On the Q-ish Question

The Eleven Principles of Propaganda

1. Principle of simplification and unique enemy. Adopt a single idea, a single Symbol; Individualize the opponent into a single enemy.

2. Principle of the method of infection. Gather various opponents into a single category or individual; the opponents must form an individualized sum.

3. Principle of transposition. Load on the opponent with their own errors or flaws, responding attack with attack. “If you can’t deny the bad news, invent others to distract them.”

4. Principle of exaggeration and disfiguration. Turn any anecdote, no matter how small, into a grave threat.

5. Principle of vulgarization. All propaganda must be popular, adapting its level at least intelligent of the individuals to whom it is directed. The bigger the mass to convince, the smaller the mental effort to perform. The receptive capacity of the masses is limited and their understanding is scarce; besides, they have great ease of forgetting.

6. Principle of orchestration. Propaganda should be limited to a small number of ideas and tirelessly repeated, presented over and over again from different perspectives but always converging on the same concept. Without cracks and no doubt: “If a lie is repeated enough, it eventually becomes truth.”

7. Principle of renewal. You must constantly broadcast new information and arguments at a rate that when the opponent responds the audience is already interested in something else. Opponent’s answers must never counterbalance the increasing level of accusations.

8. Principle of Verosimility. Construct arguments from various sources, through so-called probe balloons or fragment information.

9. Principle of silence. Silence on issues for which there is no argument and concealing news that favors the opponent, also Counter-Programming with the help of like-minded media.

10. Principle of transfusion. Propaganda generally operates from a pre-existing substrate, either a national mythology or a complex of traditional hatred and prejudice; it is about spreading arguments that can be rooted in primitive attitudes.

11. Principle of unanimity. Get to convince a lot of people who think “like everyone else”, creating the impression of unanimity.

Joseph Goebbels

Introduction

During the later half of the Twentieth Century, the business of inventing theoretical conspiracies was in its infancy. It was a topic on the outer fringe of the fringe of public discourse. There was a common understanding of how authoritarian governments scapegoat marginalized groups and blame the problems created by their maladministration on conspiracies among those groups. The conspiracy theories manufactured by the propagandists of Tsarists Russia and Nazi Germany were exposed and debunked in the horrific aftermath of the Second World War. While the U.S. was in no way immune to propaganda, the existence of a free press ensured critics of the government were able to challenge official narratives. Belief in vast complex conspiracies was strictly the province of psychologically maladjusted individuals who wore tinfoil hats and circulated xerox copies of disjointed handwritten manifestos.

The rapid development in Information Technologies closely mirrored the expansion of the body of work that became the evidence of alleged conspiracies that are now debated across the internet. Very early on it was realized that, thanks to the world wide web, a lie could get around the globe one hundred times before the truth could log-in. The Manning-Snowden leaks revealed the gross war crimes committed during George Walker Bush’s overseas adventures and besmirched any and all claims the U.S. might have had to the moral high ground. Skepticism around the conclusions of the Final Report of the National Commission on the Terrorist Attacks Upon the United States, as released to the public in 2004, produced a ready market of individuals who were becoming unwilling to believe the “mainstream media” and not without due cause. The corporate monopolization of news media became an unavoidable consequence of the War on Terror. Despite being elected with a clear mandate to end the wars, Bush’s successor was never able to meet that campaign promise. As president, Obama was able to get a significant portion of his domestic agenda passed into law, resulting in a period of relative optimism despite his continuation of Bush’s imperialist foreign policy.

The Obama era ended rather abruptly in early December 2016. Through the later half of 2015, Vermont Senator Bernard Sanders’ presidential campaign mobilized young voters with a promise to fulfill the progressive reforms initiated by Obama’s slogan “Hope and Change.” For the generation whose lives had been derailed by the 2008 financial crisis, Sanders was the only candidate offering real solutions to their economic alienation. At the same time, anti-Obama polemicists had fabricated an artificial caricature of the first Afro-American U.S. president. Republicans accused him of being a communist revolutionary, and a “secret Muslim” successfully forcing him to make concessions that affirmed his to be another centrist Neo-liberal administration.

The falsehoods about Obama’s birth certificate, religious identity, and ideological agenda became the foundational lies of right wing propaganda campaigns to discredit him. At the same time that liberal journalists were declaring a new “post-racial” era in American politics, the opposition was defined by overtly racist reactionaries. This is not to say that all of Obama’s critics were racist, he faced valid complaints from both the pro-war, pro-Wall Street conservatives as well as left wing progressives demanding radically divergent social and economic reforms. However, resorting to the most cynical of dirty tricks, Republican party operatives targeted suburban and rural voters who felt attacked by the superficially progressive messaging of the Democratic party. People who are not personally racist can still be persuaded that the source of their material adversity is a power hungry minority engaging in racialized brinkmanship.

The Tottenham Riots and subsequent Occupy Wall Street protests of late 2011 popularized the concept of direct action against the one percent of the population who control ninety-nine percent of the wealth. This economic reality provides a kernel of truth to the belief that an elite class of people control the world. The recession triggered by the collapse of the housing market forced an entire generation to question the validity of the Cold War propaganda on which they had been raised. In Capitalist Realism, 2009, Mark Fisher wrote “It is easier to imagine the end of the world than it is to imagine the end of capitalism.” The harsh reality of life under consumer capitalism would inspire a resurgence of Neo-Leftist political organizing among Millennials. Naturally, those who benefited most from capitalism worked diligently to Counter-Program this rising class conscious social justice movement.

Rather than develop affirmative arguments for the capitalist status quo, the conservatives identified those groups most likely to be alienated by the shibboleths of the New Left. The popular acceptance among Leftists of the radical atheism of Christopher Hitchens and Richard Dawkins provided a wedge issue conservatives could use to draw centrist Christians over to their side. The secular fetishization of Sciencism as a functional alternative to traditional religion allowed conservatives to leverage rational skepticism into distrust of scientific authories, and academia more broadly.

