From the moment the Declaration of Independence was signed, containing the bold and rather conspiratorial accusation that King George III had committed a series of outrageous acts “all having in direct object the establishment of an absolute tyranny over these states,” the United States was destined to be a country of conspiracy theorists.
And it has been: For centuries, Freemasons, Communists, giant lizard people, Illuminati, Catholics and Jews have all been suspected of conspiring to overthrow or control, from the shadows, our ever-growing federal government. We suspect that fluoride in the water or airplane condensation trails are mind-control chemicals; we trade emails and Twitter threads about Russian collusion and Pizzagate.
“I think every country probably has conspiracy theorists, but not every country has a discourse that is sort of swayed by, overtaken by, conspiracy theories the way that ours is,” said journalist Anna Merlan, author of the new book “Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power,” in a phone conversation with HuffPost.
In early 2016, Jezebel sent Merlan, now a reporter on the Special Projects Desk at Gizmodo Media Group, on a conspiracy cruise. It was a heady time for the people on the boat, believers in redemption theory, anti-vax bunk, UFOs, faked moon landings. Then-candidate Donald Trump was one reason why. “My general thought was, it’s really interesting that a lot of these people are very excited about Donald Trump and they really see him as somebody who could maybe be an astounding truth teller and bust open all these government secrets. What are they gonna do when he loses?” Merlan told me. “And then, of course, that’s not what happened at all.”
Instead, shortly after the election, she found herself writing a proposal for a book that would chart the path forward for an America under Trump ― an America flooded with conspiracy theories. “We have waves of conspiracy theorism in America that usually seem to coincide with times of social change and social upheaval,” she said. Our current boom is no exception, save that now conspiracy theories can easily spread, mingle, and mate on social media.
“Republic of Lies” is a frequently jaw-dropping, yet deeply sensitive and curious, journey through some of the most pervasive conspiracy theories in America today. Some may be obscure to the mainstream reader, others, like the depths of Russiagate, will be all too familiar. Conspiracy theories, after all, have taken over a vast proportion of our political discourse and news coverage. Throughout, Merlan wrestles with the country’s tendency toward conspiratorial thinking, a tendency that might lead to certain dark places but that also, she pointed out, “has a lot to do with how well this country has worked for us and our sense of whether or not this is a just place, a transparent place.”
HuffPost chatted with Merlan about America’s long history and fraught present of offbeat beliefs, how the country’s deeply embedded racism has shaped conspiratorial thinking, and more:
You talk about conspiracy theories as a specifically or quintessentially American way of looking at the world. What is that about?
Obviously, Americans are not the only people who engage in conspiracy thinking. There’s a lot of it all over the world. I would just argue that it is especially potent here because of, first of all, a really vigorous and open free press and a lot of access to technology and blogging platforms, all of which are good things, combined with a long history by the U.S. government of actual cover-ups and actual conspiracies and a continued suspicion of the U.S. government because of that. Combined with what I would argue is a national, inherent, nationwide suspicion of and distrust for authority.
Did you talk to anyone from outside the country about this book? Did you get a sense of what it looks like to other people, the way that we have these crazy, like Pizzagate, stuff taking over the news?
I read a lot of studies about conspiracy theories in other countries and tried to understand how we differ. And then, as I was doing that, I got an email from a coalition of conspiracy researchers in the U.K., or in Europe, and they only study American conspiracy theories. There’s a whole consortium of European scholars who are completely engaged with American conspiracy theorizing and trying to understand why we’re like that. So I think that there’s definitely a really strong interest in how this happened in the richest country on earth.
One factor, which you write about a good amount, is the racial divide in America, and the fact that conspiracy theorizing seems to manifest in various racial groups. What did you start to see when you looked at conspiracy theories in white communities versus non-white communities?
To vastly oversimplify it, you can say the conspiracy theories that are more prevalent among white people, especially wealthy white people, have to do with a fear of outside influence or contamination. Like, anti-vaccine stuff is more prevalent in wealthier, whiter places. There’s also a lot more concern about outsiders, foreigners, incursion, stuff like that. Whereas in communities of color, especially the black community, a lot of conspiracy theorizing is focused on the federal government because the federal government has been the agent of so much injustice.
