In the 1920s, H.L. Mencken observed, “The whole aim of practical politics is to keep the populace alarmed (and hence clamorous to be led to safety) by an endless series of hobgoblins, most of them imaginary.” He was on to something. From the early 1950s, Post-World War II conservatives instilled fear of Reds under the bed and a Godless communist plot of world domination. Joe McCarthy was fond of denouncing communists in the executive branch and military. And whatever he lacked in proof, he made up for in bombast and hypocrisy.
“How can we account for our present situation unless we believe that men high in this government are concerting to deliver us to disaster? This must be the product of a great conspiracy on a scale so immense as to dwarf any previous such venture in the history of man. A conspiracy of infamy so black that, which it is finally exposed, its principals shall be forever deserving of the maledictions of all honest men.”
Reagan continued the fear-mongering with his talk of an “Evil Empire”. And Bush Jr. spoke of the “Axis of Evil.”
I do not discount the military might of the Soviets. And for a while, they had the economic resources to back it up. But by the mid-1980s, the USSR was already a corpse. Iraq proved a paper tiger. And neither North Korea nor Afghanistan represents any threat to the US. Trump may have blustered about NK’s long-range nuclear weapons. But c’mon, really? I am no military analyst, but a few rockets tested without payloads, do not seem like an existential threat to me.
But conservative politics in America is fear-driven. Richard Hofstadler wrote as much in his seminal 1964 essay for Harper’s magazine, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics”. It starts,
“American politics has often been an arena for angry minds. In recent years we have seen angry minds at work mainly among extreme right-wingers, who have now demonstrated in the Goldwater movement how much political leverage can be got out of the animosities and passions of a small minority.”
Not much has changed except the names. Conservative politicians have used the fear of foreign military powers to distract the American voter from the domestic rapacity of conservative powers — “look over there, while I steal this”. And it dovetails perfectly with dire warnings of a New World Order, a hostile UN, the Illuminati, globalist pandemic manufacturers, Jewish bankers, and others.
None of this is new. As Hofstadler reported, in 1855, a Texas newspaper article identified a particularly sinister threat,
“It is a notorious fact that the Monarchs of Europe and the Pope of Rome are at this very moment plotting our destruction and threatening the extinction of our political, civil, and religious institutions. We have the best reasons for believing that corruption has found its way into our Executive Chamber and that our Executive head is tainted with the infectious venom of Catholicism.”
Luckily this political prognosticator had the same embrace of inaccuracy as religious prophets. And this dastardly plot proved no more than the fever dream of a frightened writer.
In 1797, Scottish scientist, John Robison published a book warning about “Illuminism”. His effort was modestly titled, “Proofs of a Conspiracy Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Carried on in the Secret Meetings of Free Masons, Illuminati, and Reading Societies.” When it was reprinted in New York, American Federalists in the North-East embraced its paranoid wackiness.
Robison claimed the formation of the Illuminati was, as Hofstadler writes,
“for the express purpose of rooting out all religious establishments, and overturning all the existing governments of Europe.” It had become “one great and wicked project fermenting and working all over Europe.” And to it, he attributed a central role in bringing about the French Revolution. He saw it as a libertine, anti-Christian movement, given to the corruption of women, the cultivation of sensual pleasures, and the violation of property rights. Its members had plans for making a tea that caused abortion—a secret substance that “blinds or kills when spurted in the face,” and a device that sounds like a stench bomb—a “method for filling a bedchamber with pestilential vapours.”
Of course, Robison's predictions fell short of the mark. But 225 years later, a new generation of fear-mongers are selling their "new and “improved” snake oil to the descendants of these original conspiracy theorists. And added to the external threats are raping Mexicans, disease-ridden immigrants, and a terrorist under every bed.
Contemporary conservative bed-wetters have added a slew of new enemies for “real Americans” (aka today’s self-identified victims) to worry over. A list that includes Feminazis, books, the LGBTQ+ agenda, school indoctrination, pandemic-inspired freedom grabbers, gun confiscators, Bible shredders, tracking-chip vaccines, space lasers, socialists, welfare queens, and the great replacement theory.
And the cherry on the paranoid's cake is the QAnon-generated claim that a Satanic cabal of cannibalistic child abusers is abducting children to feed a global sex trafficking ring. A ring run by Democratic politicians, Hollywood stars, high-ranking government officials, business tycoons, and medical experts - including Joe Biden, Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, George Soros, Bill Gates, Pope Francis, the Dalai Lama, Dr. Fauci, Oprah Winfrey, Ellan DeGenaris, Chrissie Teigan, and Tom Hanks. What kind of mind takes this seriously?
Trump is the hero in this conspiracy as he made a common cause with Robert Mueller to defeat these forces of evil and bring them to justice during "the Event" or "the Storm" when the Army will arrest thousands of people and send them to Guantanamo to face military tribunals. However, now that Trump is no longer President, I do not know if this is still part of the plan — perhaps they are waiting for his reelection. Or maybe they think God or some other agency will reinstate him.
Whatever. Like so often in history, people gain power by convincing scared and limited thinkers to believe the most absurd claptrap. I wish that something could educate people out of their ridiculous fears, but I suspect that there are many for whom terror is an addictive drug. Kids love scary campfire tales. And most of us have enjoyed a good horror movie. But for the conspiracy theorist and believers in cartoonish enemies, fear is a way of life.