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Conspiracy Talk a U.S. Tradition : History: Long before militias warned of threats from the New World Order, rumors of heinous plots to seize power were a fixture of the American political landscape. One 18th-Century theory is still alive.

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A foreign cabal is plotting to take over the country. Leading political figures are dupes at best and co-conspirators at worst in the devilish scheme fomented by godless, free-thinking intellectuals from abroad.

The nefarious scenario is spelled out in “Proofs of a Conspiracy,” a 304-page book on sale at the John Birch Society bookstore in North Hollywood. It’s tucked among similar exposes on Ted Kennedy, Bill Clinton and the United Nations.

But there is a twist. The lengthy tract, focusing on a secretive German group known as the Illuminati Order, was first published nearly 200 years ago and was used as a springboard for attacking the presidential candidacy of Thomas Jefferson.

Long before right-wing militia leaders fulminated about the threat of a murky New World Order, global conspiracy theories were a fixture of the American political firmament. Despite the failure of most to pan out, new theories routinely surface, old ones are periodically revitalized and hopelessly out-of-date ones, such as the threat of worldwide communism, have transmogrified into updated theories about the impending takeover of the United States by the United Nations.

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Jews, Communists, Catholics, Freemasons, Mormons, international bankers, the CIA, the Trilateral Commission, the Council on Foreign Relations--all have been accused of plotting takeovers or pulling strings that control national political or economic decision-making.

“If you look at American history, you’ll see that conspiracies are a recurrent theme,” said Seymour Martin Lipset, a leading political sociologist and senior fellow at the Hoover Institution at Stanford.

“You get conspiratorial theories coming from the left and from the right,” he said. “One of the oldest and continuing conspiracy theories is the Illuminati. The Birch Society pushes the Illuminati conspiracy idea and so does Pat Robertson.”

Indeed, the televangelist and founder of the politically influential Christian Coalition repeatedly refers to the grand design of the Illuminati in his 1991 bestseller, “The New World Order.” Robertson also charges in the book that Abraham Lincoln’s assassin was hired by European bankers angered by his plans to print interest-free currency rather than issue war bonds.

Experts say conspiracy theories generally revolve around secretive plots, often foreign in origin, involving grand designs to control the nation or the world. Many have racist underpinnings. Some are driven by specific tragedies such as the Kennedy and Lincoln assassinations.

Fueling these conspiracies are social discord.

“You can’t have a conspiracy theory unless you have a cleavage in the society,” said UCLA history professor Joyce Appleby.

The strongest theories usually hinge on a kernel of truth and an instinctive craving to explain all circumstances--including those that might ordinarily be attributed to coincidence--as part of an overarching master plan. Conspiracy theories take on a life of their own in large part because there is no way to refute them with 100% certainty.

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Since the Oklahoma City bombing--and the arrest of suspects with links to right-wing extremist thinking--a spotlight has been cast on the latest round of anti-government conspiracy theories.

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Some seem wild enough to make Oliver Stone salivate. Foreign troops massed at the borders for an imminent invasion. Massive concentration camps being readied for the imprisonment of patriotic Americans. Secret codes implanted on interstate highway signs to help the invaders carry out battle plans. All with the cooperation of leading federal government officials.

In Palm Springs this month, a crowd of more than 600 jammed a posh downtown hotel to hear militia advocate Mark Koernke urge armed resistance to a “globalist” plot to their liberty and constitutional rights, allegedly aided and abetted by the federal government and the mass media.

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Koernke, a University of Michigan janitor who has achieved prominence in extremist circles as a shortwave radio broadcaster, said plans are under way to abolish the 50 states and replace them with 10 superstates. Citizens will be given national ID cards in the form of “dog collars around their necks.”

“Become militiamen now, because you have no more time,” asserted Koernke. “This is the most crucial time in American history, going all the way back to the American Revolution.”

Other speakers at the conspiracy confab--including a former FBI agent--went even further, charging that the federal government actually bombed itself to help pave the way for anti-terrorist laws designed to erode individual rights.

About 50 demonstrators peacefully protested the holding of the conference in Palm Springs, but many in the overflow audience eagerly picked up on the speakers’ theme.

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Lancaster resident Wilma Fields, who was distributing leaflets for an upcoming “Preparedness Expo ’95" in Anaheim, swore that the Oklahoma City bombing was just the latest perfidy in a century-long federal plot to take over the country.

“They’ve been working at this for 100 years and they’re on a roll now,” said the 60ish Fields, who said she once worked as a personnel manager for the Defense Department.

In his seminal 1965 book, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” the late historian Richard Hofstadter argued that America has run rampant with citizens who view history as “a vast and sinister conspiracy, a gigantic and yet subtle machinery of influence set in motion to undermine and destroy a way of life.”

“I call it the paranoid style simply because no other word adequately evokes the qualities of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind,” he said.

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Hofstadter conceded that individual plots are sometimes true and that conspiracy theories are also prevalent in foreign cultures. But the avid American political paranoid, he added, sees history itself as a conspiracy “set in motion by demonic forces of almost transcendent power.”

The conspiracy theorist, he concluded, “constantly lives at a turning point: It is now or never in organizing resistance to conspiracy. Time is forever just running out.”

The 1798 “Proofs of a Conspiracy,” written by Scottish scientist John Robison and reprinted in recent years by the Birch Society, focused on the Illuminati, a secretive group of Bavarian Freemasons. Using intellectual means, the plotters aimed to take over the world by overthrowing monarchies with the promise of universal happiness for the human race, Robison wrote.

