Conspiracy Theories

The Age of Frank Gaffney

War, paranoia, and institutional power


Peter Beinart has a detailed article in The Atlantic about the anti-Islamic theories of Frank Gaffney, a man who thinks that Islam in itself is a subversive force and that the Muslim Brotherhood is trying to turn America into a caliphate. Beinart's piece, which is convincing on most points, looks both at how Gaffney's views have grown more influential in the Trump era and at how they fit into the longer history of conspiracy theories about minority groups. I found this passage particularly interesting:

High Frontier

It was not September 11 that made conservatives receptive to Gaffney's theories. It was America's failed post-9/11 wars. Joseph McCarthy won a following in the early 1950s, when Americans were exhausted by the stalemated war in Korea, by arguing that the real communist threat could be vanquished cheaply and nonviolently by ferreting out traitors at home. Gaffney argues something similar. "We can kill as many semi-literate bad guys as possible in the world's most hellish backwaters," he declared in 2012, "but as long as we ignore, or worse yet, empower and submit, to the toxic ideology they share with highly educated and well spoken Islamists in this country and elsewhere, we are doomed to defeat."

Over the last decade, conservatives disillusioned by the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, and alienated from their party's interventionist elite, have found in Gaffney's theories an appealing alternative.

Beinart has overstated his case here. The grassroots right did see an increase right after 9/11 in Gaffney-style crank theories about Islam. (And for that matter, the postwar Red Scare began before McCarthy's antics, and indeed before the Korean War.) But the real growth in Gaffneyism did come later, and I think Beinart's theory helps explain why. War-weariness can express itself in many ways. Gaffney himself shows no sign of being war-weary—his organization, the Center for Security Policy, is constantly hyping one external threat or another—but his ideas about Islamic subversion have an obvious attraction for conservatives disillusioned both with Bush-era ideas about how to fight jihadism and Bush-era ideas about Islam as a religion of peace.

In any event, Beinart's piece is worth a read. But before you rush over to check it out, a couple of parting thoughts on the other fellow mentioned in that passage.

The McCarthy era is widely remembered—with good reason—as a time of conformity, with people feeling pressure to conceal dissenting views. But what makes the McCarthy period stand out from the rest of the postwar Red Scare is that the senator aimed his accusations at some of the central institutions of American life, finally crashing after he reached too far and attacked the Army. There is a tension between enforcing conformity and disrupting institutions, and that tension didn't disappear entirely with McCarthy's fall; the fiercest segments of the anti-Communist right continued to amp up their domestic distrust after he departed the stage. The John Birch Society, for example, gradually moved from seeing powerful Americans as agents of the Communists to seeing Communists as agents of powerful Americans.

If you seriously believe that the country's most powerful institutions are being infiltrated by the enemy, then there comes a point when you start seeing those institutions as enemies themselves. The fear of subversion itself breeds subversive suspicions. And that wasn't just true during the Cold War. Ask any Bush-era national-security conservative who today is overflowing with suspicion of the Deep State.

Yet this sort of fear can also have a de-radicalizing effect: A distrust of institutions can be displaced by a distrust of the people who happen to occupy the institutions at the moment. The Obama years didn't end with the election of a veteran Tea Partier; they ended with the election of a veteran birther. The noisiest Deep State–fearing conservatives are less interested in rolling back the intelligence agencies than in purging them. And on the other side of the spectrum, the opposition to Trump often seems less interested in constraining the power of presidency than in exposing the president as a puppet of a foreign government. Paranoid nationalism comes in many flavors.