Marjorie Taylor Greene, a new Republican member of Congress from Georgia, has already become one of the most notorious figures in the post-Trump political era.
Most recently, CNN reported that Greene had proposed support for the assassinations of Barack Obama, Hillary Clinton and Nancy Pelosi on Facebook in recent years. However, this is far from the only eccentric notion that she has represented.
Greene has promoted parts of the QAnon conspiracy theory, including the misconception that Clinton maimed and killed a young girl. She suggested that the school shooting in Parkland, Florida, was a "false flag" in 2018 and filmed herself on the streets of Washington, DC shortly after the shooting while she was attacking David Hogg, an activist survivor and gun control, molested. She has also looked at 9/11 conspiracy theories.
She has tried to distance herself from much of it since taking office, but the sheer volume of conspiratorial content in her past – she deleted 19 tweets in 12 hours – makes these rejections difficult to appreciate.
Greene's rise – and the reluctance of the House Republican leadership to hold them accountable – indicates the challenge the GOP poses to American democracy. Even after Trump left the White House, the Republican Party was ready to embrace the conspiracy and extremism in its midst in order to maintain political power. It's a serious problem, and one more ingrained than many may appreciate.
The historian Rick Perlstein is one of the leading experts on these roots. In his books on the rise of the conservative movement to power, from Barry Goldwater to Richard Nixon to Ronald Reagan, Perlstein argues that conspiratorial thinking and marginal politics have always been much closer to the GOP mainstream than most people remember. Conspiracy theorists helped fuel the Conservative movement's takeover of the previously more moderate GOP, and have been an integral part of the movement's coalition from the start.
"These people have come closer and closer to the centers of power," he told me. "It's one of those things that this has always existed but was set 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. The following is a transcript of my conversation with Perlstein, edited for length and clarity.
Therefore, QAnon seems extremely bizarre to many people. But the truth, as documented in your paper, is that conspiracy theories have forever been an integral part of American law.
So let's go back to the founding of the American Conservative Movement.
How about founding 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 heritage.
The Slavocracy and the segregationist view of the 20th century were that “negroes” were completely satisfied with their lot, so that they were stirred up by external agitators.
The 1920s Ku Klux Klan could not have had its strong presence – we're talking about the millions of members and mass marches down Pennsylvania Avenue controlling state houses in some states – without the conspiracy theory that Catholicism was a conspiracy around the The United States and the American priests and nuns who roamed every congregation were ready to transform themselves into these ninja activists on the orders of the Pope. In the 1920s you can see such crazy stuff: Henry Ford and the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, for example.
The conspiracy theory that Franklin Roosevelt either created Pearl Harbor on purpose or knew it was going to happen and did nothing was definitely part of the generation of isolated conservatives during World War II.
This robust conservative history of right-wing reactionary conspiracy theories is the legacy of the modern Republican Party, which is propelled by the conservative wing.
So if conspiracy theories are something perfectly normal in the long arc of American politics, is there anything different about the modern conservative movement – which means roughly the 1950s onwards – than before?
The conservative movement has less conspiratorial and more conspiratorial burdens: William F. Buckley was not particularly conspiratorial. But in many ways (the conspirators) were the vanguard, or the tip of the spear, the activists who really drove the party's success at the grassroots level.
These people came closer and closer to the centers of power. I argue in Reaganland that a big driver for this was religious law. Remember, Jerry Falwell – who, by the way, was also one of the conspiracy theorists who believed that the civil rights movement was all headed by Moscow – gave a famous sermon in 1955 in which he said that your preachers were the victors of souls, not the politicians. He spoke of Martin Luther King.
Historians point out that people like Jerry Falwell explicitly meddle in partisan politics, advocate candidates, and turn their churches into houses in districts: Without this theory that gays were involved in an organized conspiracy to recruit Americans, it would not have been exactly the same Youth can happen, and not just recruiting American youth, but recruiting them to murder them.
Jerry Falwell with Ronald Reagan.Getty Images
It was this kind of conspiratorial thinking that drove Reagan's rise. One of the reasons George H.W. Bush finished second in the 1980 Republican nomination competition. He believed that because he was a member of the Trilateral Commission, he was part of the "deep state" conspiracy in the east.
So it definitely plays a role in the rise of Reagan, but nowhere near as clear a role as it did in the rise of Trump. This is a party that is more and more submitting to the more absurd, gothic elements in its constituency.
This stuff metastasizes in ways that are harder to control and increasingly impacting due to the change of media: the rise of social media, Fox News, and the weaponry of algorithms by bad actors, cynics, and strategists.
Let us examine the mythology that has surrounded this. If you talk to a Conservative intellectual about it, you will get the following story: "Of course there were randwackos in the John Birch Society in the 1950s and 1960s. They were part of the Conservative movement, but William F. Buckley purified it in his brilliance. He pushed her out of the movement. "
But that's more than a little incomplete, isn't it?
It's very interesting: that's how conservatives told their own story, right? The first generation of historians to write about the rise of the postwar conservative movement in the 1990s, including myself, largely repeated this narrative.
Recent scholarships from the likes of Princeton University's David Walsh, a man named John Huntington, who's bringing out a new book, and a few others suggest that the line between marginal and mainstream law has always been fluid. The old story pretty much collapses under the weight of new evidence and new research.
There was an element of cynicism, of opportunism: the realization (among the elites) that while these are not the kind of people we can put on camera, these are people who are actually the boots on the ground , the "firebugs" that really won the California primary for Barry Goldwater.
In the 1960s and 1970s, the John Birch Society – the best-known conspiracy theory group that believed Eisenhower was behind the communist conspiracy against America – was quite nimble and brilliant at finding grassroots discontent and creating platforms to promote their cause advance in a way that gives (the mainstream) plausible denial.
