Conspiracy theories are only believed by people on the fringe of American politics? Not so says Reason’s Jesse Walker in his latest book: The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. Walker argues quite the opposite in his opening chapter: “The Paranoid Style is American Politics”:
By the time this book is over, I should hope it will be clear that when I say virtually everyone is capable of paranoid thinking, I really do mean virtually everyone, including you, me, and the founding fathers. As the sixties scare about the radical Right demonstrates, it is even possible to be paranoid about paranoids. (p. 24)
For those who are hoping that this is another book in which the author’s goal is to prove or disprove any particular conspiracy theory, Walker makes is clear that this is not what this book is about (for the most part). He also makes a point to acknowledge that some conspiracies have been proven true (ex: Watergate among these, see Chapter 7 for more examples), “At the very moment you are reading this, someone somewhere is probably trying to bribe a politician. The world is filled with plots both petty and grand…” (p.21). Instead telling the reader what to believe, Walker tells a history about what people have believed on this continent from colonial times to now and how these beliefs have shaped the political debate and very the culture itself.
Among the earliest examples of American conspiracies shaping politics and culture resulted in the infamous Salem Witch Trials of the late 1600’s. According to the belief at the time, witches conspired together and with the Devil to bring evil to the land. Disease and other misfortunes the colonists suffered were believed to be the direct result of these alleged Satanic rituals. Men and women were accused, tried, and executed with little or no evidence. The legacy of Salem continues today. When some public official is accused with wrongdoing, credibly or not, the accused and his or her defenders inevitably will call the proceedings a “witch hunt.”
Soon after the colonies won their independence from Great Britain and became the United States of America, the citizenry turned its distrust of power inward. Who could be trusted to lead this new nation and how could the people keep another tyrant or a cabal of tyrants from taking control? As it turns out, many of these fears were quite legitimate. Not everyone was satisfied with the Articles of Confederation. There were actual conspiracies afoot to overthrow existing system under the AOC in which the several states had most of the power while the national government had little. An attempted military coup called the “Newburgh Conspiracy” was stopped when George Washington convinced his fellow soldiers that overthrowing the government by force was not the right way to go about changing the political system.