BONUS: From JFK to Qanon: Why Conspiracy Theories Won’t Go Away

Conspiracy theories are as old as the republic. Actually, they’re a lot older than OUR republic. In every country, in every culture, people believe powerful forces are colluding in ways they know nothing about.

Why is that?

In this week’s bonus episode we talk with Jesse Walker, books editor of Reason magazine and author of “The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory.”



There’s a long series of conspiracy theories to basically amount to the country being governed by secret pedophile ranks.

You’re listening to War College, a weekly podcast that brings you the stories from behind the front lines. Here are your hosts Matthew Galt and Jason fields.

Hello, welcome to War College. I’m Matthew Gault

and I’m Jason fields.

Conspiracy theories are as old as the republic but the latest one seems stranger and more elaborate than most Qanon is the internet driven conspiracy theory that supposes Donald Trump is waging a shadow war against satanic pedophiles from inside the White House and that’s that’s the simple version it seems ridiculous on its face. But Qanon has a loyal following and they’ve actually been spotted a Trump rallies holding up q signs recently Cuban on proponent Michael Lionel, LeBron visited the White House and even took a picture with Donald Trump here to help us sort through all of this is Jesse Walker Walker is the books editor at reason magazine and the author of the United States of paranoia, a conspiracy theory a book about the history of American conspiracy theories. Jesse, thank you so much for joining us.

Well, thank you for inviting me on

I guess my first question is, is Qanon really anything new

Qanon itself is is sort of the latest and maybe most elaborate remixed version of a bunch of older stories and in fact the way it’s set up the the open ended newness of it has really encouraged the remix thing I mean all conspiracy theories people build on adapt them, you know, jettison did add some more maybe radically revise them if you know, someone encounters some, but they’re coming at it from a different ideology, but the whole sort of Qanon system of someone sort of dropping clues and then inviting people to come up with their own ways to connect them has really allowed a whole lot of different fears that are in the air to get mixed together. And I on top of the fact that there’s a fair chance not just that the original person dropping these clues as a prankster, but then a number of the people, you know, participating and coming up with the versions of the story may well be pranksters, you know, there’s a part of what I think has fueled you know, the absurdity of it. And, and, and this really is, I mean, some conspiracy theories, you hear them, you say, well, maybe some of that there could be some truth to it. In this case, it’s such a parallel reality that it’s very difficult to take seriously, unless you’ve no reason to be just committed to the idea it unless you’re coming at it with some mentality that that makes you really want it to be true. It’s very difficult to believe, but people do believe it, right? People do believe in it, people coming at it, it really is, I people, number one, people definitely do believe it. Some people take it very, very seriously. But number two, it is

how shall I put this, a lot of people compare it to alternate reality games, these were at least did they still happen, but they were kind of, you know, all the rage for a bit about a decade ago, were often to promote a new movie, or other sort of media release, someone would drop these clues and people would, you know, participate in one, it would be like a combination between it would be like a game that kind of spills out of the computers into reality, into the physical world, almost like a scavenger hunt. But you might have in one case, one of the clues was actually literally written on the bathroom wall for people to find you get people would even be getting phone calls and faxes that would have, you know, more clues coming to them. And I think a lot of the appeal to this is that it’s like one of those games, I’m not the first person to make that comparison. And so that kind of leaves open the question how many of the people are really, really believing it as we know, some are, how many of the people are just sort of having fun with it, and not taking it seriously. And how many are in this sort of in between state where they’re kind of thinking as if you know, what if this is true, and the thing is, all three of those people can add their speculations to to the pot, you know, online, and someone else might take it seriously and pick it up. So it’s an obviously we don’t have survey data or anything like that. I mean, what we have is things like, how many people watch a YouTube video, and as everyone knows, people watch YouTube videos for all sorts of reasons might be because they believe it might be because they’re laughing at it might be because, you know, it started and it took them 30 seconds to turn it off. So we’re really calling of coming at this with a lot of just, I mean, as outsiders open questions about the different ways people are using the stories the different way people are processing the story. And again, I it’s

