I’ve been thinking a lot about conspiracies in history of late. All the talk of rigged elections, voter fraud, “birtherism,” Russian connections, the holy grail of Hillary Clinton’s email scandal, global banking cabals, backroom establishment politics, and yellow journalism will make great fodder for later academics interested in twenty-first century conspiratorial politics.
Trying to wrap my mind around all of the fear and fear mongering, as well as overcome my own political malaise, I did what any good historian would do – I looked to the past. What I realized is that Donald Trump reminds me a lot of Abbé Barruel, one of the most conspiratorial, right-winged writers of the French Revolution.
In 1797, Barruel published his Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du jacobinisme, and at the heart of his text was the belief in the “philosophe conspiracy.” Barruel describes a “sect” of individuals who for the preceding fifty years had worked to undermine both the Bourbon throne and the Catholic altar. Writing amidst civil war and foreign war, Barruel wanted to make France great again.
The text of Barruel’s book reeks of xenophobia and anti-intellectualism. Foreigners and foreign powers drove this plot, which ultimately produced the Revolution and the Terror. As Amos Hoffman and Darrin McMahon show, Barruel and others had worked out their continent-wide conspiracy theories over the course of the 1770s and 80s in publications like the Année littéraire. What these “Enemies of the Enlightenment” did was create a kind of anti-intellectualism, which combated the rhetoric of reason employed by some of the more prominent French philosophers. While the history is far more complicated than a simple blog post will allow, it is very hard not to see xenophobic, anti-intellectual tendencies like those on the eighteenth-century Right in the Republican presidential candidate, or really in many alt-Right candidates around the world.
But, we must be careful not to conflate conspiratorial thinking with so-called conservative thinkers. Barruel did not invent the right-wing conspiracy, nor did Catholic monarchists have sole ownership over conspiracy thinking. Recently, I reread Gordon Wood’s 1982 essay “Conspiracy and the Paranoid Style: Causality and Deceit in the Eighteenth Century.” Wood begins with a proverbial attention grabber: “Were the American Revolutionaries mentally disturbed?” Such a question certainly resonates with our current political landscape, and while Wood leaves the Francophone world out of his analysis for the most part, one could have asked this same question about the early years of the French Revolution. Ultimately, Wood argues “conspiratorial interpretations … became a major means by which educated men in the early modern period ordered and gave meaning to their political world.” There was a world of “autonomous, freely acting individuals… capable of directly and deliberately bringing about events through their decisions and actions.” And this bent towards the conspiratorial went down both sides of the political aisle.
Wood argues that conspiratorial claims were becoming remarkably modern and secular in the eighteenth century. Greed-driven design replaced demonic possessions. In my own research, I find that eighteenth-century historians of the Reformation and Wars of Religion often attributed causal action to individuals, rather than supernatural forces. Martin Luther’s problems with his father, Jean Calvin’s greed, and Henry VIII’s lust drove change. Sometimes, the lines blurred. In his Histoire des révolutions arrivées dans l’Europe en matière de religion (published in the wake of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1686-8), Antoine Varillas took Martin Luther’s story of his conference with the Devil seriously, positing that perhaps, the Devil had seeded the Reformation through Luther. Yet, Varillas presented such a claim as more anecdotal than evidentiary. Ultimately, over the course of the eighteenth century, philosophers and the educated elite adopted a new worldview that attributed change to individuals, and not to demons, ghosts, or other supernatural beings. This seems to be, perhaps, the line that Trump has yet to cross – although he did call Hillary Clinton “evil” in one of the debates and the Democratic Party “the Devil”.
For Lynn Hunt, conspiracies are prominently positioned in modern politics, but they do not necessarily emerge as a response to philosophical inquiry. The focus on the individual is not as important in her analysis; instead, Hunt sees conspiracies as the byproduct of the political figure’s encounter with mass political participation. “Conspiracy only became a systematic obsession when revolutionaries confronted the novelties of mass politics.” One can’t help but picture Trump rallies at this point.
A focus on individuals and mass politics makes conspiracies seem modern, and so too does the discourse of revealing the “Other” implicit and explicit in them. Colin Lucas has noted that “dialectical” thinking often drove conspiracy theories in the early modern period. One invents a “single, indivisible, pervasive enemy” and imagines “a death struggle with this opposite, whose supposed power and coherence” exceeds “the tangible evidence.” Trump’s foreign bankers, “not-the-best” immigrants, and backroom “DC-insiders” are not empirically proven agents. They are, as François Furet once noted, the figments “of the frenzied preoccupation with power.” What Trump and influential conspiracy thinkers do “well” is seize authority through the rhetoric of unveiling. And revealing this dialectical Other is a powerful, performative act.
Conspiratorial thinking then seems like a remarkably fertile area of research and a subject from which to challenge normative assumptions about modernity. In this vein, too, we should remember not to simply discount conspiracies as pre-modern or even anti-modern, because doing so limits our scopes and allows those conspiracy theorists to hold onto the authority they obtained through their masquerade. If anything, we should be thinking of conspiracies as teachable moments.