Occupy Wall Street inspired local direct action across the U.S., and internationally. The following summer of 2012 would see a continuation of grassroots activism spread around the globe. Into this milieux of anti-establishment protest movements a group emerged which would become an absolute gift to conservative propagandists. Started as a satirical art project lampooning the political activism of the Westboro Baptist Church, the Satanic Temple was an unserious prank with very serious consequences. The artistic collective would stage elaborate publicity stunts under the pretense of exercising their First Amendment right to the free expression of religion. Initially the Satanic Temple would struggle for relevance in the shadow of Black Lives Matter and the campaign to protect the Standing Rock Sioux Reservation. Even the Church of Satan dismissed them as mere actors and “pseudo-Satanists” desperate for media attention. And, for the most part, skeptical journalists ignored their theatrical antics.

The emergence of Donald Trump as the leading candidate in the Republican primary was by no means a bizarre accident of unforeseeable events. Trump has been cultivating his personal celebrity as a Manhattan Real Estate tycoon since the 1980’s. His strategy for recovering from the financial losses he suffered when the housing bubble finally burst in 2008 was to become the host of a Reality TV game show. Along with the loyal fan base he had developed, Trump also had identified an inroad to the same powerful Evangelical Christian voting block that had carried Reagan and both Bushes to the White House.

In U.S. politics, the term “dirty tricks” is generally attributed to president Richard M. Nixon. The phrase is an unsubtle euphemism for the belief that the ends justify the means. In practice this most often manifested in character assassination, although literal assassinations were not off the table. In the final months of 2015, as Trump soared to the head of the Republican presidential primary, he and the presumed Democratic Party nominee squared off in a war of dirty tricks that would transform the political landscape irrevocably.

There are valid and legitimate critiques to be made about both Donald Trump, and Hillary Clinton. Ironically, these played little to no role in the presidential contest between the two candidates. While the Clinton campaign focused on the traditional “fair game” targets based on Trump’s business failures, overt bigotry, and old fashioned Kompromat, Trump employed more chaotic tactics to much greater effect. Originating from pro-Trump message boards on the right wing libertarian fringe of the internet, an alleged “deep state insider” began leaking cryptic hints of an imminent coup de tete. The history of what have now come to be called “Q drops” has been detailed by numerous professional journalists and talented amateurs who have exposed the mundane origins of the emergent subculture. At the time, however, it was almost incomprehensible.

If you have no idea what I am on about: An individual claiming to have a top level security clearance code “Q” was part of a clandestine operation to inform a targeted segment of the public about Trump’s divine mission to save America. In an event coded “The Storm” Trump, as president, would lead a massive purge of the government bureaucracy, political establishment, and military. This absolute nightmare of extra judicial violence to rival the Bolsheviks and Khmer Rouge, would be justified by the advent of a purified Christian state led by God’s hand picked messianic king among men: Donald John Trump.

Naturally, the rational skepticism inherent to the modern mainstream media has created a bias against investigating absurd stories. For almost two centuries this specific bias had worked to the credit of the fourth estate. The legacy news media established their credibility by conforming to ethical standards that make them averse to entertaining any claim based entirely upon unverified personal gnosis. Accusations that one of the most powerful women on earth was directly involved in a Satanic pedophile ring operating out of a popular pizza parlor would require extraordinary supporting evidence. In lieu of any evidence, Q Drops offered only cryptic codes and ciphers. To the mind of a trained journalist, the facts of the developing story did not make sense.

Before we continue down this particular rabbit hole, it is important to clarify that “conspiracy theories” are not at all unique to the post-Obama era. The history of the United States begins with a conspiracy to revolt against British rule, and throughout the subsequent course of human events further clandestine conspiracies have shaped the political and material realities of the American experience. From Benedict Arnold through the Benghazi debacle, it is most often the case that these conspiracies are discovered by the failure to accomplish their goals. By blunder, or betrayal, the conspirators have been exposed and the general public gets deluged with competing narratives about what “really” happened. This does, of course, leave the unsettling question of how many more conspiracies have managed to succeed and thus remain unknown?

I
A Brief History of the All-American Conspiracy Theory

In the early morning hours of the eleventh day of October 1809, multiple gunshots rang out from a small log cabin off the Natchez Trace in the mountains of central Tennessee. Soldier, statesman, and famed explorer of the far west, Meriwether Lewis lay dying of bullet wounds to his head and gut. According to the accounts provided by the innkeeper’s wife, and Lewis’s valet, it appeared Lewis had been murdered by bandits. John Pernia was a creole freeman whom Lewis employed as his manservant rather than owning a personal slave. By Pernia’s own account a large sum of money and an unknown number of documents were missing from Lewis’s personal effects after the shooting. Pernia would die of a laudanum overdose just six months later, suddenly impoverished by the unpaid wages owed to him by the Lewis estate.

Lewis was en route to the nation’s capital to demand the federal government pay him for debts he incurred while serving as governor of the Louisiana Territory. His surviving journals clearly indicate his mental health was deteriorating as he struggled to finish writing his personal account of the 1805 expedition and that he was pushed into financial ruin by treacherous rivals in the territorial government. For reasons unknown, Lewis had decided to divert from his plan to travel by sea from New Orleans, departing the Mississippi to follow a dangerous shortcut through the mountains. Despite the witnesses asserting that Lewis had been killed by robbers, a coroner’s inquest ruled the death a suicide. Against the protests of his surviving family, the matter was considered closed for over forty years.

A Tennessee State Commission charged with building a monument to Lewis at his final resting place, opened his grave in 1848 and upon examining his remains published an official report stating they considered it improbable that he had died by his own hand. Henceforth, doubts regarding the exact cause of Meriwether Lewis’s death have remained among the most persistent mysteries of the early republic. Did the original inquest cover up the murder of a prominent national hero and personal friend of the president? Does Lewis’s sudden change of course indicate he was attempting to evade pursuit? Did his political enemies dispatch assassins to prevent him from reaching Washington to clear his name?

History remembers Lewis as a sensitive emotionally unstable eccentric. He did have enemies, particularly among the slaveholder class. As commander of the Corps of Discovery he allowed William Clark’s slave York an equal vote to anyone else, extending the same right to the native guide Sacajawea when she jointed the expedition. That action was a reflection of progressive attitudes which Lewis seems to have espoused since childhood. As governor he had successfully settled quarrels between the native tribes, and showed due competence in terms of building roads and publishing laws. Unfortunately, one of those laws required the governor to enforce the western boarder and protect native lands from encroaching settlers. Lewis’s faithful performance of his duty to honor the republic’s treaties with the native tribes put him in the way of ambitious men who would clear the land of natives and expand the westward settlements within a few decades of his death. Without solid proof of wrongdoing the mystery of Meriwether Lewis’s untimely demise shall remain overshadowed by the audacious schemes of Jefferson’s rogue Vice President Aaron Burr, who stands at the fountainhead of the American fixation with political conspiracy theories.

