The United States of Paranoia

In his book The United States of Paranoia Jesse Walker describes the history of conspiracy theories in America, starting with colonial times and continuing to the present day.

Our founding fathers were a little paranoid.  Thomas Jefferson thought there was “a deliberate and systematical plan (by Britain) of reducing us to slavery,”  and when the colonies declared independence, the plot against America was detailed in the new country’s founding document. The Declaration of Independence did not merely describe “a long train of abuses and usurpations.” It argued that those abuses added up to “a design” to bring the colonists “under absolute Despotism.”

How did the founders get this idea?

Thomas Jefferson
Thomas Jefferson

This was how: Alert Americans found conspirators’ fingerprints everywhere. In 1762, when Anglican missionaries created a Society for Propagating Christian Knowledge among the Indians of North America, the colonists understood that the evangelists’ real target wasn’t the natives; it was the rival faiths that had taken root in the colonies. The secret plan, John Adams explained, was to “establish the Church of England… and prohibit all other churches.”‘ When the Stamp Act of 1765 imposed a tax on printed paper, Joseph Warren of Massachusetts announced that the law had been “designed . . . to force the colonies into a rebellion, and from thence to take occasion to treat them with severity, and, by military power, to reduce them to servitude.”‘ The Boston Massacre of 1770, the Tea Act of 1773, the Intolerable Acts of 1774, all were evidence of the dark design. One isolated act of oppression “may be ascribed to the accidental opinion of a day,” Thomas Jefferson acknowledged, but America was undergoing “a series of oppressions,…pursued unalterably through every change of ministers.”

Even when conspiracies are real, the victim often gets the conspiracy wrong.  When Africans were taken captive on slave ships, one slave recalled his fellow captives jumping overboard for fear that they were being fattened to be eaten, and  Africans arriving in Louisiana and Haiti reportedly mistook their masters’ red wine for blood.

As it turned out, the slavers really were conspiring against their prisoners; it was just the nature of the conspiracy that was misunderstood. The captives were to be consumed by the white economy, not by white mouths.

There are several points that Walker illustrates.

1. The enemy outside being led by the enemy above:

Some Colonists worried about the “enemy outside” – Indian tribes, led by the “enemy above” (ministers of Satan since the devil had supposedly withdrawn to the New World when the Gospel made life difficult in Europe).  Even those who didn’t believe the “Satan” involvement could be worried about another “enemy above” (the Catholic rulers of the State of Maryland) using the “enemy outside” (the Indians) to exterminate the Protestant citizens of that state.

2. The enemy below being led by the enemy outside:

Long after slavery was abolished, the outside agitator stirring up rebellions would be a key villain in southern white demonology. During Reconstruction, there was a claim that northerners put in charge of their states were conspiring to empower the newly freed slaves at the expense of ordinary whites. (Such fears fed the rise of a real conspiratorial secret society, the Ku Klux Klan.)

During World War II, there was another example of the enemy below supposedly being manipulated by the enemy outside.  “Hitler has told the Negroes he will give them the South for their help,” one informant told the sociologist Howard Odum, who collected rumors in the southern states during World War II. “Hitler will make the white people slaves and the Negroes the leaders,” declared another.

3. Conspiracy theories are inevitable:

Walker writes:

“Human beings have a knack not just for finding patterns in chaos but for constructing stories to make sense of events, especially events that scare us. I can hardly condemn that habit. I just devoted an entire book, after all, to the patterns I think I’ve glimpsed in American history. But when building a narrative you can fall into a trap, one where a combination of confirmation bias and serendipity blinds you to the ways your enticing story might fail to describe the world.

A conspiracy story is especially enticing because it imagines an intelligence behind the pattern. It doesn’t just see a shape in the smoke; it sees a face in the smoke. It draws on one of the most basic human characteristics, something the science writer Michael Shermer calls agenticity—a “tendency to infuse patterns with meaning.”

Walker observes: “The conspiracy theorist will always be with us, because be will always be us.”

