It’s getting to be downright impossible to keep up with conservative conspiracy theories. There are countless numbers of them circulating at any given time, with an increasing possibility of going viral and bursting out into the mainstream. Last month it was the purported pollster’s conspiracy that was supposedly making it look like Romney was losing when, conspiracy theorists informed us, he’s actually seven or eight points ahead!
That conspiracy theory exploded out of an obscure personal website based on a single supportive tweet by Texas Governor Rick (“Oops!”) Perry. The most obvious problem with this theory was that according to it, Fox News polls were a part of the pro-Obama conspiracy.
Now it’s the supposed Bureau of Labor Statistics conspiracy to bring the unemployment rate down under 8 per cent, based on what’s known as “household data”, reported by job-holders and job-seekers. No website this time, just a tweet from former GE Chairman Jack Welch, who knows a bit about manipulating numbers as well as firing people, but not very much about employing them… at least not in the US.
The most obvious problem with this theory is why now, rather than much earlier? And why so little? The household unemployment data has barely shifted at all in months before the drop this month – a tell-tale sign that the shady conspirators were goofing off on the job, not fixing any numbers at all.
In fact, the unemployment rate actually went up from 8.1 per cent to 8.3 per cent during the period from April through July before dropping back to 8.1 per cent in August – all this after it had dropped from 9.1 to 8.1 from August 2011 through April 2012 – a decline of 1.0 per cent in eight months.
If someone were going to cook the books – an utter impossibility, according to those who know, but then, they’re all in on it, right? – then why not simply let the figures continue to gradually decline after April? After all, that was a crucial period when better unemployment numbers would have really put the squeeze on Romney’s campaign.
Then there’s the establishment data – based on surveys of employers – which came in almost exactly as expected: 114,000 jobs added compared to 113,000 expected. Conspiracy workers MIA again! But it gets worse: Last month, for example, the BLS reported a disappointing 95,000 jobs added just after the highly-successful Democratic Convention, and there was immediate speculation that the report might kill the post-convention bounce (it didn’t).
If ever the numbers should have been juiced, that was the time to do it. Especially since now the BLS has revised those figures upwards to 142,000 (such adjustments are a regular part of how BLS works). If they were really engaged in a pro-Obama conspiracy, then why not release the 141,000 figure last month, and help bolster the upbeat post-convention message? The BLS also revised the July numbers up from 141,000 to 181,000, further indicating that earlier estimates undercounted the actual number employed – hardly the work of a pro-Obama conspiracy. If this is such a vast and powerful conspiracy, why is it so inept?
Obvious problems like these never bother true believers. They’re just proof of a further conspiracy – you have no idea how truly vast, nefarious and convoluted it is! Almost instantaneously, Public Policy Polling tweeted that “About 2/3rds of Minnesota Republicans on the 1st night of our poll say they think the BLS manipulated the unemployment numbers to help Obama”, with a follow-up tweet saying, “This may be a speed record for a conspiracy theory taking hold with the GOP base- less than 12 hours.”
Clearly, the record speed was a function of our social media environment. But the propensity to believe in paranoid fantasies is one of the oldest characteristics of the American right. Under John Adams, the Federalist Party passed the first example of “McCarthyite” legislation, the Alien and Sedition Acts, producing the first wave of “self-deportation”, along the jailing of some of the most prominent Democratic-Republican newspaper owners and editors, as well as a Congressman, Matthew Lyon, of Vermont, who was easily re-elected from his prison cell. (A fascinating history of this era told almost entirely through newspaper stories and personal correspondence can be found in American Aurora.)
As the Federalists saw things, they were the government, and attacks on them were attacks on America. But most Americans didn’t agree. For them, this frightening over-reach of centralised power confirmed the worst fears that anti-federalists had been playing up for years. The result was America’s first contested landslide and first “realigning” election, in 1800.
After Adams and the Federalists lost this election to Thomas Jefferson and the Democratic-Republicans, they did not move back toward the centre, as one might expect, but instead only grew more extreme, attaching itself to a wide-eyed conspiracy theory that lives on to the present day: the myth of the Bavarian Illuminati. Interestingly enough, this theory embraced by the British-loving Federalists was an import from France, Britain’s mortal enemy in that era, and the foreign power most favoured by Democratic-Republicans.
The decadent French aristocracy, swept aside by the French Revolution, could not accept the Revolution at face value as the uprising of an abused populace, pushed to the brink of starvation. “Let them eat cake” seemed like a witty remark to them, and they simply couldn’t imagine why anyone should get upset.
The French aristocracy knew nothing of democratic politics – they had nothing remotely like the British Parliament in their experience. For them, politics was synonymous with palace intrigue, which is to say, with shadowy conspiracies. And so it was only natural to look for the real source of the French Revolution, not in the suffering of the people, who could not possibly know what they really wanted, but in the intrigues of some vast hidden conspiratorial power.
The real French people actually loved the aristocracy, according to this account, but the evil conspirators had misled the trusting, goodhearted people into revolting against them.
This belief structure has remained the right’s basic template ever since, which no amount of actual, demonstrable human suffering has ever been able to alter one iota. Nor has the lack of evidence for the alleged conspiracies had much impact, either. Though various different dark powers were imagined – the Rosicrucians, for one, and the Knights Templar for another – the central bogeyman was the Bavarian Illuminati, a somewhat bookish secret society which was outlawed in 1785, after less than a decade in existence. While it did have a wide international membership, it had nothing remotely comparable to institutional power and discipline of the Church, which could turn its far-flung membership into any sort of coherent social force.
“The French aristocracy knew nothing of democratic politics – they had nothing remotely like the British Parliament in their experience.”
