Michael Grasso / May 21, 2019
Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists And Their Surprising Rise to Power
By Anna Merlan
Metropolitan Books, 2019
I have a foreboding of an America in my children’s or grandchildren’s time—when the United States is a service and information economy; when nearly all the key manufacturing industries have slipped away to other countries; when awesome technological powers are in the hands of a very few, and no one representing the public interest can even grasp the issues; when the people have lost the ability to set their own agendas or knowledgeably question those in authority; when, clutching our crystals and nervously consulting our horoscopes, our critical faculties in decline, unable to distinguish between what feels good and what’s true, we slide, almost without noticing, back into superstition and darkness.
—Carl Sagan, The Demon-Haunted World (1995)
I was interested… in understanding why this new surge of conspiracism has appeared, knowing that historically, times of tumult and social upheaval tend to lead to a parallel surge in conspiracy thinking. I found some of my answer in our increasingly rigid class structure, one that leaves many people feeling locked into their circumstances—in contrast with what we’ve been taught is the American dream—and desperate to find someone to blame. I found it in rising disenfranchisement, a feeling many people have that they are shut out of systems of power, pounding furiously at iron doors that will never open to admit them… Together, these elements helped create a society in which many Americans see millions of snares, laid by a menacing group of enemies, all the more alarming for how difficult they are to identify and pin down. I saw a disturbing thirst for vengeance, a willingness to punish enemies and vanquish evildoers that is then easily twisted by opportunists. These things were in the country around me, in my own life—shadows that seemed to grow longer and longer, even as people became increasingly aware of the destructive power of conspiracy theories and began doing their best to fight them. Still: we are the suspicious and the conspiracists are us, and there are more of us all the time.
—Anna Merlan, Prologue, Republic of Lies (2019)
As anyone who’s been online in more than a passing way over the past decade can tell you, we live in an era where facts in the public sphere often fall victim to wishful lies concocted by powerful individuals with naked political agendas. Conspiracy theories, cries of “false flag” and “fake news,” petty grifters telling their millions of dedicated followers the mainstream media is lying to them: all of these societal elements have had their opportunity over the past few years to erode the good faith that (purportedly) once dwelled in the public sphere. But one of the paramount lessons of Anna Merlan’s new book, Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists And Their Surprising Rise to Power, is that these conspiratorial impulses in the American body politic are nothing new. What has changed are the political agendas of the public figures behind these tales of conspiracy, the ways in which they are disseminated, and the extreme actions of the people who believe them.
Merlan’s book is an incisive and surprisingly concise trip through the contemporary conspiratorial landscape. Her first-hand reporting on the conspiracy scene, dating back to before the election of Donald Trump in 2016, looks at believers as seemingly disparate as anti-vaxxers, 9/11 truthers, neo-Nazis and white supremacists, Pizzagate and QAnon believers, and UFO aficionados. But underneath all these very different mythic narratives, Merlan notices a commonality: believers in conspiracy theories are people who believe they are losing or have lost power and influence in the modern United States. Importantly, Merlan notices that the believers are overwhelmingly white and predominantly male. As Merlan drills down to the fundamental beliefs of each individual conspiracist, she notes a sometimes hidden, often overt predilection for white supremacist, patriarchal, and America-first beliefs. Moreover, the sinister image of the “secret chiefs” who are ostensibly in charge of each of these world-spanning conspiracies very often resembles the anti-Semitic myths that have haunted the Western world for more than a millennium, even if “Jews” per se are not the target of said conspiracy narrative.
Merlan is able to assert this thesis thanks to a solid grounding in the historical complexion of conspiratorial beliefs. In each thematic chapter of Republic of Lies, she is able to lay bare the threads that contributed to our current wilderness of publicly-accepted nonsense. Whether it’s America’s long history of snake oil salesmen as the ancestors of today’s brain-pill-shilling multimedia conspiracists like Alex Jones; or the Satanic panic of the 1980s and the witch crazes of the 17th century preceding today’s Pizzagate and “global pedophile/cannibal cabal” beliefs; or even recent fears of UN concentration camps and the Jade Helm program being unconscious echoes of America’s shameful history of forced relocation of ethnic minorities, Merlan notes that our nightmare world in 2019 contains truly nothing new under the sun.
In the process of presenting this thorough historical grounding, Merlan cannily anticipates one potential objection to the conspiratorial mindset being caused by a scuttled sense of white supremacy, and in doing so expresses elegantly why conspiratorial beliefs take root generally. In Chapter 2: “None Of It Is Crazy,” Merlan looks at the sociological history of conspiracy theorizing among African-Americans over the past several hundred years in America. Beginning with the widespread belief that the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers deliberately detonated explosives on levees bordering Black neighborhoods during Hurricane Katrina in 2005, Merlan explicates the many reasons Black Americans have to suspect the U.S. government to be conspiring against them, from the rise of eugenics in the aftermath of a failed Reconstruction; to historic atrocities such as the Tulsa “Race Riots” (more properly termed a genocidal pogrom against a Black community in Tulsa, Oklahoma that was beginning to exert real self-determination and economic power); to the Tuskegee Experiments (which led to later beliefs that U.S. government labs engineered HIV and deliberately unleashed it on America’s Black and gay communities); to the history of American COINTELPRO actions against civil rights activists explaining the recent mysterious deaths of Black Lives Matter activists. Merlan shows that it is absolutely reasonable and understandable for Black Americans to adhere to conspiratorial thinking when essentially the entirety of American history is one giant conspiracy against enslaved Africans and their descendants. In dialogue with the long-respected but now rapidly-falling-out-of-fashion 1964 essay and book by Richard Hofstadter, The Paranoid Style in American Politics, Merlan builds on Hofstadter’s original thesis by correcting for the blind spot he engaged in about legitimate Black community fears of the U.S. government:
… Hofstadter never quite reckoned with groups of people who have well-founded grounds for mistrust, even as he recognized America’s tendency to demonize and scapegoat Jews, Catholics, Masons, and “Negroes.” There’s often (though not always) some relationship in America between conspiracy theory and actual conspiracy, between the shadows on the cave wall and the shape of the thing itself. But that relationship tends to be more direct where black America is concerned. Like many conspiracies particular to black Americans, the levee-bombing idea has its roots in generations of genuine injustice, cover-ups, and human rights abuses so horrific the wounds are still open generations later.