Like so many of their contemporaries both Lewis and Burr were Freemasons, a fact which links their respective mysteries to a meta-historical thread of actual and theoretical conspiracies. In 1826, a bricklayer and stone cutter named William Morgan, of Batavia, New York, became frustrated he wasn’t admitted to the local lodge, and declared his intention to publish a book exposing the secrets of Freemasonry. Members of the Batavia lodge bought newspaper ads denouncing Morgan, there were even unsuccessful arson attacks against the print shop contracted to publish the book. On the eleventh of September, Morgan was arrested for nonpayment of a loan and the alleged theft of a shirt and tie. His publisher went to the jail and paid off the debts securing Morgan’s release. However, Morgan was promptly re-arrested on the charge he had failed to pay a tavern bill. That evening a group of unknown men arrived at the jail and took Morgan away in a carriage, never to be seen again.

Eventually, the Niagara County sheriff and three fellow masons would be convicted of various charges related to the kidnapping of William Morgan. Other masons were tried and acquitted, while more came forward to deny he was killed claiming they had paid him to leave the country. Outrage over the case sparked protests across New York that spread into neighboring states. Morgan’s publisher, David Cade Miller, would release Morgan’s book and see it become a bestseller due to the notoriety of the author’s disappearance. A reward for proof of Morgan’s whereabouts (equivalent to over $30,000 in today’s money) was posted by the governor and never claimed. Members of the New York State Assembly would form the Anti-Masonic Party to counter Andrew Jackson’s Democratic Party. Although the Anti-Masonic Party would only exist slightly longer than a decade, the movement had a monumental influence on the future of U.S. politics.

The foundational conspiracy theory expressed by the Anti-Masonic Party resonates into the present day. The Whigs would adopt the organizing tactics of the Anti-Masons, holding nominating conventions and publishing party newspapers, expanding their platform to keep up with changing times. The Whigs would continue to use Anti-Masonic polemics against Jackson and the Democratic Party, and the gentlemen of the Southern ruling class continued to organize around Masonic lodges and secret societies. The material objectives of the Burr conspiracy were not abandoned after his fall from grace, and Burr would live long enough to see Anglo-American settlers establish an independent republic in the northern Mexican province of Texas.

Native resistance to colonization had kept the Spanish from establishing major settlements in their territory North of the Rio Grande until the late eighteen century. Following the War of 1812, settlers from the U.S. began to brazenly cross the frontier between the Louisiana Territory and New Spain. The Mexican War of Independence created a power vacuum in the sparsely populated northern provinces that enterprising American adventurers and nomadic native tribes were eager to fill. Initially the newly independent Mexican government would welcome the parties of “filibusteros” from the U.S. to deter the Comanche raiding parties. However, in September of 1829 the liberal national government in Mexico City would declare slavery illegal provoking the ire of the Texan settlers. Although Mexico would prohibit immigration from the U.S. entirely the following year, illegal immigration from the U.S. into Mexico would increase through the 1830’s.

The success of the Texan filibusteros in establishing their own republic and getting annexed into the United States was proof of concept for Burr’s plot to expand the American empire. This form of terrestrial piracy would be called filibustering after the Spanish name for the bands of stateless mercenaries employed to execute each landgrab. Stephen F. Austin, leader of the three hundred families invited to settle Texas in 1822, was a Freemason and the five pointed star on the Texas flag is a common Masonic symbol. In 1848, Narciso Lopez arrived in the U.S. and began petitioning to raise an army to liberate Cuba from the Spanish. Zachary Taylor’s Whig administration rebuffed the freebooter, but Lopez was a Freemason and was able to find powerful supporters in the lodges of the deep South. Although his expeditions failed, attempts to colonize portions of the crumbling Spanish empire through “wars of liberation” would continue.

In 1855, veteran filibuster William Walker would lead a small army of volunteers to overthrow the government of Nicaragua. Expansionist Democratic president Franklin Pierce would formally recognize Walker as the president of Nicaragua in early 1856, legitimizing his position. However, Walker was opposed by an alliance of four neighboring nations supporting the deposed Nicaraguan leadership. Only eleven months into his presidency Walker was forced to surrender and return to the U.S. He would persist in his efforts to “Americanize” the southern hemisphere until he was finally arrested by the Honduran government and sentenced to death for piracy in 1860. Walker was by no means a mere pirate, nor a lone megalomaniac bent on personal conquest, despite the mythology that has grown from his legacy. His expeditions were successful because he had the backing of a secret society with a greater agenda which provided the funding Walker needed to achieve his goals.

It is important to emphasize that the conspiracy theories of the Anti-Masons did not fully reflect reality at the time. President Taylor, who opposed filibustering, was a Mason, while his successor Pierce was not a Mason but encouraged the expansionist filibusters. Masonry was notoriously apolitical and becoming a Mason did not make a man privy to any great conspiracies, it was more the case that the secrecy of the Masons provided a perfect cover for men who wished to conspire. For this reason the men who organized the Knights of the Golden Circle in 1854, adopted Masonic structures and symbols to help disguise their political project.

George Washington Lafayette Bickley founded the Knights of the Golden Circle to promote the idea that the preservation of the American slave economies could be ensured through the conquest of Mexico, Central America, northern South America, and the Caribbean islands. At the same time that Walker was fighting to establish a bulwark in Central America, Bickley had mobilized a secret militia of several thousand men in Texas. With the election of Abraham Lincoln, the self-styled knights turned their attention toward supporting the secessionist cause. The members were organized along the lines of a feudal yeomanry, officers were wealthy landowners who raised and armed troops of light cavalry. These militias, termed “castles” in the lingo of the secret society, would provide the Confederate States Army with an invaluable supply of trained horsemen. Infamous Confederate general Nathan Bedford Forrest was a member of the Knights of the Golden Circle. Renowned patriarch of Southern Freemasonry, and commander of the Choctaw Light Horse, Albert Pike, is believed to have been an influential member although he would disavow any association later in life. Posthumous efforts to further rehabilitate Pike’s image have successfully clouded the record, unlike Forrest who would go on to found the Klu Klux Klan as a continuation of the KGC’s white supremacist agenda.

