Robert W Welch Jr was, shall we say, an interesting bloke. You might think that a chap who made a fortune selling candy with names like Sugar Daddies, Sugar Babies and Pom Poms would be a fun guy to have a drink with, at least. But, alas, he drank lemonade. And in his ample spare time, in 1958, Robert W. Welch Jr founded the John Birch Society.
We tend to forget the John Birch Society now. It seems a trifle odd to suggest, as Welch and his Society did, that the Republican President Dwight D Eisenhower was a card-carrying Communist agent of the Soviet Union, controlled by his brother Milton (also a Communist agent, apparently). “Eisenhower and his Communist bosses and their pro-Communist appointees are gradually taking over our whole government right under the noses of the American people,” wrote Welch in 1958. “Or, to put it bluntly, I personally think that he has been sympathetic to ultimate Communist aims, realistically willing to use Communist means to help them achieve their goals, knowingly accepting and abiding by Communist orders, and consciously serving the Communist conspiracy for all of his adult life… But 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.”
One suspects that the phrase “beyond any reasonable doubt” is doing some serious heavy lifting here.
It’s easy, with the twin benefits of hindsight and of not being totally delusional, to laugh at the likes of Robert W Welch Jr. It is patently obvious to even the most ardent anti-Communist or right-wing enthusiast that President Eisenhower was not a Communist, or that the US Government did not fall to a vast Soviet conspiracy within it.
But as the late Christopher Hitchens once asked; what must it have been like, I wonder, to wake up every morning believing the President was a Communist? Make a coffee, have breakfast, think about the President being a communist, take the kids to school, remember the President was a Communist, go to work… Hundreds of thousands of everyday Americans were members of Welch’s John Birch Society, consuming these ideas in magazines and films every month and accepting it completely as they lived their normal lives.
The year 1958 is not so far away, either. Many Americans who believed Welch’s conspiracy theories would still be alive today, or at the very least would have been alive long past the time when it became obvious that his apocalyptic predictions and breathless allegations were completely untethered to reality. What must it have been like, I wonder, to slide quietly back into not believing such things? Perhaps forgetting one ever did?
One is put in mind here of another, earlier would-be American prophet, William Miller. In the early 1830s, after a decade of Bible study, this redoubtable gentleman began to preach his conclusion that the return of Jesus Christ to earth would occur sometime between March 1843 and March 1844. After Jesus rather notably missed several deadlines, Miller and his close acolytes revised their calculations and arrived at the ironclad date of October 22, 1844.
This period, in a fore-echo of more recent events, came to be known as the Great Awakening.
It will perhaps be stating the obvious to say that this date, too, failed to see the Second Coming of Christ. Miller’s followers, who by that time numbered well over 100,000 in the United States, came to know this as the Great Disappointment. Most returned slowly to their normal lives. Miller himself had the decency -– unlike most failed prophets -– to acknowledge his error and give up the racket. But a few hardcore supporters declined to be dissuaded, post-facto revising the prophecy; hundreds joined another sect called the Shakers, who believed that Christ had already appeared for the second time in the person of a figure known as Mother Ann Lee. Others held that the prophecy had come true but in heaven, not on earth, and adjusted their reality to suit their beliefs.
The tendency of political and religious movements to get caught up in conspiratorial or messianic thinking is hardly a new phenomenon; Richard Hofstadter’s seminal 1964 work The Paranoid Style in American Politics should be required reading. The late and unlamented Rev Jerry Falwell peddled a conspiracy theory to his millions of subscribers in the early 1990s alleging that President Bill Clinton was a cocaine smuggler and murderer, sending CDs entitled The Clinton Chronicles to willing dupes by mail order. President Obama’s parents were accused by sections of the lunar Right of having, in 1961, conceived an evil plot to make their mixed-race out-of-wedlock son a President some 47 years later by forging a birth certificate.
And the Left is not immune either. Filmmaker Michael Moore made millions of dollars out of pushing debunked conspiracy theories onto a willing liberal audience, most laughably that the war in Afghanistan and the attacks on September 11th were a ruse to facilitate a Unocal pipeline through the region. President George W Bush and shifty Saudis were allegedly conspiring in this evil plot, despite the pipeline project being shelved some three years earlier. More than half of Democrats surveyed said it was “likely” or “very likely” that President Bush had foreknowledge of the World Trade Centre attacks but allowed them to occur in order to create a pretext for war in the Middle East. Russian “hacking” of the 2016 US Presidential election was an article of faith for many on the Left for years, a verdict in search of evidence. Julian Assange is held to be the victim of an extradition attempt from Sweden to the US by means of trumped-up rape charges, despite the fact both female complainants were and are well-known members of the Swedish Left (the Swedish Right resembling a meeting of the Australian Greens) and the fact that it’s harder to be extradited to the US from Sweden than from the United Kingdom.
