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  • Peter McGuire

How Did Conspiracy Theories Become Mainstream? Part 1 of 2

Updated: Sep 10, 2021

What is a conspiracy theory? Where do they come from? Why does my grandma keep posting them on Facebook? This is the story of how fringe theories conquered the mainstream.


Thank you Nick Lutsko.

Full Text:

Is Obama a lizard man? Is the Earth flat? Is the deep state undermining Trump? These answers and more on tonight’s Unlikely Explanations!

The answer is no. Sorry, but, just, no. None of those things are true. But this isn’t a debunking podcast, this is a history podcast, so I’m going to focus on how conspiracy culture came to be what it is.

I started researching this story many years ago after a long conversation with a coworker about fluoride in the water. I showed her reports from several health organizations discussing how levels of fluoride in the water supply are well below toxic and the improvement in dental health when fluoride is introduced to an area’s water supply, and her response was that all the major health organizations were part of the conspiracy. And she upped the ante with the claim that Jews in concentration camps were given fluoride to keep them docile. So I showed her a statement from the U.S. Holocaust Museum stating that fluoride in the drinking water was not a tactic used in concentration camps and asked why the Holocaust Museum, a body dedicated to exposing the horrors of the Holocaust, would dismiss an atrocity if it happened. She demurred and moved on to the New World Order and pointed to supposedly leaked emails between Hillary Clinton and Warren Buffet discussing causing world famine to consolidate political power. This conversation happened in 2016, by the way. And after that, she explained how Donald Trump was the only person who could see through the lies. Then we talked about the hegemony of the Rothschilds through the proxy of the federal reserve, and, finally, we hit what I would call conspiracy theory bedrock: the claim that there are false Jews who are framing the real Jews for ruining the world who are ruining the world.

The question that propelled this conversation, the one I always ask when I’m skeptical, was “How do you know what you know?” In a world where every body of experts is co-opted, where every politician is complicit, where every intellectual is secretly a greedy cynic, where do you turn for truth? Her answer seemed to be websites and YouTube videos and fringe publications. Unabashedly.

So, as is my way when I’m bothered, I started researching. I know that everything has a history and that history has power. Explanatory power. It provides context that isn’t usually obvious when we first encounter things. And, just as we can trace the progress of, say, an armored division over the course of a war, we can trace the progress of an idea. Any artist or writer who can restrain their narcissism long enough will tell you that no idea is truly new. We read, we think, we create, and every idea we use comes from somewhere. For example, I had equal parts chagrin and excitement when I discovered that virtually everything I will talk about here was already well explained by a professor at Syracuse University in 2013. I flatter myself to say we independently arrived at many of the same conclusions, but in truth, I surveyed the same ground he’d already conquered, and I’m sure my path was influenced by the trail he blazed.

My point being, the history of ideas is just as easy to follow as any other kind of history. We mainly look at three things:

1. What is the intellectual background? Two prime examples include how most work on class warfare is influenced by Marx and most work on the unconscious is influenced by Freud.

2. What is its form? If the words have the same order as another text and the ideas have the same order, we can assume that it’s plagiarism or heavily based on another work.

3. What was the context? If we know the historical details of the writer, we can make a good guess at what they knew and what they innovated.

So when I began to dig through the sources and look at similarities between conspiracy theories, I followed the trail, and I found both an intellectual trail of ideas and a physical trail of evidence. The texts tell a story that follows a clear path over geography, touched well-known historical figures, and was surprisingly easy to follow. I say all this because I’m going to get pretty deeply into politics. I intended to keep this focused on conspiracy theory, but it has been an active part of politics for the last century at least. And that’s ultimately a main goal of this podcast: to show how history has a way of butting into the present. But I want to stress that I’m not here to grind my political axe. I’m going to present the facts as I found them and tell you the narrative that the facts tell.

Now let me loop back to that idea of context. This is the thing I find most lacking in conspiracy-theory thinking. It’s been proven time and time again that we humans can find all kinds of patterns in a noisy signal. This is why we can find ghost voices in tapes of white noise and find faces in the rocks on Mars. It is part of what makes us so versatile at conquering the world’s ecosystems. We learn very quickly, and we do it by assuming patterns from little information very intuitively. But when we have limited information, we can make huge mistakes in pattern recognition. It’s often only when we pull back the camera, get more perspective, get a better signal, and see the context that the true patterns emerge.

