Duke Historian Nancy Maclean's Wacky Conspiracy Theory

The Koch-Trump feud is just part of the conspiracy to amend the Constitution in talk show host Mark Levin's image.

|The Volokh Conspiracy |

Readers will recall that Duke Historian Nancy MacLean wrote a horrible book filled with errors, misrepresentations, and speculation, on the late economist James Buchanan. The book depicts Buchanan as the intellectual mastermind of a Koch-driven plot to destroy American democracy in favor of libertarian oligarchy.

By now, no one who is really paying attention should take the book, or MacLean, seriously (see here for a particularly devastating recent review). Unfortunately, however, the book seems to have staying power, and is even being cited favorably in the academic literature by people who should know better.

But then there is this, from Phil Magness:

For those of you who were wondering how Nancy MacLean would explain away the recent Koch/Trump feud, wait no longer:

It's all just a ploy to divert people's attention over to Trump's twitter account so they don't notice the Koch plot to install Brett Kavanaugh on the Supreme Court, which will have the effect of securing James Buchanan's control over the judiciary from beyond the grave for just long enough until the Kochs, via ALEC, can execute a second stealth plot to call an Article V convention that will rewrite the constitution based around Buchanan-inspired principles as apparently manifested in that crappy "Liberty Amendments" book written a few years back by by right wing radio talk show host Mark Levin.

Note: I am not making any of this up, or exaggerating in the slightest. She actually said all that on Bill Maher's show this evening.

One can come up with a slighly more charitable take on what MacLean said, but only slightly. UPDATE: Perhaps it's worth noting that not only was it entirely predictable that MacLean would come up with a conspiracy theory to explain the Koch-Trump feud, but that I predicted it.

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  1. So Duke goes the way of Boston?

  2. We should be so lucky as to have that conspiracy theory be true.

  3. I love how she accuses the Koch brothers of “weaponizing” ideas. What an idiotic, intellectually empty, rabble-rousing turn of phrase. Lenin could have learned a thing or two about invective from MacLean.

  4. I forget: Is Bill Maher a comedian or a commentator?

  5. I’m skittish about a convention. Whereas the FF era ones the people in power were trying to limit government, a modern one would be dominated by those who, shockingly, want to increase the power of government.

    I’ve always felt if such a thing were ever to come to pass, all federal officials, especially elected ones, should be banned because the convention is supposed to be about the states deciding the form of the federal government, and said government should have 0 influence in its own form aand formation.

    1. If members of Congress thought a Convention would go their way, we’d have already had one; There have been enough states calling for one to have met the threshold, if you just ignored the language specifying the topics the convention was supposed to take up.

      Which you really should; Deciding what sorts of amendments to originate is the Convention’s job; The states have been trying to use the Convention as a hand puppet, not actually hold a real constitutional convention.

      1. I’m sorry but the public record shows this false standard is also been satisfied. As recently stated by a Missouri Court, “state constitutions do not allow state legislatures to add to Article V.” “Same subject” is an addition. Here is the link to the “same subject” bogus count. At least four subjects are already at the two thirds mark (or above). http://www.foavc.org/StateAppl…..ubject.htm .

        As to the rest of the supposed zany comments, they are not so “zany” if you read the laws COS has passed in various states. The laws totally exclude the American people from delegate selection and place control of a convention in the hands of a few select state politicians. The laws prescribe felony arrest for delegates who fail to follow the “instructions” of these politicians. There is no guarantee in these laws that the political promises made by COS actually will be the agenda the convention will consider. See: http://www.foavc.org/Pages/Page_Five_B.htm .

    2. I don’t know what history you are reading, but the document promulgated by the Constitutional Convention was designed to make the national government WAY more–rather than less–powerful.

      1. Eh. More powerful than under the Articles of Confederation, sure. But still much, much more restricted and less powerful than any other government on the planet at that time.

      2. The American Constitution was intended to make the national government powerful enough to do something, but not unnecessarily powerful.

