Ken Starr can look like a Pixar character: grandfatherly, dimpled, with long pillowy cheeks and cunicular teeth. It’s not distinctive; it’s the kind of face you swear you’ve seen many times. Indeed, you probably have, because if you examine a certain subset of American politics, he’s everywhere. Look at his Supreme Court connections alone: John Roberts once served under Starr. Brett Kavanaugh was his mentee. He was pals with Antonin Scalia, vetted Sandra Day O’Connor, and calls Clarence Thomas “a whole lot of fun.” Theodore Olson (the lawyer who’d go on to represent George W. Bush in Bush v. Gore and become his solicitor general) spent that fateful election night watching the results come in at his house. Ken Starr is basically the Forrest Gump of Republican America. You might not have noticed, but he’s usually around. Right now, for instance, he’s on the advisory board of Turning Point USA, a conservative activist group started by Charlie Kirk. You might also know him as a Fox News commentator or scandal-ridden ex–university president, as a member of Trump’s first impeachment team, or, most famously, as the independent counsel in the Bill Clinton years whose combination of piousness and prurience taught an entire generation of American children about oral sex.
It’s that five-year stewardship of the Clinton investigation that made Ken Starr a household name. And it’s against those five years that everything he’s done since must be measured. The sporadic headlines he’s since generated in some ways reflect the general decline of his party. Once criticized for a sense of rectitude so priggish it began to appear perverse, Starr course-corrected by defending Jeffrey Epstein and then Donald Trump. The guy who took a popular president down a peg for lying about sex lost his own job as a popular university president for presiding over a system that shielded rapists and ignored victims. And now the great investigator of Clintonian infidelity stands accused of having an extramarital affair himself.
The owner of one of the most famous conservative “brands” has mainly succeeding at muddling it. Starr’s swampward trajectory corresponds roughly to the rise of reactionary populism, but his individual decisions can still surprise; spurts of pro bono work and disquisitions on faith serve as occasional reminders—against a seamy backdrop—of what Starr’s profile used to be. It has been argued that the man many knew as a bland and scrupulously correct son of a minister changed during his stint as independent counsel—that in the course of becoming a public figure while also learning on the fly how to be a prosecutor, he became more of a persecutor too, less concerned with ethical constraints while technically respecting legal ones. (Mostly. Sam Dash, who was lead counsel to the Senate’s Watergate Committee and acted as special ethics adviser to Starr’s team, resigned in protest over what he saw as Starr’s decision to act as an “aggressive advocate” for impeachment.)
That increasingly appetitive (or deranged) prosecutorial approach earned Starr so much contempt that it has perhaps overshadowed some of his less controversial qualities. Friends and associates unfailingly describe Starr as pleasant, for instance. They also describe him as extremely hardworking. He is rarely, however, called brilliant, and this is surprising: The man almost became a Supreme Court justice. According to a 1998 Michael Winerip piece in the New York Times Magazine, Starr’s name may have been scrubbed from the Bush administration’s short list in 1990 because Starr was considered—at least then—a mite too ethical. As the senior Bush’s solicitor general, he’d sided with whistleblowers against the administration that hired him in a case involving defense contractors. The administration did not care for that. Here’s one way to gauge what this earlier version of Starr was like: The folks who chose David Souter for their nominee to the Supreme Court dismissed Starr as insufficiently conservative. He’d been faulted with, among other things, failing to disclose O’Connor’s pro-choice views to his fellow Republicans when he vetted her. It’s hard to imagine how different Starr’s public profile might be today if things had gone differently.
For someone with such Zelig-like ubiquity, not much has been written about his early years. Before the Clinton Whitewater investigation, Starr, who clerked for Chief Justice Warren Burger, was rising in Republican circles with impressive and perhaps questionable speed. As Winerip writes, “Starr had to learn as he went. He became an Appeals Court judge in 1983, though he had never been a lower court judge; the Solicitor General—the Government’s lawyer to the Supreme Court—in 1989, though he had never argued before the Supreme Court; the independent counsel in 1994, though he had never been a prosecutor.” This trend would continue after his stint investigating the Clintons: He was hired to helm Pepperdine’s law school and then Baylor University despite having no administrative experience to speak of. (Perhaps, given the sexual assault scandal that would later consume Baylor, experience matters.)
If the Clinton years gave him a taste of real fame—he was Time’s Man of the Year in 1998, along with Bill Clinton—the aftermath saw him trying to capitalize on it. Starr became, if not quite a mercenary himself, the mercenaries’ lawyer. He’d done plenty of that before, of course: He was profitably defending tobacco companies even while he was investigating Clinton (who was trying to regulate them). But his years digging into the president empowered him to use his prestige in a slightly different way—as the guy who maybe knew a guy. When Whitewater needed investigating, Starr had been there to do it and his reasons were at least nominally public-spirited. But when Blackwater needed defending in 2006, he was there to do that too—this time by joining a lawsuit that had been well underway in order to petition John Roberts, his former deputy in the solicitor general’s office, who had only recently joined the Supreme Court. Marc Miles, the attorney representing the families of the four Blackwater contractors killed in Iraq, said at the time, “I think that Blackwater has brought in Kenneth Starr to somehow leverage a political connection to help them succeed in a case where they can’t win on the merits.”
If this was the case, it didn’t work—Roberts rejected his former superior’s argument that Blackwater should be “constitutionally immune” to the lawsuit. (Roberts would rule in Starr’s favor the same year in Morse v. Frederick.) It wouldn’t be the last time Starr appeared to peddle his influence. When Jeffrey Epstein needed help evading charges for raping and trafficking minors in 2007, the Texan with a reputation for primness joined the pedophile’s legal team and, as described in reporter Julie K. Brown’s book, became one of the prime architects of a defense notable for its innovative savagery, which included attacking prosecutors and impugning their motives. Starr attempted to leverage his contacts in the Justice Department to try to get the federal charges dropped. It also didn’t work. But the plea deal Epstein got was famously and shockingly lenient, thanks in no small part to Starr’s efforts.
And perhaps most incongruently, when the most prolific liar in American presidential history—who paid the women he had extramarital sex with to shut them up—faced impeachment charges in 2019, Starr didn’t just rush to defend him (even though he’d once called Starr a lunatic). The author of the Starr Report, which even Diane Sawyer derided as “demented pornography for puritans,” showed up in a black cowboy hat and a trenchcoat—dressed as an almost literal black-hat version of the finger-wagging disciplinarian of errant presidents he used to be.
It’s a discordant set of jobs for someone who had built a monumental and much-mocked reputation for prudish propriety. In a plot turn that would be more poetic if it weren’t so unsurprising, it emerged this month that Starr, that avatar of good Christian values who once stood for everything the Clintons weren’t, had himself allegedly conducted an extramarital affair with a woman who had once worked closely with him. (She says it began in 2009, roughly a decade after his investigation of Clinton concluded.)
The woman, Judi Hershman, explains she is disclosing her affair with Starr (which she’d planned to take to the grave) because of his response to a story she wrote for Slate about a disturbing encounter with Brett Kavanaugh that she’d informed Starr about back in 1998. She wrote that Kavanaugh had screamed at her with “a deranged fury” when he found her working in a conference room. (In her Medium piece she adds that Starr’s response when she requested an apology from Kavanaugh was: “I’m apologizing to you for him. This is it.”) Starr’s comment on Hershman’s story in Slate was “I do not recall any mention of any incident involving Brett Kavanaugh.” But the simple denial was not enough. In what Hershman calls an “embellishment,” he added: “To the contrary, throughout his service in the independent counsel’s office, now-Justice Kavanaugh comported himself at all times with high professionalism and respect toward all our colleagues.”
