Everyone loves a good conspiracy
On separating the paranoid truth from paranoid fiction
Over the years I spent researching and writing Gangsters of Capitalism, my Twitter profile pics were often a photo of Smedley Butler. These were what you might call “rare Smedleys”—shots of him in his youth or at war. (My current avi is an outtake from a 1936 event at New York’s old St. Nicholas Palace that I found in an archive.)
This led to the funny situation (funny to me at least) of finding myself in arguments with right-wing “Smedleys”—generally using the most easily Googleable image of him, his last official portrait from the Marine Corps. Perhaps not recognizing our shared avatar subject, they would proceed to put me on blast for my supposed ignorance of American history, or accuse me of being a “deep state shill.”
For most of these keyboard warriors, Butler was a hero for one reason alone: he had exposed the Wall Street-backed fascist coup to overthrow Franklin Roosevelt in 1934. This was not because they were fans of FDR or the New Deal, or even democracy per se (often the opposite, in fact). It was because Butler represented living, breathing proof that a conspiracy theory was real.
Conspiracy theories have always been part of American life, especially at times of high anxiety. In the buildup to the War of 1812, rumors ran wild that British secret agents were sabotaging U.S. factories and plotting with Native Americans to attack westward settlers.
The destruction of the battleship Maine in 1898 was another example. The original popular theory—that the Spanish blew up the ship—was based on cherry-picked tidbits, some sourced to a mysterious American doctor who claimed have been traveling in Havana at the time. The idea was famously promoted by newspaper magnates. William Randolph Hearst offered $50,000—over $1.5 million today—for “exclusive evidence that will convict the person, persons or government criminally responsible” (my emphasis added). No such evidence was ever found.
Ironically, or perhaps inevitably, the realization that the Spanish probably had nothing to do with the disaster has made the destruction of the Maine a touchstone for future conspiracy theorists, who use it as “proof” that other traumas—from the Kennedy assassination to the September 11 attacks—were U.S. government-orchestrated “false flags” as well. (In truth, the Maine disaster was probably an accident. The U.S. never officially blamed Spain for it, though the McKinley administration was happy to use the public anger provoked by the hysteria to bolster its case for war.)
None of this is specifically American—the need to find explanations for random and traumatic events is universal. But part of the reason paranoia persists so strongly in the United States is that there really are hidden conspiracies happening all the time.
Powerful people really do meet privately in boardrooms and legislative offices. Congress seldom debates anything of substance on the floor anymore. The most important legislative decisions—those affecting hundreds of millions of citizens, not to mention billions of others around the world—are more often made in text message chains with lobbyists. The results of those discussions (collusions, if you will) are then slipped into bills that your average citizen would never have the time or knowledge to identify.
The national security state depends on secrecy. This leads to horrific cases of abuse, as well as episodes of unintentional comedy. In an on-the-nose example of real-life conspiracists imitating conspiracy theories, the CIA planners of “Operation Northwoods,” a never-executed plot to stage a false flag operation to justify an invasion of Cuba aimed at toppling Fidel Castro, suggested creating a “Remember the Maine” incident, perhaps in the form of blowing up a U.S. ship in Guantánamo Bay. (Needless to say, this never happened.)
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What I’m noting here is that isn’t so much conspiracy (“an agreement between two or more people to commit an illegal act”) as secrecy at the root of this obsession. After all, the standard explanation for 9/11 is itself a conspiracy: that a radical Saudi billionaire named Osama bin Laden oversaw a covert operation on three continents using fake identities and false pretenses for the purpose of hijacking four airliners and plowing them into American landmarks. But that plot was revealed far too quickly, and involved far too much American stupidity and vulnerability, for many Americans to swallow. The idea that there must be something else that the government wasn’t telling its people was too alluring to ignore—and when counternarrative details weren’t forthcoming, freelance theorists just made up their own.
Elites often participate and encourage the conspiracism themselves: engaged in and encouraged by these same elites. Any time a terrorist blows something up or a serial killer gets caught, it's because he was the cleverest, most brilliant terrorist or serial killer alive, never because our safeguards are theater or because some of the conspirators were in actuality cops.
