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The Republican establishment’s long dalliance with the conspiracist right

Marjorie Taylor Greene’s conspiracism has a long history in the conservative movement — one that has been stoked by supposedly “responsible” conservatives.

Marjorie Taylor Greene wearing a “Stop the Steal” mask in a picture with fellow first-term House GOP members on January 4, 2021, two days before the Capitol riot.
Saul Loeb/AFP/Getty Images
Zack Beauchamp is a senior correspondent at Vox, where he covers ideology and challenges to democracy, both at home and abroad. Before coming to Vox in 2014, he edited TP Ideas, a section of Think Progress devoted to the ideas shaping our political world.

Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new Republican member of Congress from Georgia, has already emerged as one of the most infamous figures of the post-Trump political era.

Most recently, CNN reported that Greene had suggested support on Facebook in recent years for the assassination of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton, and Nancy Pelosi. But this is far from the only outlandish notion she has advanced.

Greene has promoted parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory, including the false notion that Clinton mutilated and killed a young girl. She has suggested that the 2018 Parkland, Florida, school shooting was a “false flag” and filmed herself harassing David Hogg, a survivor of the attack and gun control activist, on the streets of Washington, DC, shortly after the shooting. She has dabbled in 9/11 conspiracy theories, too.

She has attempted to distance herself from much of this since taking office, but the sheer volume of conspiratorial content in her past — she deleted 19 tweets in a 12-hour period — makes these disavowals hard to credit.

The rise of Greene — and the hesitancy of House Republican leadership to hold her accountable — points to the challenge the GOP poses to American democracy. Even after Trump’s departure from the White House, the Republican Party has been willing to embrace the conspiracism and extremism in its midst, all for the sake of holding on to political power. It’s a serious problem, and a deeper-rooted one than many might appreciate.

Historian Rick Perlstein is one of the premier experts on those roots. In his books on the conservative movement’s rise to power, from Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, Perlstein argues that conspiratorial thinking and fringe politics were always much closer to the GOP mainstream than most people remember. Conspiracy theorists helped drive the conservative movement’s takeover of the previously more moderate GOP and have been an integral part of the movement’s coalition from the get-go.

“Those people just got closer and closer to the centers of power,” he told me. “It’s one of these things where this has always existed, but got turned up to 11 in the Trump era.”

It’s impossible to understand the rise of figures like Greene — and of course Trump before her — without understanding this darker history of the modern American right. A transcript of my conversation with Perlstein, edited for length and clarity, follows.

Zack Beauchamp

So QAnon seems utterly bizarre to a lot of people. But the truth, as documented in your work, is that conspiracy theories have been a major part of the American right forever.

So let’s go back in time to the founding of the American conservative movement.

Rick Perlstein

How about the founding of the republic? There’s a historian named Gordon Wood who points out that the founding generation was just completely saturated with conspiratorial thinking. It’s part of our national patrimony.

The slavocracy, and the segregationist outlook of the 20th century, was that “Negroes” were perfectly content with their lot, so they were stirred up by outside agitators.

The 1920s Ku Klux Klan could not have had its strong presence — we’re talking about millions of members and mass marches down Pennsylvania Avenue, controlling the statehouses in a couple of states — without the conspiracy theory that Catholicism was a plot to take over the United States, and that America’s priests and nuns striated every community, were ready to turn into these ninja operatives at the pope’s command. You can see all kinds of crazy stuff like that in the 1920s: Henry Ford and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example.

The conspiracy theory that Franklin Roosevelt either made Pearl Harbor happen on purpose or knew it would happen and did nothing was definitely part of the generation of isolationist conservatives during World War II.

This robust conservative history of right-wing reactionary conspiracy theories is what the modern Republican Party, driven by the conservative wing, fall heir to.

Zack Beauchamp

So if conspiracy theories are something completely normal in the long arc of American politics, is there anything different about the modern conservative movement — meaning roughly the 1950s forward — versus what came before?

Rick Perlstein

The conservative movement has less conspiratorial and more conspiratorial strains: William F. Buckley wasn’t particularly conspiratorial. But in a lot of ways, [the conspiracists] were the vanguard or the point of the spear, the activists who really drove the party’s grassroots success.

