The QAnon Party? It’s Not a Conspiracy Theory

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It’s tempting to view QAnon’s rise as a threat to America’s democracy — especially with a believer poised to win a seat in the House of Representatives. But history suggests that conspiracy-based movements have been a part of the U.S. democracy since the nation’s founding.

Long before the modern Republican and Democratic parties held sway, a succession of others rose and fell. In between, smaller fringe movements surged, often embracing some pretty bizarre conspiracies. Eventually, though, the QAnons of the past didn’t take over mainstream parties. Rather, their entry into the halls of power led to their absorption — or, alternatively, excommunication — by more mainstream parties.

The historian Richard Hofstadter was one of the first to highlight the significance of “paranoid” politics in a now-famous essay in 1964. Such conspiracies, he observed, invariably hold that a secretive cabal of elite insiders intends to corrupt and destroy the nation. QAnon’s satanic pedophiles working from within the “deep state” is squarely in this tradition.

Conspiratorial thinking first gained traction in U.S. politics in the late 1790s, when the New Englander Federalists, their power on the wane, became convinced that Illuminati members headquartered in Europe were plotting to destroy the new nation with their trademark secularism. A strange coalition of Federalist politicians and congregational preachers joined together to sound the alarm.

Some Federalist true believers argued that Thomas Jefferson, who would challenge John Adams for the presidency, was the leader of the American Illuminati and the embodiment of the antichrist.

Rev. Timothy Dwight, who was arguably the most prominent pastor associated with the Federalists, led the call to arms in a famous sermon. “Shall we, my brethren, become partakers of these sins?” he asked his congregation in 1798. “Shall we introduce them into our government, our schools, our families? Shall our sons become the disciplines of Voltaire … or our daughters the concubines of the Illuminati?”

This early movement, though, quickly faded out — as did the Federalist Party. Indeed, Jefferson’s victory in 1800 ushered in the demise of the Federalists over the next two decades. But conspiracy thinking hardly vanished.

In the 1820s, the U.S. was left with only a single major political party, the Democratic Republicans. The fragile consensus unraveled over the course of the decade, triggering a fresh wave of paranoia. 

Back then, many members of the nation’s political elite belonged to the Freemasons, a fraternal order that flourished in many countries. Membership in this society came with a pledge of secrecy, and high-ranking Masons earned titles like “master” and “high priest.” This was the “deep state” circa 1826, complete with a star defector like Q: William Morgan.

The former Mason — and critic of the Masonic Order — was arrested and promptly disappeared. Though no one ever found a body, the backlash against Freemasons was ferocious. Before long, an entire political party had emerged dedicated to exposing the iniquities of the secret order: the Anti-Masonic Party.

As one historian of this movement has written, “Masonic secrecy became synonymous with darkness, sin, immorality, intemperance, treason, and the work of Satan.” Or as one Anti-Mason politician put it, Freemasonry lured people down “the steps that lead down to the gates of hell; the paths of perdition; conclaves of corruption, atheism, and infidelity.”

The QAnon Party? It’s Not a Conspiracy Theory

And yet, this did not lead to the end of the republic, then in its fourth decade. Instead, the Anti-Masonic Party became institutionalized as a political force, settling on key issues far removed from their original obsession, like higher tariffs.

An Anti-Mason won the governorship of Vermont in 1831; in total, the Anti-Masons sent 40 individuals to Congress, and many more to state legislatures. It was then largely absorbed by the newly formed Whig Party, which vied with the Democrats for dominance beginning in the 1830s.

By the 1840s, though, an even more elaborate set of conspiracy theories would soon coalesce in response to the flood of Catholic immigrants. The alleged papal plot to destroy America triggered even more tell-all “memoirs” than the one about Masons.

These included bestselling books like “The Awful Disclosures of Maria Monk,” purportedly written by a nun who had fled the convent. It painted a sensationalized portrait rampant with sexual deviance, infanticide, and secret and subversive plots. First published in 1836, it launched a flood of similar exposes with titles like “Mysteries of Popery Unveiled.”

Some native-born Protestants, fearful of papist meddling, combined to create a secretive society to counteract international Catholic influence. The Order of the Star-Spangled Banner, as it was known, soon became a formal political party dubbed the Know Nothings, a nod to the secretive nature of its members.

Like the Anti-Masons, the Know Nothings arose at a moment of realignment of the major political parties: The Whig Party was fading away. In fact, most of the Know Nothings eventually joined a new political party by the middle of the 1850s. They called themselves Republicans.

The Populist Party, founded in 1891, was a serious political organization. Though not primarily obsessed with conspiracies, some of its members embraced, among other things, the belief that a cabal of international bankers — typically Jews — manipulated events to suit their needs. The Populists helped make works like “Seven Financial Conspiracies That Have Enslaved the American People” a bestseller. While the party faded away, many of its members would find a home in the increasingly progressive Democratic Party.

In 1958, a candy magnate named Robert Welch founded the John Birch Society, a group that anticipated much of the QAnon worldview.

For most people, the John Birch Society is vaguely associated with anti-communism. In reality, though, Welch and his society offered a far more expansive, all-encompassing vision of a worldwide conspiracy long before the arrival of the communists. In his writings, Welch traced the roots of a collectivist conspiracy back to — you guessed it — the Illuminati.

According to Welch, this all-powerful secret society created a shadowy cabal he called the “INSIDERS” — usually denoted in capital letters — who had been behind history’s watershed events, from the French Revolution to the founding of the Soviet Union. According to Welch, communism was but a “tool of the total conspiracy” that aimed to create an internationalist “one-world government.”

Welch’s breathless account of this “satanic program” held that mainstream politicians and military leaders were either unwitting dupes of this master plan or ruthless agents of the underlying conspiracy. He would impugn leaders like General George Marshall and Dwight Eisenhower, who Welch considered “a dedicated, conscious agent of the Communist conspiracy.” Nothing, he warned his followers, was as it seemed; appearances could be deceiving.

Rank-and-file Republicans, many of them veterans of Senator Joseph McCarthy’s crusade against a communist conspiracy, flocked to Welch’s organization. Hundreds of chapters sprang up around the country. At its peak, it numbered at least 100,000 members and operated 400 bookstores that sold Welch’s manifesto, “The Blue Book,” as well as the society’s other publications.

The Republicans had an uneasy relationship with the John Birch Society, tolerating its antics but aware that doing so might tar the party as extremists. It fell to the party’s chief intellectual, William F. Buckley, to marginalize the Birchers. In the early 1960s, he wrote a series of articles from his perch as editor of the National Review, attacking the group for disseminating “paranoid and unpatriotic drivel.”

The campaign succeeded, and the John Birch Society saw its influence wane. But their excommunication was done in service of a larger rebranding of the Republican Party, one that intensified after Barry Goldwater’s loss in a landslide to Lyndon B. Johnson in 1964. These efforts would ultimately propel Richard Nixon, and later, Ronald Reagan, to the White House.

Forty years later, we are watching the demise of that incarnation of the Republican Party and the rise of QAnon.

All the familiar ingredients are there: the fantasies that the world is controlled by secretive groups of insiders who are agents of secularism and Satan himself, and that they are sexually deviant and hellbent on the nation’s destruction. Add to that QAnon’s embrace of nativism and anti-Semitism, and you’ve got a banquet of conspiracy theories served up to the credulous.

Can our political system tame this madness? If history is any guide, there’s reason for optimism. But one thing to keep in mind is that this may be the beginning of a very long haul.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Stephen Mihm, an associate professor of history at the University of Georgia, is a contributor to Bloomberg Opinion.

©2020 Bloomberg L.P.

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