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Donald Trump’s United States of Conspiracy

Conspiracy theories were long relegated to the fringes of American history, but now they dominate one of the two major parties.

Timothy A. Clary/Getty Images

Despite a lifetime of offensive statements, Donald Trump can still take your breath away. He did it again on Monday, responding to the Orlando massacre by strongly insinuating that President Obama is an ISIS sympathizer. It was the sort of unhinged accusation that one expects to find in the outer fringes of politics in a crank newsletter, not from the podium where the presumptive Republican nominee is speaking. If it seems like we’ve never heard a major party’s presidential nominee speak like this at such a moment—or any moment—that’s because it’s true.

But Trump’s conspiracy-minded version of America isn’t sui generis. It comes from a long tradition on the American right. And it’s put the lie to one of the biggest political myths in American history: the legend of How American Conservatism Matured.

The story has been told many times, but it goes like this: In the 1950s and 1960s, the American right became infected with anti-Semites and conspiracy theorists, chief among them the John Birch Society. But William F. Buckley and National Review took a firm stance against these hate-mongers, expelled them from respectable conservative politics, and allowed the conservative movement to take over the Republican Party in 1964 and eventually gain national power with Ronald Reagan in 1980.

This edifying tale has been revived recently by conservative opponents of Trump, such as George Will, who writes in National Review:

So, conservatives today should deal with Trump with the firmness Buckley dealt with the John Birch Society in 1962. The society was an extension of a loony businessman who said Dwight Eisenhower was “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” In a 5,000-word National Review “excoriation” (Buckley’s word), he excommunicated the society from the conservative movement.

The problem with this story is that it gratifies the pride of conservative intellectuals, but is almost completely false on history. The Birch Society didn’t disappear after Buckley’s “excommunication,” but continued to be a major force on the right, peaking in influence in the 1970s and still existing to this day. More to the point, Bircher paranoia never went out of fashion on the right: It’s there in everything from Birtherism—Trump’s first excursion into the world of Obama conspiracies—to the antics of Glenn Beck and Alex Jones. (Even National Review, which prides itself on having expelled the Bircher poison, has hardly been immune to hare-brained conspiracy theories. And while it’s true that National Review after the early 1960s avoided the overt anti-Semitism found in groups like the John Birch Society, the magazine long remained wedded to a barely disguised racism.)

Historians of American conservatism, following the pattern set by George Nash in his foundational tome The Conservative Intellectual Movement in America Since 1945, have tended to give pride of place to deep thinkers like Buckley while relegating the Birch Society to the status of being an embarrassing fringe phenomenon barely worth noting.

But with Trump triumphant, we have to see the Birch Society and its style of conspiracy-mongering in a new light. Far from belonging merely to the lunatic fringe, the Birchers were important precursors to what is now the governing ideology of the Republican Party: Trumpism.

Bircherism is now, with Trump, flourishing in an entirely new way. Far from being drummed out of conservatism, it has become the dominant strain. And with its ascendancy comes a uniquely frightening moment in American history.

This is how Robert Welch, founder of the John Birch Society, wrote about Dwight Eisenhower in 1958: “My firm belief that Dwight Eisenhower is a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy is based on an accumulation of detailed evidence so extensive and so palpable that it seems to me to put this conviction beyond any reasonable doubt.”

And here is how Donald Trump talked about President Obama yesterday: “Look, we’re led by a man that either is not tough, not smart, or he’s got something else in mind. And the something else in mind—you know, people can’t believe it. People cannot, they cannot believe that President Obama is acting the way he acts and can’t even mention the words ‘radical Islamic terrorism.’ There’s something going on. It’s inconceivable. There’s something going on.” As if to underline Trump’s echoes of Cold War paranoia, would-be Trump running-mate Newt Gingrich went on Fox to suggest a revival of the House Committee on Un-American Activities, the notorious institution that oversaw Joseph McCarthy’s anti-communist purges.

