Charged with the fatal shooting of abortion provider Dr. George Tiller in a church in Wichita, Kansas, last Sunday morning, Scott Philip Roeder is a regular consumer of conservative talk radio, television, and websites. But did Bill O’Reilly, Rush Limbaugh, Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck—or any other commentator whipping up an audience with overheated demonizing rhetoric—actually help pull the trigger?
It’s not that simple, explains Chip Berlet, senior analyst for the independent think tank Political Research Associates (PRA), in a new study entitled Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracy Theories, Demonization, and Scapegoating.
“They are not legally culpable for the assassination of Dr. Tiller, says Berlet, “but they must share some portion of moral responsibility for creating a dangerous environment.”
According to Berlet:
“Right-wing pundits demonize scapegoated groups and individuals in our society, implying that it is urgent to stop them from wrecking the nation. Some angry people in the audience already believe conspiracy theories in which the same scapegoats are portrayed as subversive, destructive, or evil. Add in aggressive apocalyptic ideas that suggest time is running out and quick action mandatory and you have a perfect storm of mobilized resentment threatening to rain bigotry and violence across the United States.”
Even before Barack Obama was sworn in as the
44th President of the United States the Internet
was seething with lurid conspiracy theories exposing
his alleged subversion and treachery. Among the
many false claims: Obama was not a proper citizen of
the United States (and his election as President
should thus be overturned); he was a secret, fundamentalist
Muslim; he was a tool of the New World
Order in a plot to merge the government of the
United States into a North American Union with
Mexico and Canada.
Hours following a flubbed inaugural oath of
office, the Internet circulated claims that Obama was
not really President of the United States because the
wording of the oath of office had been scrambled by
U.S. Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts. A few
days after the inauguration came a warning that
Obama planned to impose martial law and collect all
Many of these false claims recall those floated by
right-wing conspiracy theorists in the armed citizens
Militia Movement during the Clinton administration
—allegations that percolated up through the media
and were utilized by Republican political operatives
to hobble the legislative agenda of the Democratic
Party. Assertions that President Clinton assisted drug
smugglers, ran a hit squad that killed his political
enemies, and covered up the assassination of his aide
Vincent Foster first circulated on right-wing alternative
media, spread to right-wing information networks,
and eventually appeared in mainstream
A similar scenario could add to the already
daunting challenges of the Obama administration.
When Obama’s “web-savvy” aides saw “conspiracy
theories building up on the internet,” they staged a
repeat swearing in as “the fastest way to stop the
speculation getting out of control.” Such events illustrate
the power and pervasiveness of conspiracism.
What Richard Hofstadter described as the “paranoid
style” in U.S. right-wing movements derives
from belief in an apocalyptic struggle between “good”
and “evil,” in which demonized enemies are complicit
in a vast insidious plot against the common
good, and against which the conspiracist must heroically
sound the alarm. As seen in the aforementioned
examples, this type of conspiracism can move
easily from the margins to the mainstream.
This study challenges the validity of conspiracy
theory as a form of political analysis, and traces the
roots and dynamics of conspiracism through United
States history. Drawing on his extensive scholarly as
well as popular writing on the topic, author Chip
Berlet shows that the development of modern conspiracismis
rooted in bigotry and that the conspiracist
analytical model itself encourages demonization and
scapegoating of blameless persons and groups. In so
doing, conspiracism also serves to distract society and
its would-be agents of change away from ongoing,
structural causes of social and economic injustices.
Examining various episodes spanning more than 200
years of U.S. history, Toxic to Democracy demonstrates
how conspiracy theories have repeatedly garnered
mass public followings. Throughout, the basic
dynamics of conspiracism remained the same regardless
of the ideological leanings of the conspiracists, or
the (often interchangeable) identity of their targets.