        The Articles of Confederation proved incapable of fulfilling the promise of the revolution.

    3. A Convention of States is run by the representatives of the State legislatures not the federal Congress and neither the Congress, President nor the State Governors have any signature authority over Amendments to the Constitution from a Convention of States.

      Basically the Convention of States acts similar to Congress submitting Amendments to the Constitution for State ratification.

    4. The Kochs want to return us to the days when Senators were not elected by people but instead selected by the legislators of each state. Considering how easy it is for monied donors like the Kochs to corrupt/capture state legislators, this Koch proposal is a horror.
      If you love the United States you should stand against the Kochs. They seek to destroy democracy. That’s no exaggeration. And they seek to do it for their own personal profit.

  6. Is it still batshit insanity if it is utterly predictable?

    Also David, you double posted the “amiss” article.

  7. Leaving aside the wackiness of the Koch/Trump/Levin conspiracy to amend the Constitution, what does Brett Kavenaugh have to do with it?

    If the Constitution gets amended, it gets amended. The only role of the Supreme Court in that is to apply amendments, once passed.

    1. I suppose they anticipate that left-wing “Justices” would either enjoin the convention, or treat it’s work product the way the Taney Court treated the Reconstruction amendments.

  8. I thought that Brett Kavanaugh was a conventional fairly milquetoast conservative pick. Now my expectations for him are through the roof. A Levin-Koch puppet on the Supreme Court is huge.

    All’s I can say is he better deliver.

  9. I’m skeptical of her scenario. She doesn’t mention the Lizard people *or* the Rothschild weather machine.

    1. Of course the Freres Lazards and the Rothschilds are the dark powers behind the Kochs.

  10. I think what’s being said here makes a certain amount of sense.

    I think Professor MacLean is saying that her point of view is so far from either Trump’s or the Koch brothers that from where she stands, there is essentially no difference between them, and in particular she isn’t able to distinguish a difference between them. If taken as a statement about herself, I see no reason to doubt its truth. People have a hard time distinguishing people of different races, and an even harder time distinguishing individuals of different species.

    Something similar seems to be true about political discernment. At the end of the Weimar Republic, the communists famously couldn’t distinguish between the Social Democrats and theNazis, and to many Social Democrats the Center Party and the Nazis looked pretty much the same.

    One might think that someone teaching as a historian at a major university ought to be able to discern subtlete distinctions in political views very different from hers. But perhaps this isn’t the case.

    I’m not sure it’s fruitful to think of this as a lying or dishonesty issue. I don’t see any reason to think she’s subjectively doing any of these things. Sometimes it’s more useful to interpret peoples’ views as providing information about them than about what they claim their views are about. This may be one of those times. Just about any view will tell us something about both.

    1. For example, I would suspect that from Professor MaClean’s point of view, essentially any Republican Supreme Court nominee would sewm so radically far to the right of where she thinks the Supreme Court should be that she would regard the appointment of any as being essentially a coup d’etat and reflect force rather than law. I think it’s understandable that not only would distinctions between the them would seem (to her) to be too trivial to have any relevance, she might regard attempts to make distinctions as being essentially distractions from real issues.

      This is all completely understandable from her mindset and the general limitations of human perspective. One may disagree with her mindset, but again I don’t think it’s fruitful to characterize it as dishonest.

      1. That doesn’t explain the suggestion that the feud was invented as a distraction from Brett Kavanaugh, among other weird claims.

    2. Your German pre-war German examples were of political party positions to effect political ends. Even if they were seriously held beliefs by individuals within those political parties, instead of simple demagoguery, it would reflect little more than the fact that political emotion and reason often stand in opposition to each other.

      So, are you asserting that MacLean is a demagogue, or an undiscerning political operator unmoored form reason? Sure, she could be either, but neither is a good profile for an “intellectual historian”.