We know now that this is the basic template for how Ken Starr responds to a crisis because he was recorded doing it. In a 2016 TV interview for KWTX News 10, Starr was asked about an email a woman had sent him on Nov. 3, 2015—and there the email was, in full view, bearing his email address—in which she reported being raped. The subject line, “I Was Raped at Baylor,” seems hard to overlook. Starr’s first response squishily acknowledges this: “I honestly may have. I’m not denying that I saw it.” But then a woman named Merrie Spaeth, a communications consultant and family friend he’d brought with him (and who had been Hershman’s boss during the Clinton investigation), interrupts to ask the news director not to use that portion of the interview. He refuses and she takes Starr to another room to confer. “She needs to ask you that question again. Whether you do it on camera or not it’s up to you,” Spaeth says to Starr when they return. Starr then says to the camera: “All I’m gonna say is I honestly have no recollection of that.” He then turns to Spaeth. “Is that OK?” But then he tries again and, as with his response to Hershman, he doesn’t leave well enough alone. He adds. “I honestly have no recollection of seeing such an email and I believe that I would remember seeing such an email” (emphasis mine). By 2018, two years after he’d been ousted as university president, the line had evolved beyond all recognition: “Unfortunately—and this is going to sound like an apologia, but it is the absolute truth—never was it brought to my attention that there were these issues.”Is it interesting that a man who spent years trying to prove that an evasive and lawyerly president lied ended up agonizing over how exactly to legalistically phrase his own failures? No! It is only moderately more interesting that the Starr marriage—which openly courted comparisons to the Clintons’—now appears to be in the position it smugly criticized: In 1999, Alice Starr famously said she’d divorce her husband if she were in Hillary’s place, remarking that she would “rather not be married to someone who doesn’t love me enough to remain faithful.” “We took a vow to be faithful to one another when we married,″ she said of her own marriage, adding that they’d “lived up to that vow.″ In response to Hershman’s affair allegation, Alice Starr provided a statement through Merrie Spaeth affirming her marriage to Ken: “We remain devoted to each other and to our beautiful family. Judi Nardella Hershman was Alice’s friend. Alice set up jobs and board appointments for her in McLean, Virginia.” (Ken Starr himself had no comment, according to Spaeth, who also added that because of how busy the independent counsel’s office was in the days before the 1998 House Judiciary Committee hearing, it would have been impossible for Judi Hershman to have found herself alone in a conference room with Brett Kavanaugh.)
That Alice is standing by her man is no surprise; when Ken began his tenure at Baylor, she said in an interview, “He can’t do anything but tell the truth—ethics are extremely important.” What those ethics are remains something of a mystery. Starr’s post-Clinton priorities were interesting and not altogether predictable: They have ranged from appealing for clemency for death row inmates in 2005 and 2006 to defending Epstein in 2007 to campaigning against same-sex marriage in 2008 to signing (in 2013) a letter asking that a teacher who pleaded guilty to molesting five female students get no jail time, just community service.
Put differently, Starr has occupied some strange spaces in American controversies besides the one he’s best known for. He supported Merrick Garland’s nomination to the Supreme Court, for instance, but he also testified about “troubling questions” at Sen. Ron Johnson’s circus of a Senate hearing on so-called election irregularities. He’s a little too odd to classify as a mere hypocrite. Even his condemnations take some surprising turns: In a chapter of his latest book, Starr comes perilously close to condoning the removal of Confederate monuments: “It’s one thing to tear down monuments of Confederate generals, as military champions of the unspeakable institution of slavery. Whether you like these desecrations or not, that reaction is understandable, albeit lawless.”
Starr’s isn’t a story of straight decline. He never really left, for one thing; that makes a comeback trickier. But neither has he ascended to become a fixture in the conservative firmament. The way he engages with modern conservatism is almost hilariously anti-strategic: Though certainly capable of partisan bile, he’s at other times so quaintly bookish that he barely seems to understand his party at all. When he addressed the young Trump-crazed Republicans at the 2019 Turning Point USA summit (other speakers included Sean Hannity, Kimberly Guilfoyle, and Donald Trump Jr., to give you a sense), he interrupted the music and the lights to ask everyone to sing “My Country, ’Tis of Thee” and then delivered a lecture encouraging them to study history, including the writings of Louis Brandeis and Lincoln’s second inaugural address.* It is bold—in a mild way—to lecture about history when you know you’re up against Guilfoyle’s incantatory shouts. It might also explain the limits of his influence. Then again, so might the lack of a consistent agenda. Starr’s lawyering has been deployed in the service of both conventional and distasteful efforts but doesn’t coalesce into any particularly cohesive sense of purpose. And while his books register a real desire to provide intellectual backing for conservative impulses, what little ideology he has—to the extent that it’s faith-based—is compromised by his own hypocrisy.
Starr does still seem to enjoy the spotlight even if he’s not especially gifted at keeping it. Thirty years after he shot to national fame, he hasn’t lost the ability to provoke an “Oh, him!” reaction when his name comes up, and Trump’s impeachments presented not one but two occasions for him to reemerge to the broader public as a voice of authority on the thing he has long been most famous for. But his interventions on those fronts have been strangely muddled. He obsessed over the finer points governing special counsels in a magazine article but then cut an absurd figure in a black cowboy hat at Trump’s side. Having made an impression neither as an intellectual nor as a firebrand, he’s now on the board of an organization fiercely touting an anti-vaccination agenda. He’s on Fox News. And he’s earning headlines for allegedly cheating on his wife. It’s not exactly the Supreme Court.
The establishment has been routed, but its economic orthodoxy rules.
President Biden’s American Rescue Plan is incredibly popular, even among Republican voters. We don’t have details yet on the next big Democratic initiative, but we can expect it to poll well, because we know that it will combine major infrastructure spending with tax hikes on corporations and the rich — which are all popular things.
But like the rescue plan, the next plan probably won’t get a single Republican vote in Congress. Why are elected Republicans still so committed to right-wing economic policies that help the rich while shortchanging the working class?
Fair warning: I’m not going to offer a good answer to this question. The point of today’s article is, instead, to argue for the question’s importance.
I ask why Republicans are “still” committed to right-wing economics because in the past there wasn’t any puzzle about their position.
Like many observers, I used to have a “What’s the matter with Kansas?” model of the G.O.P. That is, like Thomas Frank, the author of the 2004 book with that title, I saw the Republican Party essentially as an enterprise run by and for plutocrats that managed to win elections by playing to the cultural grievances and racial hostility of working-class whites. Bigotry, however, was mainly a show put on for the rubes; the party would go back to its pro-rich priorities as soon as each election was over.
The classic example came when George W. Bush won re-election by posing as America’s defender against gay married terrorists, then followed his victory by announcing that he had a mandate to privatize Social Security. (He didn’t.)
But that feels like a long time ago.
Billionaires may have started the Republican Party on its march toward extremism, but they’ve clearly lost control of the forces they conjured up. The G.O.P. can no longer put intolerance back in the closet after each election so as to focus on the real business of tax cuts and deregulation. Instead, the extremists are in charge. Despite a lost election and a violent insurrection, what’s left of the old Republican establishment has abased itself on the altar of Trumpism.
But while power in the Republican Party has shifted almost completely away from the conservative establishment, the party is still committed to an economic ideology of tax and spending cuts. And it’s not obvious why.
When Donald Trump rolled over establishment candidates in 2016, it seemed possible that he would lead his party toward what some political scientists call “Herrenvolk democracy,” policies that are genuinely populist and even egalitarian — but only for members of the right racial and ethnic groups.
South Africa under apartheid worked that way. There were limited gestures toward whites-only populism in the Jim Crow U.S. South. In Europe, France’s National Front combines hostility to immigrants with calls for an expansion of the nation’s already generous welfare state.
As a candidate, Trump often sounded as if he wanted to move in that direction, promising not to cut social benefits and to begin a large infrastructure program. If he had honored those promises, if he had shown any hint of genuine populism, he might still be president. In practice, however, his tax cut and his failed attempt to repeal Obamacare were right out of the standard conservative playbook.
The exception that proves the rule was Trump’s farm policy, which involved huge subsidies to farmers hurt by his trade war, but managed to give almost all of those subsidies to whites. The point is that there was nothing like this on a broader level.
Was Trump’s continuation of unpopular economic policies simply a reflection of his personal ignorance and lack of interest in substance? Events since the election suggest not.
I’ve already mentioned lock-step Republican opposition to Biden’s relief package. Rejection of economic populism is also apparent at the state level. Consider Missouri. One of its senators, Josh Hawley, has declared that Republicans must be “a working-class party, not a Wall Street party.” Yet Republicans in the state’s legislature just blocked funding for an expansion in Medicaid that would cost the state very little and has already been approved by a majority of voters.
Or consider West Virginia, where another unfulfilled Trump promise, to revive the coal industry, resonated with voters. Coal isn’t coming back; so the state’s Republican governor is proposing to boost the economy by … eliminating income taxes. This echoes the failed Kansas tax cut experiment a few years ago. Why imagine it would work any better in Appalachia?
So what’s going on? I suspect that the absence of true populism on the right has a lot to do with the closing of the right-wing mind: the conservative establishment may have lost power, but its apparatchiks are still the only people in the G.O.P. who know anything about policy. And big money may still buy influence even in a party whose energy comes mainly from intolerance and hate.
