by Mindy Clegg
The main thing that I learned about conspiracy theory is that conspiracy theorists actually believe in a conspiracy because that is more comforting. The truth of the world is that it is chaotic. The truth is, that it is not the Jewish banking conspiracy or the grey aliens or the 12 foot reptiloids from another dimension that are in control. The truth is more frightening, nobody is in control. The world is rudderless. (Alan Moore in The Mindscape of Alan Moore 2003)
The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth. (See Garry Kasparov tweet.)
In 2001, filmmaker Richard Linklater released a dreamy follow up to his 1990 film Slacker. Waking Life followed a similar format to Slacker, disconnected vignettes but with an animated overlay. In one scene, Alex Jones makes an appearance. At the time, Jones was not the nationally known influence on a President he is today. He began his career on Austin public access TV, but has since become a popular figure on the far right. At the time, Linklater just saw him as an entertaining and harmless political ranter and gave him two minutes in his meandering film.
The rant includes some pretty standard (and non-partisan) anti-state claims, wrapping up with a Nader-like attack on the two party system. Nothing there indicates the degree of danger posed by Jones and his conspiracy theories today. Aligned with the far right, his seemingly incoherently cobbled-together ideology animates a number of activist groups that have done material harm to our body politic. He’s promoted the lie that there were no mass killings at Sandy Hook Elementary school, which some have taken as a green light to harass the parents of victims. He’s argued that former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring out of a DC pizzeria, which someone then attempted to storm with a gun (but thankfully, the would-be shooter surrendered when he realized there was no criminal activity). He’s also argued that the undocumented have voted in huge numbers in elections. None of these are true, but some believe him. Prior to him being banned from the platform, Jones’ YouTube channel had millions of followers. Despite the very real damage he and other conspiracy theorists actually pose as they connect with the far right, for years some refused to take him as anything more than a big joke that can be safely ignored (though that’s starting to change). Media personalities like Jones have tapped into interconnected right wing movements and promoted their views via conspiracy theories, often with the goal of selling their audiences goods for the “end times.” Given our current political landscape, I argue we need to take these sorts of fringe figures far more seriously. While not all of them align with the populist, white supremacist far right, enough do that we should think a bit more critically about what some of these figures are peddling, as they can have troubling connections.
Over the age of mass culture, conspiracy theories became embedded in the public consciousness via diverse media like print, radio, TV, and more recently the internet. It began with easier access to publishing of the 19th century and increased literacy. One of the most famous of these early conspiracy theories that is disturbingly still with us is the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forged antisemitic document, most likely written by a Russian-French author, Matvei Golovinski. Golovinski blended real and faked documents and it was used as evidence of a vast Jewish conspiracy to take over the world. It benefited from the ingrained antisemitic views of many Christian Europeans, who were stumped by the “Jewish question.” The forgery was primarily designed to pin the blame for systemic problems of Imperial Russia on Jewish communities. Though it was and has been debunked time and again, it managed to set the tone for the treatment of the Jews for the first half of the twentieth century culminating in the Holocaust. Most distressingly, the bloody thing just keeps reappearing, with members of each new generation of the right wing buying in.1
Today, the internet makes conspiracy theories like the Protocols far more viral and easily accessible. Worse, it allows for people to create new conspiracies and spread them farther and quicker than ever before. Unfortunately for us, the white supremacist movement has embraced the internet pretty much since the early days of the World Wide Web, incorporating this new technology into their strategies. Since the end of legal segregation and the move away from openly racist language by both political parties, white supremacists and separatist groups have been re-thinking their approach to organizing. One particular effective strategy employed by William Pierce has been an appeal to alienated, working class youths via underground music and culture that pulled directly from the strategies of punk and postpunk scenes. Groups like the Hammerskins, a neo-nazi organization founded in Texas, proliferated in part thanks to the white power underground movement. In addition to appealing to disaffected youth via hatefilled pop culture, Pierce also created his own handbook for white revolt, The Turner Diaries, a novel of white rebellion against a multicultural American government which has circulated in the hate underground since its publication in 1978. It’s most well known as having influenced the Oklahoma City bombers. While such things circulated via traditional publishing and copying methods, the internet would kick that into high gear and reach a new generation looking for easy answers to the complicated problems we all face.
Enter one Don Black, a former klansman who once attempted to overthrow the government of the island nation of Dominica. He later joined David Duke in blocking a highway in Forsyth County, GA, a suburban Atlanta county with a long history of deep racial tensions, which threatened to surface in the late 1980s.2 Black is probably most well known for his online organizing of white supremacists (and rebranding it as white nationalism). He spent three years incarcerated for the Dominca scheme learning computer programming. In the mid-1990s, he created the website Stormfront, which became one of the most prominent online white supremacist communities. According to his entry on the Southern Poverty Law Center’s extremist files, Black saw it as an opportunity to “bypass the mainstream media and political apparatus, getting their message out to people who otherwise would never hear it.” The message board became a major nerve center of modern white supremacist groups. Black’s overall goal was to make white supremacy more palatable to middle of the road white voters, and it appears he had some success on that front.