I mean, since I think we’re all you know, who are not really far gone, I mean, outside of like the collection of believers, the rest of us kind of recognized that this is nonsense, and there’s it therefore, the person, you know, dropping these things is either deliberately doing some sort of disinformation or is acting as a prankster or as a prophet here. I mean, that’s certainly one thing that’s very likely. And one of the stories I’ve seen, it tries to look into what might be put behind it certainly kind of leans in that direction. So it’s when you’ve got that kind of mean, creativity is kind of a misleading word for it because that that’s kind of a positive word, you know that kind of, you know,

mixture of creativity and combustibility, it really does keep spiraling in different directions. What’s interesting now, is that it’s harder to maintain belief in it, because, you know, the most recent events and you know, the, the mower investigation, you know, what happened with Manfred also what happened with Colin, which I know is not strictly speaking, part of them over investigation kind of cuts against this theory which had it you know, that the special counsel and and Donald Trump are secretly working together to clear out this grand paedophile conspiracy. So the question then becomes, how do people deal with this? Well, a lot of Qanon predictions have not come true in the past. So someone can keep on ignoring elements of the story or revising the story in order to make it fit. But at some point, this probably starts to fall apart, people sort of drift away from it, but it never completely dies. Because elements of it are still there to be remixed in the future, just like parts of this story have been used in conspiracy stories, you know, going back decades. Can you get into that a little bit, I’m wondering what some of the historical antecedents are, what some of the older stories are that are being dredged up now? Well, I mean, there’s a long series of conspiracy theories that basically amount to the country being governed by secret key to file rings. Cathy O’Brien is probably the most infamous or was I mean, until recently the most infamous example of a conspiracy theorist like this, you know, she claimed that she had been a part of government mind control program that involved for being passed around to different leaders of the elite and she wrote a book called transformation of America it’s two words trance formation that you know, made these allegations back in the 90s and she had you know, been talking about it earlier than then and there were previous allegations you know, going back to 1980, moving the late 70s people making claims like this and of course in then if you even go back earlier than that I mean also your things like the McMartin preschool case, I mean, it’s not just friend stuff there the whole satanic Panic of the 1980s this didn’t usually involve the leaders of America being involved in this least not in the versions that caught on in the mainstream. But this idea that there were these networks of child molesters and Satanists Who were you know working behind the scenes to capture children to molester In some versions of the story sacrifice them you have things like in the case of the McMartin preschool legend secret tunnels underneath them which of course, we saw the same sort of thing being claimed in the pizza gate story now there are some posts pizza gate conspiracy theories about I was just reading this morning about it donut shop in Portland, where they were claiming they were secret tunnels beneath it. And in fact, this goes back a long, long time ago. It’s stories like that because, you know, in the, in the 19th century, some of the tales people told about confidence for very similar in terms of, you know, the abuse of children secret tunnels underneath. And one that I wrote about halfway through. The guy showed up at Comic Con pizzeria with a gun back in 2016. I pointed out in an 1834 a guide and just show up with a gun a whole mob showed up and burn down a convent in Charlestown, Massachusetts, because they were convinced that the the people who work in lift there were, you know, holding the students and young women and sexual slavery and that there were secret tunnels and so on everything you expect in the pizzeria. Right. And there was in in that case, it was you even had I mean, people talk about, quote, unquote, fake news. Like, it’s something new? Well, you had handbills and placards that were written anonymously and being passed around that were making all these claims about what was going on in there. And in fact, if you want like an optimistic takeaway from this, compare them, you know, burning down the convent to like one guy showing up with a kind of not managed to hit anything. I mean, maybe the trend line is in the right direction. But yeah, there’s, there’s, it’s not surprising that stories like the this keep coming back, because, you know, it speaks to the same sorts of anxieties. People are always concerned about terrible things being done to children. I mean, that’s something that’s just a hardwired into us, although it manifests in different ways. So it shouldn’t be surprising that people would tell stories in the 1830s that are similar to stories people are telling into 2013 it’s interesting to me, though, that it’s become so tied up with politics. Now, do you see a reason why it’s transformed from, you know,

convents to is it just whatever the authority figures of the day? Well, the confidence weren’t the authority figure of the day, obviously, because this was this was in the church.