In any case, for now Republican politicians are doing Democrats a big favor, clinging to discredited economic ideas that even their own supporters dislike.
It had been around a long time before the Radical Right discovered it—and its targets have ranged from “the international bankers” to Masons, Jesuits, and munitions makers.
American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority. But behind this I believe there is a style of stylemind that is far from new and that is not necessarily right-wing. I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind. In using the expression “paranoid style” I am not speaking in a clinical sense, but borrowing a clinical term for other purposes. I have neither the competence nor the desire to classify any figures of the past or present as certifiable lunatics. In fact, the idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant.
Of course this term is pejorative, and it is meant to be; the paranoid style has a greater affinity for bad causes than good. But nothing really prevents a sound program or demand from being advocated in the paranoid style. Style has more to do with the way in which ideas are believed than with the truth or falsity of their content. I am interested here in getting at our political psychology through our political rhetoric. The paranoid style is an old and recurrent phenomenon in our public life which has been frequently linked with movements of suspicious discontent.
Here is Senator McCarthy, speaking in June 1951 about the parlous situation of the United States:
How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of 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. . . . What can be made of this unbroken series of decisions and acts contributing to the strategy of defeat? They cannot be attributed to incompetence. . . . The laws of probability would dictate that part of . . . [the] decisions would serve the country’s interest.
Now turn back fifty years to a manifesto signed in 1895 by a number of leaders of the Populist party:
As early as 1865–66 a conspiracy was entered into between the gold gamblers of Europe and America. . . . For nearly thirty years these conspirators have kept the people quarreling over less important matters while they have pursued with unrelenting zeal their one central purpose. . . . Every device of treachery, every resource of statecraft, and every artifice known to the secret cabals of the international gold ring are being used to deal a blow to the prosperity of the people and the financial and commercial independence of the country.
Next, a Texas newspaper article of 1855:
. . . It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber, and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism. . . . The Pope has recently sent his ambassador of state to this country on a secret commission, the effect of which is an extraordinary boldness of the Catholic church throughout the United States. . . . These minions of the Pope are boldly insulting our Senators; reprimanding our Statesmen; propagating the adulterous union of Church and State; abusing with foul calumny all governments but Catholic, and spewing out the bitterest execrations on all Protestantism. The Catholics in the United States receive from abroad more than $200,000 annually for the propagation of their creed. Add to this the vast revenues collected here. . . .
These quotations give the keynote of the style. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor.
Illuminism and Masonry
I begin with a particularly revealing episode—the panic that broke out in some quarters at the end of the eighteenth century over the allegedly subversive activities of the Bavarian Illuminati. This panic was a part of the general reaction to the French Revolution. In the United States it was heightened by the response of certain men, mostly in New England and among the established clergy, to the rise of Jeffersonian democracy. Illuminism had been started in 1776 by Adam Weishaupt, a professor of law at the University of Ingolstadt. Its teachings today seem to be no more than another version of Enlightenment rationalism, spiced with the anticlerical atmosphere of eighteenth-century Bavaria. It was a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason. Its humanitarian rationalism appears to have acquired a fairly wide influence in Masonic lodges.
Americans first learned of Illuminism in 1797, from a volume published in Edinburgh (later reprinted in New York) under the title, Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies. Its author was a well-known Scottish scientist, John Robison, who had himself been a somewhat casual adherent of Masonry in Britain, but whose imagination had been inflamed by what he considered to be the far less innocent Masonic movement on the Continent. Robison seems to have made his work as factual as he could, but when he came to estimating the moral character and the political influence of Illuminism, he made the characteristic paranoid leap into fantasy. The association, he thought, was formed “for the express purpose of rooting out all religious establishments, and overturning all the existing governments of Europe.” It had become “one great and wicked project fermenting and working all over Europe.” And to it he attributed a central role in bringing about the French Revolution. He saw it as a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”
These notions were quick to make themselves felt in America. In May 1798, a minister of the Massachusetts Congregational establishment in Boston, Jedidiah Morse, delivered a timely sermon to the young country, which was then sharply divided between Jeffersonians and Federalists, Francophiles and Anglomen. Having read Robison, Morse was convinced of a Jacobinical plot touched off by Illuminism, and that the country should be rallied to defend itself. His warnings were heeded throughout New England wherever Federalists brooded about the rising tide of religious infidelity or Jeffersonian democracy. Timothy Dwight, the president of Yale, followed Morse’s sermon with a Fourth-of-July discourse on The Duty of Americans in the Present Crisis, in which he held forth against the Antichrist in his own glowing rhetoric. Soon the pulpits of New England were ringing with denunciations of the Illuminati, as though the country were swarming with them.
The anti-Masonic movement of the late 1820s and the 1830s took up and extended the obsession with conspiracy. At first, this movement may seem to be no more than an extension or repetition of the anti-Masonic theme sounded in the outcry against the Bavarian Illuminati. But whereas the panic of the 1790s was confined mainly to New England and linked to an ultraconservative point of view, the later anti-Masonic movement affected many parts of the northern United States, and was intimately linked with popular democracy and rural egalitarianism. Although anti-Masonry happened to be anti-Jacksonian (Jackson was a Mason), it manifested the same animus against the closure of opportunity for the common man and against aristocratic institutions that one finds in the Jacksonian crusade against the Bank of the United States.
The anti-Masonic movement was a product not merely of natural enthusiasm but also of the vicissitudes of party politics. It was joined and used by a great many men who did not fully share its original anti-Masonic feelings. It attracted the support of several reputable statemen who had only mild sympathy with its fundamental bias, but who as politicians could not afford to ignore it. Still, it was a folk movement of considerable power, and the rural enthusiasts who provided its real impetus believed in it wholeheartedly.
The Paranoid Style in ActionThe John Birch Society is attempting to suppress a television series about the United Nations by means of a mass letter-writing campaign to the sponsor, . . . The Xerox Corporation. The corporation, however, intends to go ahead with the programs. . . .
The July issue of the John Birch Society Bulletin . . . said an “avalanche of mail ought to convince them of the unwisdom of their proposed action—just as United Air Lines was persuaded to back down and take the U.N. insignia off their planes.” (A United Air Lines spokesman confirmed that the U.N. emblem was removed from its planes, following “considerable public reaction against it.”)
Birch official John Rousselot said, “We hate to see a corporation of this country promote the U.N. when we know that it is an instrument of the Soviet Communist conspiracy.”
—San Francisco Chronicle, July 31, 1964
As a secret society, Masonry was considered to be a standing conspiracy against republican government. It was held to be particularly liable to treason—for example, Aaron Burr’s famous conspiracy was alleged to have been conducted by Masons. Masonry was accused of constituting a separate system of loyalty, a separate imperium within the framework of federal and state governments, which was inconsistent with loyalty to them. Quite plausibly it was argued that the Masons had set up a jurisdiction of their own, with their own obligations and punishments, liable to enforcement even by the penalty of death. So basic was the conflict felt to be between secrecy and democracy that other, more innocent societies such as Phi Beta Kappa came under attack.
Since Masons were pledged to come to each other’s aid under circumstances of distress, and to extend fraternal indulgence at all times, it was held that the order nullified the enforcement of regular law. Masonic constables, sheriffs, juries, and judges must all be in league with Masonic criminals and fugitives. The press was believed to have been so “muzzled” by Masonic editors and proprietors that news of Masonic malfeasance could be suppressed. At a moment when almost every alleged citadel of privilege in America was under democratic assault, Masonry was attacked as a fraternity of the privileged, closing business opportunities and nearly monopolizing political offices.
Certain elements of truth and reality there may have been in these views of Masonry. What must be emphasized here, however, is the apocalyptic and absolutistic framework in which this hostility was commonly expressed. Anti-Masons were not content simply to say that secret societies were rather a bad idea. The author of the standard exposition of anti-Masonry declared that Freemasonry was “not only the most abominable but also the most dangerous institution that ever was imposed on man. . . . It may truly be said to be Hell’s master piece.”
The Jesuit Threat
Fear of a Masonic plot had hardly been quieted when the rumors arose of a Catholic plot against American values. One meets here again the same frame of mind, but a different villain. The anti-Catholic movement converged with a growing nativism, and while they were not identical, together they cut such a wide swath in American life that they were bound to embrace many moderates to whom the paranoid style, in its full glory, did not appeal. Moreover, we need not dismiss out of hand as totally parochial or mean-spirited the desire of Yankee Americans to maintain an ethnically and religiously homogeneous society nor the particular Protestant commitments to individualism and freedom that were brought into play. But the movement had a large paranoid infusion, and the most influential anti-Catholic militants certainly had a strong affinity for the paranoid style.
