Two mass shootings have occurred within 24 hours, setting a macabre new record. The first, in El Paso, Texas, took the lives of 22 people and injured 26. The second, in Dayton, Ohio, took nine lives and also injured 26. The shooter in El Paso posted a manifesto online moments before he began his rampage. Titled “The Inconvenient Truth,” it declared that “this attack is a response to the Hispanic invasion of Texas.” It warned that white people were being replaced by foreigners. The motives of the shooter in Dayton have, as of this writing, not yet been ascertained.
What, if anything, do these terrible events have to do with the Claremont Institute in California, a venerable center of conservative thought devoted to “restor[ing] the principles of the American Founding to their rightful, preeminent authority in our national life”?
The ideas propelling these murderers have not materialized out of thin air. As it happens, just days before these latest episodes an intelligence bulletin prepared by the FBI’s Phoenix field office leaked to Yahoo News. Dated May 30, 2019, it describes “conspiracy theory-driven domestic extremists” as a growing threat. According to the document, the FBI has determined that “fringe political conspiracy theories very likely motivate some domestic extremists, wholly or in part, to engage in criminal or violent activity.”
Some of the incidents detailed in the FBI report stem from the so-called “Pizzagate” conspiracy. According to this theory, the hacked emails of Hillary Clinton’s 2016 campaign manager, John Podesta, contained coded messages linking Clinton and other Democratic party officials to a child sex ring operated out of several restaurants, including the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria in Washington DC.
In December 2018, a California man was arrested for building bombs with which he intended to blow up a “satanic temple monument” in the Illinois capitol rotunda with the goal of making Americans aware of Pizzagate. Before that, in December 2016, a North Carolina man, Edgar Maddison Welch, traveled to Washington to “rescue” the children from the supposed pedophiles. Armed with an AR-15-style rifle, he entered the pizzeria and fired shots at a locked closet door. No one was injured before he surrendered to police.
Which brings us back to the Claremont Institute. It recently announced its new Lincoln Fellows. These are scholars, journalists, and public figures who are given the opportunity to immerse themselves in the question of how “the statesmanship and political thought of the Founders and Lincoln should guide policymakers today.” Among this year’s crop of honorees is Jack Posobiec, a journalist at the rightwing One America News television network. One of Posobiec’s claims to fame is having carried a sign reading “Rape Melania” at an anti-Trump rally with the intention of discrediting the protestors. Another is his participation in spreading the Seth Rich/Democratic National Committee email conspiracy. But Posobiec’s most notable accomplishment has been intense promotion on social media of Pizzagate. Among other things, Posobiec went to Comet Ping Pong and live-streamed his “investigation” of the on-going crime on Periscope, a broadcast that went viral in the precincts of the alt-right. Welch entered the pizzeria with his gun just one month after Posobiec’s broadcast.
Conspiracism has lately entered the mainstream. The Claremont appointment of Posobiec as a Lincoln Fellow is one dot that connects to a larger picture. In periods of stress and rapid economic and social change, irrational currents tend to flow and the appetite among the public for extraordinary explanations of events begins to swell. Conspiracy theories begin to proliferate, and also to migrate from the margins to the center.
In the 19th century, in the midst of heavy Irish and German Catholic immigration to the United States, tales circulated of horrific events inside Catholic institutions. Long forgotten today, the Ursuline Convent riots of 1834 in Boston were triggered by reports that a mysterious woman was being held inside the convent against her wishes. A Protestant mob burned the convent to the ground. Two years later came the publication of the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk as Exhibited in a Narrative of Her Sufferings, which detailed sexual liaisons between priests and nuns, with the resulting offspring being strangled and interred in a lime pit in another convent’s basement. The salacious book sold wildly and gave rise to official investigations. They turned up nothing.
