Conspiracy theories have always had a place in American history. The earliest notable instance of widespread conspiracy was the Salem witch trials. The leading and most compelling theory for what happened is ergot, a type of fungus found in grains that produces an LSD-like effect. It is believed that this fungus caused the mass hysteria that lead to the execution of 19 people.
Unlike the Salem witch trials, most conspiracy theories have their root, not in contaminated food supplies, but in distrust towards the government and media. This distrust is caused primarily by two factors. The first factor is fairly straightforward — people believe that either the government has failed, done wrong or lied. This first cause for conspiracy theories can be seen most prominently in things like Watergate, Project MKUltra, and the Bush administration’s lies leading up to the Iraq War.
The second cause of distrust of the media and government is anti-Semitism. A great deal of conspiracy theories are wrapped up in anti-Semitism, be they subtle or overt. It has a long history throughout European and white settler cultures like America, Canada, Australia and New Zealand. The exact causes of anti-Semitism are too complicated for this article, but anti-Semitic conspiracy theories all draw from the same well of conspiracy known as the blood libel.
The blood libel was an early conspiracy theory in Christian Europe Middle Ages that purported that Jews would kidnap Christian children and ritually sacrifice and eat them in what was viewed as an intentional slight against the Christian practice of communion. Obviously, none of this was ever true — in fact, prohibition against sacrifice is a large part of what separated Judaism from many pagan religions of the pre-Christian Mediterranean world.
Anti-Semitic tropes and conspiracy theories were further cemented over the years as a result of the Catholic church’s ban of usury—the charging of interest on loans—which led European Jews to become bankers, as they were the only ones allowed to charge interest. This historical tie to the banking and financial industry led to the belief that Jewish people controlled the financial sector, and were thus to blame whenever the economy took a dive.
Following the end of World War II and the defeat of the Axis powers, America became locked in an ideological conflict with the USSR — the Cold War. From 1947-1957, America underwent what is known as the second red scare, or McCarthyism.
During this 10 year stretch, thousands of government employees were fired simply because they held leftist political views. The Senate also questioned many actors, directors, writers and musicians about their supposed communist sympathies.
Julius and Ethel Rosenberg — both Jewish-Americans who were members of the Communist Party and helped out in the war effort against the Nazis — were the only two American civilians executed for espionage during the entirety of the Cold War. Among the far right, there is a perceived connection between the left and Judaism, despite leftism being broadly atheistic. This “judeo-bolshevism” has lead to many anti-communist conspiracy theories to likewise be anti-Semitic.
After the fall of the Soviet Union, the United States was left as the world’s main superpower. This lack of an enemy led to an intense unease amongst the American far right that saw a rise in stochastic violence in the 1990s.
Needing a new enemy, the right looked to the post-Soviet challenge of ever increasing globalization. Deemed the New World Order — sometimes the Jew World Order, if it wasn’t already clear enough — this conspiracy theory blamed all the problems associated with an increasingly connected global economy on globalists and Jewish people in power. Obviously not everyone concerned about globalization is a raging anti-Semite, but some are.
After the government’s mishandling of both the Ruby Ridge standoff and the Waco siege, Timothy McVeigh and Terry Nichols bombed the Murrah building in Oklahoma City. The two men were inspired by “The Turner Diaries,” a fictional novel by William Luther Pierce in which Aryan resistance fighters topple a Jewish-run U.S. government.
The shock of the 9/11 attacks broke the rational part of many American’s minds. Numerous conspiracy theories about how such a devastating tragedy could have happened grew rapidly. The various conspiracy theories are not contained to any political side.
The far-left versions of the conspiracy theories claim that it was a false flag attack in order to provide the neo-conservatives in the Bush administration an excuse to plunder Middle Eastern oil. The far-right versions of the conspiracy theories claim that it was an attack orchestrated by Jewish people in general, particularly those from Israel, the New World Order or the Zionist Occupied Government, another anti-Semitic conspiracy theory.
The most recent widespread conspiracy theory is the rise of QAnon. Basically, QAnon is a conspiracy theory that Donald Trump and an individual known as ‘Q’ are working to expose a ring of satanic Deep State pedophiles. For those familiar with conspiracy theories, QAnon is more or less a combination of the medieval blood libel, and the Satanic Panic of the ‘70s and ‘80s.
While there is a correlation between right-wing political positions and conspiratorial thought, that does not mean that the left is immune. There is evidence to show that all extreme forms of belief produce some form of conspiratorial thinking. After the 2016 election, many liberals became obsessed with what has become known as “Russiagate.” While Russiagate has been labeled a conspiracy theory by the right, the Mueller probe into Russian interference with the election produced 34 indictments.
Much of the conspiracy theory aspect of Russiagate was seen not in the theory itself but how it was frantically covered by the liberal media. The fear surrounding Russia is overblown — Russia can’t even properly maintain its current nuclear arsenal — and in my estimation, a good deal of the fear is likely leftover paranoia from the Cold War.
I’ll be honest, I don’t know how to end this on a positive note. There are ways to pull people out of conspiracy theories, but some people just can’t be saved. The only bright side I can see is the fact that we’re way less likely to just execute people in 2020 than we were in 1693.
Nick Finan is a sophomore political science major. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org.