The resurgence of conspiracy theories—on both
the Right and the Left — since the September 11,
2001 terrorist attacks, and the tendency for antisemitic
conspiracies to surge during times of financial
crisis, makes the lessons of this study particularly
urgent. What follows is a summary of key findings
from Toxic to Democracy: Conspiracies, Demonization &
THE CONSPIRACIST ANALYTICAL
MODEL: TOOLS OF FEAR
The conspiracist narrative is built upon four key
elements, which Berlet calls “tools of fear”:
1) Dualism; 2) Scapegoating; 3) Demonization; and4) Apocalyptic Aggression.
Dualism is an overarching theme or
“metaframe” in which people see the world as divided
into forces of good and evil. Scapegoating is a
process by which a person or group of people are
wrongfully stereotyped as sharing negative traits and
are singled out for blame for causing societal problems,
while the primary source of the problems is
overlooked or absolved of blame. Demonization, a
process through which people target individuals or
groups as the embodiment of evil, facilitates scapegoating.
Even the most sincere and well-intentioned
conspiracy theorists contribute to dangerous social
dynamics of demonization and scapegoating.
Apocalypticism, also ametaframe, involves the expectation
that dramatic events are about to unfold during
which a confrontation between good and evil will
change the world forever and reveal hidden truths.
Apocalyptic Aggression occurs when scapegoats are
targeted as enemies of the “common good,” and this
can lead to discrimination and violent acts.
The way in which the tools of fear are employed
allows for scapegoat targets to change along with
historic circumstances, even as the process by which
these targets are vilified using the “Tools of Fear”
remains the same.
A central motif of the 1950s Red Scare was that
the enemy — communists, both at home and abroad
— threatened the common good. Today Arabs and
Muslims are portrayed in a similar demonizing way
as an alien force conspiring to destroy Western culture
from without and within. It is not that threats do
not exist; it is that these threats are hyperbolized in a
way that harms civil society and weakens homeland
The Christian Right, which in the 1960s mobilized
to battle “Godless Communism,” now battles
“Godless Secular Humanism” which they see as supporting
sinful abortion and gay rights. Since these
views are often wrapped around conspiracist theories
claiming liberal sedition or satanic collaboration, the
ability to resolve disputes through civic compromise
THE TERROR ATTACKS ON
SEPTEMBER 11, 2001 MOVED
CONSPIRACY THEORY TO CENTER
STAGE IN THE UNITED STATES.
Immediately following the attacks, stories began to
circulate about 4,000 Jews being warned to avoid
the twin towers on 9/11. Reporters traced the contention
back to a series of rumors and claims by
unnamed sources that bounced around the Internet,
becoming more elaborate with each retelling. Within
weeks of the 9/11 attacks, some on the Left circulated
claims that government officials were “Guilty for 9-
11.” This has turned into a “9/11 Truth Movement”
where conspiracists debate whether then-President
Bush and Vice President Cheney allowed the attacks
to happen to gain political advantage, or actually
planted explosives to collapse the World Trade Center
and sent amissile into the Pentagon. Outlandish conspiracies
fingering then-Vice President Dick Cheney
and “the neoconservatives” have been injected into
mainstream anti-Iraq War venues and documents.
Sometimes these claims carry the baggage of antisemitism.
CONSPIRACISM’S BIGOTED ROOTS
The roots of contemporary conspiracism can be
traced back more than 200 years to the French
Revolution. Conspiracists claimed the French
Revolution was not due to long simmering public
resentment due to poverty and despotism, but was
orchestrated by the Illuminati, a secret society
evolved from the ranks of Freemasonry, who were
allegedly scheming to turn contented peasants into
In the early 1900s, the merger of Freemason and
Jewish scapegoats took hold in the United States with
the publication of the influential hoax, entitled the
Protocols of the Learned Elders of Zion. The Protocols
purports to be the minutes of secret meetings of a
Jewish ruling clique conspiring to take over the
world. It incorporates many of the core conspiracist
themes outlined in the Freemason attacks, and overlays
them with antisemitic allegations. A common
conspiracist interpretation of the Protocols is that,
peeling away the layers of the Freemason conspiracy,
past the Illuminati, exposes a rotten Jewish core.