In the early 20th century came the turn of the Jews. In the aftermath of World War I, the industrialist Henry Ford used the newspaper he owned, the Dearborn Independent, to peddle one anti-Semitic tale after the next, which were then compiled into a collection. Ford’s The International Jew, published in four serialized volumes beginning in 1920, featured chapters like: “Does a Definite Jewish World Program Exist?” “The Historic Basis of Jewish Imperialism,” “An Introduction to the ‘Jewish Protocols,’” “Did the Jews Foresee the World War?” “Jewish Testimony in Favor of Bolshevism,” “How Jews in the U.S. Conceal Their Strength,” “The Scope of Jewish Dictatorship in the U.S.,” “Jewish Control of the American Theater,” “Jewish Supremacy in Motion Picture World,” and “Jewish Degradation of American Baseball.” Through the late 1930s, variations on these themes, with the supplement of overt support for Hitler’s anti-Semitic program, were propounded to an audience in the tens of millions by the Roman Catholic radio priest, Father Charles Coughlin.
In the 1950s and early 60s, Communism came in for phantasmagorical treatment. Although Soviet espionage was a genuine national security danger, Senator Joseph McCarthy blew it up into a “a conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man.” Even after McCarthy passed from the stage in disgrace, belief in a vast conspiracy did not fade. If anything, it grew.
Indeed, the John Birch Society, founded and financed by the candy manufacturer Robert Welch, promoted a brand of anti-Communism that makes Joe McCarthy seem soft. Among other things, the organization fielded a “board of experts” to rate the “present degree of Communist influence and control over the economic and political affairs” over the countries of the world. In 1958, the experts deemed the United States to be 20-40 percent under Communist control. By 1960, the degree of Communist control had reached 40-60 percent. “For many reasons and after a lot of study,” Welch wrote to society members, “I personally believe [Secretary of State John Foster] Dulles to be a Communist agent.” Dulles’ brother Allen, then serving as director of the CIA, was to Welch “the most protected and untouchable supporter of Communism, next to Eisenhower himself.” As for President Eisenhower, according to Welch, “here is only one possible word to describe his purpose and actions. That word is treason.”
If our current troubles with virulent conspiracy theories are part of an old story in American life, today it contains significant new wrinkles.
One of them, of course, is the wide availability of lethal instruments, including weapons of war, in the hands of anyone who wants to obtain them. Impressionable minds and the mentally ill, primed to believe something as farfetched as Pizzagate and armed with a semi-automatic rifle, are a combustible mix. In this connection, the ignorance, the naivete and the low intelligence of the Pizzagate shooter, on display in the various proceedings following his arrest, tell us something important about the nature of the audience in which fringe ideas circulate.
A second wrinkle is technological change. The FBI notes that “the advent of the Internet and social media has enabled promoters of conspiracy theories to produce and share greater volumes of material via online platforms that larger audiences of consumers can quickly and easily access.” The mass audiences enable the conspiracies to assume a dynamic quality. The Internet, writes the FBI, “has enabled a ‘crowd-sourcing’ effect wherein conspiracy theory followers themselves shape a given theory by presenting information that supplements, expands, or localizes its narrative.”
But other factors are also in play: Driving the conspiracy theorizing and the threat of violence, according to the FBI, are “the uncovering of real conspiracies or coverups involving illegal, harmful, or unconstitutional activities by government officials or leading political figures” (emphasis added). Coming from our nation’s premier law-enforcement agency, this astonishing proposition has garnered almost no attention. Who exactly are these government officials and leading political figures engaging in “real” conspiracies? Are disaffected FBI analysts, by any chance, pointing here to Donald Trump and his campaign officials, many of whom have already pleaded guilty to or been convicted of “illegal, harmful, or unconstitutional activities”? The report does not say.
