Paranoid history of the GOP: How conspiracy theories poisoned the Republican Party

Wingnuts have become increasingly reliant on reality-defying paranoia. Here's how it happened

By Paul Rosenberg

Contributing Writer

Published September 1, 2015 8:03PM (EDT)

  (AP/Mary Schwalm/John Duricka)
(AP/Mary Schwalm/John Duricka)

In the 1960s, William F. Buckley tried to banish organized conspiracists from the conservative movement with his crusade against the John Birch Society, which tellingly organized itself secretively, just like the Communists that it believed were everywhere. In a 2008 article in Commentary, Buckley told the story of how he, writer Russell Kirk, AEI's William Baroody, and Barry Goldwater met in 1962, and discussed “the need to excommunicate the John Birch Society from the conservative movement,” so that they wouldn't derail a Goldwater presidential bid in 1964. As Buckley described Robert Welch, founder of John Birch Society:

His influence was near-hypnotic, and his ideas wild. He said Dwight D. Eisenhower was a “dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy,” and that the government of the United States was “under operational control of the Communist party.” It was, he said in the summer of 1961, “50-70 percent” Communist-controlled.

It was not a winning message for a presidential campaign, but Goldwater lamented to Kirk that “Every other person in Phoenix is a member of the John Birch Society. Russell, I’m not talking about Commie-haunted apple pickers or cactus drunks, I’m talking about the highest cast of men of affairs.” And so they had to act craftily in concert, which they then proceeded to do over a period of years.

But it was only a cosmetic move, as far as the mass right-wing base was concerned. This can be seen by the massive sales of conspiracist books, far outselling Buckley and Kirk. John Stormer's "None Dare Call It Treason," promoted as detailing "the communist-socialist conspiracy to enslave America," sold 7 million paperback copies, mostly during Goldwater's campaign, at the same time that Phyllis Schlafly's "A Choice, Not an Echo," another multimillion-seller, gave the campaign its most memorable slogan, while promoting the conspiracy theory that the Republican Party was secretly controlled by members of the Bilderberger banking conference, who were also in cahoots with global communism. It was these us-vs.-them conspiracist narratives that pulled together the conservative movement on the ground. Given the media and political structures of the time, it was possible to hide this substantial mass of conspiracist belief, much as a iceberg hides nine-tenths of its mass underwater. But there's no mistaking that it was there, and remained unshaken despite being kept submerged.

Still, the Buckley/Kirk/Goldwater strategy kept the conspiracists in line, in the background, as far as D.C.-based politics were concerned, and that was key to conservative success—keeping up the appearances of being a rational, factually informed political movement. After all, that was the whole point of Buckley's story, and even Rachel Maddow echoed this version of history after his death. Jonathan Rauch presents a fully formed version of the tale, in which:

Buckley's gambit succeeded. The Birchers and their conspiracy-mongering were banished from the mainstream conservative coalition, and the stage was set for the reality-based critique of liberalism that brought Ronald Reagan to power.

But, of course, there was nothing reality-based about Reagan's “critique” of liberalism. Contrary to Reagan's fantasizing, the FDR-LBJ welfare state worked—it produced the largest middle class in world history, with broadly shared prosperity that's never been equaled since. No one even remembers Reagan's failed promise to balance the budget, based on his supply-side tax cuts that exploded the federal debt, while launching the sustained rise of the 1 percent into the economic stratosphere, as the rest of America has endured decades of wage stagnation, and downsized dreams.

At the time, Matt Yglesias pointed out that the 1980 election “ looks like a very typical election” in terms of Douglas Hibbs’ famous “bread and peace” electoral model. So the real story was about how Ronald Reagan became the Republican nominee—and that was very much a story about how he managed to mobilize the conspiracy-minded GOP base to secure the nomination.

In short, conspiracism was never anywhere near being excommunicated from the conservative movement or the GOP. It was, however, generally kept in line, which is why sanitized stories like Rauch, Buckley and Maddow's can plausibly be told.

