This week we discuss the history of conspiracy theories in America with Jesse Walker. What counts as a conspiracy theory? What are the different kinds of conspiracy theories? Are there any theories that have turned out to be true?
How do these theories fade in and out of our national consciousness? Are there any uniquely libertarian conspiracy theories? Is there a way to recognize a conspiracy theory when we come across it?
Show Notes and Further Reading
Walker’s books are The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory (2013) and Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America (2001).
Walker mentions reading Robert Anton Wilson and Robert Shea’s Illuminatus! Trilogy when he was young. Here’s a video of Robert Anton Wilson speaking at the Libertarian Party’s nominating convention in 1987.
Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 article “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.”
Frederic Wertham’s 1954 book warning of the supposed dangers of children reading comic books, Seduction of the Innocent.
Arthur Miller’s classic play “The Crucible,” which is a dramatized version of the Salem witch trials (and which was written as an allegory of McCarthyism).
Joseph Uscinski and Joseph Parent’s American Conspiracy Theories uses empirical data to analyze trends in conspiracy theories between 1890 and 2010.
Movies mentioned in this episode:
Aaron Powell: Welcome to Free Thoughts from Libertarianism.org and the Cato Institute. I’m Aaron Powell.
Trevor Burrus: I’m Trevor Burrus.
Aaron Powell: Joining us today is Jesse Walker. He’s books editor of Reason Magazine. He’s written on topics ranging from pirate radio to copyright law to political paranoia and he is author of the books Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America and the United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. Before we get to the meat of the book and your theories about conspiracy theories, how did you get into this topic in the first place?
Jesse Walker: Yeah, well, it’s been an ongoing interest going back to my teens in a couple of different ways. A story I usually tell when people ask me that is just that I got interested in the stories that came out in the mid-1970s with church committee investigations and so on of the real misdeeds of the CIA and the FBI, IRS and so forth. And that while I was looking for books on that, I often found other books on the same shelf whose claims run quite as well-grounded but which nonetheless were engaging to read and so I got interested in both the, you know, actual covert action, the history of actual covert action and the history of the stories that people tell about covert action and sort of the imagination around it.
And then the other side of that though, which is a little harder to fit into that but is also part of the interest was that as a teenager—we were talking about this a little bit before the show. Some friends of mine got into this game called Illuminati and these were the friends who are doing all kinds of role-playing games and stuff that I wasn’t particularly into myself, but they said, “No, no, you’ll like this one. Jesse, it’s a card game. It’s not a role-playing game and it’s funny, you know, and it’s got all those conspiracy things that you enjoy reading about.” And, you know, it was genuinely funny. For those who’ve never seen this game, this came out in early 1980s and it had—you got to play one of different—several different conspiracies trying to take over the world and they had, you know, dental conspiracies and bizarre things.
But it was clearly inspired by this book actually trilogy but it had just been reissued in one volume called Illuminatus by Robert Shea and Robert Anton Wilson, which I also read. So I got interested in things like the game Illuminati, the book Illuminatus, the Church of the SubGenius which is sort of a mock religion with elaborate conspiracy theories that was also sort of hitting popular culture around that time in the ‘80s. In this book, I call the ironic style of conspiracy theories, which is sort of—people who like to play with conspiracy stories not to believe and not to debunk them but to have fun with them and that has always been part of my sort of interest in the topic as well not just because I find it fun but because I think now there’s a whole history of people having fun with it and that has in turn influenced the history of conspiracy theories.
Trevor Burrus: That’s a weird feedback loop.
Jesse Walker: It’s a whole set of feedback loops and it’s creating an amazing cacophony that’s kind of cool to listen to.
Trevor Burrus: Would you ever consider yourself—well, this probably won’t require to define the term but, would you ever have been a conspiracy theorist as people popularly used?
Jesse Walker: Well, I mean there are conspiracies that I believe exists I think and everyone—I believe actually that everybody who in the United States is a conspiracy theorist in some sense or another, virtually everybody, not people in comas but—
Trevor Burrus: We can ease them from many things, yes.
Jesse Walker: I mean the fact is that it’s part of human psychology is that I mean on the one hand we are a story-telling, pattern-seeking creature and we need to find a way to sort of fill in the gaps with conjecture. And the second basic part of, you know, human existence is that we have things to be afraid of and sometimes they’re well-grounded fears and sometimes they’re completely absurd, but fear is part of human psychology. So if you put our capacity for finding patterns together with our capacity for fear and then you add in the fact that sometimes conspiracies do exist, sometimes you have something like the church committee or more recently, you know, the NSA revelations, you know, from—
Trevor Burrus: MK Ultra.
Jesse Walker: Yeah. It’s—sometimes, you know, there’s something genuinely—some conspiracies exist. It’s not like you keep waiting for vampires to show up, you know. Eventually you realize the vampire stories you’re telling might not have any truth to them. But the, you know, periodically conspiracies show up. So you put those 3 things together. We find patterns. We’re afraid of things and sometimes there’s a real conspiracy. People will imagine conspiracies. I’ve certainly imagined conspiracies of different kinds.