Two books which appeared in 1835 described the new danger to the American way of life and may be taken as expressions of the anti-Catholic mentality. One, Foreign Conspiracies against the Liberties of the United States, was from the hand of the celebrated painter and inventor of the telegraph, S.F.B. Morse. “A conspiracy exists,” Morse proclaimed , and “its plans are already in operation . . . we are attacked in a vulnerable quarter which cannot be defended by our ships, our forts, or our armies.” The main source of the conspiracy Morse found in Metternich’s government: “Austria is now acting in this country. She has devised a grand scheme. She has organized a great plan for doing something here. . . . She has her Jesuit missionaries traveling through the land; she has supplied them with money, and has furnished a fountain for a regular supply.” Were the plot successful, Morse said, some scion of the House of Hapsburg would soon be installed as Emperor of the United States.
“It is an ascertained fact,” wrote another Protestant militant,
that Jesuits are prowling about all parts of the United States in every possible disguise, expressly to ascertain the advantageous situations and modes to disseminate Popery. A minister of the Gospel from Ohio has informed us that he discovered one carrying on his devices in his congregation; and he says that the western country swarms with them under the name of puppet show men, dancing masters, music teachers, peddlers of images and ornaments, barrel organ players, and similar practitioners.
Lyman Beecher, the elder of a famous family and the father of Harriet Beecher Stowe, wrote in the same year his Plea for the West, in which he considered the possibility that the Christian millennium might come in the American states. Everything depended, in his judgment, upon what influences dominated the great West, where the future of the country lay. There Protestantism was engaged in a life-or-death struggle with Catholicism. “Whatever we do, it must be done quickly. . . . ” A great tide of immigration, hostile to free institutions, was sweeping in upon the country, subsidized and sent by “the potentates of Europe,” multiplying tumult and violence, filling jails, crowding poorhouses, quadrupling taxation, and sending increasing thousands of voters to “lay their inexperienced hand upon the helm of our power.” Many anti-Masons had been fascinated by the penalties involved if Masons failed to live up to their obligations. My own favorite is the oath attributed to a royal archmason who invited “having my skull smote off and my brains exposed to the scorching rays of the sun.”
Anti-Catholicism has always been the pornography of the Puritan. Whereas the anti-Masons had envisaged drinking bouts and had entertained themselves with sado-masochistic fantasies about the actual enforcement of grisly Masonic oaths, the anti-Catholics invented an immense lore about libertine priests, the confessional as an opportunity for seduction, licentious convents and monasteries. Probably the most widely read contemporary book in the United States before Uncle Tom’s Cabin was a work supposedly written by one Maria Monk, entitled Awful Disclosures, which appeared in 1836. The author, who purported to have escaped from the Hotel Dieu nunnery in Montreal after five years there as novice and nun, reported her convent life in elaborate and circumstantial detail. She reported having been told by the Mother Superior that she must “obey the priests in all things”; to her “utter astonishment and horror,” she soon found what the nature of such obedience was. Infants born of convent liaisons were baptized and then killed, she said, so that they might ascend at once to heaven. Her book, hotly attacked and defended , continued to be read and believed even after her mother gave testimony that Maria had been somewhat addled ever since childhood after she had rammed a pencil into her head. Maria died in prison in 1849, after having been arrested in a brothel as a pickpocket.
Anti-Catholicism, like anti-Masonry, mixed its fortunes with American party politics, and it became an enduring factor in American politics. The American Protective Association of the 1890s revived it with ideological variations more suitable to the times—the depression of 1893, for example, was alleged to be an international creation of the Catholics who began it by starting a run on the banks. Some spokesmen of the movement circulated a bogus encyclical attributed to Leo XIII instructing American Catholics on a certain date in 1893 to exterminate all heretics, and a great many anti-Catholics daily expected a nationwide uprising. The myth of an impending Catholic war of mutilation and extermination of heretics persisted into the twentieth century.
Why They Feel Dispossessed
If, after our historically discontinuous examples of the paranoid style, we now take the long jump to the contemporary right wing, we find some rather important differences from the nineteenth-century movements. The spokesmen of those earlier movements felt that they stood for causes and personal types that were still in possession of their country—that they were fending off threats to a still established way of life. But the modern right wing, as Daniel Bell has put it, 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 competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; 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.
Important changes may also be traced to the effects of the mass media. The villains of the modern right are much more vivid than those of their paranoid predecessors, much better known to the public; the literature of the paranoid style is by the same token richer and more circumstantial in personal description and personal invective. For the vaguely delineated villains of the anti-Masons, for the obscure and disguised Jesuit agents, the little-known papal delegates of the anti-Catholics, for the shadowy international bankers of the monetary conspiracies, we may now substitute eminent public figures like Presidents Roosevelt, Truman, and Eisenhower, secretaries of State like Marshall, Acheson, and Dulles, Justices of the Supreme Court like Frankfurter and Warren, and the whole battery of lesser but still famous and vivid alleged conspirators headed by Alger Hiss.
Events since 1939 have given the contemporary right-wing paranoid a vast theatre for his imagination, full of rich and proliferating detail, replete with realistic cues and undeniable proofs of the validity of his suspicions. The theatre of action is now the entire world, and he can draw not only on the events of World War II, but also on those of the Korean War and the Cold War. Any historian of warfare knows it is in good part a comedy of errors and a museum of incompetence; but if for every error and every act of incompetence one can substitute an act of treason, many points of fascinating interpretation are open to the paranoid imagination. In the end, 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.
The basic elements of contemporary right-wing thought can be reduced to three: First, there has been the now-familiar sustained conspiracy, running over more than a generation, and reaching its climax in Roosevelt’s New Deal, to undermine free capitalism, to bring the economy under the direction of the federal government, and to pave the way for socialism or communism. A great many right-wingers would agree with Frank Chodorov, the author of The Income Tax: The Root of All Evil, that this campaign began with the passage of the income-tax amendment to the Constitution in 1913.
The second contention is that top government officialdom has been so infiltrated by Communists that American policy, at least since the days leading up to Pearl Harbor, has been dominated by men who were shrewdly and consistently selling out American national interests.
Finally, the country is infused with a network of Communist agents, just as in the old days it was infiltrated by Jesuit agents, so that the whole apparatus of education, religion, the press, and the mass media is engaged in a common effort to paralyze the resistance of loyal Americans.
Perhaps the most representative document of the McCarthyist phase was a long indictment of Secretary of State George C. Marshall, delivered in 1951 in the Senate by senator McCarthy, and later published in a somewhat different form. McCarthy pictured Marshall as the focal figure in a betrayal of American interests stretching in time from the strategic plans for World War II to the formulation of the Marshall Plan. Marshal was associated with practically every American failure or defeat, McCarthy insisted, and none of this was either accident or incompetence. There was a “baffling pattern” of Marshall’s interventions in the war, which always conduced to the well-being of the Kremlin. The sharp decline in America’s relative strength from 1945 to 1951 did not “just happen”; it was “brought about, step by step, by will and intention,” the consequence not of mistakes but of a treasonous conspiracy, “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.”
Today, the mantle of McCarthy has fallen on a retired candy manufacturer, Robert H. Welch, Jr., who is less strategically placed and has a much smaller but better organized following than the Senator. A few years ago Welch proclaimed that “Communist influences are now in almost complete control of our government”—note the care and scrupulousness of that “almost.” He has offered a full scale interpretation of our recent history in which Communists figure at every turn: They started a run on American banks in 1933 that forced their closure; they contrived the recognition of the Soviet Union by the United States in the same year, just in time to save the Soviets from economic collapse; they have stirred up the fuss over segregation in the South; they have taken over the Supreme Court and made it “one of the most important agencies of Communism.”
Close attention to history wins for Mr. Welch an insight into affairs that is given to few of us. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” he wrote some years ago, “I personally believe [John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” The job of Professor Arthur F. Burns as head of Eisenhower’s Council of Economic Advisors was “merely a cover-up for Burns’s liaison work between Eisenhower and some of his Communist bosses.” Eisenhower’s brother Milton was “actually [his] superior and boss within the Communist party.” As for Eisenhower himself, Welch characterized him, in words that have made the candy manufacturer famous, as “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy”—a conclusion, he added, “based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”
Emulating the Enemy
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. He constantly lives at a turning point. Like religious millennialists he expresses the anxiety of those who are living through the last days and he is sometimes disposed to set a date fort the apocalypse. (“Time is running out,” said Welch in 1951. “Evidence is piling up on many sides and from many sources that October 1952 is the fatal month when Stalin will attack.”)