One thing that comes up in your book is that a lot of the conspiracy theories directed at people of color, especially black people, are based on truth. Some of them are just very real conspiracies. When some of them are true and some of them aren’t, can you talk about them in the same category?
Well, I think it’s sort of a major element of the book, is reckoning with the fact that not all conspiracy theories are crazy, not all of them are untrue. Even the ones that are crazy and untrue are often rooted in deep historical background. I always talk about conspiracy theories as a form of trauma, in a way, that they very much reflect a nation that has been fundamentally unable to believe the truth of what we’re being told by our government, by authority figures.
And so, particularly when I’m writing about conspiracy theories among minority communities, I think the important thing to do is to understand where they came from, and to not be condescending, to not be snarky. I don’t think it’s helpful, I don’t think it’s culturally competent, and I don’t think it really reckons with the role that true conspiracies have played in this country’s history.
One way that they’re often covered is as entertainment. Do you think it can be innocuous entertainment to consume this kind of content, or is it really blurring the lines between fact and fiction in a way that is troubling?
I don’t think conspiracy theories in themselves are dangerous. I think any healthy democratic society can withstand a lot of conspiracy theorizing, a lot of interest in alternative beliefs, and also as human beings, I think it’s very understandable that we have a lot of natural curiosity about the world around us that sometimes veers into conspiracy thinking. I think all of that is fine.
The only source of concern that I have is when conspiracy theories are used by the government and people in power to try to identify an enemy and turn people against an easily demonized or scapegoated group. I worry about conspiracy theories like the anti-vaccine sentiment that have real-world effects on public health.
I’d like to jump for a second, actually, to Russiagate, which is one of the last chapters in your book, but it’s extremely relevant and in the news right now with the completion of the Mueller report. After you finished the book and sent it to press, has anything unspooled that you would want to include in the chapter?
I think what we still know is that the Russian government wanted to interfere in the U.S. election and they wanted to bring the Trump campaign into that. So what we know now, obviously, is that as far as we know, Mueller’s report didn’t find any evidence that Trump himself was colluding, right? Which I think was sort of my point in that chapter, was that the really extreme end of Russiagate was not just, oh, there’s something weird going on here, there was some amount of attempted meddling happening and there are open questions about whether people in the Trump campaign were part of it. The most extreme end of Russiagate was, Donald Trump is a Manchurian candidate and a Russian puppet.
If I was writing this chapter today, I would point out the ways that the Mueller report still not being released and the Barr summary being released instead is driving this further paranoia on the left and among Russiagaters, and is making them delve further and further into this really frenzied suspicion about what’s being hidden. And I’m sure that when the Mueller report is released, they will be disappointed, but then it’ll be replaced with something else. Russiagate has turned into this very profitable ecosystem, and so it’s a lot like some conspiracies on the far right, like the Clinton body count idea, that the Clintons kill their opponents. Russiagate is going to live in some form forever.
Right. It’s hard to completely disprove that the Clintons ever killed anyone.
Yeah, I guess! They had a long career. What’s so interesting is that Roger Stone obviously was involved in promoting those ideas, that the Clintons had people killed, and now has been indicted by the special counsel and is facing trial. It’s sort of amazing to realize, once again, how big Roger Stone’s role in American history is.
We’ve seen a lot of victory laps being taken by people like Glenn Greenwald, arguing that we should not have investigated it at all. It’s fascinating to me that people start to feel like, well, obviously everything is already corrupt and a big conspiracy, so why should we pay attention to the little conspiracy I have when there are much worse ones out there.
Yeah. There are actually some studies about that, that people who are ― and I’m paraphrasing here ― people who are more likely to engage in conspiracies themselves are more likely to believe that other people are also engaging in conspiracies. Which is sort of a funny thing to me. We tend to assume that other people have the same worldview that we have.
I think there’s something going on right now that is sort of deep cynicism, that’s like, as you say, everything is so corrupt, everyone is so corrupt, and also the truth isn’t really knowable, so why should we even bother? I’d argue that that attitude is really profitable and productive for politicians, specifically.
