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by Chip Berlet - Political Research Associates

The Conspiracist Subculture

Clinton, Conspiracism, and Civil Society

by Chip Berlet

Political Research Associates
updated 2/12/98

Right-wing attacks on President Clinton flow from a large and diverse network of individuals and organizations that share a distaste for Bill and Hillary Clinton on a political and personal level. This is not so much a secret conspiracy against President Clinton as a loosely-knit coalition among several sectors of the political right that share an anti-Clinton agenda despite wide differences in political outlook and style. However, the vigorous and relentless nature of allegations of misconduct leveled against President Clinton do involve conspiracy--the charges against Clinton are influenced in part by historic right-wing conspiracist theories linking liberalism, sexual immorality, statist collectivism, and treason.1 The increasing tolerance of these and other conspiracist claims in our society is damaging the ability to carry on meaningful political debate in the US.

The Conspiracist Subculture

Conspiracism is the irrational idea that history is controlled by evil cabals plotting against the common good.2 Conspiracism is widespread and flourishing in US culture, and involves not just the political right but center and left constituencies as well.3 There is an entrenched network of conspiracy-mongering information outlets spreading dubious stories about Clinton and other public figures and institutions through printed matter, the internet, fax trees, radio programs, and video/audio tapes.4 This conspiracist subculture has a long historical pedigree, and makes a periodic appearance on the US political scene, usually accompanying a right-wing populist upsurge such as the country is currently experiencing.5 Conspiracism is not merely an extremist phenomenon among a "lunatic fringe" of the radical right, but is deeply imbedded in our culture.6

As the political scene shifted to the right over the past twenty years, and the culture of conspiracism spread into prime time, the prophets of the right-wing paranoid style reintegrated themselves into the Republican Party.7 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, and again after the Barry Goldwater campaign where their alarmist charges about Lyndon Johnson and liberalism helped make Goldwater's candidacy a dud.8 Academic studies have shown that 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 are longstanding activists within the Republican Party.9

The resurgence of the conspiracist subculture has created a political constituency that supports official investigations such as those of special prosecutor Kenneth Starr into claims of Clinton wrongdoing. During the Cold War, Starr's political patron, Jesse Helms, was in the forefront of purveying conspiracist allegations of a global "red menace" allied with domestic subversives to undermine the US. Those who are immersed in hard right conspiracist discourse might easily acquire a predisposition to believe that liberals are engaged in criminal conspiracies.

In a lengthy article on snowballing conspiracism in The New Yorker, Michael Kelly called this "fusion paranoia."10 With the rise of "info-tainment" news programs and talk shows, hard right conspiracism, especially about alleged government misconduct, jumps into the corporate media with increasing regularity.11 As Kelly observes, "It is not remarkable that accusations of abuse of power should be leveled against Presidents--particularly in light of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran-Contra. But now, in the age of fusion paranoia, there is no longer any distinction made between credible charges and utterly unfounded slanders."

Conspiracist ideas of betrayal in high places have a long history in US rightist circles, especially among a sector of Christian fundamentalists that represent the constituency for the Rutherford Institute, the group that is financing the legal case of Clinton accuser Paula Jones. For those in this right-wing conspiracist subculture, Clinton as President represents a constitutional crisis because he is seen as a traitor betraying the country to secret elites plotting a collectivist totalitarian rule through a global New World Order. 12 Stories of Clinton's alleged sexual misconduct buttress this notion because they demonstrate symptoms of his liberal secular humanist outlook, which ties him to what is seen as a longstanding conspiracy against God, individual responsibility, and national sovereignty. These concepts are closer to the themes of the X-Files than a serious analysis of electoral politics or Constitutional law.

Stopping this betrayal is seen as a patriotic duty for conspiracists with a secular orientation. For conspiracists within the Christian right it is Godly work against the forces of evil, sometimes explicitly tied to Biblical apocalyptic prophesies of betrayal by government leaders as the millennium approaches. Coalition building among various anti-Clinton forces on the right, ranging from ideological conspiracists to cynical political opportunists, makes pragmatic sense in the rough-and-tumble world of US electoral politics. Some ultraconservative former military officers and intelligence agents have even forged a working relationship with the conspiracist Christian right through groups such as the Maldon Institute, which promotes conspiracist ideology in reports warning of threats against US security from alleged subversive or terrorist groups.13 The issue of Clinton's support for gays in the military is often seen in the hard right as an example of Clinton's secret plan to weaken the armed forces and betray US sovereignty to the UN and other globalists.

Conspiracist movements in the US are dedicated to the proposition that common citizens are held down by a small network of secret elites manipulating a vast legion of corrupt politicians, mendacious journalists, propagandizing schoolteachers, and nefarious bankers. If one examines the details of this spurious contention, two major historic sources become evident: narratives based on false allegations about Freemasons or their Illuminati brethren, and narratives based on false allegations about Jewish cabals.14

An unnerving number of our fellow citizens have seen symptoms of alleged secret afoot during the 1990's. These 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, rock or rap music, to name just a few. The conspirators were many: politicians and law enforcement officials above county level, game wardens, internal revenue agents, judges, lawyers, bankers, journalists, unionists, leftists, the Rockefellers, the UN, Trilateralist Commission, Bilderberger banking discussion group, Council on Foreign Relations, Federal Reserve bank officials, Jews, Blacks, Latinos, Arabs, Asians, etc.

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