      Now, if she limited her assertions to, hey, look at these specific positional overlaps between Buchanan or Koch and X, it would be one thing, and defensible, as long as she did not ignore who else also shared those positions. (For example, there was indeed a lot of positional overlaps between the Nazis and the other parties you name. There were, of course, two major differences as well, one shared with the communists themselves, that would swallow all the others.) But she goes much further, and actually claims unevidenced connections and conspiracies that are more reminiscent of Alex Jones than a serious scholar.

    3. “Sometimes it’s more useful to interpret peoples’ views as providing information about them than about what they claim their views are about.”

      Put simply, she is projecting and if left untreated she will become delusional.

  11. I have been spending an awful lot of time lately on 20th century German history starting with the dichotomy between the innovative engineering genius of their war machinery and the often flawed strategic conceptions of how to use this awesome technology to actually win.

    Consequently, I analyze Nancy MacLean through this filter: what kind of weapons would people who follow her fantastic line of thought be arming themselves with, and then what kind of warfare would they attempt?

    It gives me a headache thinking of this, because I know that most people like her aren’t actually stupid and many are quite good in the hard sciences and computer industry, etc. If they are busy developing advanced cyber war, drone, IED, bio-warfare, or some such advanced technology, they might make pretty formidable crazies!

    However, I am somehow more inclined to picture Boadicea and her daughters getting the Iceni and other tribes all riled up in history’s first “Me Too” crusade and going down to London, Colchester, and other places and slaughtering rather a lot of Roman citizens and sympathizers. Queen Boadicea had quite a large and emotional army of zealots.

    Probably the nervous system of the Celt tribes were the Druids. The 14th Legion surprised them at an island festival and killed them all, then advanced on the combined tribal main forces and killed most of that lot. The queen ended up taking poison.

    1. I have looked at Communism, Nazism, Facsism, Imperialism, Socialism (including Democratic, National, and/or whatever other adjectives you may wish to put in front of it), and have concluded that there really is no difference between these systems: they are all excuses used for Top People to get power, and to keep it, at all costs. They *may* take different routes to get that power, or to keep it — for example, the Communists straight up nationalized everything, whereas the Nazis simply regulated business until they were private in name only — but, ultimately, their goals make it *very* difficult to distinguish them from one another. They are all Collectivist.

      (To be continued…)

      1. (…continued)

        To a certain extent, fighting against them is essentially the same: to emphasize the importance of individual rights, and to insist that government shouldn’t meddle in things, because they are going to be completely divorced from the market forces that would otherwise keep them in line. Any specific defenses against any particular attempt to power needs to be addressed individually, because there’s no doubt that a Nazi will just straight up take over and nationalize a business, and a Communist would regulate a business out of the hands of a businessman, if that was the most prudent way for them to get power.

        I’d say that this doesn’t mean that there will never be conspiracies between Nazis and Communists…except that there was the Stalin-Hitler Pact where Stalin and Hitler conspired together to take over Poland, and divvy it up between the two of them…so, yeah: obtain power by any means is *definitely* the guiding principle of the Collectivist.

  12. Aside from her being a wingnut, she might be convincing if she spoke less and said more.

  13. My impression was that IF a convention were to open. It could engage ANY topics that the attendees wanted to address.

    Am I incorrect about that?

    1. No.

      States have called over two dozen conventions. The 1787 Philadelphia convention is just one. For example, the Annapolis Convention of 1786 was held the prior year.

      A convention called by Congress under Article V is indeed limited in several ways. It may only produce amendments for ratification and those amendments must be consistent with the limits and framework of the existing Constitution. For example, a convention couldn’t produce an amendment doing away with equal suffrage in the Senate. A convention cannot decide the mode of ratification, or decide that ratification will take anything other than a 3/4 supermajority of the states to be ratified.

      Since the “call” is done by Congress, the subject matter of the convention can be set by Congress ? that’s consistent with conventions called in the past where the subject matter was limited by the call, such as the Annapolis Convention of 1786.