II
As Above, So Below

Unsurprisingly, in the aftermath of the War Between the States anti-Masonic sentiment would once again rise to a level that a second Anti-Masonic Party was founded in 1872. While the party would dissolve in 1888, the movement would live on in the popular imagination for decades. The late 19th Century was the golden age of fake news. Yellow journalism flourished as newspaper owners competed for sales by printing sensational stories, scathing polemics, and outright hoaxes. In France, an anti-Masonic panic was initiated by an author known by the pen name Leo Taxil. Along with his collaborator, Diana Vaughn, Taxil created an international sensation with the allegation that the Freemasons were actually crypto-Satanists. Conservative Catholics embraced the idea that the Freemasons were secretly worshiping the Devil.

The scale of this early Satanic Panic is evidenced in the fact that Pope Leo XIII rebuked the bishop of Charleston, South Carolina, for denouncing Taxil and Vaughn as hoaxers in 1887. Taxil would continue to enjoy this support from the hierarchy of the Catholic Church for another decade. In April of 1897 he would finally explode his own hoax before an audience of eminent journalists and Church officials. He had invented everything, and made the most senior authorities in the Catholic Church look like credulous fools. This shocking revelation would have no significant impact on the belief in Taxil’s imagined link between Freemasonry and a hypothetical Luciferian underground. In deed, Diana Vaughn’s “confessions” would be the archetype of the conspiracy theories that fueled the Satanic Panics of the late 20th Century.

Believers are always willing to ignore the evidence that they’ve been deceived. The proof of the lie becomes their proof that the all powerful Satanic cabal has forced another victim to recant. Everyone else is a victim of disinformation and psycho-emotional programming, and they alone know the truth. In 1925 the State of Tennessee sued John T. Scopes, a high school science teacher, for violating the State’s law against the teaching of evolution. This elaborated show trial tested the tension between scientific modernism and the tenets of the settlers’ old time religion. Scope would get his conviction overturned on appeal, but the Tennessee supreme court upheld the law against teaching evolution. The popular memory of the libertine “Roaring Twenties” diminishes the overreaching power religious conservatives held in American society. Aimee Semple McPherson, one of the forerunners in what would become “televangelism”, was able to gain a national audience preaching against Darwinism in the aftermath of the Scopes trials. A wave of religious reactionaries would find a perfect enemy in the godless communists, while their fire-and-brimstone prophesies would be validated by the stock market crash of 1929.

The Great Depression produced a socioeconomic upheaval that necessarily radicalized people. American workers were unionizing and demanding major concessions from management with renewed intensity. Lynchings and race riots spiked as the Klu Klux Klan was resurrected by those resentful of the hard won prosperity of African American communities. In July of 1932, thousands of First World War veterans marched on Washington, D.C. Demanding payment of a bonus owed to them by the government, the veterans and their families set up camp on the outskirts of the Nation’s capital and proceeded to protest on Capitol Hill. In response to the direct action by the “bonus marchers” President Hoover ordered General Douglas MacArthur to take the cavalry and clear the city. What followed was a shameful massacre as MacArthur sent his troopers across the Anacostia river to burn the camp. Retired U.S. Marine Corps Major General Smedley Butler denounced both MacArthur and Hoover, throwing his support behind Roosevelt in the upcoming election.

Butler was a veteran of every major U.S. military engagement since the Spanish American War, and was the most decorated Marine in U.S. history up until the time of his death in 1940. A life long member of the Republican Party, Butler nevertheless became an outspoken critic of Capitalism and banking. He toured the country delivering lectures denouncing war profiteering, imperialism, and the growing fascist elements within the U.S. In November 1934, Butler would draw even more attention when he testified before Congress regarding his knowledge of a plot to overthrow the U.S. government and install a fascist dictatorship.

Although the House special committee Butler addressed failed to recommend prosecutions or further investigations, the substance of the general’s revelations has cast a long shadow over U.S. politics. Butler would make his allegations as explicit as possible in his 1935 book “War is a Racket” in which he exposed the true human price of American imperialism. The American public was receptive to the straight-talking Marine, and believed what he had to say. His anti-fascist, anti-capitalist, democratic idealism seemed to transcend the political polarization of the electoral system and strike a nerve in the public consciousness. Butler spent the last five years of his life touring the U.S. denouncing the wealthy businessmen who had attempted to recruit him into their plot. His sudden death in 1940, from stomach cancer at the age of just fifty-eight, leaves some questioning if he was murdered.

Butler left us a road map for a major conspiracy, and events since his death have forced some to formulate theories regarding whether such a conspiracy remains active. For the sake of argument, let’s just say that the establishment of the Central Intelligence Agency in 1947 accomplished many of the goals of the “Business Plot” described by Butler. The Cold War normalized a degree of paranoia that created fertile ground for theorizing about conspiracies both real and imaginary.

The House Un-American Activities Committee was first established in 1938, gaining more power when it was made permanent in 1945. A year later, the committee would decline to investigate the Ku Klux Klan turning their attention instead to the American Communist Party. The later half of the Twentieth Century bore witness to a renaissance in communications technologies, and parallel to that the major powers developed propaganda campaigns to weaponize the newest information technologies to their advantage. In mid-January of 1961, outgoing President Dwight D. Eisenhower addressed the nation live via television from the White House. Eisenhower used this speech to warn the American people to be on guard against the “military-industrial complex” a collective of business interests operating exactly as Smedley Butler described them a generation earlier. The fantasy that the Cold War would be fought by highly committed volunteers in cloak and dagger escapades gave way to the reality of hundreds of low intensity dirty wars terrorizing the poor of the world.

The assassination of JFK resonated with believers in the Business Plot, becoming a key event in the evolution of the Great American Conspiracy Theory. Even if Lee Harvey Oswald was not in fact a lone gunman, his subsequent assassination leaves open numerous avenues of speculation. Presidents do not get slain by dumb luck. It takes a conspiracy to put the guy with the skills in the place he needs to be, with the tools he needs to do the job. The implications of such a conspiracy are so monumental that the longer the mystery was left open-ended, the more theoretical solutions emerged to the muddy the waters.

