It's difficult to argue with a straight face that conspiracy theories are a new force in American culture. And so a pair of political scientists, Russell Muirhead of Dartmouth and Nancy Rosenblum of Harvard, have offered a more modest thesis: that a new kind of conspiracism is afoot in America, an insidious force they call the "new conspiracism." They make their case in a book called A Lot of People Are Saying: The New Conspiracism and the Assault on Democracy.
I wish I could report that they're onto something. Many periods of American history have produced their own distinctive flavors of paranoia, and that certainly seems to be true of the high weirdness we're living through now. I'd love to see someone unpack the differences between the conspiracy yarns of the Trump era and those of years past. Taking stock of the frightened stories that Americans are telling, comparing and contrasting them with earlier anxieties, figuring out what accounts for the differences—these are all tasks worth doing.
But this book doesn't do them. Muirhead and Rosenblum have simply cherry-picked some pieces of the present and past that seem to support their thesis, ignoring the vast swaths of data that would show them that literally no characteristic of their "new conspiracism" is even remotely new. And they aren't even all that good at cherry-picking: Sometimes their examples fail to fit the traits they're trying to illustrate.
Muirhead and Rosenblum claim that the "classic conspiracy theory"—that is, the not-new kind—exists to explain an historical event, such as 9/11. By contrast, "Not only does the new conspiracism fail to offer explanations, there is often nothing to explain." They offer the examples of Pizzagate, a theory that cast a D.C. pizzeria as a central node in a sex-trafficking ring tied to Hillary Clinton, and Jade Helm, a theory from 2015 in which a special forces exercise masked a plot to impose martial law.
This is doubly bizarre. For one thing, people do in fact use such theories to explain the state of the world. It would be far more fruitful to try to unpack the cultural anxieties that produced the Pizzagate story than just to declare, as these authors do, that the tale "seems to arise out of thin air." It is possible, I suppose, that Muirhead and Rosenblum distinguish such fears from a concrete historical event like the September 11 attacks or the JFK assassination. But in that case, it makes even less sense to call this kind of conspiracism "new"; history overflows with conspiracy stories that worked the same way. In 1689, when a rumor rippled through Maryland that the colony's Catholic leaders had hired a 10,000-strong army of Seneca Indians to kill the Protestants, what concrete event were they try to explain? (It's not like the killings actually happened.) How about the mid-19th-century tracts claiming that Mormon conspirators were using hypnosis to steal non-Mormon women? Or the Satanic panic that erupted in the 1980s, when devil-worshipping cabals were allegedly infiltrating day care centers, molesting boys and girls, and even killing children in grisly sacrifices?
The most infamous conspiracy panic in American history is probably the Salem witch trials of 1692–93. As with Pizzagate, that episode drew its power from a host of real-world forces—social tensions within Salem, an ongoing war with the Wabanaki Indians—but there isn't a 9/11-style event at its center. It does not fit Muirhead and Rosenblum's model of the "classic conspiracy theory" at all. Yet they do not address it. Even when they quote Donald Trump accusing his opponents of leading a "witch hunt," they don't pause to ponder the historical events lurking behind that metaphor.
There's another reason not to make Pizzagate and Jade Helm your examples of a "new" conspiracism: Both are directly descended from earlier conspiracy theories. Pizzagate is merely the latest in a decades-old series of claims that the country is governed by pedophile rings. And Jade Helm is hardly the first military exercise to be perceived as a prelude to dictatorship. Back in 1999, for example, many people said the same thing about Urban Warrior, a Marine training operation in Oakland, California. Indeed, some of the people who were worried then were the exact same people who were worried about Jade Helm 16 years later. A younger, thinner Alex Jones was there on the scene in '99, declaring that Operation Urban Warrior ought to be called "Operation Desensitization of the Population."
Another characteristic of the new conspiracists, Muirhead and Rosenblum write, is that they "posit new designs but not the how or why, and often not even the who. They do not marshal evidence, however implausible; there is no documentation of a long train of abuses all tending the same way. They do not make use of what [the philosopher Brian] Keeley calls the conspiracist's 'chief tool,' errant data." This is also supposed to be illustrated by Pizzagate and Jade Helm, which is odd, since those theories' believers did in fact "marshal evidence, however implausible" for their theories. The online spaces where they gather are filled with this implausible evidence, and it does not take much effort to find and read them. But if Muirhead and Rosenblum visited such websites, they do not show any sign of it in this book. The only conspiracist primary sources that make it into their endnotes are a couple of forums devoted to the bizarre QAnon theory, in which Donald Trump and Robert Mueller are secretly working together to remove a network of pedophiles from the power structure.
When they describe those Q discussions, the authors try to distinguish the implausible evidence they see there from the implausible evidence of the old-school conspiracist. "In its complexity," they write, "QAnon has the look of a classic conspiracy theory, but it is a species apart. The new conspiracists are engaged in a fantasy decoding operation using scraps of intelligence (called crumbs) that pile bizarre elements on top of each others. Not only does the conspiracy fail to explain anything—it also lacks elementary coherence and defies common sense."