45. Some conspiracy theories include some truth, but believers often go off on a tangent from the reality:

Let’s take a recent set of conspiracy theories with an element of truth.  We have American militias that are worried about government power. The incident at Ruby Ridge, where government agents besieged Randy Weaver and his family (both his wife and son were killed, as was a Deputy US Marshall) and Waco where another government siege ended badly with many dead, loomed large to them. “In the militia world, the most popular conspiracy theories held that Waco was a trial run for future assaults on independent Americans; that concentration camps were being built within the country’s borders; that foreign troops were being imported to impose the new authoritarian order…”

There are elements of truth to any worldview that thinks the U.S. government has grown too large, too intrusive, and too over-reaching – its obvious that a 17 trillion dollar debt means something has gone wrong.  However, the militia conspiracy theories go off the rails.

4. The sophisticated elite reaction to conspiracies is to make their own conspiracy theory:

In the popular imagination, the militia movement was a paranoid pack of racists plotting McVeigh-style attacks (Tim McVeigh blew up a federal building, killing many men, women, and children). .. That vision was promoted by a collection of groups dedicated to tracking the radical Right, notably the Anti-Defamation League and Dees’s Southern Poverty Law Center.

But militias of the 1990s, Robert Churchill (a historian) argued, were reacting primarily to the rise of paramilitary police tactics. Their causes celebres—the standoffs in Waco and Ruby Ridge—were only the most visible examples of what could go wrong when policemen regarded themselves as soldiers rather than peace officers. Militia figures denounced the beating of Rodney King (a black man) in Los Angeles and the rape of Abner Louima, a black Haitian man whom New York police sodomized with a broomstick in 1997.

Richard Butler
Richard Butler

The real racists had problems with the Militias: “They are not for the preservation of the white race,” Aryan Nations chief Richard Butler complained to New York Post reporter Jonathan Karl. “They’re actually traitors to the white race; they seek to integrate with blacks, Jews, and others.”

5. The targets of past conspiracy theories had their own conspiracy theories:

Though often blacks had no use for the militiamen, they could be drawn to the conspiracy stories that some of those militiamen believed. Marc Lamont Hill, a professor of African-American studies at Columbia, told the Philadelphia Weekly that “People were going to black book stores like Hakims in West Philly or Robbins downtown and buying books like Behold a Pale Horse,” William Cooper’s UFO tract, which was also influential in the militia movement. “They were talking about the Illuminati and the Rothschilds and Bilderbergs,” Hill added.

6. Sometimes the conspiracy theory gets the motives completely reversed:

A good example is the movie: Executive Action (1973) about a group of wealthy and powerful men who plot the murder of John F. Kennedy.  I should point out that the man who killed JFK was a Marxist who had been to the Soviet Union and supported Cuba.  He was not a right-wing racist angry at JFK’s civil rights initiatives, or a rich, corporate plotter.

7. Known organizations that operate in secrecy can indeed stray into bad behavior:

Gerald Ford
Gerald Ford

For instance, “..high-ranking Times staffers had recently attended a private luncheon with President Gerald Ford. Intent on explaining the need for limits on the intelligence investigations, Ford had declared that the CIA had secrets that it couldn’t reveal. Stuff that would “ruin the U.S. image around the world.”

“Like what?” asked one of the reporters.

“Like assassinations,” replied Ford. Realizing what he had let slip, he immediately added, “That’s off the record!””


When the FBI targeted political groups under COINTELPRO, they even tried to break up the marriages of people in those groups.

JessieWalkerAs Walker says, in the late years of the past century “it became clear that many Enemy Above tales were true. And as descriptions of those proven plots appeared in the media, it became easier to imagine that still larger and more malevolent conspiracies were lurking.

In other words, the mainstream was absorbing a mind-set that had long been common currency in the counterculture and the New Left. …it was easier to think that the government might have murdered Martin Luther King or Malcolm X if you knew that the Chicago cops and FBI had assaulted and killed Fred Hampton and Mark Clark of the Black Panther Party. Documented misbehavior inevitably fueled speculations about undocumented misbehavior.

“Suddenly the New Left’s warnings seemed much more plausible.”

There are several issues we should think about.  If conspiracies do exist, then why do conspiracy theorists so consistently invent non-existent conspiracies and when there are real conspiracies, they also tend to get the real conspiracies wrong?  What are the ways that we ourselves can distinguish a real conspiracy from a false one?  To a great extent, it involves understanding motivations.  What are the motivations of the supposed bad guys, and what methods would they be willing to use to achieve their goals?

