U.S. conspiracy theories and the Americans mentality
On December 6th, the Washington Post informed 1 that 33-year-old Michael J. Flynn the son of one of Donald Trump's advisers on the national security, General Michael Flynn, was dismissed from the transitional administration for writing tweets in the spirit of a “conspiracy theory”. His phrase was “Until #Pizzagate's proven to be false, it'll remain a story” and related to the shooting near the pizzeria Comet Ping Pong in North Carolina. Although no one was injured during this incident, there was a theory that the shooting was directly linked to politics, namely, that the restaurant was cover for pedophiles from the Democratic Party. These rumors were spread by various right-wing organizations in the United States and were, of course, negatively perceived by the Democrats and the mass media under their control. Trump has apparently decided not to take risks, in the current situation of constant pressure and widespread allegation, and tries to avoid everything. Everything is connected with the plot.
However, history shows an increased interest in American society in conspiracy theories, no matter who is represented as the conspirator.
While there are a lot of various extravagant theories in the United States, among which we can find a fantastic story, for example, that the country's leadership are either aliens or reptilians. There is an historical continuity, which confirms that the American consciousness, whether being of the middle class, farmers and influential political circles, are deeply permeated with the idea of the conspiracy.
For example, with their conspirological mentality, Democrats and globalists gave recent statements that Russia had carried out regular hacker attacks, and that this had even affected the outcome of the election campaign in the United States. Political scientists and experts from various American think tanks try to give pseudoscientific data declarations that come from the senior management of the country. Similar operations were being held in relation to other states and even non-state actors, who caused suspicion for unknown reasons among the American establishment (Venezuela, Cuba, North Korea, Iraq, Iran, Hezbollah, the institution of Ayatollahs, the Russian Orthodox Church, Communists, right-wing parties in Europe and so on).
History of the conspiracy theory in the US
This tradition began to come into being in the United States in the wake of the exclusion of former colonists from the British metropolis. In addition, the powerful stimulus to look at the causal relationships from the perspective of possible conspiracies was the idea of the enlightenment, related to desacralization and attributing all actions exclusively to human will.
Initially, the search for conspiracies with the following “witch-hunt” were peculiar to Western Europe, where, in the Middle Ages, the Inquisition was raging, and the Renaissance palace intrigues had become the norm. In Britain (where the United States largely borrowed this conspiracy tradition) there were a lot of talks about French, Irish, Jacobite and Catholic conspiracies and real attempts to organize a coup or an attack on the government. Only they confirmed rumors that such evil plans did really exist. For example, the failed plan was to blow up the Parliament, masterminded by Guy Fawkes.
According to Gordon Wood, “by the 18th century the conspiracy had become not simply a means of explaining how the rulers were overthrown; it became a commonly used tool for an explanation of how the rulers and the others who controlling political developments acted in real life”.2
Since the Renaissance, God was being gradually squeezed out of the social and political life, so the control of all processes (and promises about domain over natural elements in the future) was assigned to a person. Such a mechanistic paradigm reduced all human actions solely to purposes and motives.
Now everything was conceived in the human mind, and depended on these moral norms, prejudices and beliefs. Therefore, all social processes began to come to reflect individual passions and interests.
Some called for a curbing of these passions by offering a specific plan of socio-political activity, naturally offering themselves to manage these plans, while those first attempting to usurp power were blamed for trying to instill tyranny and oppression.
In this context, the work “the Paranoid Style in American Politics” of Columbia University Professor Richard Hofstadter3 is very interesting, where he shows that a whole generation of Americans thought in terms of conspiracies throughout the US history. In this article, firstly published in 1964, Richard Hofstadter noted: “The idea of the paranoid style as a force in politics would have little contemporary relevance or historical value if it were applied only to men with profoundly disturbed minds. It is the use of paranoid modes of expression by more or less normal people that makes the phenomenon significant. In the history of the United States one find it, for example, in the anti-Masonic movement, the nativist and anti-Catholic movement, in certain spokesmen of abolitionism who regarded the United States as being in the grip of a slaveholders’ conspiracy, in many alarmists about the Mormons, in some Greenback and Populist writers who constructed a great conspiracy of international bankers, in the exposure of a munitions makers’ conspiracy of World War I, in the popular left-wing press, in the contemporary American right wing, and on both sides of the race controversy today, among White Citizens’ Councils and Black Muslims. I do not propose to try to trace the variations of the paranoid style that can be found in all these movements, but will confine myself to a few leading episodes in our past history in which the style emerged in full and archetypal splendor”.4
American historian James Hutson considers American behavior in general as a product manifesting out of envy and suspicion towards the government power.