In the aftermath of the Vietnam War, the U.S. was losing its grip on the clear credible narrative the State Department had been spinning to the international community. The Antiwar movement had a brief taste of victory in the late 1970’s, a theoretical pacifist revolution was thwarted by the election of Ronald Reagan. The final quarter of the Twentieth Century was an era of heightened expectations. This cynical imaginative energy spun through the Zeitgeist and emerged as the cultural mood that made shows like The X Files feel just plausible enough to become exceptionally popular.

III
Behold a Pale Horse

The Millennium sparked a slow burning crisis among conservative Christians. For Catholics the revelations of the widespread abuse of children by clergy, compounded by the decades long cover up reaching to the highest offices of the Vatican, caused many to turn their backs on the Church. While Protestants faced unfulfilled prophesies of an apocalyptic End of Days that sent faithful believers in the Pentecost into a spiral of doubt and skepticism. While some were drawn to New Atheism, or Objectivism, many more fell into the nihilistic abyss of the Internet.

Debates around Oliver Stone’s 1991 epic political thriller JFK inoculated the phrase “conspiracy theory” into the popular consciousness. After September 11, 2001, fear of subsequent terrorist attacks put the U.S. into an acute panic which galvanized the previously disparate factions of the far right around the fear of a common enemy. This enemy was not just the Islamic terrorists of Al Q’aeda, but a wider global network of non-denominational evildoers. The classic Anti-Masonic and Anti-Semitic conspiracy theories of the past were transformed into a postmodernist legendary mythology for the new Millennium. The essential theories of this emerging ideology are expressed the 1991 book “Behold a Pale Horse” by William Cooper. A neo-libertarian thought leader within anti-government circles, Cooper was killed in a shoot out with law enforcement shortly after 9/11.

The 9/11 attacks were in themselves a source of instantaneous conspiracy theories, from skepticism about the official reports to wild speculations about exactly what “really” happened. Internet message boards made it possible for like-minded individuals to communicate on a global scale, allowing ideas to spread between marginalized subcultures of alienated youth. Growing awareness of illicit operations carried out by the CIA during the Cold War, combined with the blatant war profiteering that followed the U.S. invasion of Iraq, laid the factual groundwork for one to theorize about other potential conspiracies.

The final quarter of the Twentieth Century was a time of intense paranoia, fueled by a growing distrust of government and other powerful institutions and anxiety over the approach of the Millennium. The sudden collapse of the Soviet Union and horrific civil wars in Yugoslavia and Rwanda manifested a collective dread of an impending apocalypse, and out of that evolved a twisted postmodern folklore. A unifying theory emerged explaining why the Utopian aspirations of the Liberal-Humanist revolutions had faltered and failed in the middle of the 20th Century. A great web of corruption that controls every aspect of existence through the machinations of a malevolence which transcends human comprehension. The internet gave us access to an ever increasing range of libraries and archives, as well as message boards where folk could ask for and exchange information. Declassified documents from the Cold War exposed an array of “dirty tricks” used by intelligence agencies to manipulate public opinion and terrorize political enemies. The new conspiracy theories that emerged in this era are predicated upon the revelation of actual plots.

In 1975, U.S. congressional investigations exposed that the CIA had engaged in mind-control experiments, extrajudicial assassinations, and systematic propaganda campaigns. The subsequent lack of any consequences for these violations of human rights and international criminal law left the lingering suspicion that the U.S. government would inevitably continue these clandestine atrocities. In deed, the essential elements of the CIA’s operations “MKULTRA”, “Family Jewels”, and “Mockingbird” were all manifested in the Latin American Dirty Wars of the 1980’s and other conflicts around the globe. These conspiracies were in no way theoretical to the people living in the countries where they occurred. The applications of psychological warfare were every bit as real to the victims as the bullets and bombs.

Bush’s so-called War on Terror quickly invoked the dubious doctrine that U.S. national security preempted international law and even the U.S. Constitution. Once again, revelations of classified documents leaked by whistle-blowers, exposed a myriad of war crimes involving all levels of the Bush administration. In the name of peace and reconciliation, Bush’s successor elected not to pursue any investigations into the numerous illicit acts which were a matter of public record. Looking forward rather than backward was the rational position for a president whose administration entered office in the face of the largest financial crisis of the century. A financial crisis caused by Bush’s policies, which would require the full attention of the following administration to correct. To his credit, Obama was able to accomplish the difficult task of resurrecting a dying national economy. But, this triumphant record was not felt across all sectors of the economy. And, Obama was unable to end Bush’s War on Terror or even shutdown the infamous U.S. military detention center at Guantanamo Bay, Cuba.

It is true that Obama faced a belligerent opposition party that was openly committed to obstructing his entire legislative agenda. This defiance was fueled by a vocal minority of Republican voters who refused to accept that a man named Barack Hussein Obama was the duly elected President of the United States of America. Coalescing around the Taxed Enough Already banner the TEA Party was a bizarre protest movement that mixed neo-libertarian talking points with absurdist performance art. As traditional conservatives failed to compete with Obama’s popularity among young voters, the anarchic energy of the TEA Party caught the attention of disaffected young conservatives. Unlike the stuffy elitist Republican Party old guard, the TEA Party rejected formal decorum and the politically correct manners of the mainstream. As a project the TEA Party movement offered a “big tent” for anyone who was anti-Obama. From small business owners with legitimate grievances about economic policies, to outright racists who rejected the legitimacy of Obama’s administration. This uncomfortable alliance was held together by a mutual contempt for all things Liberal.

The performative partisanship of the Clinton era had spawned a new paradigm in right wing media programming. The erudite conservatism of William F. Buckley’s “Firing Line” was out, and the reactionary anti-liberalism of Rush Limbaugh and Alex Jones was in. Rather than talking over the heads of most of the audience about the minutia of policy issues, the new talk show format was a ratings driven sales platform framed as news and opinion programming. Applying the highly popular style of rock radio shock-jocks and sportscasters, this pivot successfully sold the audience the message that it was the Liberals who were the over-educated elitists out of touch with ordinary citizens. They re-branded politics as a team sport, removing substantive discourse to promote adversarial exchange. It is far easier to hammer home talking points attacking your opponent than articulate and defend your own policy positions. The target audience was people who already agreed with conservative ideology, and the main product being marketed to them was “Winning” and the feelings of validation winning brings. Legitimate journalists might have looked down their noses at the format, but the viewers loved it.