What this counterexample tells us about white America’s recent descent into conspiracy-mongering is that one of the causes most definitely could be a perceived loss of power of white American males to both “global elites” outside of the U.S. and to racial and sexual minorities within. Throughout the other chapters of the book, where Merlan speaks with and interviews media figures who peddle conspiracies, along with ordinary believers in these conspiracies, it’s clear that even the largely “de-racialized” conspiracy theories, like traditional liberals being dubious about the efficacy of vaccines, are about a feeling of loss of control. Merlan cleverly contrasts anti-vaxxers with adherents of other medical quackery throughout the ages, such as the vogue in the 1960s and ’70s for the supposed cancer miracle cure, laetrile. A cancer diagnosis, obviously, is a fairly profound loss of power for the individual suffering from it, and Merlan makes clear to show how a parent’s feeling of helplessness and powerlessness over a child’s diagnosis of autism could trigger a similar inchoate rage at mainstream medicine. Likewise, as Merlan probes deeper into the contemporary ufology scene, she finds thinly-veiled racism; again, this sort of thinking is nothing new in certain segments of the UFO believer community, but put into its larger context of perceived white powerlessness, it makes much more sense.
In discussing why conspiratorial thinking is so prevalent today, though, Merlan does not merely explain it away in terms of a loss of power on the part of formerly affluent and influential whites. There’s also the methods by which conspiracies are now amplified to an extent they never could be before. And here is where the tricky questions of cui bono, “who benefits,” begin to be explored. Merlan’s trip to a “New Age” convention in the first chapter of Republic of Lies shows that at all levels of the conspiracy pipeline there are grifters looking to sucker true believers in the time-honored American manner. But as mentioned earlier, the folks with the biggest microphones often have the most to profit materially from peddling conspiratorial belief. I appreciated Merlan’s insistence that it’s not just so-called media mavericks such as Alex Jones and other Twitter Pizzagate believers who are making bank from our age’s descent into superstitious nonsense. It’s clear that both Fox News (in the context of the Seth Rich case) and MSNBC (in the context of that network’s constant “Russiagate” drumbeat since the election of Donald Trump) are also culpable.
The internet certainly didn’t create conspiratorial thinking, nor are internet personalities solely benefiting from it. But the internet certainly has helped amplify both the voices of the conspiracy-mongers and the fascists who soak in these beliefs and end up taking direct, murderous action. In the aftermath of the past few years’ countless white supremacist mass shootings (most of which were inspired by anti-Semitic beliefs of an alleged “cultural Marxism” that intends to overrun the white Global North by using immigration from the Global South), and especially after the live broadcast of the slaughter of Muslims at prayer in Christchurch, New Zealand, the conversation about how much social media and internet companies are to blame for the dissemination of murderous, genocidal beliefs is now firmly on the table. While Merlan’s book was written before Christchurch, her discussion of Facebook and Twitter is startlingly prescient of the discourse around the “Christchurch Call.” The fact that white supremacists’ feared global migration is actually caused by the legacy of Western colonization and exploitation, the destabilizing effect of wars over petroleum in the Middle East, and global capitalism causing climate catastrophe, is conveniently and constantly ignored by these conspiracists. International colonialist capitalism is, after all, a resilient conspiracy more than half a millennium old, operating in plain sight.
On that note, I’m someone who’s always been a little conspiracy-minded, as well as being (I sense) a fair bit further left on the political spectrum than Merlan seems to be. Most of Merlan’s political prescriptions for our current state seem to me to be frustrat vague; her argument in Republic of Lies‘ epilogue that “it is our job to counter bad speech with better speech” seemed to me particularly impotent given the sense of hopelessness that the previous 240-some odd pages had engendered in me. But I was pleased that Merlan stated early on in the book that there are often reasons for racial and political minorities to be paranoid about hidden forces aligned against them. My reaction to this was to ask, as an example: should my deeply-held belief that corporations, petro-states and petroleum producers, and politicians who espouse neoliberal economics are all part of a concerted effort to exploit our limited natural resources until our climate completely collapses be considered a “conspiracy theory”? Or are the facts of the case as they stand so vast, so pregnant with a feeling of powerlessness in the face of the conspirators that it’s simply easier to diagnose this belief as paranoid thinking? Does that “paranoid” label, in turn, help the media to manufacture consent for global capitalism and defuse revolutionary action? One of Merlan’s most obviously deeply-held beliefs is that we are all being fed a diet, through the internet and traditional media, of exactly what we want to hear. I can absolutely concede that this may be the case in terms of the fear and loathing I feel towards our current global rulers as we careen towards a climate armageddon. But this leads to the larger question: who decides which lens to view the world with is correct? All of these questions might be simply a symptom of the greater postmodern question of meaning-making in a world so choked with media, but the question stands: what is true? What is truth? Who decides? It’s no surprise that a slim volume like Republic of Lies can’t wholly answer that question, but someone is going to have to do so, before the oppressive weight of superstition and darkness in our demon-haunted world envelops us all.