      For a convention to have no limits at all and be free to draft a wholly new Constitution, it can’t be done under Article V. Instead the states must call it themselves outside of Article V (such as the Confederate Convention). Such an act, however, runs afoul of the Compact Clause.

      Congress will never in a million years call a convention of unlimited scope because no one outside a few anarchists wants one. If Congress does call a limited convention, no one would have standing to challenge it other than perhaps a state, and no state would do so.

      1. Theoretically, a Constitutional Convention can usurp the purpose of the convention, as was done in 1787 Philadelphia convention, and produce a new Constitution with silly adoption conditions — such as “We only need 20% of the popular vote of any 3 States to make this the new Constitution”, but such a document will likely be ignored by everyone (including the 3 States that actually “adopted” it), or if it’s somehow taken seriously, it will cause Civil War.

        Indeed, the case can be made that even though what was done in the Philadelphia convention is arguably illegal, in the end it was legal, because the States ultimately were willing to go along with it….

  14. It’s super strange how, upon reading an interview with the lady herself, one comes away with the impression that it’s Bernstein who’s unhinged, not MacLean (whatever else one may think of the substance of her work).

    And before ranting about other people’s scholarship, you could do yourself the favor of getting the target of your rant’s name correct. Just sayin’.

    1. From the interview:

      “Do you have any evidence for your claim in that Facebook message that the attacks on your work are “coordinated”?”

      “I’m not saying they called each other up and planned a series of critical responses to my book.”

      Umm, that’s what “coordinated” means. In other words, no, when she posted a widely circulated message stating that her critics including me were “coordinating” their attacks, she just made it up, just like she made up many of the facts in her book. That you find this evidence of her perspicacity is telling.

      1. Read the next sentence: “What I’m saying is many of the critics come from similar backgrounds ? they are libertarians who trained at or are employed by the very institutions I write about in my book.” Does the Invisible Hand coordinate markets by dialing up on its Invisible iPhone buyers and sellers, or is it possible that “coordination” could result because her book set in motion a group of like-minded people, who are committed to the same principles, and are situated in the same or relatively similar environments?

        And I had this more in mind about the un-screechiness of the interview:

        “But, look, Buchanan was a gentleman, generous and kind with students and colleagues who shared his commitments and was well-liked by them in return. And I’m getting the sense from the complaints of movement insiders that they view the book as disrespectful to heroes of the cause. So it’s perhaps important for everyone to understand that I did not set out to critique Buchanan or other libertarians as human beings. I was not writing a biography or biographies. I was looking at these scholars’ ideas and tracing the impact of those ideas.”

        Go look at your own recent post. Your point #2: “While MacLean doesn’t quite go so far as to assert that James Buchanan was racist in supporting school vouchers in Virginia in the late 1950s, some of her defenders do.” Your point #3: “Several historians asserted more generally that James Buchanan was a segregationist.”

        1. Not to nitpick, but racism and segregationism (separatism) are two separate concepts. Are black separatists racist, for example?

        2. By using the word “coordinated” in an “Invisible Hand” sense, though, to claim that individual events are “coordinated”, then you might as well declare that everything is coordinated. If this is the defense of her claim, then she’s using the word disingenuously.

          Adam Smith used the word “coordinated” in an abstract sense, to describe how order can come from chaos, without some human Overlord directing everything — things aren’t *literally* coordinated, but things come together as if they were.

          When we talk about attacks on someone’s work via Facebook messages, we’re talking about some sort of attack bot sending messages automatically, or an organization sending messages to their (possibly paid) members, to send the attacks. Anything less than this is hardly “coordinated”.

  15. One definition of advertisement is:
    the action of making generally known; a calling to the attention of the public:

    Which is closer to the original meaning of the French word avertissement.

    1. Oops, wrong article. Where’s the delete option?

      1. Reason doesn’t have a delete option. Your mistake will just sit here, unless someone thinks it’s a particularly funny mistake, which can lead to some fantastic threads….

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