As noted above, Black rebranded white supremacy as a more “neutral” white nationalism. The difference might seem academic, but Black felt it critical to ensuring the wider popularity of some of the ideas he promoted that has crept into the mainstream political discourse. Political figures such as Pat Buchanan helped shift the dialogue on race from one of biology to culture, and the GOP has adopted at least some of his views since the 1990s. Such a shift in discourse allowed for an embrace of political ideas that did much of the same work as more openly racist language. In the ensuing years, many in the GOP had pursued policies such as gerrymandering, voter suppression, and making English the defacto national language. Such policies square with the racist rights wishlist. Most blame Nixon’s southern strategy for the rise of white nationalism in the republican party, and that’s most certainly a key starting point. But activists like Black further weaponized coded language to pull the GOP even further right. It’s rather unfortunate how correct he was that his ideology, trimmed of it’s more violent language and sentiments which simmer just beneath the surface, has found a ready home in the GOP. Concepts promoted by the hard right, like the Replacement Theory, have their roots in conspiracy theory thinking. This theory that started in France to oppose immigration has had some serious legs, rearing its head in Charlottesville in 2017, and New Zealand and El Paso last year. In recent years, the hard, racist right has gathered online and used it to organize a global resurgence, all while deploying the coded language of the Nixonian southern strategy to infiltrate more mainstream political discourse. Despite the fact that it’s not just conservatives or the right wing who embrace conspiratorial explanations for the way the world is, they are far more likely to weaponize those conspiracies and employ them, even towards violent ends.
We would have a hard time ignoring the fact that the Protocols played a role in the death of 6 million people, and we’d be remiss to ignore the role of ideology such as the Replacement Theory in shaping violent action of the far right today. Conspiracy theories promote competing explanatory super-theories of global illicit control, that pull from just enough reality to make them sound plausible. Alan Moore’s quote above indicates that people want simple, easy to grok answers in a highly complex world. But the world isn’t so easily explained. Sometimes reality fuels these theories. At the same time that a theory that Hillary Clinton was part of a child sex trafficking ring (Pizzagate) was circulating, there really was a man providing underage teen girls for sexual favors to his circle of rich friends and colleagues, Jeffery Epstein. Let’s not forget that since the late 1960s, people across the political spectrum lost faith in the innerworkings of American government, and for good reason. Most point to Watergate as the breaking point, (again with Nixon!) but figures on the left had been outing actual government conspiracies for years by that point, including programs like COINTELPRO and the reality of the Vietnam War, which American generals swore American troops were winning. We all have lost trust in our government and other institutions (those who had them to begin with) and we’ve all embraced skepticism and mistrust because of these failures.
This brings us to David Icke, a far right conspiracy theorist recently banned from some social media platforms. A former footballer (that’s soccer for us Americans) from the UK, he now promotes a variety of conspiracy theories which run the gamut from traditional to full-on crackpot. He’s most associated with the theory that the ruling class are reptilian aliens, including the British Royal family, something laughably easy to dismiss for even the most ardent anti-monarchists. The absurdity of this claim only serves to disarms many, though. Icke also promotes far more dangerous conspiracy theories, including one of the oldest of the mass media age, the aforementioned antisemitic tract, the Protocols. He claims he’s not targeting Jewish people in his promotion of the Protocols as real, but disconnecting them from antisemitism proves difficult if not impossible. People laugh at the alien theories, but the more dangerous ideas come along for the ride and make their way into people’s consciousness yet again. Even if he’s earnest about his lack of fear and hatred of Jewish people, which I doubt, his embrace of theories that target them speaks volumes to Icke’s willingness to put an entire group of people in the crosshairs of others who wish them ill. The outrageous claims of alien infiltration carry a poison pill of deeper hatred that can pull in the people who see themselves as the most rational and logical. They might not agree that Her Majesty Queen Elizabeth is secretly an alien, but discussions of shadowy figures pulling all our strings might ring more true in our chaotic world.
We must come to terms with the fact that conspiracy theories are no longer just harmless and entertaining fodder for storylines on the X-Files. They shape our current political climate in dangerous and unexpected ways. While conspiracy theories are not only a right wing problem, the right wing most certainly has weaponized them effectively, especially in its newest iteration as the alt-right. If you can pull people in with funny memes based on ridiculous and patently false claims (with little to no means to verify), then you might just reinforce their latent prejudices and radicalize people. For some, it feels good to hold some esoteric knowledge that leverages you above the “simple sheeple” who have no clue what’s “really happening.” Embracing conspiracy theories becomes, in the words of Grace Elizabeth Hale, part of “the outsider romance” that “had become an essential characteristic of white middle-class subjectivity.”3 As she argues, privileged white, middle-class people came to identify with outsider culture of the margins. Conspiracy theories regularly spread by the right do similar work, making white supremacists especially into beleaguered heroes saving the world (for the white race). Thinking critically about what we see and read in the society of the spectacle is critical work for improving our world. This is a time when we need to rely on expertise and critical thinking, and we’ve failed to do so in these most trying times. As people die in a pandemic and now cities burn for our unwillingness to dismantle systemic racism and rampant class inequality, one can only hope we finally learn to address our problems head on. It’s time for our ideals to fully apply all of us, regardless of race, religion, gender identity, or sexual orientation. To do so, we must face our past and resolve to forge a better future together. The proliferation and belief in conspiracy theories only work to hinder that goal.
1 An excellent overview of the history of the protocols was published by the great Will Eisner not long before his death, Will Eisner, The Plot: The Secret Story of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, New York: W.W. Norton, 2005.
2For a longer, more detailed history of racism and racial cleansing in Forsyth county, see Patrick Phillips, Blood At the Root: A Racial Cleansing in America, New York: W.W. Norton, 2017
3Grace Elizabeth Hale, A Nation of Outsiders: How the White Middle Class Fell in Love with Rebellion in Postwar America, New York: Oxford University Press, 6.