I mean I think that micro-conspiracies clearly exist. I mean people around Washington get together in private to plot things. Sort of the big picture conspiracies are almost always untrue but, you know, sometimes a large scale of the thing like, you know, MK Ultra does turn out to be—I mean the thing about conspiracies in real life is that on one hand, conspiring is part of the human condition. People meet sometimes in secret to accomplish things. But another part of the human condition is failure. I think the vast majority of plots do not actually work out and this is true on the big level too, like the history of the CIA is filled with complete failures. I mean part of the exposés of the 1970s were all of those assassination plots against Fidel Castro and part of that story is every single one of them failed, sometimes in just comically and confident ways.
So, part of the discourse around conspiracy theory often has to do with just, you know, could a group really pull that off. You’re imagining something that couldn’t happen and sometimes you have to ask yourself, well, could a group think it could pull something off whether or not we could actually—and I’m sure that—you know, I mean we mentioned the CIA because I said that earlier, but you look at other forms of conspiracies that have existed in the real world, you know, Soviet espionage, that sort of thing.
Again, you know, it’s full of failure as well as successes and that’s the sort of thing that’s often left out of the discourse of “conspiracy theorists” because you’re not afraid your enemy is going to screw up. You’re afraid they’re going to succeed.
Aaron Powell: Can we give a definition of conspiracy theory that ropes it off from, say, just plots or schemes or whatever else might not quite fit in there?
Jesse Walker: Yes. I use a very broad definition in this book because when people try to narrow it down and I’ve seen lots of attempts, you know, serious scholars trying to say what precisely are we looking at. This often comes up, you know, when you have psychology studies of trying to like find a conspiracy theorizing personality type or something like that. And I add all these qualifications that to me don’t belong there and it’s a—rather than sort of roping things off from conspiracy theories, I think it’s better to make distinctions among conspiracy theories, you know. You could say small or large, plausible or implausible. I will get into some of the distinctions in the book that I get into about, you know, outside or inside, which direction it’s coming from.
But to me, if you’ve got one or more person being alleged to—I’m sorry, not one. If you’ve got more than one person alleged to be acting in secret towards some sort of end, you’re talking about a conspiracy. Now if it’s a conspiracy to go out and get launched, who cares, right? But it’s a—I try to do the sort of very broad definition for a few reasons. One is that one of the categories of conspiracy and I talk about it here is the idea of the benevolent conspiracy and that gets left out a lot because people put in this structure that they’ve got to be plotting to do something evil or illegal, but I think that, you know, these idea of benevolent conspiracies actually influence a lot of the evolution of other conspiracy theories. They’re part of the picture that you should be looking at.
And another reason is that one of the main thesis of this book is that conspiracy theorizing is mainstream, not just in the sense that lots of Americans believe a conspiracy called JFK. But in the sense that there are lots of beliefs that are not categorized as a conspiracy theory while they’re popular that are, in fact, conspiracy theories that have the same sort of patterns as the ones that, you know, go on on the far left or the far right and of the fringes. And when you look at them after they’re over, people say, “Oh, yes, the satanic panic of the 1980s and 1990s,” for example, that was a conspiracy panic but that was very mainstream.
At the time, you had, you know, politicians, prosecutors, juries, you know, mass media outlets embracing this story that nowadays sounds like, you know, some of the fringiest Christian ideas that are around. And that’s—I mean there are certainly things that go on around the discussion on terrorism, around cults, around gangs that really should be thought of as conspiracy theories but usually aren’t because so many people embrace them.
Trevor Burrus: The difference—that’s a distinction you draw between—because your book is called United States of Paranoia and if people have heard about someone who wrote about paranoia before famously was Richard Hofstadter in the ‘50s. Now he had a theory that was about a kind of conspiracy theory on who tends to hold them in the ‘50s. What’s the difference between what he wrote about it in your thesis?
Jesse Walker: Yeah. So, Richard Hofstadter—and he started writing about the conservative movement in the ‘50s. His article came out in the early ‘60s. Actually, interestingly, it began as a lecture that was delivered in London on the day before the Kennedy assassination, which it almost feels like a conspiracy right there. But he thought—he saw—this is something of minority movements. I mean not as in like ethnic minorities but as in, you know, groups on, you know, the sides of society that might flare up from time to time but that it’s generally not a mainstream phenomenon.
And I think that not only does it apply to the mainstream, but you can see it applying to the Richard Hofstadter audience. I mean his essay when it was published in the wake of the assassination, 1964 in Harper’s and then an expanded version in a book in ’65. I the wake of the assassination—I mean sort of building towards the assassination then even more so after that, there was an ongoing panic in the United States about the radical right, the Second Brown Scare. And a lot of what Hofstadter wrote about the psychology of people who, you know, believe in, you know, the Illuminati conspiracy of the 1790s or what-have-you I think applies to the folks who were believing this exaggerated stories of a far right subversive threat and it applied to his audience in ways that are more clear now than they were then, but which it’s useful to look at the ways in which, you know, people were making this critique without thinking about how it might apply to themselves too.
Trevor Burrus: Do conspiracy theories say—well, this is one of the big question, I guess, of this entire episode but—and maybe we have to go through the lists of conspiracy theories that you have in terms of—because you write about this in the book that you’re not interested in whether or not they’re true.
Jesse Walker: I mean I’m interested but that’s not part of the book, right?
Trevor Burrus: But it’s about what they say about us in particular and the believers and what they say about us. So, maybe we can start going through some of these and you can fill us in on some of your favorite instances. I have some in mind in my question notes of specific instances…
Jesse Walker: So these are the 5 archetypes.
Trevor Burrus: The 5 archetypes. So the first one is the enemy outside.