For the most part, these broadcasters stuck to the Limbaugh model of strictly political criticism of the Democratic Party and Liberalism. They were all too happy to center the culture wars, in order to cast blame on Liberals for perpetuating them. They were not above making provocative statements, or throwing out accusations of corruption. However, freed from the strict boundaries of journalistic ethics that confined the old school media, the nascent characteristics of what would come to be called the Alt-Right embraced the spirit of gonzo journalism. This unregulated well financed media milieu generated various eccentric personas seeking to make a name for themselves in the business. None have achieved the status or infamy of a mysterious man from Austin, Texas, by the name of Alex Jones.

Say what you will about Alex Jones, and there is a lot to be said, the man performs the absolute living Hell out of his role. There are conflicting reports over how much of Jones’s on-air persona is an act, and how much is his authentic personality. Courts have repeatedly found him to be sane and rational. Regardless of whether he is himself a true believer, Alex Jones became an oracle disseminating conspiracy theories of every shape, category, and description. He would not only credulously platform David Icke, he would espouse Icke’s “reptilian overlords” hypothesis as a gospel truth. He filtered news and information to conform to the narrative he was marketing to his audience. Like any successful act, he had imitators but none match his intensity, or his commitment to the bit. Jones in particular became a cipher for the paranoid theories proposed by William Cooper, bringing key ideas from his writings closer into the mainstream.

IV
Down the Rabbit Hole

Milton William Cooper was an enigmatic U.S. Navy veteran who made his career as an author and radio broadcaster. Claiming to have been an intelligence officer, Cooper did seem to have direct personal knowledge of information well above the rank and pay grade listed on his official enlistment records. The Department of Defense has been accused of redacting information from documents in the past, ostensibly when related to classified events. So, Cooper can’t be fully discredited by the inconsistencies in his backstory.

The government is not very good at keeping secrets secret, but they are excellent at generating disinformation, and that is the paradox of investigating government secrets. Traditional journalists generally run up against brick walls that their editors won’t let them punch through. It is no fault of the editors that the business gets in the way of deep investigative journalism. The conflict of interests should be pretty easy to see by now.

Godfather of gonzo journalism, Hunter S. Thompson, invested his career in the art of exposing the cold mechanical automatons that keep the American empire running. In his novels and editorials he tried to warn us. Thompson had read Smedley Butler, quite closely. He got the Big Picture. Thompson is remembered now for his decadent substance abuse, rather than his radical politics. He had become over-educated and that was making him into a problem, appearing to be drunk high and insane, made a good defensive posture for someone whose body of work was so committed to the the resistance.

The explosion of counter-cultural youth movements in the late 1960’s through the 70’s, as documented by Thompson and his peers, had fomented into a societal schism which would come to be called Post-Modernism. Where the Modernist movement had been optimistic about the potential for technology to liberate humankind from toil and drudgery, the Post-Modern perspective viewed technology through a cynical lens tainted by the horrors of industrialized warfare. The 1980’s and 1990’s were consumed by a surreal quest for the prosperity and global prestige that Americans had enjoyed following the victories of the World Wars.

The loss of the Vietnam War exposed the U.S. to an extreme identity crisis going into the final quarter of the Twentieth Century. The reality that the “cold war” was not actual Peacetime, but a continuation of the exploitative imperialist enterprises described by Smedley Butler, only fueled the growing cynicism among the younger generations. The moral panics of the Post-Modern era are easily understood as the result of psychological programming through propaganda, and the natural reactions of the enlightened mind to such programming. Psychological warfare is something we know the CIA was actively interested in until Congress attempted to exercise oversight powers upon the agency in the mid-70’s. One can surmise from the manifest realities of global affairs that Congress failed to actually stop these covert Psychological Operations from continuing.

After Vietnam the American public was increasingly skeptical about the institutions Eisenhower had dubbed the military-industrial complex, and the increasingly unfulfilled promises of Reagan’s Hollywood optimism. Those who desired to cling to the mythos of Mid-Century American Exceptionalism found themselves increasingly alienated from the wider segment of the population who were growing wise to the racket. It is out of this disenchanted state that the topics reserved to the “gonzo” fringes of professional journalism grew increasingly popular among demographics formerly regarded as solidly within the mainstream. The most respected bastions of the legacy media would fight against this trend, but the Cyber Revolution would sharply diminish their role as gatekeepers of the flow of information.

Max Headroom was a cartoonish “computer generated” TV host preformed by an actor wearing prosthetic make up to appear digitally rendered. Although the character enjoyed great popularity initially, when his futuristic sci fi world appeared on network television audiences were put off. Thus it quickly became one of the paragons of 1980’s cult TV, with its status as a lost classic only growing as the dystopia it predicted became more imminent. Every episode of Max Headroom began with the tagline “Twenty Minutes Into The Future…”

For all intents and purposes, we are now living in a proximate simulacrum of that Future. Our modern technology has surpassed that which the writers of Max Headroom were able to imagine. The fact that their warnings fell on deaf ears makes the imaginative accuracy of the show all the more ironic to new generations discovering it today. Unlike the similarly themed, and much more popular Matrix Trilogy, Max Headroom offers no messianic hero to save humanity from the villains. The characters and storytelling are morally ambiguous, and the show portrayed a grim vision of the decades to come. Everything that draws the praise of critics today inspired the ire of the critics thirty years ago.

The same year that Max Headroom made his premiere, Terry Gilliam’s Kafkaesque film Brazil would present an eerily similar view of the near future. Audiences and critics who wanted Gilliam to deliver another Monty Python movie were confused and bitterly disappointed by what they got. However, the theme of Brazil would be echoed in a line from Gilliam’s next film, “Your reality, sir, is lies and balderdash, and I am delighted to say I have no grasp of it whatsoever.” In The Adventures of Baron Munchausen the baroque setting belays the dystopian tones, but the mood remains distinctly anti-Modernist. Despite his fame as a member of a quintessentially British comedy troupe, Gilliam is an American and his popular esteem as an artist stands in contrast to his own contempt for the society that produced him. His 1998 adaptation of Hunter S. Thompson’s novel Fear and Loathing in Las Vegas helped a new generation to key in to the existence of gonzo journalism and the essential role it plays in the media landscape.