Now, however, conspiracism is virtually all the GOP has left, and it's not just a sudden development with the emergence of Donald Trump. The attacks on Planned Parenthood were based on a multilayered conspiracy theory view of what Planned Parenthood does, with no relation to reality. Its actual purpose—providing family planning services and healthcare—seems utterly impossible for its enemies to grasp. Instead, it's made out to be a sinister criminal enterprise, modeled on something out of H.P. Lovecraft. A rash of investigations quickly cleared Planned Parenthood of any violations of law, while the videos used to initiate the attack were found to be profoundly misleading. “[Independent researcher Glen] Simpson said his team of experts found that the subtitles in the videos do not correspond to the actual dialogue, and that the CMP may have simply invented parts of the conversation when the recordings were too low-quality to determine what was really being said.”

So, rather than Planned Parenthood being involved in a macabre secret conspiracy, it was actually the accusers who had conspired to deceive. This is hardly surprising, since the Planned Parenthood attacks followed in the footsteps of the deceptive attacks that destroyed ACORN, also based on a multilayered conspiracy theory, including a conspiracy narrative about voter fraud—although that was not the front on which ACORN was attacked.

Actual voter fraud is extremely rare, but ACORN, which employed contract workers to register new voters, had been the subject of demonizing attacks and repeated sloppy news reporting over the years, which failed to explain that the problems ACORN encountered were those of employees faking registrations to get paid by ACORN for work not done. These violations thus a) had nothing to do anyone voting, and b) involved ACORN as the victim, not the perpetrator. While the misreporting of these incidents was used to demonize ACORN, the real reason ACORN was targeted was because of the more than a million low-income voters it had registered over the years.

Significantly, a few months after Congress defunded ACORN, in November 2009, a PPP poll found that “a 52% majority of GOP voters nationally think that ACORN stole the Presidential election for Barack Obama last year, with only 27% granting that he won it legitimately.” The fact that there was absolutely no evidence of anything of the sort—and that Obama won the election with a margin of more than 9.5 million votes—did not seem to matter in the least. What's more, PPP reported, “Belief in the ACORN conspiracy theory is even higher among GOP partisans than the birther one, which only 42 percent of Republicans expressed agreement with on our national survey in September.”

The videos attacking ACORN portrayed it as offering assistance to a business venture that involved underage illegal immigrant girls from El Salvador, with an added layer of disinformation claiming that protagonist James O'Keefe was dressed as a flamboyant pimp (see Media Matters debunking here). In fact, in most cases O'Keefe and his accomplice were tossed out of ACORN's offices, and in at least one case where they were not, the staffer taped who seemed to be giving assistance was actually gathering evidence he then turned over to police. But the heavily orchestrated attack led to ACORN's defunding by Congress within a week—without any sort of hearing to evaluate what had happened—even though Democrats controlled Congress at the time. Clearly, those going after Planned Parenthood this year were hoping for a similar kind of mindless panic, but Plannned Parenthood had a much stronger network of support than ACORN did, and initial wave of attacks have clearly failed.

The birther response to Obama's election is another major example of conspiracism, as is the whole parade of so-called Clinton scandals, which we'll return to below. Neither Clinton nor Obama was a traditional liberal, much less a left-winger, so fantasy-laced conspiracy narratives had to be concocted to justify treating them as beyond the pale of reason.

In short, this kind of politics has been a big part of the GOP for quite some time now, despite all efforts to pretend otherwise. And that's what makes Trump more of a logical development, part of a broader pattern, rather than—as he would like to be seen—as a unique figure signaling a radical new direction.

Conspiracism is surely a key element in the rise of Donald Trump. His portrayal of Mexican immigrants as rapists and murderers, and disdainful dismissal of anyone who questions his lack of data, are right out of the conspiracist playbook. Conspiracists claim that you can't trust data, because "they" have manipulated it. So, there's no rational basis for political discourse.

As I reported here last October, the paper “Recursive Fury” employed six characteristics to evaluate conspiracist thinking, all of which insulated it against contrary information. This includes the attribution of “nefarious intention” to presumed conspiracists, matched with conspiracy theorists' self-perception and presentation as potentially heroic victims of organized persecution. They adopt "an almost nihilistic degree of skepticism,” refusing to believe anything that doesn't fit the conspiracy theory, while also disbelieving in accidents, so that "small random events are woven into a conspiracy narrative and reinterpreted as indisputable evidence for the theory.” They adopt a broad stance that "something must be wrong" with the "official" account—even if it means believing mutually contradictory conspiracy theories. In the end, their beliefs become "self-sealing," so that any conclusive evidence disproving their suspicions is treated as evidence that the conspiracy is even larger than previously thought.

