We live in a conspiratorial world. Popular discourse is permeated by conspiracy theories which have become an inescapable part of the American political and media landscape. No longer is conspiracy the stuff of tinfoil hats and the “lunatic fringe” – conspiracy is mainstream. While more outlandish ideas like Holocaust denial and the “reptoid” hypothesis of David Icke remain largely marginalized, a host of other conspiracy theories such as those pedalled by Anti-Vaxxers, COVID-19 skeptics, Illuminati “researchers,” and theorists warning of the “New World Order” and the “Deep State” have gained significant mainstream attention. While many of these ideas have long existed in the American conspiratorial milieu, they received significant legitimation in the lead up to the 2016 election and the concerted effort by Donald Trump and his supporters to attack the media and elevate illegitimate claims and illegitimate platforms into the mainstream discourse. “Crooked Hilary,” Podesta emails, Obama’s birth certificate, John McCain’s military record, and even the outrageous claims of a pedophilic Democratic cabal (known as “Pizzagate”) played a role in the presidential campaign. In the “post truth era” conspiracy claims have flourished and are often openly supported by the President. While Trumpian populism is partly to blame, I would assert that his conspiratorial political style would not be possible without the internet. While it is easy to point to cable media networks like Fox News and One America News, it is the decentralized, gate-keeper free realm of the internet that has proved most fertile for conspiracy. Message Boards like 4chan, 8chan (now 8kun), and Reddit and social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter have fostered not only the spread of conspiratorial ideas, but helped create conspiratorial communities like QAnon, the Boogaloo Boys, the Men’s Rights Movement, and the Flat Earth Society. Furthermore, alt-right online platforms like Breitbart and Alex Jones’ InfoWars fan the flames of conspiracy, feeding off of fears and ideas of the aforementioned online communities. The question remains, however, how did we get here?
In his 2003 study on conspiracy theory in America, A Culture of Conspiracy, Political Scientist Michael Barkun attempts to trace the lineage and evolution of conspiratorial claims in the United States. Barkun, a professor at Syracuse University, has devoted most of his academic career to studying the far right in the U.S. and is well-equipped to tackle the topic at hand. Barkun explains that at the core of conspiracy is an effort to delineate and explain “evil.” Those embracing conspiracy belief want to neatly organize reality into a Manichean world of “good” and “evil.” At the core of conspiratorial thinking, Barkun emphasizes, is “the belief that an organization made up of individuals and groups was or is acting covertly to achieve some malevolent end.” (3) Conspiracy theory is appealing because it simplifies complex geo- and socio-political issues into simple terms. Acknowledging a gray, amoral world is far more disconcerting for many – absolute evil is simply easier to comprehend. Furthermore, Barkun argues that conspiracy theories develop and expand based on the idea of “stigmatized knowledge,” or claims that have been rejected by traditional institutions, such as academia, the state, or religious institutions. (26-27) Stigmatized knowledge may include ancient ideas like astrology and dousing, alternative religious ideas like theosophy and gnostic Christianity, alternative academic thought like pseudo-archaeology (Atlantis, ancient aliens, hyperdiffusionism, etc.) and pseudo-science (flat earth theory, parapsychology, ley lines, etc.), political event conspiracy (Kennedy assassination, moon landing, etc.), paranormal claims of UFOs or cryptozoology, and even rejected racial, religious, and social ideas of Social Darwinism, anti-Semitism, etc. These stigmatized ideas appeal to conspiracy theorists because of their rejected nature. The fact that these ideas have been ignored, refuted, or forgotten means that they are of deep value in the war against “evil.” If traditional authorities are corrupt and evil and they reject these ideas, these claims, by their very nature, must be true. This helps explain another important appeal of conspiracy theories, their unfalsifiable nature. Since conspiracy theories assume that we live in a world of mass, covert evil, any disconfirming evidence of conspiratorial claims is simply evidence of deeper cover-ups and machinations of evil-doers.