Jesse Walker: Right. And the enemy outside is the conspiracy that’s based outside the community’s gates. It’s out there trying to get in and to transform your own community or society into something more like it. And the classic example in American history—I mean like the sort of the first primal example would be the theory of Native American conspiracies that the colonists had. No, obviously, they weren’t actual sometimes, Native American plots too, you know, attacks. They just as they were plots against Native Americans by colonists. But there became also very—there are also a lot of imagined ones that probably did not exist and then there were some very elaborate apocalyptic ideas about Satan himself being out there in the wilderness and the Indians worshipping him and him directing their plots and maybe coordinating with, you know, other—I mean it actually kind of coincides with something which falls under a different category which is the Salem witch trials.
So that’s the classic example but it also manifests itself, you know, in terms of fears of the Catholic church, you know, being run from the Vatican, you know, out of cold war fears of communism. Again, there were spies and so forth but there were very elaborate additional theories of communist plots that were not true. It continues today in the war on terror particularly when something like Al-Qaeda is imagined as a centralized conspiracy and octopus with tentacles everywhere.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, that one in your book, that was one of my big like “aha” moments was you call—I think you call it the myth of the great chief.
Jesse Walker: The super-chief, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: The super-chief. There were Indians, Native Americans who were rallying all the Indians together.
Jesse Walker: Yes. I mean— and this was an idea I borrowed from another historian who had sort of pointed to people like, you know, Geronimo and King Philips working. Philip was not really a king but, you know, they called—who were sort of imagined as having much more control than they actually, you know, did and in fact have over these attacks and so on. And sort of taking the—particularly in the colonial era, there is a tendency to project the European structures onto the Indians so that a sort of decentralized network of villages were imagined as an empire and one influential Indian as the sort of all-powerful, you know, plotter behind everything.
But, you know, that sort of continues throughout the 19th century, Sitting Bull and other figures like that. And, you know, it continues into war on terror too. I mean there are Al-Qaeda, you know, franchises, you know. The thing about Al-Qaeda was there are times when it was centralized and there were times when it had its fingers in all sorts of different parts of the world, but these tended not to be at the same time, you know. They tend to—they have their screw-ups and everything as any other plot. But there was this tendency to imagine Bin Laden as the super-chief who was behind everything and if you get rid of him, then you could, you know, cut off the snake’s head and everything ends.
Aaron Powell: This projection of us onto them is one thing that struck me particularly about the Indian-related conspiracy theories being it was that there is a symmetry to it because the fear that the colonies had was we’ve got our settlements and there’s this outsiders who are trying to come in, destroy what we’ve got, force—you know, disrupt our way of life. They’re being led or manipulated by a God that is not ours.
Jesse Walker: And if people slip away from the Puritan way of life, they will be Indianized and transformed into—
Aaron Powell: Right. Which is precisely what the settlers were doing to the Indians.
Jesse Walker: Yes.
Aaron Powell: It reminded me back of my undergraduate English days talking about orientalism and projecting the things onto another that you fear just like about yourself. And so is that—does that sort of symmetry play out elsewhere? Is that a theme run through it?
Jesse Walker: Yeah. And in fact one theme of— I’ll go with that theme, one sort of recurring motif is moments when you have and this doesn’t just apply to enemy outside the stories. Two groups looking at one another with paranoid conspiracy theories about one another and it’s—I mean and that’s—I mean in American Revolution, you had the colonists and the Redcoat, the Brits, you know, having their conspiracy theories about one another that lead up to Civil War. You had on the one hand northern fears of the slave power but, you know, the slave power did not—that phrase did not always apply to conspiracy theories but it often led to very elaborate ideas about conspiracy of slave hoarders engaging in assassinations and so on. And on the flip side, southerners who are, you know, constantly afraid of slave conspiracies were seeing a northern hand buying a lot of them.
Trevor Burrus: Well, you do write about that. In the very beginning of your book, you mentioned the assassination attempt on Andrew Jackson of which the gun misfired twice but there was 20 years of conspiracy theories behind that in terms of what you’re saying I think for the slave power the—
Jesse Walker: Yeah, I mean and people would cite that as one of their blows against it. No, in that case, of course, and one thing I talked about in the book was this burst of conspiracy theorizing. I mean Jackson himself thought that, you know, the senator that he was, you know, at odds with was behind it.
Trevor Burrus: The guy who pulled his gun out and who was—if I remember correctly, he shot once, it didn’t work, then he pulled another gun out?
Jesse Walker: Yeah, and it also failed. And that—
Trevor Burrus: It was point blank, right?
Jesse Walker: And that let some people who are anti-Jackson to say—and I don’t think the phrase false flag attack exists back then, but that’s what they were accusing him of. They said that Jackson must have hired this guy himself in order to—
Trevor Burrus: Make himself feel strong.
Jesse Walker: You know, and have the sympathy for him.
Aaron Powell: But this guy just needs a different gun dealer.
Trevor Burrus: Yes.
Jesse Walker: Yes, that might be a better—and this was like a great story in all sorts of ways because Jackson, you know, they didn’t have, you know, the Secret Service, which meant Jackson himself subdued the guy after both of the guns—
Trevor Burrus: Oh, really?
Jesse Walker: Yeah. Then he had his cane, you know, and these people helping him. So, yeah, that is another example.
Trevor Burrus: And the connection here, you mentioned the Native American myths or the conspiracy theories and the tainting, but there’s also kind of the captivity stories of women getting captured by the—especially women.