All this systemically distorted reasoning suits the GOP just fine—they've used it to attack presidents Clinton and Obama virtually nonstop for their whole terms in office—only now, they can no longer control the dynamic.

Because Trump is such a loud, blustery figure, and our politics is so personality-centered, it can be hard to see him in context as just one more manifestation of this broader conspiracist dynamic—which is fair enough, because he's also a personification of the power of the 1 percent and the corruptive force of money in politics. But while Trump has long been a public figure, it's his involvement with conspiracism that's turned him into a top-tier political figure—first with birtherism in the 2012 election cycle, then with immigrant conspiracist narratives in the current cycle.

In his announcement speech, Trump sandwiched his accusations of an immigrant crime wave into a much more far-flung attack on all aspects of American government. “Our country is in serious trouble. We don’t have victories anymore,” Trump said. First he named China: “When was the last time anybody saw us beating, let’s say, China in a trade deal?” Then he named Japan: “When did we beat Japan at anything?” Then it was Mexico:

When do we beat Mexico at the border? They’re laughing at us, at our stupidity. And now they are beating us economically. They are not our friend, believe me. But they’re killing us economically.

The U.S. has become a dumping ground for everybody else’s problems.

Thank you. It’s true, and these are the best and the finest. When Mexico sends its people, they’re not sending their best. They’re not sending you. They’re not sending you. They’re sending people that have lots of problems, and they’re bringing those problems with us. They’re bringing drugs. They’re bringing crime. They’re rapists. And some, I assume, are good people.

There's a germ of truth buried under there somewhere: the NAFTA trade deal has produced a vast imbalance in our trade with Mexico, which certainly is hurting us. But it's also been devastating for Mexico, as cheap U.S. corn has wiped out millions of Mexican peasants, helping to fuel mass migration to the U.S. But what Trump is actually doing in this passage is invoking two out-of-date fears—that of rising crime and rising immigration—and linking them together to create a narrative that justifies anti-immigrant anger and hostility, which in turn can be drawn on to stoke general animosity and fuel other us-vs.-them conflicts.

There's also a long conspiracist back story here. The term “anchor baby,” which reemerged shortly afterward, is based on a conspiratorial idea that pregnant illegal immigrants come to America to have children, so that they can gain welfare benefits, and citizenship. As the Washington Post explained recently, that's not how gaining citizenship works: “For illegal immigrant parents, being the parent of a U.S. citizen child almost never forms the core of a successful defense in an immigration court.” But conspiracist narratives aren't about facts, except in the most selective of ways. They're more about painting a picture of the world as people want it to be—not the best possible world, but the most satisfying one, given the reality of their known hopes and fears. A detailed study published in 2011 shows that and Newsmax were the two most important Internet sites in propagating the term “anchor baby” from 2007 to 2010, when it moved from anti-immigrant fringe into mainstream usage. It's no more of a commonsense term than any ethnic slur you can think of. It exists specifically to invoke a conspiracist narrative of how our country is under sneak attack.

In the real world, there's simply no foundation for Trump's scaremongering. Crime has declined dramatically over the past two decades. According to the FBI data for 2013, the most recent full year for data, the violent crime rate is just 367.9 per 100,000, compared to 713.6 per 100,000 in 1994—a reduction of 48.4 percent. The murder rate is also down by 50 percent. Similarly, as data from Pew shows, the number of unauthorized immigrants has declined since its pre-recession high, while the number of those deported under Obama is the highest ever.

Obama has been trying in vain to win GOP support by cracking down on immigrants, but because he's already been tarred by broader conspiracist narratives—epitomized, but not limited to birtherism—nothing he does will be viewed objectively, much less be seen as a sign of good faith compromise.

The fact that illegal immigration and violent crime are both down renders Trump's accusations absurd on their face. Donald Trump is a drama queen, not a reliable source of information.