Yeah, right. Yeah, I mean, right, doesn’t mean that the church is sort of, yeah, but the church was feared as outsiders earliest by the people who went to burn it down. I mean, those were Protestants and Catholics who went after the convent. But yeah, I mean, it’s, it’s really the matter of, you know, different stories get combined. I mean, in the case of Qanon, you’ve got this sort of history of, you know, fear of pedophile conspiracies. And that’s been flaring up recently, you know, in the mainstream. Yeah, all these concerns about human trafficking, and often reaching into the realm of the sort of dubious and conspiratorial if you look at some of the stuff that gets passed around on Facebook, or even gets repeated in the local news. And then you’ve got these other stories going around about the deep state. And it’s kind of natural that people will try to combine them into my natural I mean, that’s the sort of cultural evolution you might expect to see in the case of I mean, the stuff I was mentioning with Cathy O’Brien, and some of the other folks who claim to have been victims of pedophile rings in the 80s and 90s. That’s the earliest I’ve seen of combining it with fears of government conspiracies, that doesn’t mean it didn’t happen before, then I’m not going to make a strong claim. Like that’s the first time it ever happened. But I think there were particular reasons why people would start mixing it, then you would just had a bunch of genuine scandals in the mid 70s coming out of the CIA doing like genuine terrible things in the name, you know, MK Ultra is when people point to where they were doing, you know, giving people psychedelic drugs without their consent and, and things like that. And it was sort of tied up with how do you resist brain? How do we train people to resist brainwashing Is this something, maybe something that we would be able to do to people as well. So that stuff comes out. And then that obviously, I mean, naturally gets adapted by people discuss sort of broader conspiracy theories around brainwashing and mind control, and things like that. And so once you’ve got that current going strong, at the end of the 1970s, at the same time, that you’ve got this resurgence, and really at the end of the 70s, beginning of the 80s, you’ve got this intense wave of fears, pedophile rings, and missing children, conspiracies and things like that just starting to crest, it’s not surprising that they would combine them. And so now we’ve got another moment where you’ve got the two sets of concerns both cresting at the same time. And not only can people combine them, but they can look back at this whole literature that’s emerged over the past few decades of people who have mixed them in the past. And so that allows that to happen more quickly and constant combination combination evolution, do you think the internet is just kind of allowed all this to happen faster? How has it changed the conspiracy game, I think the Internet has allowed the news cycle in general to work faster. And that includes so you could call the alternative news cycle, or this is maybe three steps removed alternative, but, you know, everybody is writing and transmitting things more quickly. I don’t think that the internet has increased the general volume of conspiracy thinking. I don’t think there’s strong evidence for that. And to the extent that we have evidence of like, the level of conspiracy thinking in America, if anything, it’s probably a little lower now than it’s been in the past. Although, again, that’s it’s very hard to measure. But I’ve seen one study that attempts to and that’s basically what the conclusion it reached. But the internet does mean that a new story can be written more quickly and spread more quickly, and then be debunked more quickly and mix with another story more quickly. Everything happens faster. There might not be more people thinking about conspiracies, but they might come up with more conspiracy theories that morning, before breakfast.

And kind of another one of the the pillars of this is the, the idea of this deep state or a shadow government kind of separate from the pedophilia accusations, I think, and rice is an idea that predates even the republic itself, right? This goes back to the colonial era.