Obama-the-secret-Muslim is the modern version of Eisenhower-the-secret-communist, which itself echoes even earlier far-right theories about Franklin-Roosevelt-the-secret-Jew and Abraham-Lincoln-the-secret-Negro. Structurally, these conspiracy theories have the same pattern: The hated president is believed to be covertly allied with some despised out-group, with an ideological, religious or racial minority.

The rise of the John Birch Society provoked the late historian Richard Hofstadter to write one of the most influential essays on American history, “The Paranoid Style of American Politics” (first published in Harper’s in 1964, and republished in a different form the following year in a book of the same name). For Hofstadter, the “paranoid style” was a recurring mode of thought that manifested itself in American history in many mass movements, ranging from the anti-Mason and anti-Catholic crusades of the 19th century to the anti-communism of Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society.

From the vantage point of 2016, what is striking about Hofstadter’s essay is how precisely it describes Donald Trump—so much so that many passages in the essay could be read as commentary on Trump’s foreign policy speech yesterday. In a key passage in the book version of The Paranoid Style, Hofstadter writes:

The central image is that of a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life. ... The distinguishing thing about the paranoid style is not that its exponents see conspiracies or plots here and there in history, but they regard a “vast” or “gigantic” conspiracy as the motive force in historical events. History is a conspiracy, set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power, and what is felt to be needed to defeat it is not the usual methods of political give-and-take, but an all-out crusade.

Trump, with his insinuation that Obama may be a covert ISIS sympathizer, is exhibiting the paranoid style in full plumage. In Hofstadter’s terms, what makes Trump paranoid is the grandiosity of his claims, the framing of politics in terms of vast apocalyptic stakes.

Consider what Trump said yesterday about immigration:In fact, Hillary Clinton’s catastrophic immigration plan will bring vastly more radical Islamic immigration into this country, threatening not only our society, but our entire way of life.” A vote for Clinton, by Trump’s terms, is not a vote for someone with a misbegotten policy: It’s a vote to bring into America those who would destroy it.

Trump’s “radical Islamic immigration” also had deep roots: It’s the updated version of Catholic immigration as imagined by 19th and early 20th-century nativists. As with earlier bigots, Trump implies that there is a dual loyalty problem. Perhaps the most disturbing part of Trump’s speech was the suggestion that Muslims in America are shielding terrorists in their midst:

But I want every American to succeed. Including Muslims. But they have to work with us. They know what is going on. They know that he was bad. They knew the people in San Bernardino were bad. But you know what, they didn’t turn them in and we had death and destruction.

In the same manner that earlier practitioners of the paranoid style talked about the Catholics and the commies, Trump sees “radical Islam” as having an almost supernatural power to brainwash the young and create an army of robots:

This could be a better, bigger, more horrible version than the legendary Trojan horse ever was. Altogether under the Clinton plan, you’d be admitting hundreds of thousands of refugees from the Middle East with no system to prevent radicalization of the children and their children. Not only their children, by the way, they’re trying to take over our children and convince them how wonderful ISIS is and how wonderful Islam is and we don’t know what is happening.

Hofstadter helps us see Trump as the heir to a long American tradition of paranoia, with the John Birch Society as a particularly important precursor. But there is one way that Hofstadter’s essay now seems dated. Writing in the heyday of Great Society liberalism, he wrote that in America, the paranoid style “has been the preferred style only of minority movements.”

For Hofstadter, paranoid conspiracy theories flourished on the fringes of society, among the dispossessed and powerless. The “consummatory triumph” of the paranoid style, Hofstader wrote, “occurred not in the United States but in Germany.”

But with the Trump as the presumptive Republican nominee, we see something very different: the paranoid style aligning itself with a major political party, which already has vast sway in a majority of state governments and in Congress. The danger of the current moment is that for the first time in American history, the paranoid style has a chance of gaining control of the full levers of power.