Those people just got closer and closer to the centers of power. I argue in Reaganland that a huge driver of this was the religious right. Remember, Jerry Falwell — who was also, by the way, one of those conspiracy theorists who believed the civil rights movement was all directed by Moscow — gave a famous sermon in 1955 saying your preachers are called to be the soul winners, not politicians. He was speaking about Martin Luther King.

Historians point out that people like Jerry Falwell explicitly getting involved in partisan politics, endorsing candidates, turning their churches into precinct houses: that could not have happened in precisely the way it did absent this theory that gays were involved in an organized conspiracy to recruit American youth, and not only recruit American youth, but recruit them in order to murder them.

Ronald Reagan Speaking with Jerry Falwell
Jerry Falwell with Ronald Reagan.
Getty Images

That kind of conspiratorial thinking drove Reagan’s rise. One of the reasons George H.W. Bush came in second place in the Republican nomination contest in 1980 was the belief that because he belonged to the Trilateral Commission, he was part of the Eastern “deep state” conspiracy.

So it definitely plays a role in the rise of Reagan, but not nearly so clear a role as it does in the rise of Trump. This is a party surrendering more and more to the more absurd, gothic elements in its constituency.

This stuff metastasizes in a way that’s harder to control and has greater and greater influence because of the change in media: the rise of social media, Fox News, and the weaponization of algorithms by bad actors and cynics and strategists.

Zack Beauchamp

Let’s deal with the mythology that has surrounded this. If you talk to a conservative intellectual about this, the story you’ll get is, “Well, of course there were fringe wackos in the ’50s and ’60s in the John Birch Society. They were part of the conservative movement, but William F. Buckley, in his brilliance, purged them. He pushed them out of the movement.”

But that’s more than a little incomplete, right?

Rick Perlstein

It’s very interesting: That was the way conservatives told their own story, right? The first generation of historians who wrote about the postwar conservative movement’s rise in the 1990s, myself included, largely repeated this narrative.

More recent scholarship from people like David Walsh at Princeton University, a guy named John Huntington who has a new book coming out, and some others point out that the line between the fringe and the mainstream right was always fluid. The old story is pretty much collapsing under the weight of new evidence and new research.

There was a certain element of cynicism, of opportunism: realization [among elites] that even though these are not the kinds of people that we can put in front of the camera, these are people who actually are the boots on the ground, the “firebugs” who really won the California primary for Barry Goldwater.

In the 1960s and 1970s, the John Birch Society — the most prominent conspiracy theory group who believed that Eisenhower was behind the communist conspiracy against America — was quite nimble and brilliant in finding grassroots discontent and creating platforms that advance their cause in a way that gives [the mainstream] plausible deniability.

Things like sex education in schools or the Equal Rights Amendment or a kind of anti-anti stance toward the 1960s and ’70s version of movements against police brutality: These things were brilliantly exploited as organizing opportunities by the John Birch Society.

Zack Beauchamp

The next part of the traditional mythology is that Goldwater’s 1964 primary victory not only captured the party and set the stage for Reagan to win in 1980, but also brought ideas back to a Washington that had been stifled by a boring and unimaginative liberalism. It was a triumph not just of conservatism, but of virtuous, principled, intellectual conservatism.

Barry Goldwater
Barry Goldwater at a rally in Madison Square Garden.
William Lovelace/Daily Express/Hulton Archive/Getty Images

But in your work, you show that narrative obscures the way in which the things we’ve been talking about — the John Birch Society and evangelical conspiracy theories about gay recruiting — were as important in the Reaganite ascendance as the alleged appeal of conservative ideas.

Rick Perlstein

Obviously, Reagan wins by a coalition. His coalition includes both Christians who believe that the IRS is going to force them to hire gay teachers at Christian schools and deeply learned men like [neoconservative thinker] Irving Kristol.

[In general], right-wing epistemology starts with the conclusion and then you fill in stuff, things that sound like logic and facts to support the conclusion you’ve already drawn.

That, going backward, has a foundation in traditional Christian apologetics: Faith is defined as evidence of things unseen, because you know revelation to be true. You can start with this ironclad source of authority in your reading of the Bible or the Constitution, and you create an intellectual infrastructure around that foundation that’s accepted on faith.