So we haven’t really talked much yet about Pizzagate and some of the more terrifying conspiracy theories that have blown up in the past few years. We’ve started to see a fair amount of really active violence and harassment growing out of these communities. What is this down to?
I think that some of these conspiracy theories are feeding into an environment of polarization that is increasingly toxic. And some of it too is that these specific conspiracy theories are accusing people of being pedophiles, of being child predators, of enslaving children ― the worst things that you could possibly think of. And the consequence of that kind of rhetoric is that it makes violence against those people seem not just excusable but necessary. It really sets up this kind of apocalyptic, very extreme scenario where your opponents are not just different from you, they don’t just have different opinions or moral values that you might not agree with: They are literally evil and in need of violent subjugation.
The pedophile thing is so interesting. It crops up a lot in these circles. But then again you also have people that you know are, like Jeffrey Epstein ― it’s almost like when we know about it, we don’t really do much about it, but when it’s made up, we want to go shoot up a pizza restaurant.
Covering sexual violence has been a really, really big part of my career. And so for me, it made talking to the Pizzagate folks a little bit different because some of what they’re talking about ― in terms of a lot of predation, sexual abuse, sexual exploitation ― is not, in itself, crazy. And it was very easy for me to see the ways that a culture that is rife with sexual abuse would give rise to a conspiracy theory about sexual abuse. A lot of them are increasingly engaged with specifically the Jeffrey Epstein trial because it is such a completely insane example of a rich predator being given completely unconscionable special treatment.
But at the same time, it is really frustrating that folks are not able to direct their ire and their desire to act toward real incidences of sexual violence. Instead, you know, among Pizzagate it was accusing Hillary Clinton and John Podesta as being part of a sex trafficking ring. Among some UFO folks that I talked to, this belief that there are sex slave colonies on Mars. Or occult rituals involving child sexual abuse among NASA employees is another one that I heard. And so it can be really frustrating to be like, okay, you’re very concerned with the real issue of sexual violence… how is it getting twisted into this completely ridiculous and untrue form?
Yeah. I don’t know if you ever listen to You’re Wrong About?
It’s a podcast ― one of my colleagues here, Michael Hobbes, is one of the co-hosts ― but they do episodes debunking cultural ideas that we have and debunking ideas like the Satanic panic, and it often is [they argue] this fixation that we have on, oh, we just figured out that kids are getting sexually abused and we need to do something about it! But fixing the real thing is much harder and scarier than just being like, oh, I bet it’s this one daycare and they’re doing Satanic rituals.
Some of this too ― and other people have pointed this out ― is that the concern over Satanic panic stuff, the concern over ritual sexual child abuse, happened when specifically upper middle class, mostly white women started leaving their kids with paid caregivers more often, and there was this growing concern about “latch-key kids.” It really was a concern about changing social norms.
One thing that got taken out of the book that I wish hadn’t was, I wrote about McMartin Preschool, which is one of the big Satanic panic cases, and specifically I wrote about the fact that the parents at McMartin Preschool became convinced that there were tunnels underneath the school, which was where the sexual abuse was going on, and wanted permission to dig underneath the school and find these tunnels. And of course they never did, but this idea that this sexual abuse is happening secretly, literally underground, recurred again during Pizzagate. It’s something that has roots in medieval blood libel ideas about groups of Jews meeting, in secret, to have orgies and black masses and kill children underground. There’s a very strong, archetypal thing going on here, where a not-insignificant number of people in our culture believe that there is literal Satanic or occult abuse happening under our feet.
When you went into reporting this book, you already had a good amount of experience with reporting this beat, but did reporting it change how you think about conspiracy theories at all?
I would say that it made me a lot more interested in what conspiracy theories do for people. I found a lot of people who were getting a lot of meaning and purpose and direction out of belonging to conspiracy communities. At the same time, it made me a lot more concerned about stuff like false flag conspiracy theories, that make the lives of people who have lost loved ones in mass shootings, for instance, so miserable. You can’t talk to, for instance, Sandy Hook parents and not come away with a sense that the fact that they lose someone in the worst possible way and, then, are tormented by these conspiracy theorists for years is an emergency. So I both became more and less sympathetic to conspiracy communities.
This interview has been edited and condensed.