Conspiracism and Right-Wing Populism

Conspiracism often accompanies various forms of populism, and Canovan notes that “the image of a few evil men conspiring in secret against the people can certainly be found in the thinking of the U.S. People’s Party, Huey Long, McCarthy, and others.”[1] Criticism of conspiracism, however, does not imply that there are not real conspiracies, criminal or otherwise. There certainly are real conspiracies throughout history. As Canovan argues:

“[o]ne should bear in mind that not all forms or cases of populism involve conspiracy theories, and that such theories are not always false. The railroad kings and Wall Street bankers hated by the U.S. Populists, the New Orleans Ring that Huey Long attacked, and the political bosses whom the Progressives sought to unseat–all these were indeed small groups of men wielding secret and irresponsible power.”[2]

The US political scene is littered with examples of illegal political, corporate, and government conspiracies such as Watergate, the Iran/Contra scandal, and the systematic looting of the savings and loan industry.

The dilemma for the left is that right-wing populist organizers weave these systemic and institutional failures into a conspiracist narrative that blames “secret elites.” In a lengthy article on snowballing conspiracism in The New Yorker, Michael Kelly called this “fusion paranoia.”[3] With the rise of “info–tainment” news programs and talk shows, hard right conspiracism, especially about alleged government misconduct, jumps into the corporate media with increasing regularity.[4] As Kelly observes,” It is not remarkable that accusations of abuse of power should be leveled against Presidents—particularly in light of Vietnam, Watergate, and Iran–Contra. But now, in the age of fusion paranoia, there is no longer any distinction made between credible charges and utterly unfounded slanders.”

This confusion of left and right populism also occurs in Europe with magazines such as Lobster in England. The subject is discussed in detail in the book Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience by Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier.[5]

The US now exports globalist neocorporatism—a world economy controlled by corporate interests—as the hegemonic model that makes the rich richer and the poor poorer. However, not all critics of globalist neocorporatism champion democracy and equality. We must be careful to draw a distinction between critiques that extend economic and social justice, and those that claim economic privilege for middle class consumers at the expense of social justice. Outsider factions composed of business and financial sectors with common goals regularly seek to displace the sectors in control of political and economic power in the US. A common tactic in this endless power struggle is to use populist rhetoric and anti–elite scapegoating to attract constituencies in the middle class and working class.

Some of the forces in the US that oppose neocorporatist globalism are outsider factions of business nationalists who favor protectionist trade policies and oppose international cooperation in foreign policy. In the past, business nationalism has also been the main sector in the US from which emerged campaigns promoting union–busting, White supremacist segregationism, the Red Scares, anti–immigrant xenophobia, and allegations of Jewish banking conspiracies.[6] When populist consumer groups such as those lead by Ralph Nader forged uncritical alliances with outsider faction of business nationalists to rally against GATT and NAFTA, the anti–elite rhetoric of right wing populism quickly emerged.

Why is this a problem? Because the conspiracist scapegoating of right wing populism masks a history of xenophobia and repressive authoritarianism on behalf of the majority. Right wing populist movements in the US have used scapegoating allegations of wrongdoing to rationalize White supremacy, antisemitism, and patriarchal heterosexism.[7]

The main scapegoats of right wing populism are people of color, especially Blacks. Attention is diverted from the White supremacist roots by using coded language to frame the issue in terms of welfare, immigration, tax, or education policies.[8] Women, gay men and lesbians, youth, students, and environmentalists are also frequently scapegoated.[9]

The removal of the obvious anti–communist underpinnings assisted left wing conspiracists in creating a parody of the fundamentalist/libertarian conspiracist critiques. Left wing conspiracists strip away the underlying religious fundamentalism, antisemitism, and economic social Darwinism, and peddle the repackaged product like carnival snake oil salesmen to unsuspecting sectors of the left. Those on the left who only see the antielitist aspects of right-wing populism and claim they are praiseworthy are playing with fire. This is a time for progressives to be wary of attempts by the political right to woo the left.[10] As one anti–racist group warned:

Left analysts and activists like Alexander Cockburn who are attracted to one or another point put forward by militia–led groups about “freedom,” such as the Fully Informed Jury Association . . .need to be aware of the poison pill of racism and anti–semitism covered by that sugar coating.[11]

Doug Henwood, editor of Left Business Observer in New York, has commented on the resurgence of fascist ideas around the world. Henwood cited Karl Polanyi’s, The Great Transformation, which listed symptoms for a country infected with fascism, including “the spread of irrationalist philosophies, racialist esthetics, anticapitalist demagogy, heterodox currency views, criticism of the party system, widespread disparagement of the ‘regime,’ or whatever was the name given to the existing democratic set–up.” Henwood writes that “the list is a good description of the political scene in much of the world today—the denunciation of Coca–Cola capitalism by German skinheads, chanted between attacks on Turks and Mozambicans; the racist welfare–baiting of our own demagogues; and ubiquitous, vague, and nihilistic denunciations of ‘the system’ that offer little hope for transformation.”