Perhaps the most obvious example of this is the ancient aliens theory. I know a bit about western art, so it was a striking moment for me when I heard a very authoritative-sounding narrator on the history channel say that beams of light from the sky in a medieval painting depicted spacecraft. I’ve seen hundreds of medieval paintings with beams of light from the sky and never once thought it was a UFO. In fact, it’s a very common way of representing divine inspiration. It’s a shorthand in western art, a motif, a meme, a cultural object, take your pick. And we can take this even further. Why should a person be sucked into the sky by a beam of divine light? If you know Catholic teaching, as I do and as these painters did, you know that Mary, the virgin mother of God, hopped straight into heaven without passing through the grave. And if we see depictions of chariots in the sky? Well, we hear of chariots in the sky in the book of Ezekiel.

Which leads us to the snake eating its tail at the bottom of all conspiracy theories. Do we see chariots in the sky in art because Ezekiel saw chariots or because Ezekiel described chariots? Put more broadly, is revelation inspiration or elaboration? Are our ideas rooted in reality or in our imaginations?

I don’t know. I don’t know whether Ezekiel saw God’s chariot, nor do I know if Ezekiel existed at all. But I can look at a medieval painting with a flying object in it and say, I know what this means. I can identify it. This is a part of a tradition. Some ideas are testable, and some are not. I can never prove or disprove whether Ezekiel saw aliens or God or a hallucination or if he was a poet who came up with an interesting image. All I can do is trace ideas to their sources.

I want to stress that conspiracy theories are not, by their nature, false. Any number of conspiracy theories could be confirmed as true if more evidence comes out in the future. I will discuss some theories that were fringe theories that were ultimately vindicated and some that I think have been completely and utterly debunked already. But the point of this episode is to provide context. A person doesn't wake up one day and start talking about a world order of flat-earth lizard people ancient aliens all at once. These ideas develop over time, in a community. So instead of focusing on proving or disproving the lizard men, I will focus on explaining them.

Before I totally lose the uninitiated listener, I should explain what I mean by lizard men. David Icke is an English sports commentator turned New Age devotee who experienced a revelation that he was the son of the godhead, the world would soon come to an end, and that most world leaders are descended from an ancient breeding stock of transdimensional alien reptilians and most of them continue to do the reptilian monsters’ bidding. If you wonder how I can say that so nonchalantly, it’s because when I was a kid, my parents let me roam bookstores for hours. And if you have kids, you should too. They might find out about their reptilian overlords.

As someone who seeks out uncommon knowledge, my path often crosses with conspiracy theorists. I proudly consider myself a skeptic. I follow the Asimov-Vonnegut-Sagan school of American humanism/skepticism. Most conspiracy-theory supporters I meet also consider themselves skeptics. The difference between a skeptic who believes we landed on the moon in 1969 and one who does not is a difficult distinction to grapple with.

Let’s start by defining. I’ll be talking generally about fringe theories and specifically about conspiracy theories. First of all, a theory is an explanation for why a set of facts are related. There is a law of gravity that says that objects always fall. The theory of gravity explains why: because all massive bodies attract each other. A theory is simply an explanation of the facts and can be as provable as gravity or evolution or as debunked as flat earth. A fringe theory is the idea that the commonly accepted explanation for something is incorrect. That’s innocuous enough. Every scientific theory starts its life as a fringe theory before it gains support. Tectonic plate theory, which is a gorgeously simple theory, spent more than a century languishing as a fringe theory before it gained mainstream acceptance. The important distinction is that the fringe theories I’m talking about can’t and won’t be disproven, even if it’s trivial to disprove them. These fringe theories are closed loops of thinking, and no amount of evidence can break that loop.

A conspiracy theory alleges that a group of people secretly orchestrate events. To paraphrase Michael Barkun, there are three basic types of conspiracy theories. Event theories suggest that historical moments, like the JFK assassination or 9/11, were orchestrated by a conspiracy. There are systemic conspiracies, where an organization affects events through secret channels. And there are superconspiracies, where theories are nested inside of theories. Barkun also presents a classification system. An organization can have secret goals and the organization itself can be secret. So a known organization with secret goals is the Freemasons. An unknown organization with known goals would be the anonymous donors you see funding art and museum exhibitions. A secret organization with secret goals would be something like the illuminati. This is the category that this podcast focuses on.

