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How Extremism Went Mainstream

A brief history of tinfoil hats

Photo by Thomas O’Neill/NurPhoto via Getty

We are living in a golden age of bad ideas. There is perhaps no better proof of this than in the prevalence of conspiracy theories that were once restricted to the darkest corners of the internet, but have now found mainstream acceptance, peddled by celebrities, pundits, and politicians — including our President. One of the most popular — and disturbing — is the cult of “QAnon,” a dense canon of 4chan-originated folklore that includes prophecies of an imminent apocalyptic confrontation between the Trump administration and the “Deep State” and, of course, accusations that the Clinton Foundation is a front for child sex-trafficking. At a recent rally in Tampa, while President Trump stirred his supporters with his usual mishmash of slogans, impersonations, and non-sequiturs (highlights: "If you go out and you want to buy groceries, you need a picture on a card, you need ID,” and, “I’ve got to admit, Abe Lincoln was tough … we love Honest Abe”), many in the audience could be seen holding signs and wearing t-shirts bearing large ‘Q’s and other references to the “QAnon” movement.

Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images

It’s tempting for those of us still marginally tethered to reality to feel as though we are living in a world gone suddenly and horribly mad. It’s just as easy to blame this current wave of delusions on the internet and its ability to both spread “fake news” and connect people from all across the globe who share common sets of unorthodox beliefs. But is this really anything new? My dad has told me of how my great-grandfather would warn him as a child to watch out for Catholic kids at school, and claimed that the Knights of Columbus carried around concealed knives to use when the Pope gave a secret signal to kill all the Protestants. This wasn’t Belfast, this was Atlanta, and my great-grandfather was by no means a deranged schizophrenic or a member of a fringe religious sect — he was a mild-mannered architect and a Methodist.

In the 60s, the John Birch Society, who believed, among other things, that communists were using water fluoridation to turn the American population into socialist zombies, were able to propel Barry Goldwater to the GOP presidential nomination. At the 1964 Republican National Convention, Goldwater delivered the chilling credo that “extremism in the defense of liberty is no vice.” He lost in a landslide, but to many Americans, his nomination legitimized views that were once seen as beyond the pale, and helped pave the way for the rise of another Birchite beneficiary, a B-movie actor turned anti-communist crusader named Ronald Reagan.

A John Birch society exhibit from the early 1970s. Photo by Spencer Grant/Getty Images

During the Great Depression, the popular radio evangelist Father Charles Coughlin took advantage of the public’s well-founded mistrust of banks to steer his millions of listeners towards a philosophy of antisemitism, isolationism, and admiration of the emerging fascist leaders of Europe. Coughlin built a political organization called the National Union of Social Justice which at its height boasted over 7.5 million members. Meanwhile, in the same city from which Coughlin broadcast his bigoted beliefs to the masses, Henry Ford published copies of the infamous antisemitic hoax The Protocols of The Elders of Zion for dissemination across the country. One of Ford’s greatest admirers, Adolf Hitler, praised Ford in Mein Kampf for his role in evangelizing the dangers of the “international Jew” to the American public.

Go back even further, to the mid-19th century, and you will find the first major third party in American politics, the Anti-Masonic Party, founded on the belief that Freemasons secretly controlled all of America’s major institutions and murdered anyone who stood in their way. In 1831, the Anti-Masons became the first party to ever host a national presidential nominating convention. Within a decade, the Anti-Masons had won dozens of seats in congress, two governorships, and could count among their members such high profile politicians as former President John Quincy Adams, future President Millard Fillmore, abolitionist Congressman Thaddeus Stevens, and future Secretary of State William Seward (on a related note, my papal-phobic great-grandfather was a Mason).

An Anti-Masonic Party pamphlet. Public domain.

I don’t mean to downplay this disturbing — and dangerous — new brand of neurosis, but it is worth noting that this phenomenon is as old as the republic itself. We, the people, have been wearing tinfoil hats since before we dumped 342 boxes of tea into the Boston Harbor. As a nation born of anti-monarchical outrage, we are inherently distrustful of the elites, whether it be politicians, banks, or the media. We also have an embarrassing tendency to allow this paranoia to be stoked by opportunists and charlatans from all ends of the political spectrum. Too often, this enmity finds its targets not in the elites, but in the downtrodden.

As in previous cases, the current panic comes from a place of justified anger. People should be mad as hell at the elites. From the financial crisis of 2008 to the Supreme Court’s decision in Citizens United, the last decade has provided countless examples of how power in America has become increasingly concentrated in the hands of a small class of politicians and billionaires with a seeming indifference towards the rest of us. But, anger does not justify zealotry — especially the kind of zealotry that frequently confuses society’s most powerful with society’s most vulnerable. Turbulent times call for solutions, and solutions must come from a place of reason. In a post-truth world, it is a civic duty to keep one’s head when all about are losing theirs.

I mostly write about history and pop-culture. I live in Atlanta.

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