Things like sex education in schools or the Equal Rights Amendment or some kind of anti-anti-stance against the 1960s and 1970s movements against police brutality: these things were used excellently by the John Birch Society as organizational opportunities.
The next part of traditional mythology is that Goldwater's main 1964 victory not only captured the party and set the stage for Reagan's victory in 1980, but also brought ideas back to a Washington that had been stifled by boring and uninspired liberalism. It was a triumph not only of conservatism but also of virtuous, principled, intellectual conservatism.
Barry Goldwater at a rally in Madison Square Garden. William Lovelace / Daily Express / Hulton Archive / Getty Images
But in your work you show that the narrative obscures the way in which the things we talked about – the John Birch Society and evangelical conspiracy theories about homosexual recruitment – were as important to the rise of the Reaganites as they were alleged attraction of conservative ideas.
Obviously, Reagan wins through a coalition. His coalition includes both Christians who believe the IRS will force them to hire gay teachers in Christian schools and deeply learned men like (neoconservative thinker) Irving Kristol.
Right epistemology (in general) starts with the conclusion, and then you fill in things that sound like logic and fact to support the conclusion you've already reached.
This has a backward basis in traditional Christian apologetics: belief is defined as evidence of things invisible because you know revelation is true. You can start with this iron source of authority as you read the Bible or the Constitution, and you create an intellectual infrastructure around that foundation that is accepted by faith.
One of my favorite historians writing about conspiracy theories is historian Kathryn Olmsted, who is writing a book called Real Enemies. There's a wonderful chapter on the left's vulnerability to Kennedy conspiracy theories, all sorts of things. (But) Liberals are liberal. Though we sometimes honor it in the breach, both left and center Democrats are heirs to an Enlightenment tradition of empiricism. And we are pluralists. So we're not Conservatives – who fundamentally believe that they know beforehand what the world is and what it is asking of us, and then use their intellects to justify conclusions, rather than get to them.
Take the man who is the be-all and end-all of supposedly respectable mainstream conservatism, William F. Buckley. In his 1951 book God and Man at Yale, he criticizes Yale for believing in intellectual laissez-faire: the ideas that should survive and that should thrive can be supported by arguments. They say the problem with Yale is that it is a scouting agency. Their values are based on these traditions of evidence and logic rather than on revealed truth.
William F. Buckley, Getty Images
(Now) I think there is more to life than solid science using evidence and logic. Some of the things that hold people together are based on values that are not easy to quantify and, for me, basically play a legitimate role in human and political life.
But the entire realm of conservative politics and political thought is very obvious in order to create branded narratives that portray the world as one believes or fears it is more like it than it is.
This is another way of defining conspiracy theories.
You could go a step further. To gain power on a platform of intellectually weak and unpopular ideas, such as the notion that tax cuts for the rich help the poor, conservatives had to build an alternative media ecosystem and an intellectual ecosystem.
Obviously, this is an important story in the Goldwater-Nixon-Reagan era, when institutions like the Heritage Foundation were formed in 1973 – and an even more important part of what is happening right now.
It's one of those things that this has always been around but was set to 11 in the Trump era, right?
Yeah, I mean, it was obviously really bad even during the Obama era, with Glenn Beck's blackboard and obstetrics.
I also remember when Bill Clinton was "responsible" for dozens of political assassinations. There was a (conspiracy) videotape distributed by our friend Jerry Falwell, The Clinton Chronicles. That probably had millions of copies in circulation.
You had Newt Gingrich teaching his 1994 Congressional class the language they needed to dehumanize the Democrats, and at exactly the same time you had talked about radio superstars like G. Gordon Liddy who said if you were on an ATF -Agents encounter, you should make sure you take a headshot as they wear body armor. A month later you will get Timothy McVeigh and Oklahoma City.
And then, as you point out, Trump made this pre-existing problem much worse. I just think a lot about questions of structural and contingent theories of history: was someone like Trump an inevitable product of the structure of the conservative movement, or was he uniquely positioned to get us where we are?
It seems like Trump is that possibility. He didn't have to go down the escalator. Nothing was predetermined about it.
Modern republican politics always seeks and involves careful negotiation between opening Pandora's box and some kind of politics of respectability, understanding that they are playing with fire. The example I always give is George W. Bush, who simultaneously exploited anger and anger towards Muslims after September 11th to wage the Iraq war, but also describes Islam as a religion of peace.
Earlier generations of Republicans pulled out the (conspiratorial) ring of power and put it back in their pockets or in a tote bag. Donald Trump puts the damn thing on and never takes it off.
Now we are in a post-Trump era – but who knows how long, maybe it will run again in 2024. Does the party still have internal capacity to return to the dance you described? Or has it been so thoroughly corrupted – turned into Gollum to expand your Lord of the Rings metaphor – that the world's Marjorie Taylor Greenees are their future?
Yeah, that's an interesting question. I remember traveling around with John Kasich before his 2016 presidential election and (the people around him) had encumbrances from something like the 1950s GOP.
This guy who sold his business to become a philanthropist and support the arts in his small town. This senator who is engaged in the fight against the death penalty because it is used in a racist manner, but also wants lower taxes. They walk among us, these strange archaic creatures!
And there are some hopeful signs. Capitalists are afraid of being drawn into a climate of political instability that they cannot endure. It's a very powerful variable.
Support Vox explanatory journalism
At Vox, we want to answer your most important questions every day and provide you and our audiences around the world with information that empowers you through understanding. Vox's work reaches more people than ever before, but our distinctive brand of explanatory journalism is consuming resources. Your financial contribution is not a donation, but it does allow our staff to continue offering free articles, videos and podcasts to everyone who needs them. Please consider contributing to Vox today, starting at $ 3.