Barkun essentially divides the origins of American conspiracy into three basic realms: historical political and racial animosities, right-wing evangelicalism, and New Age ideas. The author takes readers through a dizzying array of movements and figures – from the eighteenth-century Bavarian Illuminati and the nineteenth-century Anti-Masonic Party, to Dispensational Pentecostalism, Hal Lindsey, Reverend Jerry Falwell, and itinerant evangelist John Todd (who claimed to be John F. Kennedy’s personal warlock), and to even more far-flung realms such as FEMA “concentration camps,” mind control, underground alien bases in the New Mexico desert, right-wing doomsday militias, and the pedophile lizard aliens claimed by former U.K. footballer David Icke. Part of the beauty of A Culture of Conspiracy is its range of coverage. It is unlikely any reader will be familiar with all of these movements, figures, and concepts. Though these ideas may seem disparate and incompatible, a key feature of modern conspiracy is its syncretism. Barkun makes a compelling argument that concepts like the Antichrist, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and shape-shifting lizard aliens can freely mingle in the realm of stigmatized knowledge. Most humans are not theologians, political theorists, or “ascended masters” who strongly adhere to orthodoxy. More often they create their own “orthodoxies” that are remarkably heterogeneous and adaptable. As such, conspiracies become increasingly complex and expansive, evolving into what Barkun calls “superconspiracies.” (6) Most of what we see posited today fall into one or more of these superconspiracies, whether it’s the “Deep State” espoused by Alex Jones, QAnon’s “Black Hats,” the “Luciferians” promoted by right-wing Evangelicals, or Trump/MAGA’s “swamp.” In fact, if you scan Twitter, most of these terms are interchangeable.
While it is easy to dismiss conspiratorial thinking as “fringe,” it is worth considering how prevalent it is in the American landscape. Chapman University’s Paranormal America Study (2018) showed more than half the American public believes in existences of antediluvian civilians (ex. Atlantis) and 41% in the interference of E.T.s in the ancient past. About ⅕ of the population believes in Bigfoot, and 26% acknowledge the existence of mental powers such as ESP and telekinesis. In fact, ~75% of the population holds at least one paranormal belief. Though the survey does not explicitly examine the extent to which Americans link these ideas to conspiracies, most have inherently conspiratorial dimensions. Cable shows like Ancient Aliens, Finding Bigfoot, Ghost Adventures, and America Unearthed, which are key touchstones of these beliefs, are deeply conspiratorial and reference government cover-ups and suppression of the “truth” by forces of darkness.
Barkun’s study is incredibly valuable and provides an excellent framework for understanding why conspiratorial thinking persists and the stigmatized pools from which it pulls. While valuable, this book is undoubtedly an academic text. It’s language and design make it inaccessible for many and even those with solidly academic backgrounds might be bewildered by some of the topics Barkun covers. This said, it is not an incredibly long text and I highly recommend it to those interested in better understanding the perplexing cultural and political landscape we currently find ourselves in. As a high school history teacher, I encounter conspiracies constantly from my students. I’ve had to address flat earth, ancient aliens, the Illuminati, Bigfoot, Hilary’s “pedo cult,” Pizzagate, “black helicopters,” Nostradamus prophecies, 5G conspiracies, and Anti-Vaxxers just to name a few. I was even accused of being one of David Icke’s reptilians, which I wear as a badge of pride. In an era where most news consumption occurs through rapid-fire social media posts on TikTok, Snapchat, Instagram, Twitter, and Facebook, I fear this is not only getting worse, it’s the new normal. In 2003, Barkun suggested that conspiracy theories were becoming “mainstreamed.” (181) He argued that this process essentially had two possible outcomes. Either, this mainstreaming would lead to the dissolution of the conspiratorial subcultures he identified at the time, or that it would contribute to a mass rejection of authority (“Trust no one!”) and blur the lines between legitimate and stigmatized knowledge. (188-89) Barkun furthered that if the latter were true, there existed a strong potential for violence. Given the mass shootings committed by white nationalist conspiracy theorists, the violence enacted at the Unite the Right Rally in 2017, the proliferation of militias like the Three Percenters and the Boogaloo Boys, and even an attempt to take over the Hoover Dam by a QAnon follower, it’s clear which of Barkun’s visions we live in. The fringe is fringe no longer.