The belief that shadowy, sinister forces are at work, and that possession of secret knowledge and inside information makes us special, has always been part of the human psyche. Among its advantages are that it excuses one of any self-reflection about whether or why we might have been wrong, feeds the ego by telling us we know things others don’t and, most damagingly, obviates the need to grapple honestly with complex questions by reducing them to false simplicities.
One wonders about the followers of the deranged “QAnon” conspiracy theory, otherwise known as the Great Awakening (we’ve heard that term before) who believe that a vast network of Satan-worshipping paedophiles, mostly Democrats, ‘deep state’ actors and more than a few Jews for good measure have been locked in subterranean mortal combat with the heroic President Donald J Trump. For months now they’ve believed that Trump would win the Presidency and arrest the evildoers, then that the election result would be overturned, then that the Inauguration would be interrupted by mass arrests of Joe Biden and his blood-drinking, child-raping, adrenochrome junkie Democrats. As these predictions have proved about as reliable as William Miller’s, some QAnon devotees have realised the con; others have begun to insist the entire Biden presidency is a pre-shot movie, while yet others seem to think President Biden is an actor in a Biden mask. The most prominent exponent of QAnon is a newly-elected Republican Congresswoman, Marjorie Green-Taylor, who also favours us with the notion that Californian wildfires have been started by a secret Jewish space laser.
Pity the poor satirists who have to compete with these people.
Beyond this fringe of the fringe, some two-thirds to three-quarters of Republican voters now tell pollsters they believe that President Trump actually won re-election, only to have it stolen from him by a conspiracy of Democrats, state Republican officials in multiple states, dozens of judges including Trump and Republican appointees, private businesses like Dominion Voting Systems and Venezuelan communists. Just saying that sentence out aloud is enough to make one feel stupid; not to mention that anyone who’s tried to organise a family Christmas will realise the unlikelihood of coordinating such a multi-jurisdictional, multi-ideological, multi-million-dollar scheme successfully.
Vaccine denial and COVID conspiracies bloom like wildflowers, even in Australia where Liberal MP Craig Kelly peddles dangerous ideas on social media. His colleague George Christensen suggests, publicly, that the January 6 riot at the US Capitol was the work of actors and Antifa fakes (who presumably go so far as to die to prove a point) and promotes what some like to claim are anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories about billionaire philanthropist George Soros. On the other side of the aisle, Labor’s Julian Hill demanded that outgoing President Trump pardon Julian Assange, presumably because he accepts Mr Assange’s conspiratorial worldview and fantastic explanations for his many troubles. One hopes he doesn’t have the temerity to wear a white ribbon any time soon.
The extraordinary thing is not that such intellectual wormholes are new. The extraordinary thing is how old they are, how far back they go, how such thinking has always been discredited in the end and yet how many people not only continue to believe in them but that those who know better give aid and comfort to the believers. The US Republican failure to openly and clearly oppose the election fraud theory, or to disown Congresswoman Greene-Taylor, is bizarre and ultimately self-defeating. Prime Minister Morrison’s reluctance to censure and silence Kelly and Christensen not only undermines public confidence in our COVID-19 health response but in our entire system of government.
Ultimately the truth about conspiracy theories, operating as they do in a fact-free universe, is that they diminish our capacity to have the shared civic understandings on which democratic nations depend. Without objective, agreed-upon foundations such as accepting the results of elections or the expertise and good faith of health professionals, democracy cannot survive. Autocracies and autocratic regimes can survive on fantasies indeed, thrive on them -– from Kim Jong Un shooting 38-under par, to the manufactured history of Ho Chi Minh, to the official fiction of the Soviet Pravda. But democracy requires a commitment to the truth and to shared spaces, even when they mean the good guys sometimes lose out.
Accepting conspiratorial thinking might make us feel good or save us from having to admit we were wrong, at least in the short term. Failing to confront it might avoid an awkward conversation. But in the end, all it does is earn the mockery of history and weaken our democracy and our country.
No less a figure than the conservative icon and founder of modern US conservatism William F Buckley understood this. Buckley, himself a fierce anti-communist, devout Catholic and Republican activist, spent his life and work removing the John Birch Society from influence in Republican circles. It has been said often that without Buckley, Ronald Reagan would never have been President. The Gipper may not be walking back through the door, but such moral and political clarity is needed more than ever in these times of global pandemic and online misinformation.
The alternative is to wake up one morning with a Great Disappointment, a failing democracy and a very stupid look on one’s face in the mirror of history. Just ask Robert W Welch, Jr.
Luke Walladge is a former senior Labor staffer and campaign director.
Got something to add? Join the discussion and comment below.