As a member of the avant-garde who is capable of perceiving the conspiracy before it is fully obvious to an as yet unaroused public, the paranoid is a militant leader. He does not see social conflict as something to be mediated and compromised, in the manner of the working politician. Since what is at stake is always a conflict between absolute good and absolute evil, what is necessary is not compromise but the will to fight things out to a finish. Since the enemy is thought of as being totally evil and totally unappeasable, he must be totally eliminated—if not from the world, at least from the theatre of operations to which the paranoid directs his attention. This demand for total triumph leads to the formulation of hopelessly unrealistic goals, and since these goals are not even remotely attainable, failure constantly heightens the paranoid’s sense of frustration. Even partial success leaves him with the same feeling of powerlessness with which he began, and this in turn only strengthens his awareness of the vast and terrifying quality of the enemy he opposes.
The enemy is clearly delineated: he is a perfect model of malice, a kind of amoral superman—sinister, ubiquitous, powerful, cruel, sensual, luxury-loving. Unlike the rest of us, the enemy is not caught in the toils of the vast mechanism of history, himself a victim of his past, his desires, his limitations. He wills, indeed he manufactures, the mechanism of history, or tries to deflect the normal course of history in an evil way. He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from the misery he has produced. 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. Very often the enemy is held to possess some especially effective source of power: he controls the press; he has unlimited funds; he has a new secret for influencing the mind (brainwashing); he has a special technique for seduction (the Catholic confessional).
It is hard to resist the conclusion that this enemy is on many counts the projection of the self; both the ideal and the unacceptable aspects of the self are attributed to him. The enemy may be the cosmopolitan intellectual, but the paranoid will outdo him in the apparatus of scholarship, even of pedantry. Secret organizations set up to combat secret organizations give the same flattery. The Ku Klux Klan imitated Catholicism to the point of donning priestly vestments, developing an elaborate ritual and an equally elaborate hierarchy. The John Birch Society emulates Communist cells and quasi-secret operation through “front” groups, and preaches a ruthless prosecution of the ideological war along lines very similar to those it finds in the Communist enemy. Spokesmen of the various fundamentalist anti-Communist “crusades” openly express their admiration for the dedication and discipline the Communist cause calls forth.
In his recent book, How to Win an Election, Stephen C. Shadegg cites a statement attributed to Mao Tse-tung: “Give me just two or three men in a village and I will take the village.” Shadegg comments: “ In the Goldwater campaigns of 1952 and 1958 and in all other campaigns where I have served as consultant I have followed the advice of Mao Tse-tung.” “I would suggest,” writes senator Goldwater in Why Not Victory? “that we analyze and copy the strategy of the enemy; theirs has worked and ours has not.
On the other hand, the sexual freedom often attributed to the enemy, his lack of moral inhibition, his possession of especially effective techniques for fulfilling his desires, give exponents of the paranoid style an opportunity to project and express unacknowledgeable aspects of their own psychological concerns. Catholics and Mormons—later, Negroes and Jews—have lent themselves to a preoccupation with illicit sex. Very often the fantasies of true believers reveal strong sadomasochistic outlets, vividly expressed, for example, in the delight of anti-Masons with the cruelty of Masonic punishments.
Renegades and Pedants
A special significance attaches to the figure of the renegade from the enemy cause. The anti-Masonic movement seemed at times to be the creation of ex-Masons; certainly the highest significance was attributed to their revelations, and every word they said was believed. Anti-Catholicism used the runaway nun and the apostate priest; the place of ex-Communists in the avant-garde anti-Communist movements of our time is well known. In some part, the special authority accorded the renegade derives from the obsession with secrecy so characteristics of such movements: the renegade is the man or woman who has been in the Arcanum, and brings forth with him or her the final verification of suspicions which might otherwise have been doubted by a skeptical world. But I think there is a deeper eschatological significance that attaches to the person of the renegade: in the spiritual wrestling match between good and evil which is the paranoid’s archetypal model of the world, the renegade is living proof that all the conversions are not made by the wrong side. He brings with him the promise of redemption and victory.
A final characteristic of the paranoid style is related to the quality of its pedantry. One of the impressive things about paranoid literature is the contrast between its fantasied conclusions and the almost touching concern with factuality it invariably shows. It produces heroic strivings for evidence to prove that the unbelievable is the only thing that can be believed. Of course, there are highbrow, lowbrow, and middlebrow paranoids, as there are likely to be in any political tendency. But respectable paranoid literature not only starts from certain moral commitments that can indeed be justified but also carefully and all but obsessively accumulates “evidence.” The difference between this “evidence” and that commonly employed by others is that it seems less a means of entering into normal political controversy than a means of warding off the profane intrusion of the secular political world. The paranoid seems to have little expectation of actually convincing a hostile world, but he can accumulate evidence in order to protect his cherished convictions from it.
Paranoid writing begins with certain broad defensible judgments. There was something to be said for the anti-Masons. After all, a secret society composed of influential men bound by special obligations could conceivable pose some kind of threat to the civil order in which they were suspended. There was also something to be said for the Protestant principles of individuality and freedom, as well as for the nativist desire to develop in North America a homogeneous civilization. Again, in our time an actual laxity in security allowed some Communists to find a place in governmental circles, and innumerable decisions of World War II and the Cold War could be faulted.
The higher paranoid scholarship is nothing if not coherent—in fact the paranoid mind is far more coherent than the real world. It is nothing if not scholarly in technique. McCarthy’s 96-page pamphlet, McCarthyism, contains no less than 313 footnote references, and Mr. Welch’s incredible assault on Eisenhower, The Politician, has one hundred pages of bibliography and notes. The entire right-wing movement of our time is a parade of experts, study groups, monographs, footnotes, and bibliographies. Sometimes the right-wing striving for scholarly depth and an inclusive world view has startling consequences: Mr. Welch, for example, has charged that the popularity of Arnold Toynbee’s historical work is the consequence of a plot on the part of Fabians, “Labour party bosses in England,” and various members of the Anglo-American “liberal establishment” to overshadow the much more truthful and illuminating work of Oswald Spengler.
The Double Sufferer
The paranoid style is not confined to our own country and time; it is an international phenomenon. Studying the millennial sects of Europe from the eleventh to the sixteenth century, Norman Cohn believed he found a persistent psychic complex that corresponds broadly with what I have been considering—a style made up of certain preoccupations and fantasies:
- “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect,
- wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet
- assured of ultimate triumph; the
- attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary;
- the refusal to accept the ineluctable limitations and imperfections of human existence, such as transience, dissention, conflict, fallibility whether intellectual or moral;
- the obsession with inerrable prophecies . . . systematized misinterpretations, always gross and often grotesque.”
This glimpse across a long span of time emboldens me to make the conjecture—it is no more than that—that a mentality disposed to see the world in this way may be a persistent psychic phenomenon, more or less constantly affecting a modest minority of the population. But certain religious traditions, certain social structures and national inheritances, certain historical catastrophes or frustrations may be conducive to the release of such psychic energies, and to situations in which they can more readily be built into mass movements or political parties. In American experience ethnic and religious conflict have plainly been a major focus for militant and suspicious minds of this sort, but class conflicts also can mobilize such energies. Perhaps the central situation conducive to the diffusion of the paranoid tendency is a confrontation of opposed interests which are (or are felt to be) totally irreconcilable, and thus by nature not susceptible to the normal political processes of bargain and compromise. The situation becomes worse when the representatives of a particular social interest—perhaps because of the very unrealistic and unrealizable nature of its demands—are shut out of the political process. Having no access to political bargaining or the making of decisions, they find their original conception that the world of power is sinister and malicious fully confirmed. They see only the consequences of power—and this through distorting lenses—and have no chance to observe its actual machinery. A distinguished historian has said that one of the most valuable things about history is that it teaches us how things do not happen. It is precisely this kind of awareness that the paranoid fails to develop. He has a special resistance of his own, of course, to developing such awareness, but circumstances often deprive him of exposure to events that might enlighten him—and in any case he resists enlightenment.
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid 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.
Millions of Americans continue to actively participate in multiple conspiracy theories. Why?