Keep in mind that the word “conspiracy” refers to a secret organization that tries to influence events. And that’s a bedeviling thing about superconspiracies. They can absolutely incorporate factual conspiracy theories. Conspiracies happen every day. We know that the FBI dosed people with acid without their knowledge. That’s provable. We know that the CIA overthrew Latin American governments. That’s provable. Every coup that ever took over a government was a conspiracy. It had to organize before it took action. Furthermore, some theories are unprovable until later, but they’re overwhelmingly likely. It is overwhelmingly likely that some UFO sightings are unreported tests of experimental aircraft. We know this because we know military aircraft are developed before they are declassified and part of that process is flying them. I hope that by looking into strange stories with this podcast, I can show how strange reality really is. I don’t think we need to make up stories about this world—it’s shocking enough as is.

In Elbert County, Georgia, there is a collection of stones about 20 feet, or 6 meters, in height. Much like Stonehenge and other stone constructions from prehistory, these stones function as a compass, a calendar, and a clock. They were constructed in 1979–80 by the Elberton Granite Finishing Company. Unlike ancient stone monuments, these stones do not memorialize the dead or invite religious devotion. Instead, they are inscribed with guidelines intended to help civilization recover in the event of a total collapse. The guidelines are written in English, Spanish, Swahili, Hindi, Hebrew, Arabic, traditional Chinese, and Russian, and the stones also contain writing in Babylonian Cuneiform, classical Greek, Sanskrit, and Egyptian hieroglyphics. This gives the monument additional value as a Rosetta stone. The guidelines include Benjamin Franklin-style common-sense suggestions like “Avoid petty laws and useless officials”, internationalist sentiments like “unite humanity with a living new language”, and controversial suggestions like “maintain humanity under five hundred million in perpetual balance with nature”. If you’re familiar with the New World Order conspiracy theory, that last one should ring a bell. They urge international cooperation, balance between the individual and the state, and eugenics. They end on a surprisingly poetic note: Be not a cancer on the earth — Leave room for nature — Leave room for nature.

I find the Georgia guidestones fascinating. To someone like me, who loves the Foundation series and knows how many all-powerful empires have collapsed, it’s an intriguing thought experiment. This kind of thinking expresses faith in the resilience of man; a hope that even if our world system collapses completely, there will still be people; and people will seek to rebuild or build anew. I think it expresses a realistic worldview, a knowledge that the past 500 years of European ascendancy is a fluke of history, that complexity of human society—like the complexity of organisms—ebbs and flows. That there will come a time when the people of the American continent experience something largely alien to us but common to someone like Herodotus—living among the ruins of older and greater civilizations. The guidestones suggest that a civilizational apocalypse presents an opportunity to create a governing system that is freed from the divisions of borders and more in tune with nature, beauty, and truth.

That is how I view the guidestones. But I’m downplaying something the authors of the stones emphasized. The first two guidelines are “Maintain humanity under five hundred million in perpetual balance with nature” and “Guide reproduction wisely—improving fitness and diversity”. A charitable interpretation says these lines urge us to avoid overpopulation and overexploitation and to cultivate a healthy genetic pool. This makes sense, given that current demography suggests that our current global population growth is unsustainable and that a system of birth control will be necessary eventually. A less charitable view says that the author has a Nazi-esque worldview where the intimate business of reproduction is controlled by the state and governed by some genetic program. An even less charitable view says that the author wants to bring about a massive reduction in world population and the institution of strict eugenics. Here are two facts: This author had the resources and inclination to construct a 20-foot-tall, 120-ton monument in twelve languages. He did so under a pseudonym on behalf of backers with the ability to fund such a project. That is why many people consider the Georgia guidestones to be clear evidence that a conspiracy of people of no small means plans to unite the governments of the world and eliminate the majority of its population. This theory is the current articulation of a conspiracy theory that has been growing in America for 100 years: the New World Order conspiracy theory.

