From the Fringes to the Mainstream: Conspiracy Theories and American Cultural Dis-ease

Conspiracy theories have garnered much attention in the past several years, but they have always been a part of American culture. Early American history saw conspiracy theories warning of a sinister Bavarian Illuminati that would destroy Christianity; politicians in the 19th century claimed Freemasons were secretly pulling the strings of leaders; and the 20th century abounds with tales of communist plots to overthrow democracy in the United States. Much cultural studies research on conspiracies and their histories demonstrates that these fables arise from specific group anxieties. From nefarious international actors to unscrupulous bankers to secret police, groups affix their anxieties onto imaginary boogeymen. Such narratives tap into the nearly universal human need for storytelling and resemble origin stories in their simplicity, and believers have unshakable faith in their Truth. The speaker does not attempt to cover all types of conspiracy theories throughout history but plans to focus specifically on the cultural work anti-government conspiracy theories do. The rise of populism in the past decade—and similar to the late-19th century populism that arose in response to mass industrialization that upended American life—centers on anti-government attitudes with deep roots. The so-called “deep state” actors who apparently operate in the background are contemporary incarnations of the pure forms visitors to Plato’s cave can only glimpse as shadows, apparitions of “perfection” that must have an origin. This presentation focuses on how contemporary echo chambers do not create but allow for conspiracy theories to have both larger-scale dissemination and atomized cult-like exclusivity. The speaker rhetorically analyzes fear appeals to demonstrate the efficacy of cultural dis-ease in persuasion. Without a priori anxieties, speakers have difficulty using fear appeals to win over audiences. Understanding the ways in which these appeals work is imperative to begin to dismantle their power in contemporary American culture.

Author: Aaron Toscano