A conspiracy theory promulgated by Donald Trump, the loser of the 2020 presidential election, has gripped American politics since Nov. 3. It has been willingly adopted by millions of his followers, as well as by a majority of Republican members of Congress — 145 to 108 — and by thousands of Republican state and local officials, all of whom have found it expedient to capitulate to the fantastical claim that the election was stolen by the Democratic Party, its officeholders, operatives and supporters.
Trump’s sprawling conspiracy theory is “being reborn as the new normal of the Republican Party,” Justin Ling wrote in Foreign Policy on Jan. 6.
A Dec 30 NPR/Ipsos poll found that “recent misinformation, including false claims related to Covid-19 and QAnon, are gaining a foothold among some Americans.”
According to the survey, nearly a fifth of American adults, 17 percent, believe that “a group of Satan-worshiping elites who run a child sex ring are trying to control our politics.” Almost a third “believe that voter fraud helped Joe Biden win the 2020 election.” Even more, 39 percent, agree that “there is a deep state working to undermine President Trump.”
The spread of these beliefs has wrought havoc — as demonstrated by the Jan. 6 assault on Congress, as well as by the overwhelming support Republicans continue to offer to the former president.
Well before the election, on Aug. 22, 2020, my news-side colleagues Matthew Rosenberg and Maggie Haberman described the rising strength of conspiracists in Republican ranks in “The Republican Embrace of QAnon Goes Far Beyond Trump”:
A small but growing number of Republicans — including a heavily favored Republican congressional candidate in Georgia — are donning the QAnon mantle, ushering its adherents in from the troll-infested fringes of the internet and potentially transforming the wild conspiracy theory into an offline political movement, with supporters running for Congress and flexing their political muscle at the state and local levels.
Conspiracy theorists are by definition irrational, contradictory and inconsistent. Polarization, the Covid-19 pandemic and the specter of economic collapse have engendered suspicion. Many on the right see “liberal elites” pulling strings behind closed doors, and paranoia flourishes.
According to Joseph E. Uscinski and Adam M. Enders, professors of political science at the University of Miami and the University of Louisville, conspiracy theorists do not “hold coherent, constrained policy positions.” In “Who Supports QAnon? A Case Study in Political Extremism,” Uscinski explores what he identifies as some of the characteristics of the QAnon movement: “Support for QAnon is born more of antisocial personality traits and a predisposition toward conspiracy thinking than traditional political identities and motivations,” he writes, before going on to argue that
While QAnon supporters are “extreme,” they are not so in the ideological sense. Rather, QAnon support is best explained by conspiratorial worldviews and a predisposition toward other nonnormative behavior.
Uscinski found a substantial 0.413 correlation between those who support or sympathize with QAnon and “dark” personality traits, leading him to conclude that “the type of extremity that undergirds such support has less to do with traditional, left/right political concerns and more to do with extreme, antisocial psychological orientations and behavioral patterns.”
The illogic of conspiracy theorists is clear in the findings of a 2012 research paper, “Dead and Alive: Beliefs in Contradictory Conspiracy Theories,” by Karen M. Douglas and Robbie M. Sutton, members of the psychology department at the University of Kent, and Michael J. Wood, a former Kent colleague. The authors found that a large percentage of people drawn to conspiracy thinking are willing to endorse “mutually incompatible conspiracy theories.”
In one study, for example, “the more participants believed that Osama Bin Laden was already dead when U.S. Special Forces raided his compound in Pakistan, the more they believed he is still alive.” In another study, “the more participants believed that Princess Diana faked her own death, the more they believed that she was murdered.” For those who hold such beliefs, the authors wrote, “the specifics of a conspiracy theory do not matter as much as the fact that it is a conspiracy theory at all.”
Douglas, in an email, wrote that “people are attracted to conspiracy theories when important psychological needs are not being met.” She identified three such needs: “the need for knowledge and certainty”; the “existential need” to “to feel safe and secure” when “powerless and scared”; and, among those high in narcissism, the “need to feel unique compared to others.”
Uscinski and two collaborators, in their 2016 paper, “What Drives Conspiratorial Beliefs? The Role of Informational Cues and Predispositions,” describe how they identify likely conspiracy believers by asking respondents whether they agree or disagree with the following statements:
- “Events like wars, the recession, and the outcomes of elections are controlled by small groups of people who are working in secret against the rest of us”;
- “Much of our lives are being controlled by plots hatched in secret places”;
- “Even though we live in a democracy, a few people will always run things anyway”;
- “The people who really ‘run’ the country, are not known to the voters.”
Conspiracy theories seduce not so much through the power of argument, but through the intensity of the passions that they stir. Underpinning conspiracy theories are feelings of resentment, indignation and disenchantment about the world. They are stories about good and evil, as much as about what is true.
Lack of evidence of a conspiracy, or positive proof against its existence, is taken by believers as evidence of the craftiness of those behind the plot, and their ability to dupe the public.
There are five common ingredients to conspiracy theories, according to Jan-Willem van Prooijen and Mark van Vugt, professors of psychology at the Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam, in their paper “Conspiracy Theories: Evolved Functions and Psychological Mechanisms.”
First, they write,
- Conspiracy theories make an assumption of how people, objects, or events are causally interconnected. Put differently, a conspiracy theory always involves a hypothesized pattern.
- Second, conspiracy theories stipulate that the plans of alleged conspirators are deliberate. Conspiracy theories thus ascribe intentionality to the actions of conspirators, implying agency.
- Third, a conspiracy theory always involves a coalition, or group, of actors working in conjunction. An act of one individual, a lone wolf, does not fit the definition of a conspiracy theory.
- Fourth, conspiracy theories always contain an element of threat such that the alleged goals of the conspirators are harmful or deceptive.
- Fifth, and finally, a conspiracy theory always carries an element of secrecy and is therefore often difficult to invalidate.
Van Prooijen elaborated on his analysis in an email:
Conspiracy theories are a powerful tool to demonize opposing groups, and in extreme cases can make people believe that violence is necessary. In this case (Jan. 6), the crowd clearly believed that the elections were stolen from their leader, and this belief incited them to fight for what they believed was a just cause. Most likely the conspiracy theories make them perceive themselves as a sort of “freedom fighter.”
Van Prooijen sees conspiracy thinking as deeply rooted in the evolutionary past.
Our theory is that conspiracy theories evolved among ancestral humans to prepare for, and hence protect against, potentially hostile groups. What we saw here, I think was an evolutionary mismatch: some mental faculties evolved to cope effectively with an ancestral environment, yet we now live in a different, modern environment where these same mechanisms can lead to detrimental outcomes. In an ancestral world with regular tribal warfare and coalitional conflict, in many situations it could have been rational and even lifesaving to respond with violence to the threat of a different group conspiring against one’s own group. Now in our modern world these mechanisms may sometimes misfire, and lead people to use violence toward the very democratic institutions that were designed to help and protect them.
Why, I asked, are Trump supporters particularly receptive to conspiracies? Van Prooijen replied:
For one, the Trump movement can be seen as populist, meaning that this movement espouses a worldview that sees society as a struggle between ‘the corrupt elites’ versus the people. This in and of itself predisposes people to conspiracy thinking. But there are also other factors. For instance, the Trump movement appears heavily fear-based, is highly nationalistic, and endorses relatively simple solutions for complex problems. All of these factors are known to feed into conspiracy thinking.
The events of Jan. 6, van Prooijen continued,
underscore that conspiracy theories are not some “innocent” form of belief that people may have. They can inspire radical action, and indeed, a movement like QAnon can be a genuine liability for public safety. Voltaire once said: “Those who can make you believe absurdities, can make you commit atrocities” — and he was right.
In their 2014 book “American Conspiracy Theories,” Uscinski and Parent argue that “Conspiracy Theories Are For Losers.” They write:
Conspiracy theories are essentially alarm systems and coping mechanisms to help deal with foreign threat and domestic power centers. Thus, they tend to resonate when groups are suffering from loss, weakness or disunity.
To illustrate how the out-of-power are drawn to conspiracy theories, the authors tracked patterns during periods of Republican and Democratic control of the presidency:
During Republican administrations, conspiracy theories targeting the right and capitalists averaged 34 percent of the conspiratorial allegations per year, while conspiracy theories targeting the left and communists averaged only 11 percent. During Democratic administrations, mutatis mutandis, conspiracy theories aimed at the right and capitalists dropped 25 points to 9 percent while conspiracy theories aimed at the left and communists more than doubled to 27 percent.