What's really going on here is white conservative identity politics. Their share of the electorate is in long-term decline, and their ability to define political reality is inevitably waning. As the Atlantic pointed out after the 2012 election, “In 1988, Michael Dukakis lost the white vote by 19 points and won 111 electoral votes. In 2012, Barack Obama lost the white vote by a worse margin -- 20 points -- and tripled Dukakis with 332 electoral votes. Country's changing.” Trump is offering a way for them to imaginatively deny reality—much like the Ghost Dance movement promised Native Americans in the 1890s, as legendary blogger Billmon has argued.

Of course, they could try to rearticulate their cultural identity. Most “white ethnics” within Trump and the GOP's fold were not “white” themselves not that many generations ago. If George W. Bush's political project had not crashed so badly, perhaps something similar could have been pulled off again—at least that was the hope. But this effort was always deeply in doubt, simply because post-Nixon conservatism has been both culturally racist and profoundly damaging to the middle class. It's one thing to be able to blame-shift the decimation of the post-WWII white middle class onto the liberal Democrats who created it—Reagan's slightly sophisticated cultural racism did the job on that. But without a truly vibrant, thriving middle class to join up with, there was considerably less potential to appeal to Asian and Hispanic immigrants. Which is why the “Reagan Revolution” always carried with it the seeds of its own destruction.

Clinton's election in 1992 was the first clear sign of this, and it was met with multiple forms of denial. One form this took was the development of Clinton conspiracist narratives aimed at denying his essentially centrist, pragmatic political orientation (also characteristic of Obama) and recasting him as a shadowy anti-American “other,” perhaps even an outright Marxist. Here's a short list of baseless accusations:

  • As governor, Bill Clinton murdered many rivals. Hillary Clinton was involved.
  • As first lady, Hillary Clinton was involved in Vince Foster’s death.
  • As governor, Bill Clinton trafficked drugs through Mena, Arkansas.
  • Bill Clinton was himself a major coke user. It’s why his nose is so red.
  • As a graduate student, Bill Clinton visited Moscow because he was a Soviet agent (or something).
  • The Clintons decorated the White House Christmas tree with condoms and drug paraphernalia.

In the end, Clinton's conservative enemies focused in on Whitewater—a land deal on which the Clintons lost money... with a partner, Jim McDougal, who later owned a savings and loan, a sure sign of previous criminal activity, right? Despite repeated proof that there was no there there (see "Fools For Scandal: How the Media Invented Whitewater" and "The Hunting of the President"), the investigation persisted long enough to merge into the Monica Lewinsky scandal—which in turn saw a parade of GOP leaders engaged in extramarital affairs trying to impeach Clinton for exactly the same sort of behavior. That's not what you want when you're trying to paint someone as demonically other, which was the whole point of all the Clinton conspiracy narratives.

The Obama conspiracy theories are much the same. Like Clinton, he, too, is a pragmatic neoliberal centrist. There is no substantive basis for opposing him as an extremist or ideologue. There is only a profound need to portray him as such, in order to justify a panic response commensurate with the perceived loss of power white conservatives feel threatened with. This is the ultimate guiding force in shaping the elaboration of Obama conspiracies—birtherism, claiming he's a Muslim, the “death panel” myth, and all the rest.

With all the above in mind, we're finally in a position to accurately gauge what is and is not unique or distinctive about Donald Trump, and the simplest thing to say is that he spouts fragments of conspiracist ideation almost indiscriminately in multiple different directions almost simultaneously. This is markedly different from how conservatives as a cohesive group have tried to concentrate their fire on Bill Clinton in the 1990s and on Barack Obama during much of his time in office. But it's not that different from the way specific media figures like Rush Limbaugh, Alex Jones or Glenn Beck have operated, or even how Newt Gingrich has often tended to behave. These differences seem to reflect different incentive structures, and it's therefore quite likely that Trump, too, may change his style and become specifically focused, if the incentives driving him change.

Just don't expect him to stop spouting conspiracist nonsense. By now, it's become the conservative's lingua franca, and he speaks it like a native son. Like a birthright citizen, even. There is no other language left for any of today's conservatives to speak.GOP Debate: 5 Things to Know

By Paul Rosenberg

Paul Rosenberg is a California-based writer/activist, senior editor for Random Lengths News and columnist for Al Jazeera English. Follow him on Twitter at @PaulHRosenberg.

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