Jesse Walker: Not always women, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: And you mentioned that even with the Catholics, they had captivity stories that the Catholics are going to come and kidnap people and take them away to the Vatican and all this stuff.
Jesse Walker: Well, you know, there is this idea that people were held against their will in nunneries, you know, and there are actually some times. And this absolutely happened with, you know, shakers and some of the other minority religious persuasions that people had conspiracy fears of. You would have raiding parties to “liberate” people, you know, from the clutches of this cult, you know, and then some people didn’t want to go back to. They were quite happy, you know.
Trevor Burrus: Like little big men. Does that bleed into the next one, the enemy within? Because now you’re corrupting people and now those people might come back.
Jesse Walker: Yeah, so it’s the enemy is the conspiracy based outside the community’s gates and it’s an alien conspiracy. Then the enemy within the conspirators distinguish by the fact that you can’t easily distinguish him or himself that anyone could be a plotter. The great pop culture example is, you know, invasion of the body snatchers which, you know, it’s technically the enemy outside because they’re from the outer space, but it’s the basic animating fear is that the person next-door or even someone in your own family might, in fact, be not who they say they are or working for some other force. And that’s, of course, is the Salem is the classic example of this. Not only could anyone be a witch but anyone could be converted to a witch. You could be tormented and then like you agree they’ll stop tormenting you if you sign the book and then you’ve signed Satan’s book and you’re part of the plot and so it’s a—and then how can you avoid executive? Well, by denouncing someone else, you know, finding someone else.
So in terms of like the creation, the sort of social construction of the conspiracy that allegedly exists, you know, that also tends to spread in this way. And that sort of—that kind of fits witchcraft accusations in general, but part of what separates Salem and distinguishes it from, you know, the sort of general witchcraft accusations that sometimes happen is that it grew out of control. I mean under standard procedures in New England courts in the 17th century, someone could accuse someone else of being behind their cow’s illness or something like that, but this is difficult to prove in court, right? I mean people believe in witchcraft but they had, you know, some sort of a working tort systems and the tendency of the authorities was to not want this kind of thing to be constantly going on.
But with the Salem with what happened in Salem in the 1690s was it—there was this—well, one thing was the sort of fear of subversion. I mean this was coming in the wake of another Indian war and the fractured society. But you had—and so the state actually sort of got into the business of pointing its fingers and making it much easier and then it kind of got out of their control when you started having prominent people being accused and the wives of prominent people and that’s when you start having some second thoughts coming into the minds of some of the prominent Puritans who had previously been chewing this on.
And this is another thing where you can see kind of parallels with more recent things. I mean the—I mentioned earlier the satanic panic of the ‘80s and early ‘90s and actually beyond larger than that the sort of tendency to see child abuse often where there wasn’t good evidence for it and then one person, you know, who had as a prosecutor down in Florida participated in this was one Janet Reno who then comes up to become Attorney General in Washington, D.C. Those fears sort of helped to feed, you know, her poor decision-making, you know, during the Waco raid and because she thought— she was told that children were being abused at Mt. Carmel compound.
But also then the idea of the satanic conspiracy meanwhile had leaked into the fringes so that some of the people who are, you know, trying to claim there really were tunnels at the McMartin Day Care Center and that they’re trying to keep those stories alive.
Trevor Burrus: You mean these stories of like these day care centers where apparently they would have satanic rituals and abuse these kids, yes.
Jesse Walker: Underground and so—yeah. We’re also, you know, aiming these accusations at who, you know, Janet Reno. So it’s very interesting to watch the way these stories leak into new social context or cultural context where they’re then adapted sometimes to very different uses and that’s part of how these archetypal stories I guess we’ve talked about too now kind of evolved is that one group gets its hands on it, but their needs for that story are different. So the scaffolding, a basic sort of framework of the story may say the same but the villain’s identity and/or goals could change.
Trevor Burrus: Now the Red Scare, of course, can be—we have The Crucible as actually, you know, Arthur Miller’s The Crucible being a direct parallel but that would be a classic one and you talked about one of my favorite movies for—especially because you mentioned invasion of the body snatches and one of the things here is that that was the kind of movie where both the left and the right could say it was about the other side.
Jesse Walker: Right.
Trevor Burrus: And then The Manchurian Candidate is another one and that’s a little different because we had the old one which is a communist one, but we also have a new one which is a corporate one. And so again like this idea of [Crosstalk].
Jesse Walker: Not nearly as memorable though.
Trevor Burrus: No, no.
Jesse Walker: When they came out, I saw it and I wrote a scathing review and I don’t remember a whole lot of it now. But, yeah, and the original novel, The Manchurian Candidate which came out in the ‘50s by Richard Condon, I mean there’s a number of—it’s clear Richard Condon despised both communism and McCarthyism, but it’s also clear that what really got under his skin was manipulation. I mean he had worked in like public relations or advertising—I’m forgetting which one, something like that, and that whole sort of approach to seeing your fellow man is what he was sort of going after in this and then putting it in other’s skin and that in itself, you know, it was one of the sort of conspiracy stories of the day. I mean like the idea of advertisers being able to brainwash people.
Trevor Burrus: That’s like They Live.
Jesse Walker: Well, They Live, you know, one of the great sort of—not exactly body snatchers but body imposture movies.
Trevor Burrus: Yes, absolutely.