Radio host David Barsamian who produces the syndicated Alternative Radio interview series from Boulder, Colorado warns that personalities who harp on conspiracies are providing entertaining confusion rather than helping people focus clearly on complex issues. He says progressives should not fall for “left guruism” where sensational anti–government theories are accepted without any independent critical analysis.

Barsamian feels some on the left have been “mesmerized by the flawless dramatic presentation” of people such as Daniel Sheehan of the Christic Institute. This demagoguery distracted attention from the “substance of the allegations which don’t all check out.” This created a climate—even a demand—for elaborate conspiracy theories to flourish. Barsamian acknowledges “we all are longing for simple comforting explanations, but by focusing on The Secret Team, or the Medellin Cartel, we ignore the institutions that keep producing the problems.”

There are differences between US and European right wing populism. Matthew N. Lyons says the following:

“Unlike the European countries, capitalism [in the US] did not emerge from feudal society, but rather was imposed abruptly through a special kind of mass colonial conquest. . .primarily the rule of White nationalism,”

“In the US the populist vision of cross–class unity is related to the dominant US ideology of classlessness, social mobility, and liberalism in general, but populism tends to break with political orthodoxy by circumventing normal channels and attacking established leadership groups, at least rhetorically.”

“White nationalism has meant (a) the absence of feudal remnants and the pervasiveness of liberal capitalist doctrines and institutions, and (b) a racial caste system that made working–class Euro–Americans part of a socially privileged White collective.” [12]

Progressive conspiracism is an oxymoron. Rejecting the conspiracist analytical model is a vital step in challenging both right-wing populism and fascism. It is important to see anti-elite conspiracism and scapegoating as not merely destructive of a progressive analysis but also as specific techniques used by fascist political movements to provide a radical-sounding left cover for a rightist attack on the status quo. Far from being an aberration or a mere tactical maneuver by rightists, pseudo-radicalism is a distinctive, central feature of fascist and proto-fascist political movements. This is why the early stages of a potentially-fascist movement are often described as seeming to incorporate both leftwing and rightwing ideas.

In the best of times, conspiracism is a pointless diversion of focus and waste of energy. Conspiracism promotes scapegoating as a way of thinking; and since scapegoating in the US is rooted in racism, antisemitism, ethnocentrism, and xenophobia, conspiracism promotes bigotry. In periods of social or economic crisis, populist conspiracism facilitates the spread of fascist and para-fascist social movements because they too rely on demagogic scapegoating and conspiracist theories as an organizing tool. Radical-sounding conspiracist critiques of the status quo are the wedge that fascism uses to penetrate and recruit from the left.

[1] Canovan, Populism, p. 296.

[2] Ibid.

[3] Michael Kelly, “The Road to Paranoia,” The New Yorker, June 19, 1995, pp. 60–70.

[4] Kelly, in his New Yorker article, writes of this seepage phenomenon from alternative to mainstream in terms of conspiracist anti–government allegations.

[5] Janet Biehl & Peter Staudenmaier, Ecofascism: Lessons from the German Experience, (Edinburgh: AK Press, 1995).

[6] “Whiteness” is an ethnic identity, not a race or skin color, thus I capitalize “White.”

[7] By spelling antisemitism without a capital “S” or dash, I seek to recognize and respect the historic term while rejecting the false implicit idea that Jews are a race.

[8] Amy Elizabeth Ansell, New Right, New Racism: Race and Reaction in the United States and Britain, (New York, NYU Press, 1997) pp. 49–73; Anna Marie Smith, New Right Discourse on Race & Sexuality, (Cambridge, Cambridge University Press, 1994), pp. 18–70.

[9] People can be straight, gay, lesbian, transgender, or bisexual—this is descriptive rather than an ethnic reference; but when referring to an ethnic identity, movement, or specific organization, I will refer to Gayness, Lesbian identity, the Gay and Lesbian Rights movement, the Lesbian Avengers group, and the Digital Queers group.

[10] Tarso Luís Ramos, “Feint to the Left: The Growing Popularity of Populism,” Portland Alliance, (Oregon), Dec. 1991, pp. 13, 18; Chip Berlet “Friendly Fascists,” The Progressive, June 1992; Berlet, Right Woos Left: Populist Party, LaRouchian, and Other Neo– fascist Overtures to Progressives and Why They Must Be Rejected. (Cambridge, MA: Political Research Associates, 1990, (revised 1994)).

[11] People Against Racist Terror (PART) Turning the Tide, (“a quarterly journal of anti–racist activism, research and education,”), Summer 1995 Volume 8 #2; Chip Berlet & Matthew N. Lyons, “Militia Nation,” The Progressive, June 1995, pp. 22–25.

[12] Matthew N. Lyons, woking paper for Too Close for Comfort.