But we are not forced to guess. Throughout our history, conspiratorialism has typically been confined to the fringes of political life. But it has not always been so. The conspiratorial tradition has on various occasions intersected with the respectable world. Henry Ford, after all, was one of America’s leading industrialists. Joe McCarthy enjoyed a measure of support from leading rightwing intellectuals of the era. The John Birch Society, though today just a small band of cranks, managed at its peak in the early 1960s to attract some 60,000 dues-paying members, many of them, as one study has noted, “highly substantial figures in local communities—physicians, stockbrokers, retired military officers, lawyers, [and] businessmen (particularly small and middle-sized manufacturers in the Midwest and the South).” McCarthyism is the closest conspiratorialism has come to one of America’s core institutions: the United States Senate. The closest, that is, up until now.
Here is Alex Jones, proprietor of the conspiracy website, InfoWars: “When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her. Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can’t hold back the truth anymore. Hillary Clinton is one of the most vicious serial killers the planet’s ever seen.” This is the same Alex Jones who has declared that “Pizzagate is real.” This is the same Alex Jones whom America’s president has befriended and praised for his “amazing reputation.”
As is well-known, Trump launched his political career with the baseless contention that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and therefore not eligible to be President. The world is familiar with his false assertion that hundreds of Muslims celebrated on rooftops in New Jersey as the World Trade Center towers came down on 9/11. But there are many more conspiracy theories in his repertoire.
They include the claim
- that Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy: “His father was with Lee Harvey Oswald prior to Oswald’s being — you know, shot. I mean, the whole thing is ridiculous.”
- that Vincent Foster, an aide to President Bill Clinton did not in fact commit suicide but was murdered: “I don’t bring [Foster’s death] up because I don’t know enough to really discuss it. I will say there are people who continue to bring it up because they think it was absolutely a murder. I don’t do that because I don’t think it’s fair.”
- that childhood vaccines cause autism: “We had so many instances, people that work for me, just the other day, 2 years old, a beautiful child, went to have the vaccine and came back and a week later got a tremendous fever, got very, very sick, now is autistic.”
- that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered. “It’s a horrible topic, but they’re saying they found the pillow on his face, which is a pretty unusual place to find a pillow.… I can’t give you an answer. It’s just starting to come out now.”
One must also include the sprawling QAnon conspiracy movement, analyzed in the FBI report. As the FBI describes it, QAnon followers adhere to the belief that “an anonymous government official known as ‘Q’ posts classified information online to reveal a covert effort, led by President Trump, to dismantle a conspiracy involving ‘deep state’ actors and global elites allegedly engaged in an international child sex trafficking ring.” QAnon has already been linked to numerous violent incidents, some of which are detailed by the FBI.
One must leave it to social psychologists to offer explanations for why the theme of sexual crimes, particularly those involving children, crops up regularly from the Awful Disclosures of Maria Monkto Pizzagate to QAnon. But however bizarre the content, it is clear is that the Trump administration and Trump himself have done nothing to disassociate themselves from the QAnon movement. QAnon supporters flock to Trump rallies and, as we learn from the legal affairs website JustSecurity, clusters of them wearing QAnon paraphernalia regularly appear in the frame as the rallies are broadcast. Trump has also retweeted QAnon followers on dozens of occasions, leaving them, as the Washington Post has reported, “overjoyed . . . believing it’s evidence he supports their movement.”
If conspiracism has once again gone mainstream, if institutions like Claremont are inducting the the dangerous purveyors of paranoia into their hallowed halls, if the FBI is warning about the potentially lethal consequences of fantastical yarns, explanations are not hard to find. One of them has a great deal to do with the fact that our commander in chief is conspiracy-monger number one. From Charlottesville to the Pittsburgh’s Tree of Life synagogue to the white supremacist terror attacks of the present moment, we are well into the stage in which innocent blood is being shed.
“This American carnage stops right here and stops right now” is the promise Trump offered in his inaugural address. As he uses the pulpit of the Presidency to spread incendiary tales about an “invasion” of criminals from the south, the promise has not aged well.
Gabriel Schoenfeld, a senior fellow at the Niskanen Center, is an opinion columnist for USA Today and a contributing editor at The American Interest.