The technological innovations of the Space Age produced a ripple effect that democratized first print, then audio, and video. Linguists were forced to contend with the existence of journalists and artists who were not working in one medium, but multiple media. The news wasn’t just what was fit to print, it was broadcast over airwaves, reproduced on the web. MTV had a news program. The growing availability of photocopiers made it much easier to self-publish promotional fliers, newsletters, and manifestos. Similar innovations in audio and visual technology would make it possible for talented amateurs to strike out and produce independent films of a quality that turned “disruptive” into a buzzword that defined the era.

William Cooper did not gain fame from his live broadcasts. It was fans tape-recording his program and copying those tapes to share with other fans that expanded his reach. A young radio personality out of Austin, Texas, inspired by the gonzo style of Thompson, would launch the alternative media into wild new directions as he rose to fame. Alex Jones would platform Cooper on his program, and amplify his message. One strong distinction between Cooper and Jones was that Cooper was an emphatic anti-fascist/anti-capitalist. Cooper’s claims to have witnessed briefings organizing the enslavement of mankind sound vaguely insane, particularly as Jones frames their interviews. But, Cooper’s assessment of what a debt-based economy would look like from his position in the late 1990’s does work out to be indistinguishable from the debt-based economy in which we currently live.

Cooper died in a shoot out with Apache County sheriff’s deputies after a dispute with a neighbor. At the time Cooper had outstanding Federal warrants for tax evasion that were not a factor, but his belief he was being persecuted by the Fed’s no doubt contributed to his decision to open fire on the police. Since his death, Alex Jones has been echoing Cooper’s major talking points like a parrot. Jones has made a career out of filling hours of airtime with freestyle hyperbole based on Cooper’s theories.

So, let’s examine the substance of these theories. Detached from their philosophical frameworks, the material realities of some of them have come to pass. Corporate hegemony is everywhere you look, if you bother to look. The existence of a police state has been a major point of social controversy since before the passage of the Patriot Act, which only made it much worse. The world’s governments are as far from international solidarity as ever before, but the class solidarity of the ruling elite is unbreakable. Climate scientists have assured us that the end of days is approaching, and the ultra-rich are building rocket ships and bunkers.

V
Go Ask Alice

In the early 1980’s, psychiatrist Lawrence Pazder spun out impossible allegations of an all-powerful international secret society. In his bestselling book, Michelle Remembers, he asserted this cult was brazenly engaging in child trafficking for the purpose of horrific rituals whilst, at the same time, hiding in plain sight. Pazder was highly regarded in his profession, and thus able to bring his case to the Vatican. Despite going on to marry the former patient he had hypnotized into believing she was sadistically sexually abused by her own parents, Doctor Pazder maintained a professional dignity that gave credibility to his Satanic conspiracy theory and inspired an international moral panic. Pazder would continue to see patients and speak at professional conferences until his death in 2004, and the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation, which promotes his conspiracy theories, continues to operate and train therapists to this day.

Because of the defamatory characterization of Satanism promoted by Pazder’s unfounded theories, and the ongoing activities of the International Society for the Study of Trauma and Dissociation the Satanic Temple began to organize protests at their gatherings. Although they had failed to capture the attention of the reputable media, the sudden appearance of masked Satanists protesting outside psychiatric conferences was a gift to the conspiracy theorists and reactionary propagandists on the far right. Direct action incited by TST revived attention in a pseudo-science that was on the brink of being debunked out of relevance.

Positioning themselves as Atheistic opposition to the growing political power of Christian conservatives helped expand the appeal of The Satanic Temple, attracting a boost in membership which allowed them to organize more ambitious public spectacles. A proposed Black Mass at Harvard University invoked such ire from the Archdiocese of Boston they were forced to relocate to an off campus location, and in the Summer of 2015 the Temple unveiled an eight foot tall bronze effigy of the Baphomet in Detroit, Michigan, with the stated intention of installing the statue adjacent to a monument honoring the Ten Commandments outside of the Oklahoma State Capitol. After the Oklahoma State Supreme Court ruled in favor of the ACLU and ordered the removal of the Ten Commandments monument, the Satanic Temple would install their statue inside their headquarters at Salem, Massachusetts. Despite persistent rumors it is touring the country, the statue currently resides securely within 64 Bridge Street, outside of the public eye.

Rather than concede that their own monument had been unconstitutional all along, the right wing talking heads would blame the court for being swayed by the Satanic Temple’s threat of an equal and opposite monument. Thus the reactionary media was able to center Satanist performance artists ahead of valid legal arguments. The perpetuation of the Taxil/Pazder hoax was, and is, the bread and butter of the radical right. The performative direct action of the Satanic Temple did not influence the courts, but they were exceptionally useful to the propagandists who needed a distraction from their own failed legal arguments. Stock footage of TST protests, and their statue of Baphomet, have become very useful to reactionaries seeking evidence of the twisted conspiracy theories that they allege.

It is no small coincidence that the first indications of what would become the Jeffery Epstein scandal broke within a matter of weeks of the emergence of the Pizzagate conspiracy theory. We’re not here to break down the actual criminal conspiracies of the Epstein-Maxwell syndicate. That is an ongoing case of an actual conspiracy about which theories can be formulated. As it has been reported so far, there was nothing spiritual or religious about the activities facilitated by the Epstein-Maxwell syndicate. To date, what we are learning from the public records related to these trials is how mundane the flesh trade is to the very rich. They aren’t Satanists, they’re Nihilists. Which might be more horrifying.

At some point in the future we may have testimony from an eye witness who was made to participate in unholy rites. Perhaps the FBI will reveal evidence of occult ritual rooms hidden within Epstein’s mansions. Ocham’s razor holds that there was nothing at all spiritual, mystical, or Satanic about the events Epstein organized. The man was a sexual predator, who ran an illegal escort service; with the help of his girlfriend, who may or may not be an Israeli intelligence asset. He died in jail under mysterious circumstances. She remains alive in jail, for now.