Aaron Powell: So we talked about like the Salem witch trials or the satanic panic of the ‘80s which are runaway conspiracy theories that then ended. So what is the aftermath of these things look like? I mean these are, you know, kind of stereotypical view of like the conspiracy theorist is the person who’s, you know, got the dark apartment covered in papers and strings and notes and no matter what happens everything feeds in and they don’t really kind of break out of this. So, the people who were pushing the Salem witch trials say we’re behind the panic or the people who were saying the day care centers had tunnels full of Satanists. When that ends, do they—
Jesse Walker: Repent?
Aaron Powell: Do they repent? Do they say like “I was a conspiracy theorist and I’m sorry and it was fake”? Or how did these things fade out? What does that look like?
Jesse Walker: I mean in different ways. I mean in the case of Salem, it had basically ended witchcraft prosecutions in what is now United States. I mean you can point to incidents here and there, but there was a real backlash against that and there was a formal apology. And I should say, I mean as bad as that was, America’s record and this is way better than Europe’s, you know. I mean that was basically a case of America suddenly looking like what happened, you know, alarmingly frequently in, you know, Scotland and even more so in parts of the continent.
So there’s that, and there’s other times when people just sort of have a forgetting, you know. You forgot that this thing happened. When I mentioned the satanic panic as an example, people will say, “Oh, yeah—” I mean I was still really young, I don’t remember it. People will say, “Oh, yeah, that’s a good example. That was kind of crazy.” But that’s not something people—I mean, let’s say, a loved one who’s still in jail, that’s not something that people usually think about and people may vaguely remember sort of “Oh, yeah, people got kind of upset about heavy metal bands in the ‘80s, you know,” but it’s not something that when we talk about the history of the 1980s, it’s not usually one of the first things people mention even though it was a pretty big part of American culture at the time. I mean it’s—and one that left a real mark.
Trevor Burrus: Dungeons and dragons too I think was—
Jesse Walker: Oh, yes.
Trevor Burrus: —about the time that got implicated in certain Satanism…
Jesse Walker: Well, I mean there was—Tipper Gore wrote a book called—geez, I think it was like Raising PG Kids in an R Society or something like that, and she had a whole section on—I mean, of course, Tipper Gore is infamous for PMRC like for the whole—the theory—
Trevor Burrus: For parental advisory, yeah.
Jesse Walker: Right. What was going on in popular music, but she had a whole section on role-playing games and she used as a big source like this group called it bothered about dungeons and dragons, accusing everything as a cultist is a cultist element, you know. And just basically just mindlessly repeating with this very nutty group was saying. And this is just—I mean this was not a book that was sort of treated as—you know, the way we would think of something coming from Robertson, you know. I mean lots of, you know, sort of culturally hip people didn’t like Tipper Gore because of, you know, they remembered, you know, the hearings with Frank Zappa and so on, you’re challenging her.
But this sort of became kind of the mainstream suburban central fear of popular culture. I mean this book was sort of part of the moment that people worried about violent video games and so on and it’s—I think I’d have to check. Hilary Clinton might have, you know, blurbed it or praised it or something. And it’s a bit—it was certainly of the kind of—part of American life that Hilary Clinton represents, you know, in the culture wars. And the fact that it contains this stuff that’s, you know, sheer vintage ‘80s satanic panic is pretty interesting. Actually, speaking of the record labels, I remember, you know, the push for having an old label for stuff with the occult.
Trevor Burrus: Oh, really?
Jesse Walker: Yeah, yeah.
Trevor Burrus: So all the Black Sabbath albums would have to be— and that’s, of course, all Tipper Gore really needed was to listen to the first four Black Sabbath albums and she would be cured of what ails her. I want to move on to the third one, the enemy above.
Jesse Walker: Right. So, now the next two, the enemy above and the enemy below, people might sort of recognize this kind of directional thing going on. So, the enemy above is what people tend to think of when they hear the phrase conspiracy theory, sometimes mixed with some enemy outside stuff. But any sort of conspiracy theory that involves, say, the CIA is enemy above. It’s sort of powerful institutions, government, large corporations, you know, the dominant institutions in society. If it’s located in one of those or in some sort of secret society that’s allegedly pulling the strings or, you know, trying to seize power, then it’s an enemy above theory.
Trevor Burrus: Do you have any particular favorite ones of those that are quite common?
Jesse Walker: Well, I mean like I mentioned—I mean and again anything with the CIA.
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, but like—I mean any—so anything with the CIA. So also would you consider Da Vinci code kind of stuff?
Jesse Walker: Well, Da Vinci—
Trevor Burrus: Rosicrucians or Illumin— I mean mason—that’s I mean like masons, that kind of stuff.
Jesse Walker: Let’s hold off on Rosicrucians. Okay. They kind of fit into category 5 except then there’s the other—well, we’ll get to that. But my favorite enemy above conspiracy theory is the little known track called the Declaration of Independence and this conspiracy track, it not only lists all the things that the King of England is doing to the colonists but says that it is a design aimed at reducing them to slavery. I mean it’s very clearly conspiratorial language and this is of a piece with a lot of the rhetoric in speeches, pamphlets, correspondence of the American colonists in the lead up to and during American Revolution. George Washington, Alexander Hamilton, Thomas Jefferson, all these people spoke in conspiratorial terms about what the British were doing to them.