At the same time he pointed out that the fear of abusing political power led to the American conspiracy being viewed as “completely trustworthy”, at least until about the 1830's. Thereafter, attention was switched over to non-governmental organizations and groups such as the Masons, and the Roman Catholic Church.5 In the 19th century fears of various conspiracies united many groups in the United States. If Abraham Lincoln believed in imaginary subversive activities, then what could be the problem if an anti-Masonic league or some protestant denominations do? At the same time, protestants found the personification of the work of the devil and all sorts of dark forces directly in political activities both inside the US and abroad. Certainly, the rational explanation for this phenomenon could be found in linking this fear with some symptoms of severe social and psychological overload, in which American society was at that period of time.6
The 20th century and the new myths
The twentieth century has also been full of the conspiracy theories. At the beginning of the century, specific fears in the United States were associated with Germany, the Russian Empire, and China. It would be enough just to mention the book of Brooks Adams “The New Empire”, published in 1902, where he was talking about the need to avoid combining the interests of Russia, Germany and China.7
The situation with the Russian Empire was particularly complex because of the passport issue, which led in 1911 to the break of the US Russian-American treaty of commerce and navigation of 1832. This happened under the influence of the Jewish lobby in the US, which from the second half of the 19th century were actively defending the rights of European and Russian Jews. Naturally, such influential organizations, not without the involvement of big business - in particular money of Jacob Schiff from the American Jewish Committee - which funded the anti-Russian campaign in the media and even blackmailed President Taft, because they could force the country's leadership to meet their demands, automatically fell into the category of 'plotters' in the eyes of American citizens who had no connection with these lobby groups.8
The era of the Great Depression sharply polarized the American society, while Hollywood and its establishment were trying to project their vision of solving problems. Depending on the place of residence and social status, American citizens found their own “scapegoats” in the face of Republicans, bankers, speculator migrants. However, religious preachers thought that the cause of crop failure for several years was the scourge of God, fallen upon the American people for their sins.
Before the Second World War there was a peculiar suspicion among the military and political leadership towards Japan, although at the beginning of the century the United States supported this country during the conflict with Russia.
The era of McCarthyism was a well-known as "witch hunt", but here women were pursued for their difficult to prove relationship with the evil spirit, and those sympathetic to communist ideas. These facts were imposed on the racial issues in the United States and in its broader ideological confrontation.
The murder of John F. Kennedy and Martin Luther King, the emergence of AIDS, global warming, the role of the Trilateral Commission in the international economy, all such cases necessarily were always considered from the perspective of conspiracy theory. Accordingly, within the framework of conspiracy thinking, the murders were implemented or adjusted by CIA agents, doctors commissioned by the federal government developed the deadly virus (this issue was further developed and enriched with new facts and speculations), and the broader phenomena was considered as a kind of cover-up and supporting interests of large companies and lobby groups.
However, the Watergate scandal confirmed that the Republicans were really behind the organization of wiretapping in the room where the Democrats held their talks. In the 50's of the last century the CIA really conducted the experiment MKULTRA, where LSD and other narcotic drugs were administered to subjects in order to obtain “mind control”.9 The US Ministry of Defence plan for Operation Northwoods is also well-known to have been against Cuba in order to organize provocations with further military aggression in the Isla de la Juventud.10
The incident in Roswell (New Mexico) in 1947 is a peculiar episode. According to the official version, aliens landed, and the US government was keeping this information in secret.
Moreover, the publication of declassified documents from both official sources such as the State Department, the Defense Department, the FBI and the CIA, as well as documents of various international groups such as Bilderberg Club and the Club of Rome, show that certain secret plans on various issues were developed and implemented in reality.
In recent years, the most common topics in the United States related to conspiracies, have become the attacks of September 11th, 2001 (9/11, Truth Movement), the influence of the neo-conservatives in the adoption of decisions on the invasion in Iraq in 2003, as well as any facts concerning the corporate influence and the US military-industrial complex. Certainly, some leakage, spread with the help of the resource WikiLeaks, provide additional ground for the circulation of the view that the US establishment holds some secret game and does not work in the interest of the American society, but supply various financial and industrial groups with their preferences.
