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  • Conspiracies and the Liberal Imagination
  • Nicolas Guilhot (bio)

But somehow the consensus faith plays right on through it all, tootling its one-note song of anti-populist indignation even as the liberal sun sets and the right-wing night falls.

—Thomas Frank (2020, 168)

in 1975 playboy magazine sent the novelist mordecai richler to interview Mae Brussell at her home in Carmel, California. Brussell was the host of a popular radio show called Dialogue: Conspiracy. She also published a newsletter, daringly called The Realist, which at some point was saved from bankruptcy thanks to John Lennon's financial generosity. Skeptical of the official version of the assassination of John F. Kennedy, she had combed through the 26 volumes of the Warren Commission report looking for inconsistencies and clues. She did not come out empty-handed. The assassination, she concluded, was part of a vast fascist plot to take over America, and she was intent on exposing it. Over the years, she commented on the major and lesser events of the day—the kidnapping of Patricia Hearst, the Chappaquiddick incident—and suggested they were episodes of the same global conspiracy. Richler was not impressed:

Charles Manson, ostensibly vile, was actually a victim—an unwitting agent of military intelligence, programmed to kill. On the other hand, an analysis of the Commie master music plan reveals a hitherto unknown weapon called "menticide," concocted by the KGB to bring about suicide [End Page 627] of the mind, rendering a generation of American youth bananas. Hence, the Beatles. Lee Harvey Oswald didn't own a rifle, couldn't shoot worth a damn and was a naval intelligence officer. Like Dick Nixon. The Cult of the All-Seeing Eye, seeking to obliterate the Christian ideal in America, counts among its covert backers the past presidents of India and Paramount Pictures, as well as Robert McNamara. The reason the so-called leaders of the world's nation-states can happily indulge in tranquillizers, alcohol and sodomy is that they are merely puppet-prostitutes controlled by the globe's true rulers, "the Jewish syphilis minority."

(Richler 1990, 39)

Half a century later, the plot remains unchanged. What Mae Brussell saw behind the façade of everyday politics is not very different from what Jacob Chansley, the "Q Shaman" of January 6 fame, believes is happening in the cesspools of the "deep state." Yet, the phenomenon has moved from the cultural fringes to the mainstream. Confidential newsletters and local radio shows have morphed into online behemoths and multimillion-dollar news outlets, while conservative billionaires with deep pockets have replaced John Lennon. And when the Atlantic dispatches a staff writer to report on a QAnon convention, the result is unlikely to end up in an anthology of humor.

Conspiracy theories are widely considered a threat to liberal democracy and a characteristic feature of the populist mindset. An over-the-counter bromide for liberal anxieties, Richard Hofstadter's classic essay on the "paranoid style" has recently been republished in the literary pantheon of the Library of America. It offers the reassurance that conspiracy-minded populism is not a movement triggered by historical circumstances but a pathological forma mentis: the cavernous mentality of those who have never ventured out of the Platonic grotto and need some philosophical reeducation—analytical, please—before being allowed to wander into the polis. The rejection of conspiracy theories as the symptom of an ideological threat has been a permanent fixture of liberal political theory. [End Page 628]

Yet, Mae Brussell was a liberal. And the critique of populism as a conspiracy-prone mindset incompatible with liberal democracy is a relatively recent invention that congealed only in the aftermath of World War II. Before, the idea of conspiracy was very much part of the liberal imagination. For much of the nineteenth century, liberals traded in conspiracy theories and relied on conspiratorial visions of the state when they were in the opposition—a repertoire they have no difficulty dusting off, as in the aftermath of 2016.

It was only when they moved to the center of American politics and saw themselves as the guardians of democratic institutions that liberals dismissed the idea of conspiracy as a mistaken vision of...