Trevor Burrus: That seems to be the kind of one we got for—I mean I feel like the ‘90s were kind of—with the X files and the alien stuff, there was a lot of enemy above kind of conspiracies going on.
Jesse Walker: Yeah, I think so.
Trevor Burrus: And, you do talk a little bit about aliens in the book when they factor in a different—I mean sometimes with the enemy above and conspiracies with the CIA and things like this. You also have the body snatchers, but I guess that would be skipping ahead to the benevolent conspiracy of aliens.
Jesse Walker: Yeah. Well, should I say something about the enemy below?
Trevor Burrus: Yeah, exactly.
Jesse Walker: I mean the enemy above is the conspiracy of the people who rule. The enemy below is the conspiracy of those at the bottom of the social ladder trying to subvert and overturn it. The classic examples were the southern planters’ fear of slave conspiracies. I mean some people could not see two slaves talking without worrying that they were plotting a rebellion. You look there are—if you look back at the history of slave rebellions in the south, there are a lot more suppressions of slave rebellions than there are actual slave rebellions because there are a lot of false positives. And, in fact, there are some things we’re not even quite sure if there really was a slave rebellion or not because we’re dependent upon, you know, the records kept by these deeply biased judicial system that, you know, slavocracy had in place. But I mean, of course, there are other contexts too.
Actually, we were talking about these sort of changing forms slightly in different cultural context. Some of the stories told about the slave rebellion or the alleged slave conspiracies in the antebellum era are practically identical to conspiracy stories that were told about, you know, the riots in the ghettos in the 1960s. And then you look at them back to back and I get into this in the book. I mean it’s clear that, you know, this is a story structure that really filled a need.
Trevor Burrus: How does that structure go?
Jesse Walker: I mean it’s a—there is at the core of it this fear of—I mean there’s first the tendency, you know, white races to imagine blacks as subhuman particularly when acting together and sort of imagine them as this is zombie mob that’s going to, you know, rape and loot and burn. But zombie is an interesting phrase because I just described sort of the modern zombie thing which is, you know, not a conspiracy theory. It’s like a fear of like appetites and auto-pilot.
But the old zombie stories, they’re the mesmerized slaves of the master and often you had enemy below stories combined with enemy outside or even some sort of in odds cases enemy above stories because you have suspicions of other parts of the United States. And so you would have people imagining the abolitionists were behind it because, you know, this white abolitionists, they’re directing this either because they think blacks were too stupid to figure out how to conspire or too happy with their lot, if not, you know, activists. Also with, you know, land pirates, you know, there are other versions of it.
And then, you know, in the 1960s, you would have, you know, very similar narratives about what, you know, the looters and so forth were going to do and what they were being promised by communist conspirators. LBJ thought that communists—we’re not just saying that to John birch Society here, you know, and then Johnson was pressing his Attorney General and the FBI to come up with evidence that the communist plot was behind the riots.
And so it’s—not only these are parallels of the broad structures of these stories but even sort of elements of—I mean some of the sexual fears, you know, the idea that people were being, you know, rebellious slaves or being promised, you know, white women for their—
Trevor Burrus: That’s a constant theme in American history, yes.
Jesse Walker: And it’s not just like the constant sort of fear of, you know, the black man raping the white woman which is again a big part of, you know, American racist folklore, but this idea of it being promised as a reward, you know, this is going to be part of your loot, you know, when we’ve overturned it.
And actually I mentioned, you know, sort of the enemy outside being put in there. This is one of those things that people just forget or don’t think about because it’s so bizarre to conceive of, but in the south in the 1940s, there were rumors that, you know, there were these black clubs that were plotting rebellion that were in league with Hitler, so called Swastika clubs and that Hitler had promised, you know, black southerners control of the south after he won World War II. Now, we know about Hitler.
Trevor Burrus: That’s implausible.
Jesse Walker: Yeah, implausible to put it mildly. But this was a, you know, this was a rumor in the south in the early 1940s and there was another version where the enemy outside was Japan. There was another version where it was Eleanor Roosevelt, so—
Aaron Powell: Curious about the role of these either categories or archetypes play in conspiracy theorizing. So is this—these 5 categories, was this like—so there’s a whole bunch of conspiracy theories and here’s a way to divide them up. Or, is there something powerful like medically powerful about these 5 archetypes such that they kind of draw conspiracies to them? So like, you know, we have some sort of conspiracy gets going and then it coalesces towards one of these things.
Jesse Walker: Well, there’s—I mean and this kind of becomes clear what I was just saying in terms of combining the enemy below and enemy outside. There are all sorts of overlaps and cross-breeding. I mean this is sort of an—and I’m very explicit about that in the book. I mean this is sort of a way of organizing the topic. I think that there are stories that kind of attract new suspicions to them. I mean stories within these archetypes as I was just describing, you know, like with the riot theories resembling the old slave conspiracy theories.
But it’s not that there’s just natural tendency towards purity like if you’ve got a mixture of enemy below and enemy outside, it will naturally gravitate towards one or the other. I don’t think it works that way at all. And I think that—although I do think that there are certain sorts of stories that are more likely to be paired. And also, sometimes a story will shift from archetype to another over time as suspicions change.
