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Untruth to Power

The surprisingly long history of conspiracy theories in US politics.

  • December 14, 2016
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  • 5 Questions
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  • By Jefferson Robbins

If it seems more and more of your Facebook friends are consumed by dark theories about who’s really running things, Cornell Clayton would like to remind you it’s not a new fascination.

“Depending on the iteration of this conspiracy, it’s the Rothschilds, it’s Jewish bankers, it’s any one of a number of different elites,” says Clayton, a public-policy scholar at Washington State University. “That notion has been around a very long time — and was recently embraced by our President-elect.”

It was well before the 2016 election when Clayton came up with the concept for his latest Humanities Washington Speakers Bureau presentation, but talk about capturing the zeitgeist. “Crazy Politics: Populism, Conspiracy Theories, and Paranoia in America” delves into the ways charismatic politicians including Donald Trump, Bernie Sanders, and their forebears have seized on voters’ dark suspicions — fact-based and otherwise — to angle for power and prominence. The practice goes back practically to the Founders, Clayton says, and has historically forked in two directions.

“Populism is simply a Manichaean view of politics,” Clayton says. “It’s the belief that there’s a malevolent elite out there that, either in secret or openly, dominates our political and economic systems at the expense of ‘real’ Americans, and there’s this struggle going on between the two. […] The ‘paranoid style’ goes a bit further, because it embraces the conspiratorial and apocalyptic mentality, and talks about a secret force that attacks our very way of life.”


Humanities Washington: Who in presidential politics stands out as populist figures?

Cornell Clayton: Thomas Jefferson was clearly a populist, who railed against the Eastern mercantile elite, and argued for the small farmer. He was attacked as being a populist by John Adams and others, and along with that, there was lots of conspiracy theorizing that emerged around the Jeffersonian presidency. This is when the Illuminati conspiracy was popular: that there was secretive group—and Jefferson was part of it—that was conspiring to create a global one-world government and take away American customs and traditions, especially some of our religious traditions. Andrew Jackson was another populist leader who railed against the elites in the East and was seen as a champion of people without property. He was attacked as a populist, and was even called “Andrew Jackass,” which is why the Democratic Party is represented by a donkey. At this time, you also get the Anti-Masonic Society. It forms the seed bed for what becomes the Know-Nothing Party in the 1850s. They were a deeply anti-Catholic, anti-immigrant party, and again, had lots of populist rhetoric. Of course, the populist era is usually associated with the 1880s and 1890s, and that’s when the Populist Party emerged. During the first two elections of the 1890s, the Populist Party joined with the Democratic Party to run William Jennings Bryan. Huey Long is a classic populist — if you listen to some of his speeches, the elites were the Rockefellers and others who were exploiting Americans, and there was this deep conspiracy going on to screw the American worker.

What gives rise to a populist or conspiratorial thread in national elections?

To some extent, there is populist rhetoric in almost every election. Whoever is out of power, they usually run an anti-establishment campaign. But it really is a matter of degree, and during periods when you see rapid economic and cultural transformations taking place, populism and conspiratorial thinking really get teed up. They resonate with a lot more Americans, because many are experiencing the changes that are taking place in our culture and our economy and our identity as a nation. Today we have the exact same forces in play. The globalization of the economy has fundamentally restructured the way Americans work. We have more foreign-born Americans than at any time since the 1890s. And you also have the new Gilded Age—the polarization of income and wealth that’s greater than at any time since the 1890s. That’s what populist rhetoric, on both the political left and political right, is tapping into. And that can easily tap into the paranoid style, and that’s being helped even more today with new forms of media. [Now] conspiracy theories are given great immediacy and can be circulated very quickly.

During periods when you see rapid economic and cultural transformations taking place, populism and conspiratorial thinking really get teed up.

When fringe theories try to take hold in politics, is it better to ignore them or hold them up to the light?

It’s not that simple. If you look at people who embrace the paranoid style — and I use the term not in the clinical meaning of paranoid, but in the way Richard Hofstadter used it to refer to a certain form of discourse that sees deep-seated conspiratorial actors working to undermine the American system or the American people—they usually embrace these apocalyptic visions of the end of American civilization as we know it. But there’s a broad swath of Americans who have a paranoid predisposition to believe some form of conspiracy theories. Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent wrote a book on this. They did some polling and they simply asked questions like, “Do you agree that much of our lives are guided by plots hatched in secretive places?” Thirty-seven percent of people believe that. “Do you agree the people that really run the country are not known to voters?” Fifty percent of Americans believe that.

Aren’t both populist and paranoid rhetoric easily adapted to spread hateful messages? Anti-Semitism, anti-Catholicism, anti-Muslim sentiment?

There’s no question. And I think to understand how and why that happens, you have to understand that both populist rhetoric and conspiratorial styles of discourse are born out of something. Where you’ve seen populist movements in the past, and oftentimes conspiratorial styles of thinking, are the 1850s, the 1890s, the 1930s, when you’re seeing dramatic transformation in our culture and our economy, and those changes are producing winners and losers. The same thing is happening with globalization today. What both styles of political discourse do is they provide explanations for why your group is losing. Oftentimes during these periods, immigrants or minorities become scapegoated. If you look at the rhetoric right now, the idea is that average hardworking men, white males mostly, used to support their families on factory jobs. Those jobs are gone now. Why? Because these elites have conspired to create a borderless country where immigrants drive down wages.

Many voters embraced conspiratorial thinking in this last election, and many media watchdogs and political insiders turned their heads. What’s that mean for American politics going forward?

Our social identity as partisans has become so powerful that we are much more willing to adjust our political views to fit our party platform, rather than the other way around. What I’m looking at mostly over the next year is not the debate between Democrats and Republicans, but the debate within the Republican Party — between the Trump wing and the establishment wing, which is where I think a lot of the action is going to be taking place.

Cornell Clayton is presenting his free Humanities Washington talk, “Crazy Politics: Populism, Conspiracy Theories, and Paranoia in America,” around the state. Find out where he’s appearing next.

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