The book is excellent, showing the growth of the false-flag theory, the impact on the families and there efforts to push back, including the lawsuits Jones ultimately lost (though he’s doing his best to keep the families from getting his money). Sandy Hook also captures the variety of reasons people choose to belief this stuff: narcissism (Jones), grift (Jones again — he sells a lot of InfoWars swag), lonely people finding companionship in online conspiracist groups, 9/11 truthers hopping to a new conspiracy, people smugly convinced at their own genius in figuring things out (a common trait in conspiracy thinking) and sociopaths who enjoy harassing the families. While one of the grieving parents has successfully talked some of the believers off their ledge, the book is a depressing reminder how difficult it is to crush these ideas once they grow.