One feature that makes conspiracy theories different from most thought systems is their incredible heterodoxy. That word is the opposite of orthodoxy. Here, I am using it to refer to huge diversity of ideas that peacefully coexist in the conspiracy theory community. There are popular ideas but not definitive ideas. The most accepted milieu of ideas in conspiracy theory circles changes as quickly as the news. This makes these theories particularly hardy. There is an additive effect that keeps the superconspiracy strong even if each of its supporting pillars are debunked. I bring this up because I just defined the new world order as an international cabal that wants to take over the world and massacre the people. This is the clearest articulation I have been able to form for it. However, this is not the only conception. There are many, many ideas about the new world order. They are related to the illuminati. They are related to Opus Dei. They are secret freemasons. They are secret Jews. But there are camps that would disagree with each or all of those statements. And, in fact, it doesn’t matter who comprises the new world order. The new world order is an organization so broad in reach and so deep in infiltration that its presence can’t be detected or, rather, can only be detected by the canniest sleuths. Only by stringing together a large number of event conspiracy theories over a long period of time across the globe can the new world order be detected. Defining its exact attributes is definitionally impossible. It can be conceptualized in several different ways simultaneously without contradiction. Even if they’re not behind 9/11 and Obama, they’re behind JFK and the moon landing. They are defined not by who they are or what they believe, they are defined by the evil they cause. And because they are so hard to detect, the details of the conspiracy can shift without it jeopardizing the whole of the idea.

Consider Alex Jones. Alex Jones is probably the most prominent conspiracy theorist in America today. Alex Jones has made statements to the effect of Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama are literally non-human, that chemtrails are turning the fricking frogs gay, that mass shootings are faked, that the government is covering up UFO events, that processed foods are designed to deplete humanity’s vitality, and that HIV was created by the government to kill homosexuals. If we try to impose any traditional schema of political belief on this list, we find ourselves unmoored. He’s pro-gun, he’s anti-capitalist. He abhors gays but, in a strange way, supports them. He’s anti-vax and he’s pro-UFO. He transcends politics as we know it. And I understand this to be the “alt” part of “alt-right”. He was a major Trump supporter because he saw Trump as an outsider who could cut through the traditional power structures and, quote, “drain the swamp.” Jones has since regretted his pro-Trump position because of the increased scrutiny that came with his introduction to the mainstream. [clip “I hate Trump more than Hillary now. It’s like he’s breaking my legs every day”]. I suspect that this is him reacting to the mainstream attention Trump has brought him. When ideas move from the fringe to the mainstream, they’re held to higher standards. Contradictions become more concerning. It limits Jones’ ability to leap from theory to theory freely and ignore the times when he is proven wrong. Ironically, gaining the mainstream attention that he has demanded all these years limits his ability to be Alex Jones.

To quote Barkun again, the superconspircy theories and fringe theories that I’m discussing today are defined by three tenets. First, nothing happens by accident. Second, nothing is as it seems. Third, everything is connected. I agree with this definition, but I want to point out that these suppositions are partly reasonable. Everything is connected. Conspiracy theorists take this to the extreme and see evil machinations in every event. However, in an increasingly globalized world, more and more things are connected. A good example is the Iran-Contra affair. The President of the United States secretly sold arms to Iran, a country that had recently attacked a U.S. embassy and held American hostages there for 444 days, to fund terrorists in Nicaragua. It sounds like a crazy conspiracy theory, but it happened. Events in Iran and Nicaragua, unrelated countries on opposite sides of the world, were caused by the same secret policy. In the post-WWII world, it is increasingly common that seemingly unrelated events have common causes.

Second, nothing is as it seems. I do think this is related to good skepticism, mostly for the reason that so much of history is only visible in retrospect, after evidence becomes public. A classic example of this is the cover-up of the danger of asbestos in the U.S. Its toxicity was proven in the 1930s and the dangers were denied by the industry until the 1970s. Powers that be lie to the public often and for as long as they can get away with it. So it’s true that sometimes we are lied to by the very people charged with keeping us safe.

But as for the first point, that nothing happens by accident, that’s dead wrong. Any student of history should know that most things, in fact, happen by accident. I mean that in the sense of historical accident: people do things with purpose, but the impetus that drives them and the results that follow are often chaotic. Consider Gavrilo Princip waiting outside a delicatessen in Sarajevo. He was a Bosnian Serb who wanted independence for Bosnians from their Austrian masters. His co-conspirator had thrown a bomb at the archduke’s car, but the car sped away unharmed. The assassination that they’d planned for months was foiled. Worse, Princip hadn’t even had the chance to carry out his part of the plan. So he waited along a side road where the motorcade was scheduled to return. The archduke’s caravan did return, but the plans had changed. He intended to visit the hospital where the people who had been injured in the bomb attack were being treated, and the decision was made to avoid the previously scheduled route in case the attempted assassins were still around. His driver had not been informed of the change, so he took a right onto the scheduled route where he should have gone straight. The driver of the car behind him shouted for him to stop. The car stopped. Princip looked up. There was the archduke, a sitting duck. He stepped forward and shot Archduke Franz Ferdinand, heir to the Austrian throne, and his wife, at point blank range. He had no idea that his terroristic act of rebellion would plunge the world into one of its deadliest wars. A driver makes a wrong turn. A freedom fighter takes his shot. The world descends into chaos. 22 million men die. What a terrible accident of history.