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“The theory was [picked up and] put into circulation by a prominent clergyman, Jedidiah Morse, who said you could see them in a group around Thomas Jefferson,” said UCLA professor Appleby, a scholar of early American history. “It was an organized political attack on Jefferson that failed. But it certainly had political significance.”

It’s still around today in Robertson’s “The New World Order.” The 1988 contender for the Republican presidential nomination writes of “a single thread [that] runs from the White House to the State Department to the Council on Foreign Relations to the Trilateral Commission to secret societies to extreme New Agers.”

He links the Illuminati, and their goal of abolishing nationalism, to the French Revolution, the creation of communism and other significant world events. “The New Age religions, the beliefs of the Illuminati, and Illuminated Freemasonry all seem to move along parallel tracks with world communism and world finance,” Robertson declared.

In the early 1830s, conspiracy theorists focused their antagonism on Masons in general. Their passion reached such a height that an anti-Mason political party formed and won several gubernatorial and state legislative elections in the Northeast.

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As America developed its industrial might, other strains of conspiracy theories emerged.

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“The kind that has kept cropping up is the privileged and wealthy against the unprivileged and unwealthy,” said Laird Wilcox, founder of the Wilcox Collection of Contemporary Political Movements at the University of Kansas, billed as the largest collection of extremist literature in the United States. “In the 1930s and 1940s, it was the conspiracy of the right-wing industrialists against the working class.

“Today it’s the moneyed new liberal oligarchy and the media elite against the Christian conservative American working man. . . . The roles have shifted, but the theme remains the same--the big guys versus the little guys.”

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One of the nation’s leading industrialists, auto magnate Henry Ford, himself pushed a racist conspiracy theory in the 1920s. Using his personal fortune, Ford for a time printed copies of “The Protocols of the Elders of Zion,” the infamous anti-Semitic forgery detailing purported meetings of Jewish leaders plotting to seize control of the world.

“Conspiracy theorists tend to ultimately come back to anti-Semitic themes--it’s easy because it has very deep roots in Western culture,” said David A. Lehrer, Pacific Southwest regional director of the Anti-Defamation League. “There’s frequently a racist overlay.”

In the years after World War II, so-called conspiratorial forces ranging from bankers to unionists receded from the fore, with Communists and their sympathizers taking up the slack.

During the early 1950s, the anti-Communist crusade of Sen. Joseph McCarthy received a good deal of mainstream acceptance, until it became clear he could not back up his charges with facts.

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The “Red peril” litany of the John Birch Society, on the other hand, was viewed as further out on the fringe. The Birch Society, formed in 1958, labeled Presidents from Dwight Eisenhower on down as Communist agents or dupes intent on scrapping the U.S. Constitution in their zeal to turn over the reins of power to foreign control.

The 1963 assassination of President John F. Kennedy, coupled with the bitter divisions created by the Vietnam War, gave a new cachet to conspiracy theories in American politics and culture.

“That was a real watershed,” recalled W. David Slawson, a USC law professor who served as a staffer on the Warren Commission, which examined the Kennedy slaying. “As a large-scale movement in the U.S., conspiracy theories were really extremely marginal in my lifetime until after the Kennedy assassination,” he said.

More than most news events, the shocking murder of the President raised immediate, visceral questions that could not be easily answered.

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And for once, just as many people believed alternative theories as accepted the government’s official explanation of a lone gunman.

“The polls always show half the people think there’s more to be known about the assassination,” Slawson said. “You’d have to go all the way back to the Lincoln assassination to find something comparable.”

Consequently, followers of various political persuasions developed their own theories about the President’s death--a Communist plot, a mob rub-out, a right-wing scheme by out-of-control elements in the CIA or, in the case of Stone’s film “JFK” nearly 30 years later, a nebulous military plot.

The most striking political conspiracy theories these days come from the right, where fears of a New World Order--ironically, a term made popular by President George Bush to describe his vision of a kinder, gentler post-Cold War civilization--resonate from sources ranging from the Birchers to Robertson to leaders of the mushrooming militia movement.

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The Birch Society, whose maps showing the virulent spread of communism are still on sale at the American Opinion Bookstore in North Hollywood, now targets its toughest invective against an impending one-world government. In a blurb for its recent text “Global Tyranny . . . Step by Step,” Americans are warned that the United Nations intends to terminate “your God-given rights guaranteed by the U.S. Constitution” and impose “Communist-style dictatorship and ruthless terror, torture and extermination to cow all peoples into submission.”

Robertson, who questions whether the Cold War was actually an insiders’ hoax to prompt rampant arms spending and money-borrowing, agrees that conspirators are plotting to establish a world police force, banking system and government that would eliminate families and Christianity.

Militia advocates, employing talk radio, Internet communications and public forums, warn that the one-world takeover is imminent. “You better be armed,” asserted Koernke, who, upon concluding a 90-minute monologue in Palm Springs, punched the air with his fist and led the audience in a militant shout: “God bless the Republic. Death to the New World Order. We shall prevail.”

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To Wilcox, collector of extremist literature, such anger is not necessarily dangerous. But some question whether the new conspiracy theorists are particularly frightening because of their heightened ability to communicate and their awesome firepower.

Moreover, said Slawson, current conspiracy adherents believe more is at stake than in the past.

“These people think that someone is going to invade them tomorrow,” Slawson said. “At least the Kennedy types were talking about [an event that was already] history. They wouldn’t go around shooting someone for that.”


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