Neoliberals’ fears and manipulations
The scandals connected with the financing of Hillary Clinton's campaign, Clinton family ties with all sorts of fund structures and involvement in dubious projects have also shown that in some organizations, the real purposes significantly are at odds with the stated principles. However, in recent years no one is surprised with such level of the corruption, especially since in the US lobbying has become protected by the law.
As these cases are also falling into the categories of the conspiracy theory, representatives of the scientific community in the US, which are connected with the policy, conduct some attempts to present the conspiracy as a “sub broad category of false beliefs”. For example, Cass R. Sunstein pointed it out in his scientific publication, published in 2008, under the auspices of Harvard and Chicago University (Law & Economics Research Paper Series Paper No. 387)11.
To make a following clarification is necessary. Cass R. Sunstein is an American lawyer and scholar, a member of the Democratic Party. In 2008, he actively opposed the attempt to impeach Bill Clinton. He served as administrator of the Information and Regulatory Policy in the White House in 2008 – 2012. Cass R. Sunstein is also a developer of the theory of “Nudge”, the latest trend in behavioral sociology of the USA.12 The main idea of which is that people can be directed to carry out any action. But at the same time, they need to consider this “boost”, as their own decision. To do this it is necessary to create the appearance of alternative choices. Precisely because of Sunstein’s theory Barack Obama signed a decree on the application of behavioral science methods in the public administration and domestic policy, on September 15th.
It was significant that Sunstein treated the possible causes of the conspiracy theory in his own way. At the same time he provides the link to the work of Richard Hofstadter, where he was warned that his proposed "paranoid style" did not refer to psychological abnormalities and diseases, and expressed the social phenomenon.
Obviously Sunstein commissioned by the government to co-author articles suggest measures to counter the conspiracy theories: “We can readily imagine a series of possible responses. (1) Government might ban conspiracy theorizing. (2) Government might impose some kind of tax, financial or otherwise, on those who disseminate such theories. (3) Government might itself engage in counterspeech, marshaling arguments to discredit conspiracy theories. (4) Government might formally hire credible private parties to engage in counterspeech. (5) Government might engage in informal communication with such parties, encouraging them to help." However, the authors advocate that each "instrument has a distinctive set of potential effects, or costs and benefits, and each will have a place under imaginable conditions. However, our main policy idea is that government should engage in cognitive infiltration of the groups that produce conspiracy theories, which involves a mix of (3), (4) and (5).”13
This article was severely criticized by the United States scientific community.
But there is no doubt that the interest to the conspiracy has remained at a fairly high level in the corridors of American power. The question is how to apply and manipulate information according to the interests of the White House.
And Donald Trump’s victory also showed that conspiracy theories were strong enough within the US society. But now the liberals are looking for those responsible within the United States (the right-wing or the conservatives), and outside, in the attempt to accuse Russia of hacking attacks and manipulation of the public opinion.
Although a precedent with the removal of Michael J. Flynn confirms that Trump's team tries to ignore the conspiracy theory, it's just the tip of the iceberg, as it relates to public policy.
Conspiracy theories will continue to affect average Americans, as well as decision making at the highest levels.
2 Gordon S. Wood. The Idea of America. Reflections on the Birth of the United States. New York: The Penguin Press, 2011.
5 James H. Hutson, "The American Revolution: Triumph of a Delusion? in Erich Angermann, et al., eds., New Wine in Old Skins , 179 - 194.
6 Richard O. Curry and Thomas M. Brown, eds., Conspiracy: The Fear of Subversion in American History. NY: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1972.
8 L. Marshall to S. Wolf. Oct. 18,1916 // Louis Marshall: Champion of Liberty. Vol. 1. P. 86.
9 George Lardner Jr. & John Jacobs, Lengthy Mind-Control Research by CIA Is Detailed, WASH. POST, Aug. 3, 1977
10 Memorandum from L. L. Lemnitzer, Chairman, Joint Chiefs of Staff, to the Secretary of Defense, Justification for U.S. Military Intervention in Cuba (Mar. 13, 1962), http://www.gwu.edu/~nsarchiv/news/20010430/northwoods.pdf.
12 Sunstein, Cass R. Why Nudge?: The Politics of Libertarian Paternalism. The Storrs Lectures Series, Yale University Press, 2014.