So you had the John Birch Society in the 1950s having an enemy outside story about communism and even when you have suspicions that Eisenhower is part of it, you know. I mean like the high quarters are in Moscow. And this becomes an enemy above story in the ‘60s. It becomes the idea that no the communists are actually serving, you know, sort of corporate masters based in the United States and that’s the actual heart of the conspiracy. And then it also worked in the idea that people were rebelling in the 1960s, you know, the student protesters, black protesters and so on. Their strings are being pulled not by—I mean either indirectly through the communists or, you know, directly through other means by the sort of enemy above. So you have enemy above, enemy outside, enemy below all working together in this storyline but whether it’s at its core an enemy outside story or an enemy above story changes.
So, these things mutate and develop constantly and I’ve sort of created this organizing principle for, you know, discussing it. But it’s—what’s the phrase? It’s—
Trevor Burrus: Ad hoc taxonomy to some extent?
Jesse Walker: I don’t want to say it’s ad hoc or I would say—
Trevor Burrus: Imperfect taxonomy.
Jesse Walker: I would say it’s really—I try to be very clear that I’m not discovering something in nature here, right? And like creating a way to understand it. There are other legitimate ways of looking at it too.
Trevor Burrus: Now the fifth one is we mentioned benevolent conspiracy which we mentioned with Rosicrucians and also the one with the aliens and—
Jesse Walker: Angels.
Trevor Burrus: Angels or aliens coming in to fix our environment with the government, all these kind of ones, can you tell us a little bit about them?
Jesse Walker: Yeah. And this is also another case of where these things can mutate because there are texts, you know, sort of new age books that imagine these—that, you know, say that America has a hidden destiny, you know, and the Rosicrucians are the angels or whoever are guiding us. There are then Christian right people who will, you know, take this and say this is, you know—this is the evil conspiracy. Here we have the confessions of people involved with it or, you know, people who would look at some of the more heterodox stories about angels and say those are really devils, you know.
But the heart of the benevolent conspiracy is the idea that, you know, when people say things like “everything happens for a reason,” they are not necessarily saying that’s because the Illuminati is subverting everything. They’re talking about sort of a hidden benevolent hand moving things and in sort of the classic American version, someone is talking about God but there are times when this becomes more than just one supernatural being or not even necessarily supernatural but can become extra-terrestrial and that’s what this whole idea of sort of like a benevolent invisible collar and that chapter looks at the history of that concept.
Trevor Burrus: So, in general, do you—we’ve been talking about we can learn about these, but I guess sort of recapitulate and say conspiracy theories are everywhere. They’re constantly a play in American politics and if that’s true actually, what about libertarian conspiracy theories?
Jesse Walker: Oh, sure, yeah. I mean the question is people have asked me, you know, are libertarians more likely or less likely to believe in, you know, conspiracy theories and to me it’s more the question of libertarian conspiracy theories are much more likely to feature the state because that’s who libertarians don’t like, you know. Or other institutions in collaboration with the state using the state, you know. So, people say are libertarians more likely to believe in conspiracy theories? Well, they’re more likely to believe in anti-government ones and less likely to believe the ones being promoted by the government.
Trevor Burrus: I guess that’s true, but you also see the libertarians who do believe 9/11 conspiracy. I guess with the government doing that.
Jesse Walker: Yeah, yeah. I mean again—
Trevor Burrus: Or at least along those lines and the preppers and whatnot.
Aaron Powell: Is there a way to recognize a conspiracy theory when we come to it or to take this history and use it to protect ourselves against falling prey to believing in the ones that are going to look pretty silly in 20 years?
Jesse Walker: Yeah. I think if you know the history—I mean first of all if a story sounds really familiar—everyone must read this book so that they will know the tell-tale signs of a false conspiracy. Yeah, I mean if something really sounds like one of those old Indian conspiracy theories, you know, or like the witch hunt conspiracy, that’s a sign that even if there is a grain of truth there, perhaps they’re being organized into a narrative that’s misleading. So that, for example, obviously terrorists were plotting against Americans in 9/11, right? Obviously, Osama Bin Laden is a party to that. Some people would deny that. I think the case is pretty strong. But that doesn’t mean we should conceive of those conspirators or terrorists in this sort of, you know, super-chief way and that can lead to just misjudging the situation you’re in.
And again, the things like, you know, the satanic panic, I mean if you look at a lot of the rhetoric nowadays around, you know, human trafficking especially sex trafficking. I think that there’s this tendency again to imagine these, you know, criminal enterprises as these sort of vast and very powerful and centralized institutions in ways that, you know—it is very reminiscent of the satanic panic and I think if nothing else, if you get that twinge of familiarity, that’s not going to tell you whether or not any particular person is being trafficked, but it’s going to help you understand like maybe where you should ask further questions.
Trevor Burrus: Is there a process to—I mean some of these—so now we have the internet or we’ve had it for a while, but compared to most what your book talks about, we didn’t have the internet then. So, some of these seem like they could just be developed, so the satanic panic or the human trafficking stuff could just develop through one group makes a claim, it gets reported by a media outlet without properly vetting their source and then those people make the claim and then now people think that a whole bunch of people making the claim means it’s probably true and then ABC News reports it and—So you could have this. This is just a process of trying to get something to be a big enough panic that people who want to change laws about it like the fundamental Christians who started the satanic panic that they have to use the strategy to get people to talk about it so they can actually do something about it. So they’re trying to sort of gen up.
Jesse Walker: So you’re having a conspiracy theory about the spread of conspiracy theories now.
Trevor Burrus: No, no, no, no. I’m just saying they’re just like one group like, you know, whether it’s Jerry Falwell’s group, they want to gen up panic about this and they succeed in doing it.
