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Clinton, Conspiracism, and the Continuing Culture War

The Conspiracist Worldview

Critics of Clinton in the conspiracist subculture ranged across the political spectrum and incorporated both secular and religious themes. That a wide variety of conservative and hard right groups work together in coalition to challenge liberalism is hardly surprising. However right-wing coalitions in the 1990s increasingly tolerated, or even embraced, the most outlandish and nasty assertions of conspiracist subcultures. Even conservative groups with a more cautious and rational track record appear more and more open to the paranoid-sounding vernacular and conspiracist narratives of far right populist movements. Many of these themes became the subtexts of the anti-Clinton campaign.5 The impeachment struggle demonstrated the extent to which the Republican Party is willing to enlist (or at least accommodate for political gain) three sectors of the right that use apocalyptic conspiracism¾the Christian Right, right wing populist and patriot groups, and the far right.

The conspiracist wing of the Republican right had been pushed back following the disgrace of Senator Joseph McCarthy and his reign of error and false accusation in the 1950s, and again after the 1964 presidential campaign of Barry Goldwater, where their alarmist charges about Lyndon Johnson and liberalism helped doom Goldwater's candidacy.6 This conspiracist wing, rooted in nativism, took the movements built to support Goldwater (and later, right wing populist George Wallace) and built the "New Right." A conspiracist worldview undergirded this movement. According to Robert G. Kaiser and Ira Chinoy:

Academic studies have shown that some conspiracist groups on the right, such as the John Birch Society, are not "marginal" to the electoral process, but have members with above-average income, status, and education, who often are long-term activists within the Republican Party.8 As the political scene has shifted to the right over the past twenty years and the culture of conspiracism spread into television's prime time news and commentary outlets, the apocalyptic prophets of the right-wing paranoid style have reintegrated themselves into the Republican Party.9

Within the hard right and the far right, a considerable amount of the information being circulated is undocumented rumor and apocalyptic conspiracist theory. Right-wing conspiracist movements in the US grow from a belief that common citizens are held down by a small network of secret elites who manipulate a vast legion of corrupt politicians, mendacious journalists, propagandizing schoolteachers, and nefarious bankers. This conspiracist subculture has a long historical pedigree and periodically appears on the US political scene, usually accompanying a right-wing populist upsurge such as we are currently experiencing.10 Conspiracism is not merely a marginal "extremist" phenomenon, but is deeply imbedded in our culture.

An alarming number of our fellow citizens saw symptoms of secret conspiracies afoot during the 1990s. These symptoms include restrictions on gun ownership, government abuse of power, federal health and safety regulations, abortion, homosexuality, the feminist movement, sex education, new age spirituality, modern educational curricula, environmentalism, and rock or rap music, to name just a few. The conspirators are many: politicians and law enforcement officials above county level, game wardens, internal revenue agents, judges, lawyers, bankers, journalists, unionists, leftists, the Rockefellers, the UN, the Trilateralist Commission, the Bilderberger banking discussion group, the Council on Foreign Relations, Federal Reserve bank officials, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Arabs, and Asians.

The charges against Clinton were influenced by these historic right-wing conspiracist theories¾that link liberalism, sexual immorality, statist intrusion, collectivism, and treason. Those who are immersed in hard right conspiracist discourse frequently believe that liberals are engaged in criminal conspiracies to subvert the country. This apocalyptic paradigm is deeply rooted in the American psyche. Joel Kovel, in Red Hunting in the Promised Land, reviews the influence of this paradigm on American anti-communism, and traces it to the same "diabolism" and apocalyptic demonization that shaped the Catholic Inquisition and the witch hunts of Protestant Puritanism.11

During the Cold War, special prosecutor Kenneth Starr's political patron, Jesse Helms, was in the forefront of purveying conspiracist allegations of a global "red menace," including charges that domestic subversives were undermining the US. Throughout the twentieth century there was an elaborate network of conspiracist anti-communists who spread the gospel against liberal collectivist treachery through books, magazine articles, electronic media, and workshops. The anti-Clinton campaign replicated the style and themes of those anticommunist witch hunts, adding new media such as fax machines, AM talk radio, shortwave radio, and the Internet.

People who see the world through conspiracist lenses frequently distrust the government no matter what party is in power. According to a Roper Center study of over 20 polls over a 30-year period, "belief in a Kennedy assassination conspiracy has been related to a political world view which sees the government as failing to provide its citizens with the help they need to cope with the problems of modern life." For many, this neglect is seen as the intentional policy of a small group of powerful people who control the government and ignore the needs of average citizens. In 1992 and 1998, around 75% of those polled thought there was a larger plot to assassinate Kennedy.12

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5 The importance of studying common vernacular and rhetoric in popular culture, especially in terms of purveying scapegoating and conspiracism, has been discussed in papers and discussions by Richard Landes, Andrew Gow, David Redles, and Lee Quinby at symposia at the Center for Millennial Studies at Boston University. See for example, Richard Landes, (1996) "On Owls, Roosters, and Apocalyptic Time: A Historical Method for Reading a Refractory Documentation," Union Seminary Quarterly Review 49:1-2, 165-185.Andrew Gow, (1999) Medieval Racism? The Red Jews and Dehumanization in Popular Medieval Apocalypticism; David Redles, (1999) Final War, Final Solution: WWII and the Holocaust as Eschatological Conceptions; _______, (1998) The Day Is Not Far Off': the Millennial Reich and the Induced Apocalypse; Lee Quinby, (1994) Anti-Apocalypse: Exercise in Genealogical Criticism. Minneapolis, MN: University of Minnesota Press. See also: Jackson Spielvogel and David Redles, (1997) Hitler's Racial Ideology: Content and Occult Sources, http://motlc.wiesenthal.com/resources/books/annual3/chap09.html

6 See generally Himmelstein, To The Right; Diamond, Roads; Diamond, Spiritual Warfare: The Politics of the Christian Right (Boston: South End Press, 1989); Frederick Clarkson, Eternal Hostility: The Struggle Between Theocracy and Democracy, (Monroe, ME: Common Courage, 1997); Berlet and Quigley, "Theocracy & White Supremacy," in Eyes Right!

7 Robert G. Kaiser and Ira Chinoy, "How Scaife's Money Powered a Movement," Washington Post, 5/2/99, p. A10, online.

8 Fred W. Grupp, Jr., "The Political Perspectives of Birch Society Members;" and James McEvoy, III, "Conservatism or Extremism: Goldwater Supporters in the 1964 Presidential Election;" both in Robert A. Schoenberger, ed., The American Right Wing: Readings in Political Behavior, (New York: Holt, Rinehart & Winston, 1969). Charles Jeffrey Kraft, A Preliminary Socio-Economic & State Demographic Profile of the John Birch Society, (Cambridge, MA: Political Research Associates (PRA), 1992).

9 Michael Lind, "On Pat Robertson: His Defenders", The New York Review of Books, April 20, 1995, pp. 67-68; Jacob Heilbrunn, "On Pat Robertson: His Anti-Semitic Sources", pp. 68-71; Frank Rich, "The New World Order," New York Times, Op-Ed, Journal, 4/27/97.

10 Kevin Phillips, "The Politics of Frustration" The New York Times Magazine, April 12, 1992, pp. 38-42.

11 Joel Kovel, Red Hunting in the Promised Land: Anticommunism and the Making of America, (New York: Basic Books, 1994), pp. 76-79, 123-132, 215-218.

12 Sheldon Appleton, "The Mystery of the Kennedy Assassination: What the American Public Believes," The Public Perspective, The Roper Center, Oct./Nov. 1998, pp. 12-17.