In short, blaming the French Revolution on the Bavarian Illuminati was only marginally more credible than blaming it on elves. But it was a thousand times more credible than blaming the Bavarian Illuminati for the Federalist’s defeat in the American election of 1800. And yet, something like that came to be believed.
In the late 1790s, two books appeared – Augustin Barruel‘s Memoirs Illustrating the History of Jacobinismand John Robison‘s Proofs of a Conspiracy against all the Religions and Governments of Europe – claiming that Illuminati had not only survived, but that they were behind the French Revolution. Four years later, after the Federalists had lost their hold on power, an American book appeared drawing on the two European books, Proofs of the Real Existence, and Dangerous Tendency, Of Illuminismby Reverend Seth Payson.
Other preachers – mostly in the Federalist’s stronghold of New England – published pamphlets and gave sermons spreading the conspiracy theory even further. At the time, clergymen were dominant public figures, as other professions were still in their relative infancies in America, so the impact of these figures was considerable, as they circulated accounts of the godless Bavarian Illuminati as the source of worldwide evil threatening America.
The conspiracy they alleged was eerily similar to the international communist conspiracy which conservatives would blame for the Civil Rights movement a century and a half later. In between the two, there was another favourite bogeyman: the Freemasons, giving rise, ultimately, to the Anti-Masonic Party, considered by many America’s first third party. (At least the Freemasons actually existed in substantial numbers in America, though they seemed to be more of an organised old-boys club than anything else, as far as political power is concerned. Many of the Founding Fathers had been Freemasons, a fact reflected in some of America’s official symbology, not least the Washington Monument.)
The Federalist’s political instincts proved disastrous in the end: they never won another national election again, and eventually simply disappeared. Indeed, the son of the only President they ever elected, John Quincy Adams, quit the party at a relatively young age, and eventually was elected President himself, under the Democratic-Republican banner, after the Federalist Party had entirely dissolved.
And yet, despite this sobering example of complete political failure, the American Right simply can’t let go of its conspiratorial fixation. It is effectively immune to any and all forms of possible refutation. And why shouldn’t it be? Any evidence that it is flawed, or even minimally mistaken on the smallest of points, can readily be dismissed as just another example of how “they” mislead the trusting, good-hearted people.
Which leads me to a 26-page pamphlet that my high-school friends and I stumbled onto in the 1960s, titled, “Communism, Hypnotism and the Beatles”, by David A Noebel, an associate evangelist of Billy James Hargis’ Christian Crusade. Needless to say, we found it hysterically funny. Published in 1965, it was subtitled “An analysis of the Communist use of music, the Communist master music plan”, and it basically argued that the Communists were behind rock ‘n roll music, using it to quite literally brainwash the youth of America.
Pop culture wars
Unbeknownst to Noebel, apparently, Communists generally regarded popular music with similar suspicion, especially rock ‘n roll, which they saw as symptomatic of the decadence of capitalism. They were half-right, as it turned out. Rock ‘n roll was a symptom of vitality, not decay.
But it was indeed politically dangerous, particularly in its more rebellious anti-authoritarian forms, as demonstrated by the crucial role that the music of Frank Zappa, the Velvet Underground and the Plastic People of the Universe played in inspiring Czechoslovakia’s civil society resistance, culminating in the Velvet Revolutionin 1989. In short, history would decisively prove that Noebel has been 100 per cent wrong about the relationship between Communism and rock ‘n roll.
“Before the internet – and especially the rise of social media – it was much easier for conspiracist discourse to thrive without ever attracting significant notice in the national political press.”
Yet, unbeknownst to us at the time, this pamphlet proved enormously popular on the right, thus encouraging its author to expand his work to a book-length format, Rhythm, Riots and Revolution, published the next year, with the same subtitle as the more memorably titled pamphlet. Over time, Noebel’s work would prove enormously influential on the right, utterly regardless of the fact that his central thesis was so dramatically discredited.
Although he was a pioneer of the pop culture wars, Noebel’s influence was dwarfed by other conspiratorial works of the time. John Stormer’s None Dare Call it Treason, whose back cover summarised it as detailing “the communist-socialist conspiracy to enslave America”, sold 7 million paperback copies – a truly staggering figure.
Phyllis Schlafly’s A Choice, Not an Echo promoted the conspiracy theory that the Republican Party was secretly controlled by members of the Bilderberger banking conference (this was before the Trilateral Commission was even dreamed of), who were super-secretly in cahoots with global communism. Her book title became the most prominent slogan of the 1964 Goldwater campaign, at the very same time that William F Buckley was making a big deal out of symbolically reading the John Birch Society out of the conservative movement, in order to help Goldwater – and conservatives, more generally – appear to be seamlessly mainstream.
Buckley’s tactic was highly successful. Even today, liberals like Rachel Maddow will cite Buckley’s move as taking a heroic stand, which contemporary conservatives have turned their back on, as the Birchers have been officially welcomed back into the fold. But the sales figures and career tracks of people like Noebel, Schlafly and Stormer tell a very different story indeed. Before the internet – and especially the rise of social media – it was much easier for conspiracist discourse to thrive without ever attracting significant notice in the national political press.
What we’re seeing now, with the rapid-fire emergence of one wild-eyed conspiracy theory after another, is not so much indicative that American conservatism has changed, but that the environment it lives in has. Quite frankly, I miss the good old days. You had to hunt harder to dig up the conspiracy theories, which always made it more satisfying once you found something. And when you did, you were in for a mighty entertaining time. Let’s face it: Pollsters and economists shuffling numbers like Enron, GE or Wall Street accountants… boring! Mind control, sex and rock ‘n roll? Now you’re talking!
Paul Rosenberg is the senior editor of Random Lengths News, a bi-weekly alternative community newspaper.