Jesse Walker: Yeah. I mean I don’t think that’s how the satanic panic emerged. I mean I think in that case you had the collision of several anxieties that happen to happen at the same time. A fear is about missing children, fears of cults, either a movement or sort of—I mean for a lot of time child abuse had been swept under the rug and there was this sort of overcorrection where people are surfing now and they must always believe anything that comes out of the mouth of a child even if they’ve just been in a long session with a sketchy psychotherapist, you know, who’s been, you know—so, it’s a—you know, and there were a number of sexual anxieties going on at the same time. So, I don’t think that someone deliberately cooked up satanic panic in order to advance an agenda. I think it—but I think that it then happened at a time where stories that were being told in a sort of fringy Christian context a decade earlier were now being embraced by the mainstream. Often not even by people who knew that a decade earlier, someone had been making these claims in this other context.
Aaron Powell: So looking at our world today, are there things accepted as conventional wisdom right now or at least not dismissed as conspiracy theories that you think stand a good chance of being seen as them later?
Jesse Walker: Yeah, I mentioned the sex trafficking. I think a lot of that is going to be looked back with embarrassment now. I mean we’re having kind of a re-run right now of a lot of the white slavery stories that were told about coerced prostitution a century ago. And it’s actually we’re at this point where even though—even people who are susceptible to believing some of the more odd and exaggerated claims about sex trafficking right now are, you know—they will look back at the white slavery stuff as well. Of course, that stuff was nuts because it was done in this language of, you know, progressive era and earlier. But I think that’s one example.
And then broader, I mean I don’t know how long whether this is something that we’ll ever sort of recover from, but all of our discourses around minority religions, you know, when they’re called cults often fall into this, all of our discourse around gangs. I mentioned that earlier, but it’s important to tell you—all sorts of crime stories, people imagine things being organized. I mean it’s stuff that gets forwarded to you about, you know, the secret symbol, I mean gang initiations. There’s just sort of very pulpy imagination that gets imposed on. Obviously crime is real and gangs are real but, you know, they don’t all look like some movie that you saw, you know, when you were 17 or whatever. But that’s been so current. I don’t know if we’ll get past it.
And then with terrorism, you know, I don’t think fear of terrorism itself is going to go away because terrorism is going to—you know, will—there’s always going to be some sorts of terrorism. But I think that some of the more specific fears that are going through the American culture right now may be viewed in the future the way we now look back at, you know, the stories told about Japanese Americans during World War II, that sort of thing.
Trevor Burrus: So, is there any indication that conspiracy theories might be getting worse? One reason I think there may be could be, for example, is that we’re walling ourselves off in different media outlets, so we might need conspiracy there to explain the other side because we rarely interact with it, for example. Just to interact in general. Are they getting more common? Are they getting worse? Is this going to be a problem if that’s true?
Jesse Walker: I think—there’s actually really interesting study that was done recently. Joe Uscinski and Joe Parent, a couple of politician scientists took this enormous sample of letters from the New York Times and the Chicago Tribune, mostly the New York Times, but they used the Tribune sort of as a control group to make sure that they weren’t getting something that was just like liberal times audience, you know, or relatively liberal coastal times audience. And they—going back more than a century and they just basically looked at all the letters to the editor and coded, you know, like which ones made conspiratorial claims. And it was—there were a couple of really big spikes in the 1890s around people talking about corporate trusts and the 1950s Cold War communist fears and there were some smaller spikes around things like Watergate. But over time, basically, it tended to be pretty constant and actually slightly declining.
Now there are obvious follow-up questions like, you know, to what extent the things then moved to talk radio or the internet and so forth. But this is like the most complete sort of study that I’ve seen someone do and it reinforces my general gut feeling which is that no, it’s not more common now. The internet has changed the way conspiracy theories are generated and spread. I think, you know, the conspiracy news cycle has bet up along with all the rest of the news cycle. I think that it’s now a lot of conspiracy theories that previously would be limited to particular subcultures are now much more visible to outsiders so that when I mentioned, you know, the Swastika club story earlier, we know about that because the sociologists went out and interviewed a bunch of people. But now you can watch things get posted on Facebook page and not only does that make it more visible, but it also means there’s more cross-pollination. You might have a conspiracy forum or people who probably would not talk about this in real life might encounter in trade stories and so you have, you know, hippies, black nationalists, UFO buffs, militiamen, you know, taking what they want from other people’s stories and work it.
So this all changes the way conspiracy stories are told, but it doesn’t necessarily make them more common. And when you also add in the fact that, yes, conspiracy stories can travel quickly and far in the internet, so can debunking. It’s not immediately obvious. I mentioned Joe Uscinski. He actually thinks the debunking might be winning that particular race. He’s writing a paper. It’s not out yet. I don’t know. But I mean it’s not immediately obvious that one is going to pull ahead of the other.
So what we have now is not so much like a new paranoid era as this is the particular paranoia of 2016. Most people have not looked at this history and most people tend to forget the things that they found quite compelling, you know, 15, 25, 35 years earlier. So they forget, you know, or they don’t know about it or they just sort of pass over the fears of earlier eras that people have always had things to be afraid of and they imagined they always will.
Aaron Powell: Thank you for listening. Free Thoughts is produced by Evan Banks and Mark McDaniel. To learn more, find us on the web at www.libertarianism.org.