Robert Alan Goldberg on American Conspiracy Theories

Historian Robert Alan Goldberg discusses the history of conspiracy thinking in the U.S. and explains how “new” conspiracy theories such as that involving QAnon recycle and embellish old themes. This is the Self in Society Podcast #20. This episode also is available on iTunes.

Buy Goldberg’s book, Enemies Within: The Culture of Conspiracy in Modern America (paid link), via Amazon.

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Time Markers
00 Intro
1:20 The 9/11 terrorist attacks in the context of conspiracy theories
3:14 Modern “conspiracy theories without the theory”—the normalization of conspiracy
5:07 Are conspiracy theories easier to counter because they’re so well known?
7:30 Actual conspiracies versus unfounded conspiracy theories
10:23 Pizzagate
12:08 The danger of conspiracy claims and vigilantism
13:56 Hyperbole and “conspiracy entrepreneurs”
15:26 Demonizing the “other”
16:20 Some real conspiracies . . .
18:15 . . . versus “vast global conspiracies”
19:10 The immigrant “caravan,” Soros as the new Rockefeller or Rothschild, “blood libel”
21:46 The major themes of conspiracy imaging
22:00 Fear of the concentration of power and conspiracism
23:54 Secret cabals versus unintended consequences
27:12 Why we often get bad candidates for the presidency
28:56 The psychological versus the historical explanation for conspiracy imaging; power and identity; trust in institutions
34:03 Open questions, healthy skepticism, and coping with uncertainty
39:00 The loss of trust in major institutions
40:55 The COVID-19 pandemic, the vaccine conspiracies, the “deep state,” and trust in government
45:35 Conspiracy theories “provide an identity”; in-groups and out-groups
47:36 More on QAnon and the “normalization” of conspiracy thinking
52:33 Pushing up against fascism
55:32 Is conspiracism especially bad in today’s America? More on Trump
1:01:59 Is Trump an aberration or a harbinger?
1:04:38 Irrational institutional distrust as a deeper problem than conspiracy mongering
1:07:40 The need for leaders to speak out against conspiracy mongering
1:10:18 The blending motives of ideology, manipulation, wealth, and power
1:13:10 The vicious cycle of damaged institutions leading to conspiracy mongering leading to more institutional damage
1:13:44 A culture of reason and science; competent thought leaders
1:16:02 Goldberg’s closing thoughts: “Conspiracy thinking is not harmless.”

A couple of Goldberg’s remarks from the episode: “If I looked at the most conspiratorial societies in world history, I would look to Nazi Germany in the 1930s and the Soviet Union in the 1930s and 1940s. . . . The motif of those societies was conspiracy thinking.” “The power of conspiracy thinking has increased, it’s become more legitimate, it’s become more verbalized and vocalized. . . . I think this is now mainstream thought.”

Links to three of Goldberg’s essays:

See also Goldberg’s talks from 2019 and a 2010 about conspiracy theories.

See also the previous podcast episode, “Robert Alan Goldberg on the Klan in Colorado.” Read Goldberg’s Hooded Empire via the University of Utah.

Wikipedia has a page on QAnon. CNN reports that a version of the QAnon conspiracy theory has spread to Germany, one targeting Angela Merkel. The AP reports, “Facebook says it will ban groups that openly support QAnon.”

Here is a new story from the Washington Post: “The FBI revealed Thursday that it thwarted a plot to kidnap Michigan Gov. Gretchen Whitmer, unsealing charges against six people who it said contemplated a violent overthrow of the government as state authorities charged seven more who they said wanted to attack police and ignite a civil war.”

October 13 Update: My column, “Conspiracism threatens the fabric of our republic,” has been published by Complete Colorado.

See the Self in Society Podcast page.