Some contemporary conspiracy theorists directly
mention the Protocols and claim they are an authentic
document. This is easily found on Far Right websites,
especially those affiliated with Neonazis and
Christian Identity. However, mentions of the Protocols
cut across the political spectrum.
In the 1960s the John Birch Society (JBS) and other
Patriot Movement groups peddled the anti-
Freemason ideology from the 1790s, using it to
explain the communist threat. Communists allegedly
were just one guise of the Mason’s Illuminati leadership.
Later the Illuminati were variously said to control
Wall Street, Hillary Clinton, and Dick Cheney. In
terms of public discourse, when the JBS blamed the
secret elites and plutocrats for the vast conspiracy, the
organization was not covertly blaming the Jews.
Instead a favorite theme of the JBS continues to be
that the liberal globalists are planning a New World
Order run by a totalitarian One World Government
through the United Nations. Nonetheless, the JBS
cites books and other works that perpetuate stereotypes
about Jews, banking, and global power.
The right-wing group Populists American takes a
step further toward antisemitism. For this group, the
problem is not all Jews. Rather, its website explains
that the real “enemy of all mankind” is the “Zionist
Jews” who are “not to be confused with other Jews.”
The website then posts the text of the Protocols with a
disclaimer typical of this genre.
Out on the fringes of conspiracism are organized
White supremacist groups and neonazis who are
mad about what they call ZOG: the Zionist
Occupational Government (their name for the U.S.
government in Washington, D.C.). The National
Alliance, Aryan Nations, and Christian Defense
League are White racist groups that cite the Protocols.
Contemporary Leftist conspiracism gained a significant
foothold as a response to blows suffered
by social justice movements, starting with the assassination
of President John F. Kennedy in 1963, and
increasing after the 1968 assassinations of the Rev.
Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. and Senator Robert F.
Kennedy. Conspiracism percolated at the margins of
the Political Left until the mid 1980s. In 1986 the liberal
Christic Institute filed a lawsuit, Avirgan v. Hull
(known in the popular press as the La Penca bombing
case), which unwittingly helped pull at the seam of
what would soon unravel into the Iran-Contra scandal.
The Christic Institute charges originally concerned
a series of allegations of CIA misconduct
involving covert action and gunrunning in Central
America to assist the overthrow of the socialist
Sandinista government in Nicaragua. Christic soon
wrapped the case in conspiracy stories dating back to
the Kennedy assassination and the Vietnam War —
diverting attention from the illegal activities of the
Reagan administration. The case was dismissed, but
the conspiracist claims lived on.
TRACKING FROM RIGHT TO LEFT
Leftist conspiracy theories of the ’60s and ’70s
established conspiracism as a form of discourse
and analysis on the Political Left as well as some leftof-
center countercultures, thereby facilitating the
migration of (somewhat sanitized) right-wing conspiracy
theories from Right to Left.
In its signature Avirgan v. Hull lawsuit (mentioned
above) the left-leaning Christic Institute incorporated
the central, conspiracist claims of The Secret
Team, a book by right-wing populist L. Fletcher
Prouty. Christic’s investigators maintained back
channel communications with right-wing groups
known to purvey antisemitic conspiracy theories.
Christic inadvertently took conspiracy allegations
rooted in the Protocols, sanitized the antisemitic references,
and peddled the results to the Political Left
and gullible liberal funders.
The 9/11 conspiracy theory alleging 4,000 Jews
were warned of the attacks is a clear case of antisemitic
conspiracism peddled by certain Political Right groups
as a recruitment tool. Their ultimate goal is mobilizing
people to oppose progressive social and economic justice
campaigns by targeting vulnerable communities as
scapegoats. The progressive version of the 9/11 conspiracy
generally avoids blatant antisemitic references.
Some on the Left, however, picked up phrases such as
“international bankers,” “globalist elites,” “secret government,”
“international bankers,” and “banksters,”
that historically have been used as coded references to
alleged Jewish power.While their target was Bush and
Cheney, the accusations and catchphrases employed
were laden with antisemitic bigotry.