And yet, this is also a great example of what a real conspiracy looks like. Six dissident nationalists huddled in a dark Sarajevo boarding house, calling themselves The Black Hand, plotting to hide weapons throughout the city to aid in their assassination. Their plans and existence were secret, but they were clear about their objectives and beliefs. Real conspiracies limit their numbers for safety’s sake and have a clear objective that draws them together.

Contrast this with the new world order idea: that society at large has been corrupted by a greedy cabal. Who forms this cabal? Internationalists; bankers; intellectuals; and inhuman, alien monsters. Think about these words: internationalist, banking, intellectual, elite. This is not a new idea. In fact, this is the same idea that reshaped Europe in the 20th century. Only, when this idea came to prominence in the 1920s, writers employed a single word that encapsulated all of these meanings and also tapped a deep wellspring of historical resentment. That word was “Jew”.

Jews have a people apart from the societies they’ve lived in for most of the last two millennia. They were expelled from their homeland several times but most significantly by the Romans in 136 CE and they took up residence around the world. I know of no other diaspora who lived away from their homeland for two millennia without losing their culture and religion. By observing rules about marrying within the community, strict religious observance, and adhering to clothing and food taboos, the Jews avoided much of the syncretism that you see between Christian and Pagan religions. Instead, you see parallel communities living within other communities all around the world. In Europe, Jews often lived in separate quarters of cities and operated semi-autonomously. This structure of parallel community had a significant impact on the development of conspiracy theories. And please keep in mind, I’m not trying to give you a complete history of the Jews. I’m describing a historical background for conspiracy theories.

As we often see with diverse communities living side by side, there was usually an underlying tension between Jews and Gentiles that could ignite at various flashpoints such as a crime or an accusation. This was aided by a peculiarity of law: both Christians and Jews observed the taboo of usury, lending money at interest. However, Jews found it permissible to charge interest to Christians because they were not their brothers in faith. This meant that Christian communities often developed debts to Jewish communities. Certainly there was zero-interest banking like we see in some Islamic countries today, and there were ways that Christians covertly engaged in usury among themselves, particularly from the 14th century onward (that’s called banking), but in much of medieval Europe, most lending capital came from Jews. This created one of the biggest engines of Jewish oppression in Europe.

The city would get in debt to its Jewish citizens and decide to wipe out the obligations by force. In many cases, local lords often tried to suppress these uprisings, called pogroms. This is because Jews tended to be very valuable citizens. As mentioned, they provide capital for citizens, which fuels growth. They had valuable skills and often encouraged merchant trade. They were frequently better educated than most citizens and made useful civil servants because they existed outside of the Christian kinship system and, in that sense, could act like eunuchs did in the east. In fact, many medieval courts had the position of Court Jew, a man whose job it was to finance the crown by securing loans from Jewish communities. In many ways, our current system of international banking derives from this system. And if a lord or, later, a government became too indebted? That was solved easily enough. Simply let their subjects do what they were ready to do anyway and sanction the pogroms. Jews simply couldn’t fight back in any meaningful way. They didn’t have lords who had lands and could raise an army. Jewish communities were simply too far apart and too few in number to mount an effective defense against a city, let alone a lord, let alone a king. And so we see the cycle repeat century after century. Jews begin to participate more and more in public life, they are expelled or slaughtered, and the local area declines. If you go to Europe today, particularly eastern Europe, you can still hear the joyful folktales and songs about when the locals forced all the Jews into their synagogue and burnt the hapless souls inside.