No one has profited off this interplay between fake conspiracism and real conspiracy more than Donald Trump. His rise was aided by the exponential spread of crazy over social media, feeding and feeding off his followers’ desire to see conspiracies against them at every level. By the time he was trying to induce the courts, and then a mob, into reversing his loss to Joe Biden, Trump scarcely even needed to make an argument as to how the election had been stolen. He just had to imply that there had been some conspiracy to do so, somewhere, and let his followers fill in the blanks.
The irony was that, while Trump’s followers were seeing Satanic cabals in nonexistent pizza parlor basements, the president himself was being credibly accused of being part of an endless string of very real conspiracies, including money laundering involving the Russian mafia and Iran’s Revolutionary Guard, fraud inside both his business and “charitable” foundation, and—yes—“an extensive web of contacts between Trump campaign advisers and Kremlin officials” whose shared aim was to defeat Hillary Clinton and otherwise sabotage the 2016 election.
Trump’s aides literally orchestrated their own conspiracy—documented on PowerPoint!—to overturn the 2020 election. The fake conspiracies served to drown out the real ones.
So how to differentiate between the two? As a journalist, I rely on my skillsets: looking for receipts, examining the documents, comparing and contrasting different versions of events, and always considering the source.
This brings me back to Butler and the “Business Plot.” One of the most popular claims on the internet is that one of the Wall Streeters involved in the 1934 coup was none other than Prescott Bush—the father and grandfather of the two Presidents Bush.
Through my research, I realized that was the product of confusion. The Bush patriarch was implicated, indirectly, in a different fascist conspiracy. His bank, Brown Brothers Harriman, had done extensive business with Nazi Germany, much of this through a partial share in the Hamburg-America shipping line. That had prompted a separate investigation by the House committee before which Butler testified, and thus appears in the omnibus report on the committee’s activities. But the two scandals were entirely unrelated. (The confusion seems to have come from a garbled summary of a 2007 BBC radio program, amplified by a sloppy blog post in Harper’s.)
Indeed, conspiracies were everywhere in the 1930s. Butler was not even the first to allege a Wall Street-connected fascist plot on the morning he testified: The day’s first witness, an Army captain named Samuel Glazier, told the committee that the president of a $700 million firm called Fiduciary Counsel Inc., had discussed with him an apparently separate plan to turn the Civilian Conservation Corps work relief program into a version of the Hitler Youth.
Even the committee was not immune. When the former Soviet Union’s archives were opened in the 1990s, researchers reported that one of the lead congressmen on it, Samuel Dickstein, had spent three years on the payroll of Stalin’s NKVD (the forerunner to the KGB), from 1937 to 1940. That the originator of the committee that would become HUAC—the instigator of the Red-baiting blacklists that presaged the McCarthy Era—had himself spent time as a Soviet spy sounds like a fantasy, if not a parody. But it seems to have some basis in fact.
As to whether the Business Plot itself was real, that’s too long an answer for an already long post. Suffice it to say for now that the House committee broadly validated Butler’s version of events, saying in its final report: “There is no question but that these attempts were discussed, were planned, and might have been placed in execution when and if the financial backers deemed it expedient.” Then the investigation was dropped. I get into it in more detail in the book.
My point here is just that it is meaningless to say that one believes or doesn’t believe in “conspiracy theories” as a whole, and that the existence (or otherwise) of one real conspiracy says nothing about the existence of any others. The government lies, makes mistakes, and covers things up. Twitter anons do too. There’s no simple trick to sorting out truth from fiction. You just have to do the work.
Edited by Sam Thielman
Barton Gellman on the plot to steal the next election
Isaac Chotiner interviews Enes Kanter
The Washington Post on the effort to melt down the Robert E. Lee statue in Charlottesville and turn it into something new. You can donate in support of it here. (Disclosure: My wife works at the UVA Memory Project, which is assisting the Jefferson School African American Heritage Center with the effort. Neither of us, nor the Memory Project, receive any money from the campaign.)
And if you want to learn more about Smedley Butler, the Business Plot, and the hidden history of America’s empire, you’ll want to check out Gangsters of Capitalism. Preorder receipts make great stocking stuffers, I hear.