Konda, like Hofstadter before him, locates the origins of modern conspiracism in theories about the Illuminati, a secretive Bavarian society founded in 1776 as, in Hofstadter’s words, “a somewhat naïve and utopian movement which aspired ultimately to bring the human race under the rules of reason.” But in conspiracist tellings, beginning with John Robison’s 1798 book Proofs of a Conspiracy, the Illuminati conspired to instigate the French Revolution and destroy religion across Europe. It’s interesting that Konda describes the works of Robison and his successors, but chooses not to examine any primary sources of the Illuminati themselves—one assumes because the Illuminati’s actual expressions neither refute the conspiracist’s narrative nor lessen his fervor. That’s the way the conspiracy works.
Conspiracism sprouted in the United States at the same time, and its proponents blended American self-government with piety and virtue. Yale University President Timothy Dwight gave a 1798 Independence Day sermon in which he feared that, without action to counter conspiracies, sons would “become the disciples of Voltaire, and the dragoons of Marat” and daughters “the concubines of the Illuminati.” This desire to save and preserve is an especially powerful organizing principle where people expect a degree of self-government. A public that plays no role in politics does not exist as “important enough” for those pulling the levers of power and influence “to try to deceive.”
Because conspiracism is committed by the “other,” conspiracists frequently use what Konda calls “the disembodied ‘they’” and other nebulous terms to separate good from evil. In vogue now, of course, is the “deep state,” but Konda’s broad use of primary sources yields a wealth of examples throughout American history.
Conspiracism of the nineteenth century (primarily suspicions of the Illuminati, the Freemasons, or the pope) gave way to twentieth-century theories of a “Jewish conspiracy” popularized by Henry Ford; the more coded “banking conspiracy” popularized by opponents of the New Deal; the vast web of communist conspiracy feared by the John Birch Society; and various one-world conspiracies that persist to this day.
The sheer number of conspiracies makes exploration of each impossible here, but Konda discusses some striking examples that continue to affect public life. A 1955 pamphlet by the Keep America Committee sought to fight a “Communistic world government” by opposing fluoride in drinking water (described as “rat poison”), the polio vaccine (“the entering wedge for nationwide socialized medicine”), and psychiatry (“a subtle and diabolical plan of the enemy to transform a free and intelligent people into a cringing hoard [sic] of zombies”). In the 1980s, some conspiracists believed AIDS to be a human-made virus designed to wipe out gay men, African-American men, or Africans in their entirety. During the 2014 Ebola outbreak, a theory (perpetuated by Phyllis Schlafly) emerged accusing President Obama “of allowing the disease into the United States as part of his conspiracy to destroy the country.”
The current occupant of the White House has spread his share of conspiracy theories, including birtherism; these fabrications helped launch his political career. But Konda shrewdly suggests that we should be more afraid of the lasting impact of his conspiracist mindset on mainstream politics than of the conspiracy theory du jour. The algorithms of Silicon Valley conspire against the health of our politics more surely than the Illuminati ever could: social media is designed to pull people deeper and deeper into rabbit holes of their own choosing, so that “the information any one person receives,” whether true or not, “is constantly reinforced.” Each conspiracy-minded, or even conspiracy-adjacent, click will bring about others.
And yet, conspiracism is ultimately a symptom of a broader societal malaise. During times of upheaval, whether arising from revolution, economic depression, or social change, some of the dispossessed have turned to conspiracism to explain their place in a changing world. Humans tell narratives, including the historical narratives that root us in a place and time, and Konda shows how conspiracist narratives have proved especially resilient because of this. But they are not the only stories we can tell: as Simone Weil explains, “We possess no other life, no other living sap, than the treasures stored up from the past and digested, assimilated, and created afresh by us.” If, as Konda fears, conspiracism today is uniquely harming our political culture and institutions, then our future depends on our looking up from our screens to write a life-affirming story that will satisfy our need for roots.
Conspiracy of Conspiracies
How Delusions Have Overrun America
Thomas Milan Konda
University of Chicago Press, $30, 432 pp.
Please email comments to [email protected] and join the conversation on our Facebook page.