SCAPEGOATING AND DEMONIZATION
While some theories reject overt bigotry, as in
the main branch of the “9/11 Truth
Movement,” they fail to appreciate that the analytical
model of conspiracy thinking normalizes the
process of demonizing a scapegoated group. Once
researchers embrace the conspiracist mindset in
which a vast global conspiracy is effectively an analog
of the allegations about conniving secret elites
found in the Protocols, the step from a Secret Team
to a Secret Jewish Team is a very small one. Even
when conspiracist theories do not center on Jews,
homosexuals, people of color, immigrants, or other
scapegoated groups, they still create an environment
where racism, antisemitism, Islamophobia, xenophobia,
homophobia, and other forms of prejudice,
bigotry, and oppression can flourish.
Conspiracy theories are not confined to the margins
of the political spectrum. Conspiracist theories
have been used by governments to preserve the
status quo against those they characterized as subversive
alien outsiders and their sympathizers.
Countersubversive conspiracy theories can be utilized
by governments to build mass support for the
surveillance, disruption, and crushing of dissident
social and political movements in the U.S., as was
done during the McCarthy era and again with the
backlash against the social justice movements of the
1960s and ’70s. With the fall of the Berlin Wall, anticommunists
both inside and outside government
moved away from conspiracy theories about global
communist subversion and embraced a new target—
terrorists. These conspiracy-based fears are present
in hardline U.S. foreign and domestic counterterrorism
policies that undermine First, Fourth, and
Fourteenth Amendment protections for dissidents
and religious and ethnic minorities whose views
span the political spectrum. This could have potentially
far ranging implications for how the United
States prosecutes the “war on terror” abroad. Antiterrorism
policies based in hyperbolic conspiracy theories
reduce the effectiveness of homeland security.
THE (IL)LOGIC OF CONSPIRACISM
Conspiracism is neither a healthy expression of
skepticism nor a valid form of criticism; rather it
is a belief system that refuses to obey the rules of
logic. These theories operate from a pre-existing
premise of a conspiracy based upon careless collection
of facts and flawed assumptions. What constitutes
“proof” for a conspiracist is often more accurately
described as circumstance, rumor, and hearsay;
and the allegations often use the tools of fear—dualism,
demonization, scapegoating, and aggressively
apocalyptic stories—which all too often are commandeered
Thus conspiracism must be confronted as a
flawed analytical model, rather than a legitimate
mode of criticism of inequitable systems, structures,
and institutions of power. Conspiracism is nearly
always a distraction from the work of uprooting hierarchies
of unfair power and privilege.
CONSPIRACISM IS PERILOUS
Conspiracist theories are attractive in part because
they start with a grain of truth embedded in preexisting
Conspiracy theorists are correct about one thing:
the status quo is not acceptable. Conspiracists have
accurately understood that there are inequalities of
power and privilege in the world—and threats to the
world itself—that need to be rectified. What conspiracy
theorists lack is the desire or ability to follow the
basic rules of logic and investigative research.
Conspiracy theories spotlight lots of fascinating questions—
but they seldom illuminate meaningful
While conspiracists tell compelling stories, they
frequently create dangerous conditions as these
stories can draw from pre-existing stereotypes and
prejudices. Cynical movement leaders then can
hyperbolize false claims in a way that mobilizes dangerous
forms of demonization and scapegoating.
People who believe conspiracist allegations sometimes
act on those irrational beliefs, and this has
concrete consequences in the real world. Angry allegations
can quickly turn into aggression and
violence targeting scapegoated groups.
Conspiracist thinking and scapegoating on a
mass scale are symptoms, not causes, of underlying
societal tensions; and while conspiracism needs to be
opposed, the resolution of the grievances themselves
is necessary to restore a healthy society.
Whether conspiracist claims are circulated by
angry populists or anxious government officials, the
dynamics generated by conspiracy theories are toxic
For more information on this topic: http://www.publiceye.org/jump/toxic/
Copyright ©2009, Political Research Associates