The “loser” thesis received strong backing from an August 2020 working paper, “Are Conspiracy Theories for Losers? The Effect of Losing an Election on Conspiratorial Thinking,” by Joanne Miller, Christina E. Farhart and Kyle Saunders, political scientists at the University of Delaware, Carleton College and Colorado State University.
They make the parallel argument that
People are more likely to endorse conspiracy theories that make their political rivals look bad when they are on the losing side of politics than when they are on the winning side, regardless of ideology/partisanship.
In an email, Miller compared polling from 2004, when John Kerry lost to George W. Bush, to polls after the 2020 election, when Trump lost to Biden:
A 2004 a Post-ABC poll that found that 49 percent of Kerry supporters but only 14 percent of Bush supporters thought that the vote wasn’t counted accurately. But this year, a much larger percentage of Trump voters believe election fraud conspiracy theories than voters on the losing side in previous years. A January 2021 Pew poll found that approximately 75 percent of Trump voters believe that Trump definitely or probably won the election.
Over the long haul, Miller wrote, “I find very little correlation between conspiratorial thinking and party identification or political ideology.” But, she quickly added. “the past four years are an outlier in this regard.”
Throughout his presidency, Miller wrote,
former President Trump pretty much governed as a “loser.” He continued to insist that he would’ve won the popular vote in 2016 had it not been for widespread election fraud. So it’s not surprising, given Trump’s rhetoric, that Republicans during the Trump presidency were more likely to endorse conspiracy theories than we’d have expected them to, given that they were on the winning side.
The psychological predispositions that contribute to a susceptibility to conspiracy thinking are complex, as Joshua Hart, a professor of psychology at Union College, and his student, Molly Graether, found in their 2018 paper “Something’s Going on Here: Psychological Predictors of Belief in Conspiracy Theories.”
Hart and Graether contend that “conspiracy theorists are more likely to believe that the world is a dangerous place full of bad people,” who “find it difficult to trust others” and who “view the world as a dangerous and uncontrollable.”
Perhaps more interesting, Hart and Graether argue that conspiracy theorists are more likely “to perceive profundity in nonsensical but superficially meaningful ideas,” a concept they cite as being described by academics in the field as “b.s. receptivity.”
To test for this tendency, psychologists ask participants to rank the “meaningfulness” of such incoherent and ludicrous sentences and phrases as “the future elucidates irrational facts for the seeking person,” “your movement transforms universal observations,” “the whole silence infinite phenomena” and “the invisible is beyond all new immutability.” The scale is called “Mean perceived meaningfulness of b.s. sentences and genuinely meaningful sentences,” and can be found here.
Adam Enders argued in an email that:
There are several characteristics of QAnon acolytes that distinguish them from everyone else, even people who believe in some other conspiracy theories: they are more likely to share false information online, they’re more accepting of political violence in various circumstances.
In addition, Enders writes,
QAnon followers are, in a sense, extremists both politically (e.g., wanting to overthrow the U.S. government) and psychologically (e.g., exhibiting many antisocial personality traits).
Polarization, in Enders’s view, when joined with conspiracy thinking, produces a toxic mix:
As polarization increases, tensions between political parties and other groups rise, and people are more willing to construct and believe in fantastical ideas that either malign out-groups (e.g., “Democrats are Satan-worshipping pedophiles”) or bolster the in-group (e.g., ‘we only lost because you cheated’). Conspiracy theories, in turn, raise the temperature of polarization and make it more difficult for people from different partisan and ideological camps to have fact-based discussions about political matters, even those that are in critical need of immediate attention.
Conspiracy thinking has become a major internal, problem for the Republican Party, which is reflected by the current turmoil in party ranks over two newly elected congresswomen, Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia and Lauren Boebert of Colorado, QAnon sympathizers with long records of florid, antagonistic conspiratorial accusations.
There is some evidence that the Republican establishment has begun to recognize the dangers posed by the presence in that party of so many who are preoccupied — obsessed is not too strong a word — with denying the incontrovertible truth of Trump’s loss and Biden’s win in the 2020 election.
Even Mitch McConnell, perhaps the most cunning and nefarious member of the Republican establishment, has come to see the liability of the sheer number of supposedly reputable members of the United States Senate caving in to patent falsehoods, warning colleagues earlier this week of the threat to their political survival posed by the “loony lies and conspiracy theories” voiced by allies of QAnon in the House of Representatives.
“Somebody who’s suggested that perhaps no airplane hit the Pentagon on 9/11, that horrifying school shootings were pre-staged, and that the Clintons crashed JFK Jr.’s airplane is not living in reality,” McConnell declared. “This has nothing to do with the challenges facing American families or the robust debates on substance that can strengthen our party.”
McConnell has a history of bending with the wind, accommodating the extremists in his party, including Trump and Trump’s allies, and he voted in support of the claim that Trump’s second impeachment trial is unconstitutional. If the conspiracy wing of the Republican Party becomes strong enough to routinely mount winning primary challenges to mainstream incumbents, McConnell may well abandon his critique and accept a party moving steadily closer to something many Americans (though not all) could never have imagined: the systematic exploitation of voters gullible or pathological enough to sign on to preposterous conspiracy theories in order to engineer the installation in Washington of an ultraright, ethnonationalist crypto-fascist white supremacist political regime.
The problem of keeping the extremist fringe at arm’s length has plagued the Republican Party for decades — dating back to Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society — but nothing in recent American history has reached the crazed intensity of Donald Trump’s perseverating, mendacious insistence that he won a second term in November. That he is not alone — that millions continue to believe in his delusions — is terrifying.
After the 2007-09 financial crisis, the imbalances and risks pervading the global economy were exacerbated by policy mistakes. So, rather than address the structural problems that the financial collapse and ensuing recession revealed, governments mostly kicked the can down the road, creating major downside risks that made another crisis inevitable. And now that it has arrived, the risks are growing even more acute. Unfortunately, even if the Greater Recession leads to a lacklustre U-shaped recovery this year, an L-shaped “Greater Depression” will follow later in this decade, owing to 10 ominous and risky trends.
The first trend concerns deficits and their corollary risks: debts and defaults. The policy response to the Covid-19 crisis entails a massive increase in fiscal deficits – on the order of 10% of GDP or more – at a time when public debt levels in many countries were already high, if not unsustainable.
Worse, the loss of income for many households and firms means that private-sector debt levels will become unsustainable, too, potentially leading to mass defaults and bankruptcies. Together with soaring levels of public debt, this all but ensures a more anaemic recovery than the one that followed the Great Recession a decade ago.
A second factor is the demographic timebomb in advanced economies. The Covid-19 crisis shows that much more public spending must be allocated to health systems, and that universal healthcare and other relevant public goods are necessities, not luxuries. Yet, because most developed countries have ageing societies, funding such outlays in the future will make the implicit debts from today’s unfunded healthcare and social security systems even larger.
A third issue is the growing risk of deflation. In addition to causing a deep recession, the crisis is also creating a massive slack in goods (unused machines and capacity) and labour markets (mass unemployment), as well as driving a price collapse in commodities such as oil and industrial metals. That makes debt deflation likely, increasing the risk of insolvency.
A fourth (related) factor will be currency debasement. As central banks try to fight deflation and head off the risk of surging interest rates (following from the massive debt build-up), monetary policies will become even more unconventional and far-reaching. In the short run, governments will need to run monetised fiscal deficits to avoid depression and deflation. Yet, over time, the permanent negative supply shocks from accelerated de-globalisation and renewed protectionism will make stagflation all but inevitable.
A fifth issue is the broader digital disruption of the economy. With millions of people losing their jobs or working and earning less, the income and wealth gaps of the 21st-century economy will widen further. To guard against future supply-chain shocks, companies in advanced economies will re-shore production from low-cost regions to higher-cost domestic markets. But rather than helping workers at home, this trend will accelerate the pace of automation, putting downward pressure on wages and further fanning the flames of populism, nationalism, and xenophobia.
This points to the sixth major factor: deglobalisation. The pandemic is accelerating trends toward balkanisation and fragmentation that were already well underway. The US and China will decouple faster, and most countries will respond by adopting still more protectionist policies to shield domestic firms and workers from global disruptions. The post-pandemic world will be marked by tighter restrictions on the movement of goods, services, capital, labour, technology, data, and information. This is already happening in the pharmaceutical, medical-equipment, and food sectors, where governments are imposing export restrictions and other protectionist measures in response to the crisis.