No matter how you cut it, Hillary Clinton won the primary for the Democratic Party nomination using tactics that voters identified as “dirty tricks” and she would never recover from that perception. Right or wrong, the voter base that had rallied around Sanders would not go along with Clinton. And, at the same time, Trump was able to razzle-dazzle just enough people for just long enough to create a political movement. He could have done anything with that movement. The possibilities were, for a brief moment, at least, endless. What he did turned the Red Queen on her head.

Conclusion

While it is a vast oversimplification of the complicated political realities and the divergent ideologies actually at play, there is no denying that the United States was established by a conspiracy of Freemasons. This essential truth about the foundation of the republic is reflected in the formal architecture of state institutions, even the engraving on the currency. The anti-masonic movement of the Nineteenth Century was in no small part a reaction to the overt influence of the Brotherhood. The verifiable conspiracies involving well known members provide just enough evidence to inspire some to believe in hypothetical conspiracies.

In 1841, Charles MacKay published “Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions and the Madness of Crowds” a far from comprehensive history of the mass acceptance of false beliefs that have fueled both pathetically fantastical financial bubbles, horrific religious fanaticism, and equally destructive secular delusions. The most brief possible summary of this extensive work is that the most wealthy people will resort to the most vile depths of deceit to secure and advance their own wealth. The moral virtues of the various Christian Churches to which these magnates professed their faith placed no meaningful breaks on their propensity to betray the ennobling principles of their religion to enrich themselves. In depicting the excesses of the infamous financial bubbles that occurred in France and England in the earliest days of market capitalism, MacKay revealed the glaring imperfection of the old economic order.

The erratic nature of the command economies of feudal Europe became increasingly intolerable to the growing merchant class. At the mercy of a market regulated by the whims of a king, the gentlemen of the bourgeoisie found it advantageous to organize themselves into secret societies. By the Eighteenth Century, these organizations had evolved from local cabals of merchants and landowners into international orders with affiliated temples and lodges spanning the globe. The cohesive esoteric philosophy adopted by these orders provided a moral framework and standard of conduct that allowed businessmen a system of credentialing previously reserved to the aristocracy.

Behind the Neo-Classical mysticism Freemasonry functions as a religion for the capitalist class. Understood from this perspective, the allegations of masons conspiring to enrich themselves lose their glamour. Nevertheless, the anti-masons were capitalists themselves so the more fantastical accusations of a secret Luciferian cult hidden within the highest levels of masonic hierarchies made for more compelling propaganda. Not even Leo Taxil’s own confession that he had fabricated a hoax from whole cloth could dissuade believers in the anti-masonic polemics he had published. Much to the contrary, Arthur Edward Waite’s thorough debunking of the Taxil hoax was regarded as mere masonic apologia.

Once convinced that Albert Pike was the high priest of a theistic Satanic cult headquartered in Charleston, S.C., anti-masons dismissed Waite as an unreliable source. Although his famous enmity toward Aleister Crowley ought to cement his anti-Satanic bona fides, the fact Waite went on to become a Freemason would discredit him in the eyes of the true believers. The Satanic Panics of the late Twentieth Century were firmly rooted in the egregore manifested out of the legendary fictions emitting from the ruthless capitalist class that ruled the Southern United States. When then president George Herbert Walker Bush addressed a joint session of the U.S. Congress late in 1990 he described the advent of the post-Cold War era as necessitating a “new world order” with the U.S. acting as the leading global super power. In the context of calling for a declaration of war on Iraq, the imperialist overtones were obvious. The fall of the Soviet Union had removed the direct threat of International Communism, leaving the capitalist class without a boogieman to distract the public. The phrase New World Order struck a suitably ominous tone on the ears of those obsessed by paranoid conspiracy theories.

For William Cooper, his imitators and their followers, Bush’s choice of words triggered alarms. The legends of an all powerful Satanic underground hiding behind the respectable facade of Freemasonry provided a perfect historic background to counter-program growing discontent with free market capitalism. Eleven years to the day after Bush’s infamous New World Order speech, the terrorist attacks on the World Trade Center and the Pentagon initiated a revival of interest in the great anti-masonic conspiracy theory. The coincidental fact that the sitting president at the time was none other than Bush’s eldest son, combined with the coincidence in the dates, followed by the second invasion of Iraq was one coincidence too many. The popular perception of blatant inter-generational corruption in the highest ranks of the government only helped make the old conspiracy theories seem more plausible to the new generations.

One month to the day after George W. Bush was inaugurated for his second term, Hunter S. Thompson took his own life. His last note was titled “Football Season Is Over” could be read as his own despair at growing old. Reading deeper, it would seem he had grown bored with being right about the worst aspects of American politics. In an article authored by Daniel Benjamin and Steven Simon, published in The Atlantic on the Twentieth of May 2024, present evidence from court filings supporting allegations that al-Qaeda enjoyed direct support from the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. The law suit names senior Saudi officials, citing recently declassified documents showing the 9/11 attacks were not committed by an autonomous terrorist cell but by a network of violent non-state actors sponsored by a close ally of the United States. This revelation undermines the credibility of the 9/11 Commission Report, and validates the skepticism of the public regarding both the veracity of the commission’s findings and U.S. foreign policy more broadly. The “9/11 Truther” movement typifies how fostering reasonable qualms about known issues with government transparency becomes a gateway to entertaining more far out hypothetical explanations. Posing as an entertainer shifting between shock jock, preacher, and political commentator, Alex Jones artfully fed his audience a narrative crafted to counter-program whatever the mainstream media was reporting. Through his own media network, Alex Jones created a pipeline into the center of the vast paranoid rabbit warren of Post-Modern conspiracy theories.

Over the years Jones has done his level best to be the next Hunter S. Thompson. Lacking both the intellect and the talent, he has become a propagandist advancing the agenda of those whom Thompson invested his career in exposing. We may never know the actual origin of Pizza-gate, or Q-Anon, but you don’t need to be a scholar of esoteric conspiracy theories to see how they have functioned as a Psychological Operation to alienate the true believers from their families and social support networks thus destabilizing the core institutions of the United States.

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