Commentary Magazine

American Crank

The United States of Paranoia:
A Conspiracy Theory
By Jesse Walker
Harper, 448 pages

There’s a certain temptation to consider Jesse Walker’s The United States of Paranoia a timely book. It is an anatomy of paranoid thought in American culture that has arrived in the thick of national controversies about domestic surveillance, political targeting, and secret government programs. Concerns about “them,” what “they” know, and how “they” are plotting to abridge our freedoms and compromise our way of life have taken on new urgency, and justifiably so.

But if one takes Walker’s chief premise to heart, his book’s topicality is no coincidence. It is, in fact, the result of forces that have been exerting a marked influence on our nation for much of its history. One need only connect the dots, you see.

I’m referring not to some shrouded cabal of publishing string-pullers, but to the varieties of political paranoia that are the book’s subject. While the historian Richard Hofstadter identified paranoia as “the preferred style only of minority movements,” in his seminal 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” Walker disagrees. Conspiratorial thinking isn’t merely a pastime of the fringe, he maintains, but a principal part of American culture. Various strains of paranoia can be found, at any given moment, in the mainstream and among extremists, on the left and the right, in good economic times and bad. That this thoughtful and entertaining volume has been published during a time of noticeable anxiety about the undisclosed plans of the powerful and dangerous isn’t fortuitous; it’s inevitable.

Walker establishes America’s rich pedigree of paranoia in the book’s first half, introducing five prominent conspiracy-theory archetypes—the Enemy Outside, the Enemy Within, the Enemy Above, the Enemy Below, and the Benevolent Conspiracy—and assigning to them a variety of episodes, from the early colonial era to the recent past.

One such story involves the death of John Sassamon, a Massachusett Indian and Christian convert from 17th-century New England. As the theory goes, Sassamon tried to warn the Plymouth colonists of a coordinated Indian attack before he was killed by assassins from the Wampanoag tribe in 1675. The bloody conflict that came to be known as King Philip’s War soon followed. Whether or not the story is true, it is emblematic of the colonists’ fears of what they saw as a hostile, unified foreign force with values inimical to their own.

These same fears of the Enemy Outside, Walker explains, were at work when President Woodrow Wilson’s propaganda agency, the Committee on Public Information, published ads during the First World War warning that “German agents are everywhere, eager to gather scraps of news about our men, our ships, our munitions.” He sees the Enemy Outside story again in the popular misconception of al-Qaeda, not as a dispersed terrorist network, but as a centrally controlled organization with Osama bin Laden serving as a dictatorial “terrorist CEO,” to use a phrase Walker borrows from one Washington Post article.

The other “primal myths” he identifies have their own signature traits and historical exemplars. Enemy Within stories involve evildoers who lurk among us, whether they are Salem witches, Mormon assassins, invading body snatchers, or gays in the government, as in the postwar Lavender Scare, where federally employed homosexuals were believed to have formed “a government within a government,” according to then CIA director Roscoe Hillenkoetter.

Enemy Below stories, meanwhile, tell of takeover plots from society’s lower rungs, while Enemy Above stories often feature monied and powerful puppeteers, be they Freemasons, Klansmen, or the most well-known of all secret orders, the Illuminati. Finally, Walker gives us the Benevolent Conspiracies, covert plots to nudge civilization toward the good. As legend has it, the secret society with a heart of gold known as the Order of the Quest included everyone from Plato and Sir Francis Bacon to Benjamin Franklin and Thomas Paine. Some credit these philosopher superheroes with marshaling support for the Declaration of Independence and winning the Civil War for the Union.

The book’s second half chronicles how similar flavors of paranoia—both justified and not—have held sway in the popular imagination from the Cold War Red Scare to the Watergate 70s to our current post-9/11 moment.

For the most part, Walker takes care to reserve judgment on most of the conspiracy theories he presents, no matter how outlandish. This is certainly true in his lengthy recounting of the Illuminati conspiracy, as told by the self-proclaimed former member John Todd in 1978. The all-powerful group, Todd contended, controlled everything from the Federal Reserve to Safeway. It was also responsible for rock music. (Elton John, according to Todd, “has never written a song that was not written in witch language.”) Ayn Rand’s Atlas Shrugged was a thinly veiled account of the Illuminati plan for world domination, and the logo of the casual dining chain Denny’s—another Illuminati front—actually depicted the eightfold path to becoming a powerful witch. Here in the United States, Todd’s theory had it, the Illuminati go by a different name: the Council on Foreign Relations. It seems that even world-dominating occultists have an exaggerated confidence in the power of think tanks.

By setting down these claims and getting out of the way, Walker produces a page-turner. More than that, he avoids the rabbit holes into which one can descend when parsing the real from the imagined. For the purposes of the book, such thankless detective work is unnecessary; Walker’s keenest insights about our paranoid past hold regardless of the accuracy of a particular theory. For instance, he draws our attention to the way in which perceived conspiracies—whether real or not—can, in turn, give rise to actual and more devious conspiracies.

Such is the case with COINTELPRO, an FBI program created in 1956 to crack down on domestic political movements judged to be subversive. In order to disrupt these groups—which ranged from the Communist Party to white hate groups and black-nationalist organizations—the program often cultivated a kind of self-destructive paranoia. COINTELPRO plans might entail planting an obvious-looking mock bugging device at an activist’s home or sending “anonymous messages with mythical connotations” to leftist leaders who had shown an interest in the occult (one proposed message included a drawing of a beetle with the meaningless text “Beware! The Siberian Beetle”). “In effect,” Walker writes, “COINTELPRO functioned as a conspiracy to defeat subversive conspiracies by convincing the alleged subversives that they were being conspired against.”

In discussions such as these, the author’s restraint serves him well. Particularly during the book’s second half, there is plenty of opportunity for Walker, an editor at the libertarian magazine Reason, to inveigh against some of our government’s most extreme misdeeds or censure the mainstream media for its tendency to manufacture crises and epidemics from scant evidence. But such digressions would have had little to do with the book’s purpose, which is to present conspiracy theories as a kind of uniquely revealing American folklore.

In this way, Walker shares something in common with practitioners of what he dubs the “ironic style of American conspiracism.” This movement, which began in the 1960s, perfected tongue-in-cheek conspiracy writing that moved freely between truth and fiction. Through publications like The Realist and literary hoaxes like the Report from Iron Mountain on the Possibility and Desirability of Peace—a 1967 book that passed itself off as a leaked classified report on the benefits of war—these writers presented conspiracies as “a mutant mythos to be mined for metaphors, laughs, and social insights.”

Walker is after those same myths and metaphors. And in collecting them, he tells a version of the country’s history that muddles familiar narratives about class conflict, government and civil society, liberty and oppression, fairness and equality, race and gender, left and right. This is not to say that such concepts are not essential or that Walker’s new framework is comprehensive; only that there is more to the story than we might acknowledge.

About the Author

Robert Herritt is a writer in New York City. 

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