One of my favorite historians to write about conspiracy theories is the historian Kathryn Olmsted, who writes a book called Real Enemies. It has a wonderful chapter on the susceptibility of the left to Kennedy conspiracy theories, all sorts of stuff. [But] liberals are liberal. Though we sometimes honor it in the breach, Democrats both of the left and center are heir to an enlightenment tradition of empiricism. And we are pluralists. It is why we aren’t conservatives — who fundamentally believe they know what the world is, and what it demands of us, in advance, then use their intellect to justify conclusions, not arrive at them.

Take the guy who’s the alpha and omega of the supposed mainstream, respectable conservatism, William F. Buckley. In his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, his whole criticism of what goes on in Yale is that they believe in intellectual laissez-faire: that the ideas that should survive and the ones that should thrive are the ones that can be supported by arguments. It’s saying that the problem with Yale is it’s an Enlightenment institution. Their values are based on these traditions of evidence and logic rather than revealed truth.

William F. Buckley Holding National Review
William F. Buckley.
Getty Images

[Now], I think there’s more to life than sound scholarship which uses evidence and logic. Some of the things that bind people together are based on values that are not easily quantified, and basically play legitimate roles, as far as I’m concerned, for human life and political life.

But the entire realm of conservative politics and political thought is very suggestible to creating brand narratives that represent the world in the way one believes it should be or fears that it is rather than the way it is.

That’s another way of defining conspiracy theories.

Zack Beauchamp

You could take that one step further. In order to win power on a platform of intellectually flimsy and unpopular ideas, like the notion that tax cuts for the wealthy help the poor, conservatives needed to build up an alternative media ecosystem and intellectual ecosystem.

Obviously, this is a major story in the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan era, with the creation of institutions like the Heritage Foundation in 1973 — and an even more important part of what’s happening right now.

Rick Perlstein

It’s one of these things where this has always existed but got turned up to 11 in the Trump era, right?

Zack Beauchamp

Yeah, I mean it was obviously really bad during the Obama era, too, with Glenn Beck’s chalkboard and birtherism.

Rick Perlstein

Also, I remember when Bill Clinton was “responsible” for dozens of political assassinations. There was a [conspiracy] videotape circulated by our friend Jerry Falwell, The Clinton Chronicles. That had probably millions of copies that were circulating.

You had Newt Gingrich teaching his congressional class of 1994 the kind of language they needed to perfect in order to dehumanize Democrats, and you had talk radio superstars like G. Gordon Liddy at the exact same time saying that if you run into an ATF agent, you should make sure to take a headshot because they’ll be wearing body armor. A month after that, you get Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City.

Zack Beauchamp

And then, as you point out, Trump made this preexisting problem a lot worse. It just makes me think a lot of about questions of structural versus contingent theories of history: was someone like Trump an inevitable product of the way the conservative movement is structured, or was he uniquely positioned to bring us to where we are?

It seems like Trump, he’s this contingency. He didn’t have to go down that escalator. Nothing was predetermined about it.

Rick Perlstein

Modern Republican politics seeks out and always involves careful negotiation between opening Pandora’s box and a kind of respectability politics, understanding that they’re playing with fire. The example I always give is George W. Bush simultaneously exploiting anger and rage at Muslims after 9/11 to get the Iraq War, but also describing Islam as a religion of peace.

Previous generations of Republicans would kind of pull out the [conspiratorial] Ring of Power, and put it back in their pockets or in a carrying case. Donald Trump puts the damn thing on and never takes it off.

Zack Beauchamp

Now we’re in a post-Trump presidency era — but for who knows how long, maybe he’s going to run again in 2024. Does the party have any internal capacities left to get back to the dance that you were describing? Or has it been so thoroughly corrupted — turned into Gollum, to extend your Lord of the Rings metaphor — that the Marjorie Taylor Greenes of the world are its future?

Rick Perlstein

Yeah, it’s an interesting question. I remember traveling around with John Kasich before his presidential run in 2016, and [the people around him] were strains out of something like the 1950s GOP.

This guy who has sold his business to become a philanthropist to support the arts in his small town. This state senator who has a preoccupation with fighting to end the death penalty because it’s racially applied but also wants lower taxes. They walk among us, these strange archaic creatures!

And there’s a couple of hopeful signs. Capitalists are terrified that they’re going to be dragged into a climate of political instability, which they can’t stand. That’s a very powerful variable.