The backlash against democracy will reinforce this trend. Populist leaders often benefit from economic weakness, mass unemployment, and rising inequality. Under conditions of heightened economic insecurity, there will be a strong impulse to scapegoat foreigners for the crisis. Blue-collar workers and broad cohorts of the middle class will become more susceptible to populist rhetoric, particularly proposals to restrict migration and trade.
This points to an eighth factor: the geostrategic standoff between the US and China. With the Trump administration making every effort to blame China for the pandemic, Chinese President Xi Jinping’s regime will double down on its claim that the US is conspiring to prevent China’s peaceful rise. The Sino-American decoupling in trade, technology, investment, data, and monetary arrangements will intensify.
Worse, this diplomatic breakup will set the stage for a new cold war between the US and its rivals – not just China, but also Russia, Iran, and North Korea. With a US presidential election approaching, there is every reason to expect an upsurge in clandestine cyber warfare, potentially leading even to conventional military clashes. And because technology is the key weapon in the fight for control of the industries of the future and in combating pandemics, the US private tech sector will become increasingly integrated into the national-security-industrial complex.
A final risk that cannot be ignored is environmental disruption, which, as the Covid-19 crisis has shown, can wreak far more economic havoc than a financial crisis. Recurring epidemics (HIV since the 1980s, Sars in 2003, H1N1 in 2009, Mers in 2011, Ebola in 2014-16) are, like climate change, essentially manmade disasters, born of poor health and sanitary standards, the abuse of natural systems, and the growing interconnectivity of a globalised world. Pandemics and the many morbid symptoms of climate change will become more frequent, severe, and costly in the years ahead.
These 10 risks, already looming large before Covid-19 struck, now threaten to fuel a perfect storm that sweeps the entire global economy into a decade of despair. By the 2030s, technology and more competent political leadership may be able to reduce, resolve, or minimise many of these problems, giving rise to a more inclusive, cooperative, and stable international order. But any happy ending assumes that we find a way to survive the coming Greater Depression.
• Nouriel Roubini is professor of economics at New York University’s Stern School of Business. He has worked for the International Monetary Fund, the US Federal Reserve, and the World Bank.
Saagar Enjeti asks if populism will rise following the 2020 election.
What better foe for the president than his alter ego?
A Republican friend of mine rolled his eyes (and maybe even licked his chops) at the possibility that Democrats would nominate Bernie Sanders.
“Have they learned nothing from Jeremy Corbyn?” he asked.
“Maybe not,” I acknowledged. “But they’ve learned a lot from Donald Trump.”
Corbyn, of course, led the Labour Party in Britain to a whopping defeat by Boris Johnson and the Conservatives. He lost for many reasons, but his leftist politics were in the mix. He calls himself, well, a democratic socialist.
I needn’t provide such a primer on Trump. But I should point out that while he didn’t initially command broad support within his party, the backers he did have were loud and proud to the point of fanaticism (and remain so).
He described the country as a failing experiment and promised to explode the status quo. He and his followers practiced (and aced) absolutism: You stood with or against them — there was no squishy in between — and America could be sorted neatly into villains and victims. He dispensed with the usual political etiquette, chafed against the ill-fitting political party in which he’d garbed his ambitions and insisted that the system was rigged.
Sound like any senator from Vermont you know?
You can analyze Sanders and assess his prospects in terms of how liberal many of his positions are: the
- end of private health insurance, the
- dismantling of the Immigration and Customs Enforcement agency,
- free tuition at public colleges regardless of a student’s economic circumstances.
By that yardstick he’s Corbyn, and, in my view, a hell of a general-election risk.
Or you can focus on his irascibility, his grandiosity and the bellicosity of his believers. Through this lens he’s Trump. And what better way to topple the current president than with his ideologically inverted alter ego?
That’s a theory of the case — fight fury with fury, one messiah with another — that I hear frequently as Sanders cements his front-runner status in the Democratic primary and as Democrats, desperate to defeat Trump, wrestle with the wisdom or folly of giving Sanders that assignment.
He essentially tied Pete Buttigieg in the Iowa caucuses and is slightly favored to win the primary on Tuesday in New Hampshire, where he trounced Hillary Clinton four years ago. He leads Buttigieg by significant margins in polls in the two states, Nevada and then South Carolina, that follow it. Meanwhile, it’s hard to see how Elizabeth Warren pulls ahead of him, and Joe Biden is struggling to overcome a humiliating fourth-place finish in Iowa. That makes Sanders as strong a bet as any other candidate to nab the Democratic nomination.
The reasons for his success include his similarities to Trump, but don’t get me wrong: There’s no alignment of agendas among the two of them, no common set of political values and no moral equivalence — not remotely. I’ve read too much journalism that comes too close to suggesting that they’re versions of the same old white guy and have the same sloppiness with facts, talent for bullying and instinct for demagogy. Trump is a tyrant all his own.
But Sanders is a populist of the left as surely as Trump is a populist of the right, with a familiar distaste for compromise and a comparable appeal to Americans outraged or disgusted by politics as usual and by the usual politicians.
He, like Trump, breaks the mold and defies the laws of political gravity: He had a heart attack last fall, at the age of 78, and it didn’t scare away voters or slow his stride. While Trump claims leadership of “a movement the likes of which the world has never seen,” Sanders spearheads a “revolution,” to be brought about by “the most unprecedented campaign in the modern history of this country.” And aspects of his pitch — on trade, for example — resonate with the blue-collar workers in the Rust Belt who were important to Trump’s election. While some of Trump’s advisers believe that Sanders would be an easily caricatured foil, others believe that he could be trouble.
Look closely and you see the spirit and lessons of Trump all over the Democratic primary and the Democratic Party. You see it in the Biden campaign’s questioning of the legitimacy of the Iowa results days before The Times discovered and reported on specific irregularities. You see it in Mike Bloomberg’s merciless trolling of Trump with commercials that make him look fat and unhinged, and statements that would be shockingly juvenile but for their mimicry of Trump’s taunts. Julie Wood, a spokeswoman for Bloomberg’s campaign, recently called the president “a pathological liar who lies about everything: his fake hair, his obesity and his spray-on tan.”
You see it Nancy Pelosi’s theatrical ripping up of her copy of Trump’s State of the Union address. And you see it in the dive bar in Iowa where, on the eve of the caucuses, one Sanders supporter led others in a crude call-and-response, as recounted by Shawn McCreesh in Rolling Stone. The supporter would say the F word, and everyone would answer “Biden!” or “Warren!” or such.
Is this the rowdy road to a Democratic victory in November 2020? My brain and gut both say no, and those who think so — and who designate Sanders as the one to lead the stampede — overlook several dynamics, starting with policy. Polling shows that most Americans dislike a “Medicare for all” plan that eliminates private insurance, as Sanders’s signature proposal does. Polling also shows that most Americans wouldn’t want that plan to cover undocumented immigrants. Sanders’s covers them.
And Trump is already testing his attack on that front. “If you believe that we should defend American patients and American seniors, then stand with me and pass legislation to prohibit free government health care for illegal aliens,” he said in the address that Pelosi shredded. He also vowed that he would “never let socialism destroy American health care.”
The idea that Sanders would be the strongest nominee is challenged by the most recent midterms, when the candidates who helped the Democrats gain 40 seats in the House and recapture control of it weren’t ideologically pure soldiers of the revolution. They struck less militant, more nuanced notes, as the veteran Democratic strategist James Carville observed a few days ago in a lament about Sanders’s rise.
He told Vox’s Sean Illing that in 2018, “we did great: We talked about everything we needed to talk about and we won. And now it’s like we’re losing our damn minds.” On MSNBC he said he was “scared to death” that Democrats would blow the 2020 election.
Turnout in the Iowa caucuses was hardly reassuring. It appears that about 170,000 Iowans participated — considerably fewer than in 2008, when 240,000 people took part. That contradicts Sanders’s and his followers’ contention that his candidacy would rouse legions of dormant and first-time voters.
As for the argument that Hillary Clinton’s defeat proves the inefficacy of an establishment or center-left nominee, well, Clinton won the popular vote by about three million ballots and lost the Electoral College by only about 77,000, despite Russia, despite James Comey, despite a relentless focus on her emails and despite her own uniquely heavy political baggage. Subtract all of that and you get a winner — a winner who looks nothing like Bernie Sanders.
But when you go back exactly four years ago, you’re also reminded that Trump was causing utter panic among his party’s standard-bearers, who were convinced that nominating him would be akin to forfeiting the election. He was too idiosyncratic, too provocative — too much. Any responsible political analyst could see it. And almost every responsible political analyst saw it wrong.