Oh, yeah, sure. I mean, it’s, oh, what was the phrase that I quoted at in Berkeley using I think it was the double government to systems of administration were to be formed, one which should be in the real secret and confidence the other merely a sensible, so, you know, this is literally centuries ago, and the person who’s very prominent and influential and intelligent, you know, using that kind of that same basic idea. And, of course, there’s, there’s something to it, I mean, it’s a, especially in the context of, you know, the British court I mean, I, cord intrigue is, is famous there, there’s a reason why that phrase exists. And there’s a man trying to make Edmund Burke out to be a nut in his ability to, you know, think what’s going on in public is not always the same that’s going on in private. We know that is, in fact the case. But then you can take it in all sorts of extreme directions. I mean, Burke, also, this is moving away from the secret government idea, but it’s one thing that I had and didn’t fit into the book, Burke was a believe that the Illuminati was behind the French Revolution, and actually wrote a fan letter to one of the people who wrote a track to that effect. And I wish I had the letter in front of me. But I mean, he basically said, Yeah, I think you’re onto something. I may, even though some of the folks who were involved in stuff like this, so he was sort of prone to conspiratorial thinking. But you know, it was not absurd to think that, that there’s a difference between what’s presented in the public and what’s going on in private. And of course, in the 20th and 21st century, the capacity the sort of the room for thinking that expands because government gets so much larger, all these new bureaucracies are formed, secret bureaucracies are formed, and in some cases, bureaucracies with secret budgets, that you don’t know how much is being spent on this intelligence agency, or, I mean, some people who are briefed on it, but the general public doesn’t. And that lack of transparency, of course, opens the door, not just for all kinds of actual misbehavior, but for all kinds of speculation about misbehavior might be going on. And and that makes room for all sorts of theories. Do you

see that as kind of the function of this is kind of a folk lore Glee for people to process not not being able to know what’s going on, on the fly support?

Well, I don’t know if it’s, I should say, as specific as defies the courts because I don’t know how many people they don’t follow politics would recognize that phrase, but it’s more of a general sense that they don’t know everything that’s going on in the Well, I mean, I’ll look back up when you say this, are you referring specifically to sort of the Deep State conspiracy theories around Donald Trump and so on? And I’m

talking about conspiracy theories. I’m using that as kind of a segue to get into why is this part of the American landscape in general wire conspiracy theory so popular? What function do they serve in our society?

I mean, I think in general, if a story catches on, even if the story doesn’t have anything in it, that’s true. If it catches on, I tell you something, it tells you something true about the anxieties in this kitty experiences, the people who believe it. And so often you have stories that are just sort of a mythic way of talking about something, something that people have experienced, or just something that they’re they’re afraid of, for whatever reason, and in general, where there is it, I don’t want to suggest that a lack of transparency is essential for conspiracy theory, because that’s not true. It’s not as though sunlight would bring all conspiracy theorizing to an end. But it’s I think it is very much the case that when people don’t know what’s going on, they’re more likely to fill that in with speculations often dark speculation. And that’s not just true of the government. There’s a reason why people have this long history of conspiracy theories about what’s going on in secret societies. What’s going on in churches that, you know, meet in secret, I shouldn’t say churches, I say religions in general, where people meet in secret it or just the fears that people have of outsiders, of foreign cultures are obviously magnified by the fact that they’re at they have less direct experience of that culture, especially as its overseas but if there’s you know, if they there’s been a wave of immigration and there’s, you know, an ethnic group has largely speaking its own language and their their their folkways, the mysterious to, you know, the people who who are now sharing a country with all sorts of stuff gets projected onto those folkways and onto that language. And you know that that settles resulted in all kinds of conspiracy theories and often, you know, very tragic results. So, it’s in general, it’s not just a matter of government transparency. But anytime there’s just a mystery about what’s going on over there. That just opens up all sorts of more room for conspiracy thinking. There’s one conspiracy theory that is interesting to me, just in this context, you know, Donald Trump brought up the JFK assassination during the 2016 campaign and directly linked Ted Cruz to the conspiracy theories. So

