In Search of Monsters to Destroy: The Conspiracy Theory Habit

CONSPIRACIES EXIST. SOMETIMES GROUPS SECRETLY execute agendas to achieve or maintain or expand their power and wealth. In the 1700s militants in America, fearing a conspiracy in London to eliminate their liberty, formed their own conspiracy to resist it. When shooting began in 1775, the English general in Boston called John Adams “as great a conspirator as ever subverted a state,” and two months later King George III, not yet mad, said the rebellion was the result of a “desperate conspiracy.” The Declaration of Independence consisted mainly of the colonials’ hyperbolic catalog of complaints about the king’s conspiracy to enslave his American subjects, his “design to reduce them under absolute despotism.”

Americans thereby started off having some reason to believe that conspiracies importantly drive politics and history. It’s out of such precedents and bits of reality that myths often grow and endure: “its power,” the cognitive psychology pioneer Jerome Bruner wrote of myth, “is that it lives on the feather line between fantasy and reality.” As it turned out, the recipe for what came to be America—our peculiar history, our peculiar psychology, the symbiosis between them—was also specifically a recipe for a tendency to believe in conspiracies.

For starters, consider Protestantism—an alternative system of truth-telling to replace the Vatican conspiracy’s false and corrupted version. The Puritans, oppressed by conniving elites, developed a self-identity focused on victimhood that sent them into American self-exile. When the Dissenters’ new American society promptly produced its own dissenters, the subversives and oppressors each saw the other as a conspiracy.

Christian religiosity itself, in particular our pseudo-hyperrational kind, amounts to belief in the grandest and greatest conspiracy of all: God the mastermind plotting and executing His all-encompassing scheme, assisted by a team of co-conspirators, the angels and prophets. Like religious explanations, conspiratorial explanations of the world tend to connect all sorts of dots, real and imaginary, drawing lines to impute intention and design and purpose everywhere, ignoring the generally greater power of randomness and happenstance.

Fantastical conspiracy theories tend to imagine secret plots of colossal scale, duration, and power. Beliefs in American conspiracies in the 1800s, the Yale historian David Brion Davis has written, usually consisted of

hard grains of truth connected with a mucilage of exaggeration and fantasy. But the central theme, which is so central to the paranoid style, is the conviction that an exclusive monolithic structure has imposed a purposeful pattern on otherwise unpredictable events. One suspects this conviction is a product of the liberal faith, inherited from the Enlightenment, that history can be shaped in accordance with a rational plan….When the irrationality of events proves that the children of light have lost control, then the children of darkness must have secretly seized the levers of history….The illusion of American omnipotence…easily leads to a fear of un-American omnipotence.

Another result of America’s Enlightenment roots is that thick strain of skepticism. That reflex, to disbelieve official explanations, seems antithetical to religious belief and faith in hidden purposes and plans. Skepticism, after all, is an antonym for credulity. But when both are robust and overheated, they can fuse into conspiracy-mindedness. Take nothing on faith—except that the truth is deliberately hidden and can be discovered and precisely diagrammed.

During their first century, Americans believed themselves beset by satanic conspiracies of witches and Indians. During their second century, there were panics about foreign conspiracies—despotically inclined leaders in league with European monarchs, other despotic leaders in league with European revolutionaries. Americans learned of the all-powerful master cabal controlling the European subversives from a 1797 book called Proofs of a Conspiracy, about the Freemasons and Illuminati. One of its overexcited readers was a prominent Massachusetts minister, a former student of Jonathan Edwards’s named Jedediah Morse, who delivered sermon after sermon about the evil global Illuminati conspiracy. Dangerous nonsense, other conspiracy theorists insisted—the Illuminati conspiracy was imaginary, concocted by Alexander Hamilton in conspiratorial league with the British to incite American panic. In 1798 Congress passed and President John Adams signed the Alien Acts, giving him the power to imprison or deport any suspicious foreigner—especially French ones, whose recent revolution, people said, had been an Illuminati undertaking.

Besides, the French were nearly all Catholic, and paranoia about the Vatican conspiracy to destroy our nation went into overdrive during the 1800s. The pope’s agents in America—that is, Catholics—were doubling every decade. Jedediah Morse’s son, a New York City painting professor and tinkerer, developed a sideline as a hysterical anti-Catholic crusader just as he was about to invent his telegraph. Samuel F. B. Morse’s 1835 book, Foreign Conspiracy Against the Liberties of the United States, was an exposé of “the cloven foot of this subtle foreign heresy…the existence of a foreign conspiracy against the liberties of the country.”

At the same moment, Americans also awoke, finally, to the elder Morse’s warnings about the Freemason conspiracy. Masonic lodges, which had started in England, were then more or less what they are now: adult fraternities, clubs where public-spirited men gathered to eat, drink, network, and perform goofy secret rituals. George Washington and dozens of signers of both the Declaration and the Constitution had been Masons. “Their Grand Secret,” the young Freemason Ben Franklin said, “is that they have no secret at all.” The members were disproportionately upscale and well connected. As religious frenzy swept the country in the 1820s and ’30s—the so-called Second Great Awakening—so did a panic, particularly among the very religious, about an all-powerful Freemason conspiracy supposedly running America.*

They were said to be debauched, depraved, satanic operators of a hidden government. The principal fear-mongers were, first, Christian clergy riding the national fantasy wave, then resentful common folk and the opportunists pandering to them, then even an ex-president. “There is no fouler stain upon the Morals of this nation,” declared John Quincy Adams, “than the Institution of Freemasonry.” No fouler stain, said the man crusading against slavery, who’d also famously said that the rational, peaceful United States “goes not abroad in search of monsters to destroy.”

Maybe the simultaneous mass hysterias over Catholic immigrants and native-born Masonic snobs was partly what Freud called displacement—in place of anxiety about the looming national crackup over slavery, it was simpler and easier to vent about imaginary fears. The great irony, as Davis noted, was that in America, “actual conspiracies from Aaron Burr to the American Communist Party have seldom been as significant social realities as the movements against alleged conspiratorial groups.” He was writing about the Northern belief, before the Civil War, in a “Slave Power conspiracy.” When the actual, epochal crisis over slavery finally became undeniable, however, each side naturally saw the other as the deluded pawn of evil puppet-masters.

* To be fair, a conspiracy of Masons in upstate New York in 1826 apparently did murder an ex-Mason who’d written an exposé of the organization’s secret oaths, and a conspiracy of Masons apparently did cover up that crime.

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