In March of 1144, a young boy named William went missing from his home in Norwich, England. He was found in the woods outside of town, today a park in Norwich, wearing only a jacket and shoes, having obviously died a violent death. By 1173, a local Benedictine monk had completed an 11-volume work explaining that William had been tortured in a sick parody of the passion of Christ and then killed and left to rot in the woods. The monk’s sources among converted Jews told him that the Jews believed if they sacrificed one Christian boy a year, they would regain control of Israel. It had been a planned attack, the text alleges. The Jewish cook at the court offered to employ the boy and led him straight to his murderers’ clutches. This appears to be the first time that a Jewish community was accused of being a secret murder cult. It would not be the last time. The community was sheltered by Norwich’s sheriff at the time, but by the end of the century, violence against Jews had become commonplace in England, and at the end of the 13th century, they were expelled from the country completely.

I believe this case and the countless similar ones that followed created the intellectual framework and the language for modern conspiracy theory. The theme is repeated over and over: the suspicion that the Jews are infiltrating and undermining Christian Europe. They are internationalists; bankers; intellectuals; and later, elites.

There is another, equally antique tradition that feeds into conspiracy theory. Around 95 CE, the Book of Revelation was written. It’s remarkable for the intensity of its language and images. It treats the visions that are depicted in the Old Testament as a grab bag of phrases, images, and structures to draw from, often combining them without distinction. It describes how a horned beast will emerge, brand all people with the mark of the beast (which is 666), blaspheme God, and battle the saints. In retaliation, God sends seven plagues to the earth and, ultimately, destroys the world’s new capitol: New Babylon. The beast is cast into the lake of fire, Jesus returns and resurrects the martyrs, and they rule for a thousand years. After that, there is one more climactic battle; there is a final judgement where the wicked people, the Beast, Death , and Hades are thrown into the lake of fire; a new Jerusalem is built; and God comes to live with us humans happily ever after.

It’s a startling piece of writing and it had great influence on Christian thought and art. It is the last book to join the biblical canon. It doesn’t appear in the Codex Vatacanis, the oldest known Greek bible, which was compiled in the fourth century, but it was incorporated soon afterward. The vein of Christian thought dealing with this apocalypse is called Millennialism. The word refers to the thousand years that Christ is meant to reign on earth before the last judgement. The key figure, for our purposes, is John Nelson Darby, an English evangelical who lived in the 19th century. He introduced several ideas that will likely be familiar to American listeners. Based on the significance of seven in numerology and the book of revelation, he posited that the end times will be preceded by seven years of tribulations, during which an antichrist will establish a world government. At the beginning of these seven years, the righteous will apparently ascend into heaven, raptured. This antichrist is charismatic; brilliant; and, eventually, all-powerful. And importantly, he is just like Christ. This figure is conflated with the Beast from Revelations and his followers are marked with the sign of the beast. When Jerry Falwell in 1999 said of the antichrist “Of course, he'll be Jewish,” he was speaking an entirely orthodox position within dispensational evangelicalism. Quote, ''If he's going to be the counterfeit of Christ, he has to be Jewish.”

I would consider these two factors, the idea of Judaism as an evil cult and the idea of an antichrist-led end times, to be the background of conspiracy theory, the wells from which it draws. Now we get the inciting incident.

In 1903, a forgery appeared in Russia. It purported to be the minutes of a congress of Jews, spelling out with barefaced hubris their plan for world domination. It was called The Protocols of the Elders of Zion. In fact, it was an interpolation of earlier sources. There seem to be two roots. First, Russia, along with Prussia and Austria, had recently annexed portions of Poland. Jews in Poland had a fair amount of autonomy and ruled themselves through a body called qalal. Jacob Brafman, a Jew who had converted to Christianity, accused the qalal in a series of publications of being a subversive, infiltrating body that undermined Christian businessmen through their control of the economy. The supposed leader of this conspiracy could be none other than Adolphe Crémieux, a freemason and the leader of a Paris-based organization dedicated to safeguarding Jewish rights. You see how these conspiracy theories turn truth in on itself. If a body advocated for Jewish rights, it must be a dangerous conspiracy.

The second source is the text a Dialogue in Hell Between Machiavelli and Montesquieu by Maurice Joly, a French, 1864 parody of Napoleon III. It lays out a 25-step plan to take over the world. It describes a capitalist takeover of the laws and economies of the world, knitting every state together into a single super-state of economic oppression by the upper class. And who can blame Joly? He lived in a country where a democratic revolution had become an autocratic empire, had been invaded by the monarchies of Europe, and had a monarch installed on the throne. In his lifetime, he’d seen a liberal, constitutional monarch who compromised with the people be overthrown by Emperor Napoleon III, an autocrat. Autocracies defeated Republican movements over and over again throughout the 19th century by relying on international connections.

