BOOK REVIEW: The United States of Paranoia

Conspiracy theories are only believed by people on the fringe of American politics? Not so says Reason’s Jesse Walker in his latest book: The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. Walker argues quite the opposite in his opening chapter: “The Paranoid Style is American Politics”:

By the time this book is over, I should hope it will be clear that when I say virtually everyone is capable of paranoid thinking, I really do mean virtually everyone, including you, me, and the founding fathers. As the sixties scare about the radical Right demonstrates, it is even possible to be paranoid about paranoids. (p. 24)

For those who are hoping that this is another book in which the author’s goal is to prove or disprove any particular conspiracy theory, Walker makes is clear that this is not what this book is about (for the most part). He also makes a point to acknowledge that some conspiracies have been proven true (ex: Watergate among these, see Chapter 7 for more examples), “At the very moment you are reading this, someone somewhere is probably trying to bribe a politician. The world is filled with plots both petty and grand…” (p.21). Instead telling the reader what to believe, Walker tells a history about what people have believed on this continent from colonial times to now and how these beliefs have shaped the political debate and very the culture itself.

Among the earliest examples of American conspiracies shaping politics and culture resulted in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600’s. According to the belief at the time, witches conspired together and with the Devil to bring evil to the land. Disease and other misfortunes the colonists suffered were believed to be the direct result of these alleged Satanic rituals. Men and women were accused, tried, and executed with little or no evidence. The legacy of Salem continues today. When some public official is accused with wrongdoing, credibly or not, the accused and his or her defenders inevitably will call the proceedings a “witch hunt.”

Soon after the colonies won their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America, the citizenry turned its distrust of power inward. Who could be trusted to lead this new nation and how could the people keep another tyrant or a cabal of tyrants from taking control? As it turns out, many of these fears were quite legitimate. Not everyone was satisfied with the Articles of Confederation. There were actual conspiracies afoot to overthrow existing system under the AOC in which the several states had most of the power while the national government had little. An attempted military coup called the “Newburgh Conspiracy” was stopped when George Washington convinced his fellow soldiers that overthrowing the government by force was not the right way to go about changing the political system.

The Nationalists critical of the AOC soon after decided to take another approach: calling a constitutional convention to revise and correct the problems with the document. The Anti-Federalists critical of the convention warned that the convention being held in secret was really a conspiracy to replace the AOC with an entirely new form of government rather than making some much needed revisions. As it turns out, the Anti-Federalists were right. The nationalists at the convention changed the rules from unanimous consent to adopt any change to the AOC to adopting the new constitution in its entirety with 9 states’ approval out of 13 (this should serve as a warning to those who support the idea of an Article V convention).

Fortunately, even the nationalists recognized that the new constitution could not become the new law of the land from behind closed doors and would need support from the several states. From there, the debate was held in public and with a few concessions to the Anti-Federalists (the Bill of Rights especially), the U.S. Constitution replaced the Articles of Confederation as the nation’s supreme law of the land.

The conspiracy that resulted in the U.S. Constitution, complete with the Bill of Rights did not put an end to fears on behalf of the nation’s citizens or its leaders, however. As divisions deepened between the various factions even within President George Washington’s cabinet, conspiracy theories abounded.

The Federalists feared that Thomas Jefferson and his close associates were part of a French conspiracy plotting insurrection (Jefferson was the Secretary of State and formerly the Minister to France after all). Those who believed this conspiracy theory saw the Whiskey Rebellion as an example of this plot and believed more would follow. John Q. Adams voiced concerns to his father (Vice President John Adams at the time) that Jefferson and the French were plotting to replace the office of president with a “directory” (a small committee based on the French model by the same name).

By the time of the Quasi-War (1798-1800), the Federalists believed Jefferson and the French were part of a larger, more secret conspiracy; a society called the Bavarian Illuminati. From this time forward, various versions of “the Illuminati” is believed to be the secret shadow government ruling the world behind the scenes by conspiracy theorists past and present.

In the modern era, the actions on the part of the federal government has only encouraged the proliferation of conspiracy theories. Since at least the 1950’s, U.S. intelligence agencies had monitored the activities of “extreme” or “radical” political organizations. The FBI’s COINTELPRO program was a plot to infiltrate and disrupt the Communist Party in the U.S. By 1968, COINTELPRO targeted the Socialist Workers Party, hate groups (White and Black), and the New Left. The FBI’s rationale at the time for the COINTELPRO approach was that these groups must be linked to the Soviets somehow. By the time the FBI targeted the White hate groups in 1968, Even J. Edgar Hoover realized that trying to connect the KKK to a foreign entity hostile to the U.S. was a conspiracy theory not too many Americans would believe.

Hoover’s solution? Use the COINTELPRO program on any political group he deemed “subversive” whether or not the group was run or influenced by foreign interests (being a part of an anti-war group or a group advocating for peace was considered subversive). Not to be outdone, with the approval of President Richard Nixon, the CIA had a similar program infiltrating and disrupting domestic political groups called Operation CHAOS. Soon after Nixon’s resignation, congress investigated these programs and found even more abuses of his administration including IRS audits of his political enemies, CIA assassination plots, attempts to illegally read the mail of private individuals, and the MKULTRA program (the CIA experimented on people with LSD without their knowledge or permission).

These revelations caused the American public to be more skeptical of their government. How much of the “official story” could be believed whether the story was who killed JFK, RFK, MLK, or Malcolm X? From here, the “conspiracy” industry thrived. Some of these publications were authored by true believers, others made up conspiracy theory ironically, and still others were simply political pranksters.

For the sake of brevity, I won’t get too much more into the substance of the book. I didn’t even get to what would later be called the “Satanic Panic” of the late 1970’s to early 1990’s, but this too is a very interesting chapter (8) in the book; maybe even the most interesting. Let me offer just one interesting tidbit. John Todd made the claim that he was formerly part of the Illuminati which was run by Communist Satanists.

Philippe Rothschild’s mistress Ayn Rand wrote Atlas Shrugged to describe to the witches in the Illuminati how they would take over the world. The people who mostly read the book, Todd said, were Communists. These Communists were angry about the popularity of the book in the U.S. because too many Christians were reading it (they might figure out what the Illuminati is up to?) Rand included about five pages of sex scenes in an attempt to discourage Christians from reading the whole book. Todd was later found out to be a fraud and pedophile (I’m sure that anyone who has actually read Atlas Shrugged would have figured out he was a fraud long before this). It seems that with the Satanic Panic, America had come full circle back to the Salem Witch Trials.

In closing, I highly recommend this book. It’s 428 pages (about 100 of which are footnotes, which are very worthwhile reading as well) and this review doesn’t come close to covering the book (I didn’t even get to how conspiracy theories/the paranoid style have influenced art, literature, television, and cinema). Perhaps the most valuable aspect of this book is maybe people will consider being more skeptical about what they read or hear and reassess what they believe to be true and why.