I have a question, which is, I mean, this is one of the more studied ones. And there have been so many reports, and there have been so many various theories, of course, that are, you know, still around, I found that it’s impossible at this point, having read some of these theories, I have no idea what happened. And the Kennedy assassination, even though even though I guess my tendency is to believe the Warren Commission, long story short, do you think that no matter how strange or out there conspiracy theory is that it has an impact on American consciousness,

I wouldn’t say no matter how strange I mean, obviously, some of them don’t have many followers, or they only are they have a lot of followers only in this very limited area, that’s not going to have a big impact or, or, although, like I say, that sometimes an idea that’s unpopular, or artists kind of obscure, can suddenly zoom into prominence after 10 years in a scary some of the satanic panic ideas of the 80s there were being touted and places like 2020 we’re being forced, circulating and much more out of the way venues, you know, back in the 1970s, but it’s

and with the JFK assassination. I mean, you know, every death of a president leads to conspiracy theories of some kind or another. I mean, it’s just the fact every single president who’s died in office therapy and conspiracy theories that Kennedy ones have had a staying power thus far that the others have to the others. I mean, except when Lincoln I mean, I mean, Abraham Lincoln is so central to American history, people will be talking about that long as us is around and if not, after longer, john F. Kennedy. It’s more interesting though, because it’s he wasn’t present for that long, he didn’t have any really big accomplishments, probably his most notable accomplished by me, I mean, he said some things rolling with range from, you know, the moon shot to the Vietnam War, in terms of how people how people feel about them. But in his case, it’s more about the sort of, on the one hand, this feeling of possibility that was cut short for the people who lived through it. And then the chaos that followed, which I think really got LinkedIn people’s head to the death of the President. And this idea that perhaps there could have been a different paths and that whole sort of period from 1963, when about from that for about two decades, starting there, everything that happened other assassinations, riots, the war in Vietnam scandals, you know, there’s this notion that we kind of were set on that path, in Dealey Plaza, November 22, 1963.

And I think that that gave it a lot it it made people more likely to speculate about a conspiracy, because it just made that it says, nation seem so central to American history, probably more central to American history than it really was, because I think a lot of that stuff would have happened anyway, I don’t think JFK was going to pull us out of Vietnam, for example, I think, you know, Lyndon Johnson’s liberal reforms probably would not have gone nearly as far if Dr. Kennedy were not dead. In fact, it’s so I have a hard time imagining that you’d see things playing out differently in terms of, you know, the ferment and unrest of the 60s and so on. So it’s a it’s kind of a, the centrality of that assassination to America was recent US history is myth, but that myth just and the the effects that all those things that on people’s lives, kind of, I think, encouraged, you know, that conspiracy speculation. And the question for me is, as the people who are alive, then, you know, die off and fade away. Will people care as much about the Kennedy assassination the last few years and the poll numbers to show how many people believe in it have come down. I mean, it’s around half the country right now, it depends on which Paul you look at. But in the past, it’s been up around 80%, at one point, more than 80% of Americans saying some sort of conspiracy was behind Kennedy’s death. And is that going to keep coming down? I don’t know. But I wouldn’t be surprised if it does,

does it ever pay politically for a politician to indulge or play with these kinds of conspiracy theories,