Protocols came to be circulated in anti-Semitic circles before making the leap to full-blown forgery. It linked the unrest against the autocratic monarchy of Russia to an international Jewish conspiracy. It lays out a 24-step plan to take over the world by destroying Christian morals and uniting governments and economies through control of the banks and press. We can trace Protocols’ progress on the map. In 1917, a democratic revolution toppled the monarchy of Russia, bringing a sudden and humiliating end to that country’s participation in World War I. That October, the Bolsheviks seized power and instituted a socialist soviet government. For the next five years, the country was ravaged by a civil war between the Bolsheviks, called the Red Russians, and the monarchists and generals, called the White Russians. Both sides received extensive international support. In the end, the Red Russians expelled the White Russians, who fled west. A major destination was Germany, where they promulgated the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. It came to be circulated in a volume called The Great Within the Small: The Coming of the Anti-Christ and the Rule of Satan on Earth. Already, the Jewish conspiracy was connected to the antichrist and the end times.

This text proved popular with nationalists in Germany, particularly with a far-right enemy of the Communists, the National Socialists. It provided a palatable explanation for the loss of the Russian civil war and provided a powerful tool against the left-wing in Germany. It was easy to tie Bolshevism to Judaism; they were both non-Christian, internationalist, and existed outside traditional European politics. It became orthodoxy in the Nazi historical theory to say that Russia was ruled by the “Zionist Occupation Government”. It did not take long for Protocols to be proven to be a forgery by the international press and academic community. But in Nazi Germany, it was instituted as part of the school curriculum.

Hitler writes in Mein Kampf in 1925, “... [The Protocols] are based on a forgery, the Frankfurter Zeitung [which is the local newspaper] moans [ ] every week ... [which is] the best proof that they are authentic.” Think about that for a moment. The more that the authorities tell us it’s false, the more we know it’s true. It’s a closed intellectual loop. New evidence cannot penetrate it. It is an unfalsifiable claim. This is the same thinking we see at work in fringe and conspiracy theories in general. What makes the superconspiracy theory so strong is that it’s based on these closed loops that have an additive effect. Even if the Protocols seems suspect, there might still be enough truth in it to prop up a larger conspiracy theory. Even if these suspect pieces of evidence are full of holes, they can still add up to something big and shadowy.

I’m sure that I don’t need to explain the power of Protocols within the Nazi ideology. It formed the justification for the systemic oppression of Jews and made them the primary scapegoat of Nazi power grabs. The climax of this policy was the extermination of peoples considered untermenchen by the Nazi regime, including six million Jews and eleven million others including soviets, Poles, Serbs, Slavs, Catholics, disabled people, freemasons, Romani, and homosexuals. Erich von dem Bach-Zelewsky, a Nazi leader who earned leniency at the Nuremberg trials by testifying against fellow party members and was later imprisoned for political murders before the war, wrote the following:

"I am the only living witness, but I must say the truth. Contrary to the opinion of the National Socialists, that the Jews were a highly organized group, the appalling fact was that they had no organization whatsoever. The mass of the Jewish people were taken completely by surprise. They did not know at all what to do; they had no directives or slogans as to how they should act…. Never before has a people gone as unsuspectingly to its disaster."

Most superconspiracy theories purport that when you strip away the layers of international conspiracy, you reveal the rotten Jewish core. In more recent formulations, Jews are placed one or two layers out, but they are usually close to the center of evil. In my experience researching and writing this episode, I found that when you strip away the layers superconspiracy theory, you reveal a rotten anti-Semitic core.

Now that we’ve traced the progress of The Protocols of the Elders of Zion across Europe, let’s rewind the clock a little and trace another arm. Protocols made the leap across the ocean largely due to the work of one man: Henry Ford.

And that is where I’m going to split this story. I wrote this episode as one continuous story but it grew in the telling and then the interview with Michael Barkun allowed me to expand the commentary on contemporary politics towards the end. You now have the conceptual and historical framework for conspiracy theory, in the second half we will talk about its growth and development in America and how conspiracy theory affects us today. Keep an eye out for the rest of this explanation in May.

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