Some people believe that the president of Russia, Vladimir Putin, ordered the death of more than one dissident. Some people believe the president of the US, Barack Obama, was involved in a murder too. Are the people who believe these two propositions equally rational?

Sometimes we can immediately spot a conspiracy theory as nonsense, but I don’t know of any hard and fast rules to always decide.


The United States of Paranoia – Jesse Walker (2013 – Harper Collins) – on Russia offering assassination services to Saddam Hussein of Iraq.

Second thoughts:
The founders misinterpreted Britain’s motives as wanting absolute despotism, but they did have valid complaints such as “taxation without representation.”  I know very little history, and so cannot really judge the book’s claims, but I know that the founders did build in safeguards for free speech, the right to bear arms, the right for citizens to know the accusations against them before being thrown in jail, in the blueprint they created for their new country.  This suggests that they had experienced or seen abridgements of these rights.


2 thoughts on “The United States of Paranoia

  1. I think such theories arise when there is an obvious mismatch between the facts and what officialdom says about them. Given the record of outright lying that many Western governments have accumulated over the years (and of course only found out, often, by chance, or by whistle-blowers etc), and the obvious propensity of dictatorships to cover everything up, people now expect the truth to be secret and no doubt monstrous. The most recent dramatic example is 9-11, where conspiracy theorists can virtually take their pick amongst all the loose ends, unexplained oddities, and outright and obvious untruths. There is a limit to how much nonsense people will accept these days: Pentagon not equipped with CCTV security system? Hole in building too small for airliner? Videos showing aircraft with non-airliner features, pre-impact flashes of light, the odd coincidence that a security rehearsal of an identical scenario was being played that day, the fact that the CIA didn’t tell the FBI key facts about the terrorists.. the list is almost endless. In fact, in a case like this a conspiracy is the only answer that might explain all these anomalies.
    I emphasize that I used to be extremely sceptical myself , for example about the Chemtrail consiracy–until I saw chemtrails being laid over my own home!

    1. Carl,
      You may be right about the first half of what you say above, but as far as conspiracy theories of the attack on 9/11 go, there are two problems. Motive is the first. I have read the auto-biography of our vice president at the time, Dick Cheney. Imagining that he would kill 3000 Americans just so he could invade Iraq is like thinking Margaret Thatcher would do it. Thatcher was very direct, and let you knew what she thought, and simply was not the type of devious person to do something like that, and neither is Cheney. Cheney was a guy who did hard outdoor manual work in Wyoming before he went into politics, and he’s the kind of person who tells you exactly what he thinks.
      As far as “Chemtrails” – I am absolutely sure that there is a criminal or ideological group that have as part of their arsenal the ability to spray people with drugs from close range – but I wonder what would be the point of spraying chemicals from airplanes, and how you personally would know about it. I’m not questioning your honesty, I just am asking. One final point. The American magazine “Popular Mechanics” took up most of the anomalies of 9/11, and wrote a series debating them. Here is their answer to one point that you raised:
      “When American Airlines Flight 77 hit the Pentagon’s exterior wall, Ring E, it created a hole approximately 75 ft. wide, according to the ASCE Pentagon Building Performance Report. The exterior façade collapsed about 20 minutes after impact, but ASCE based its measurements of the original hole on the number of first-floor support columns that were destroyed or damaged. Computer simulations confirmed the findings.

      Why wasn’t the hole as wide as a 757’s 124-ft.-10-in. wingspan? A crashing jet doesn’t punch a cartoon-like outline of itself into a reinforced concrete building, says ASCE team member Mete Sozen, a professor of structural engineering at Purdue University. In this case, one wing hit the ground; the other was sheared off by the force of the impact with the Pentagon’s load-bearing columns, explains Sozen, who specializes in the behavior of concrete buildings. What was left of the plane flowed into the structure in a state closer to a liquid than a solid mass. “If you expected the entire wing to cut into the building,” Sozen tells PM, “it didn’t happen.”

      The tidy hole in Ring C was 12 ft. wide—not 16 ft. ASCE concludes it was made by the jet’s landing gear, not by the fuselage.”

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