politicians have used conspiracy theories to help themselves for a long time. I mean, in part, I am talking about conspiracy theories to don’t get acknowledged, or at least not acknowledged at the time as conspiracy theories, you know, you know, like war propaganda, you know, making claims about what the enemies of the country are allegedly doing that later turns out to be false, but, you know, can help get people behind certain policies and things like that. So, in that sense, certainly, there are people who have a public to have benefited from playing with that sort of that sort of story. But even in moving away from that kind of example, because I like I tell that to people. Now, that’s not what I mean, my conspiracy theory, one politician I’m really fascinated by, especially in the Trump era was Pappy O’Daniel, who was the governor of Texas, and then a senator from Texas, and the 1930s and 1940s, and he’s been on this path to Daniel and what’s the name rings a bell, it’s probably because they put them in a Coen Brothers movie and move them to Mississippi, which was a brother Where Art Thou, but he got elected president, I mean, he got elected governor, and this sort of Trump Ian way of he was a radio star. And he went around giving doing these big rallies. And the first is the press was ignoring and we’re sort of Pooh poohing his chances. But it rallies get bigger and bigger and, you know, gradually surprises eventually he surprised as everybody and gets elected. And then the summer another way he resembles Trump is that he was whatever excuse to campaigning in a non traditional way, in his case, going around with a band on top of a bus, you know, and things like that he really haven’t the faintest idea how to pass a legislative agenda and didn’t have a very big legislative agenda is to begin with just some vague ideas about abolishing the poll tax and in having bigger pen for having pensions for senior citizens and Texas. And he, as he had trouble getting stuff through the legislature, in part because he was constantly alienating to people he needed to work with me, went looking for scapegoats. And at one point claim that he had a list of communist Nazi saboteurs that it’s infiltrated the state’s factories and of course, he wouldn’t tell anyone the agents name good name the beef you know, guys, it’s versus he sent a wire to Franklin Roosevelt telling me at confidential information about the conspiracy and he was going to send some of his best man over, you know, to brief them and the people in the agencies that he was taught that he was saying, have this information. They didn’t have an idea what he was talking about, but you know, he opened up but you He said, anyone out there anyone in Texas who’s got information about UnAmerican Activities, so send it in and all these letters start pouring into the Texas Rangers talking about you know, conversations, people overheard weird things, they saw what might be going on in the Texas Rangers have chased down all these all these tips which, you know, led pretty much nowhere and people saying all this, I mean, literally people, things in Jehovah’s Witnesses were coming through, and I think we’re up to no good and things like that. And in that case, there was a specific letter that claim that Jehovah was when they, when they use the word Jehovah, they were, it was like a code word, they were actually meaning Hitler. So there was a he said off this, which on and you know, it worked for him. He didn’t get much past. But he got reelected. And the only reason the eventually stopped being governor is because he got elected senator, he was one of the few people ever to be Lyndon Johnson in an election. And in that case, it was partly because some of the local industry that can stand having in this governor thought that getting them out to Washington would be a good way to get them out of their hair, and then hit rain, some ballot box stuffing. So that’s a real conspiracy. So it was it but you know, it worked for him. It worked for his style. And it serves as the classic case of the way a politician can invoke scapegoats even in really vague and contradictory ways and, and have it to help keep them afloat. We’ve definitely seen this in other countries, too, right? I mean, it’s not just simply America, the most famous case being the Nazis themselves, which came up with the ultimate conspiracy Jews and Bolsheviks trying to take over the world. Well, they didn’t come up with that one. Yeah, they really they really managed to, uh, yeah, yeah, I mean, this is done in all sorts of places, of course. And I should say, because some people miss read me on this. I say it explicitly in the book. And sometimes people still miss it. I’m not claiming that Americans are more paranoid that anyone else in on the planet I wrote this book in order to look at American history through the prism of what have people been afraid of. But I’m sure someone could write a similar book about Russia, about Iran, about China. Yeah, it’s a pretty much any culture. And some of those I mentioned are notorious, right, I actually just got a review copy. I haven’t read ahead of a book about conspiracy theories in Russia. Man. I know there’s a lot to work with there. And you know, in general, many people have gotten ahead by scapegoating groups and one way to scapegoat a group is to bread conspiracy theories about them. Jesse Walker,

thank you so much for coming on War College to talk to us about all of this.

Well, thank you.

Thanks for listening to this week’s show. If you enjoyed it, let the world know by leaving us a review on iTunes. We’re told that helps other people to find the show. We’re putting transcripts of most of our episodes online at War College, podcast calm and you can still reach us on Twitter. We’re at or underscore college and on facebook facebook dot com slash War College podcast. We love to hear from you. So hit us up. War college is me Jason fields and Matthew Gault We will be back next week.

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