Now, it looks to me like the Q story does explain something. It posits a world in which Donald Trump is not a weak and constantly stymied president but a highly competent commander leading a secret crackdown on child abuse, an idea with obvious appeal to people who have trouble reconciling the Trump of their imagination with the news coming out of the Oval Office. But the more important point, again, is that Muirhead and Rosenblum have not identified something new. Before they start claiming that such a sprawling mess of allegations is a novel development, they really should examine some more conspiracy theories of the past.
Take John Todd, a man who traveled the conservative Christian circuit in the 1970s and early '80s claiming to be a defector from the Illuminati. He spoke in churches across the country, sometimes to rather large audiences; where he didn't go himself, fans circulated tapes of his lectures. His allegations even found their way into some of Jack Chick's comic books. His story morphed over the years, especially when his forecasts failed to come true, but at various times he claimed that a Satanic cabal controlled everything from Standard Oil to the Manson family to the Communist Party to the John Birch Society to the rock music industry to Denny's.
And Todd is hardly the only example I could cite. How long have we had these "fantasy decoding operations" based on a mix of free-floating fears and dubious evidence? Long enough for Mark Twain to have spoofed them way back in 1897, well before any of the "new conspiracists" cited in this book were born. The antebellum South was regularly beset with rumors of insurrectionary slave conspiracies, and these fears were often based on just the thinnest reeds of alleged evidence. In Tom Sawyer's Conspiracy, a novel that Twain left uncompleted at his death, Tom decides it would be good prank to convince the local townspeople that an abolitionist secret society is plotting against the slavers' order. Like the figure or figures who post online as "Q," Tom starts forging clues and even adopting a false identity. (He puts on blackface to pose as a runaway slave.) His audience was already primed to see secret plots—"for more than two weeks past," Huck Finn informs us, "there was whispers going around about strangers being seen in the woods over on the Illinois side, and then disappearing, and then seen again; and everybody reckoned it was ablitionists." Tom Sawyer just finds ways to give everyone's imagination an extra shove.
Muirhead and Rosenblum list some other traits of the allegedly new conspiracism. In each case, history is littered with precursors:
- The new conspiracism, they tell us, often rests on "bare assertion": The conspiracist will declare an election "rigged" or a news report "fake" without assembling any evidence for the charge. It seems hard to believe that anyone would think this is an unfamiliar rhetorical move. But if you want an example from the past, look to W. Lee O'Daniel, the radio star who got elected governor of Texas in the 1930s. When two people quit his band, the governor blamed his political enemies, announcing on the air that the plotters had "caught" the musicians "in their snare."
- The new conspiracism, they tell us, frequently takes the form of simple innuendo, as when Donald Trump implied that Ted Cruz's father was involved in the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Much like…well, pretty much any older example of political innuendo that you can think of. When Chuck Hagel was tapped to be secretary of defense, Cruz himself infamously claimed that the nominee "could not even say that the $200,000 he received [from various speeches] did not come directly from a foreign government."
- The new conspiracism, they tell us, "does not offer an account of the constructive political change that should follow from exposing the danger"—it has "grievances" but no theory. I don't think all their examples actually fit this description (they cite Steve Bannon, of all people, as a man with no ideological prescriptions beyond bringing down the existing order), but in any case the same could be said of countless conspiracy rumors of the past. Back in the 1980s, a story spread that Satanists secretly controlled Procter & Gamble; the company received thousands of letters and phone calls from people concerned about the charge. What "constructive political change" was exposing the company's alleged links to the Devil supposed to create?
In another odd moment, the authors declare that the new conspiracism "is most evident in the United States" before warning that it's eventually "likely to come to the democracies of Europe, to India, and elsewhere." They offer no reasons to believe that any of this is more common in the U.S. than elsewhere, and the claim sounds pretty dubious to me. For several years I had a Google news alert for the word "Illuminati," and it didn't take me long to learn that wild conspiratorial accusations pop up all over the globe. Whatever else you might say about, say, the time a Nigerian newspaper accused a TV host of being a high-ranking member of the Illuminati, the incident sure looks a lot more like Muirhead and Rosenblum's "new conspiracism" than their explanation- and data-focused "classic conspiracy theory."
Essentially, Muirhead and Rosenblum have zeroed in on one sort of historical conspiracy theory, dubbed it the classic conspiracy theory, and then written as though political paranoia never took any other forms in the past. But it did, and not just in fleeting, evanescent ways. Those fearful stories had impacts. Laws were written. Borders were drawn. Sometimes people died.
Some of today's fearful stories could have long-term impacts as well. But probably not the impacts that Muirhead and Rosenblum imagine, because their apocalyptic forecasts rest on the idea that we're dealing with an unprecedented phenomenon rather than a recurring part of American life. We could be heading, they worry, toward "the end of democratic politics," because "without a shared understanding of what it means to know something and to hold a common account of the essential contours of political reality, collective political action is impossible."
If that were true, collective political action never would have been possible in the first place. What is the story of American politics, if not a story of conflicts and coalitions between people with radically different ideas about the contours of reality? Muirhead and Rosenblum write about the importance of pluralism, but they do not seem to comprehend just how plural America is. In the age of social media, it may be easier than ever before to discover that a collection of your countrymen have a mental map of the universe that doesn't look anything like yours. But the fact that you can suddenly see them doesn't make them a new development.