WASHINGTON — Senate minority leader Mitch McConnell took the floor after Donald Trump was acquitted in his second impeachment trial and denounced the wild and unfounded claims of “a stolen election” spouted by the former president and the US Capitol rioters who scaled walls, shattered windows, and trashed congressional offices.
“This was an intensified crescendo of conspiracy theories orchestrated by an outgoing president who seemed determined to either overturn the voters’ decision or else torch institutions on the way out,” McConnell said of the Jan. 6 attack.
McConnell, in the end, didn’t defy the consensus in his party, and was among the 43 Senate Republicans who ultimately refused to convict Trump of inciting the attack. But he is plainly disturbed and angered by the rising power of conspiracists in his party. And he is right to be. The GOP is increasingly a party of warring forces: the right versus the ever further right, Trump and his followers versus everyone else, sense versus something untethered from reality and democratic tradition. The battle is almost sure to be the other half of the American political story during the Biden years, and the collisions ahead could well dominate the road to 2024.
This widening ideological rift is the story of today’s GOP, but it is much older than that. For as long as there has been a Republican Party, it has had a conspiratorial strain. Often, it has flowed on currents of conservative populism, racism, fear of Black racial progress, and resentment over a dwindling white middle class, historians and political analysts said. Yet, history provides no real playbook for McConnell and other Republican leaders to stem the tide as they battle with rank-and-file members over the party’s direction.
Past flares of conspiratorial thinking on the right have been only seemingly tamed, including the squelching of McCarthyism and the purge of members of the conservative John Birch Society. The Republican Party never truly rid itself of this element, much as party regulars hoped to confine it to the fringe. Those rear guard actions against conspiracist extremes also don’t translate well in an era in which social media can amplify extreme voices, local accountability news reporting has been shattered by the economics of the digital age, and Republicans have become increasingly beholden to a conservative media echo chamber.
On top of it all, the party is bitterly split over fealty to Trump, one of the leading peddlers of conspiracies.
“We are talking about a former president of the United States who still commands the loyalty of a very large portion of the Republican Party,” said Karen Kedrowski, director of the Carrie Chapman Catt Center for Women and Politics at Iowa State University. “If the Trump forces don’t prevail, they are certainly putting up a good fight.”
Conspiracy theories, often mixed with racist or nativist politics, have been deeply ingrained in American history. They ebb and flow from the fringe to the mainstream, frequently tied to major economic pain or social change. In the mid-19th century, when hundreds of thousands of impoverished Irish Catholics arrived on US soil, nativists and xenophobes were spreading anti-Catholic falsehoods, claiming the new immigrants were out to take jobs and were more loyal to the pope than their adopted nation.
At the advent of the Republican Party in the 1850s, some of its members in the North believed there was a conspiracy among slave owners in the South to expand slavery to “overwhelm free labor.” At the same time, Southern Democrats claimed Northern abolitionists were conspiring to destroy their society, built as it was on chattel labor. The paranoid beliefs — rooted in white supremacy and spread by some of the most powerful players and institutions in the South — helped fuel the Civil War.
“We shouldn’t make the mistake in believing that what we are seeing is completely aberrational or otherwise unprecedented,” said Ethan Porter, an assistant professor at the George Washington University School of Media and Public Affairs. “The elements of conspiracism have been at play on parts of the left and the right for years.”
But in recent decades, he and other experts said, conspiracy theories have become more prevalent on the right because Republicans — mainly white and largely male — have been more resistant to civil rights movements as well as fearful of immigration and what they see as moral and religious decay.
The latest conspiracies are wider in scope: “The new brand of Republican conspiracism affects the entire party — and not just its presidential leader and not just its congressional leaders — but people much further down the totem pole,” Porter said.
Scholars trace the most recent rise of conspiratorial thinking to long-circulating theories in the South, among them that Black people had been content under slavery until outside agitators stirred them up, and that the Soviet Union was running the civil rights movement, said historian Rick Perlstein, author of “Nixonland” and several other chronicles of American conservatism.
Take the case of Emmett Till, a 14-year-old Black boy who was lynched by white men and his body thrown in a Mississippi river after a white woman falsely accused him of flirting with her. A conspiracy theory was at the heart of his killers’ defense: Till wasn’t truly dead and someone had thrown a corpse into the river to embarrass the South. It was the type of falsehood that permeated society, infiltrating the highest ranks of conservative leadership, Perlstein said.
The conspiratorial forces that would take over the Republican Party began to take shape as Senator Joseph McCarthy stoked fears of communism during the Cold War. Until then, populism largely had been a political tool of leaders on the left, who wielded emotional appeals for systematic change and demonized the Washington and Wall Street establishment to advance progressive policies. President Franklin Delano Roosevelt was so effective at it that some Republicans even believed there was a conspiracy to make him dictator.
McCarthy refashioned the approach for a right-wing audience, capturing conservatives’ imaginations — and anxieties — with “a story of how educated elites had taken over the government and were imposing foreign ideas on ordinary Americans,” said Reece Peck, assistant professor at the College of Staten Island under the City University of New York.
“He was this new breed of conservative politician that was adopting this new style,” Peck said.
Over time, Republican leaders and institutions were able to stymie McCarthy, who had some widespread support.
“But he was a sole actor,” Kedrowski said. “Eventually, he was called out for his behavior.”
Still, his ideas endured with the rise of Republican presidential nominee Barry Goldwater in 1964 and the growth of the John Birch Society, a political advocacy group founded by Robert Welch that believed an elite group of internationalists, bankers, and politicians was dominating the US and Soviet governments. They were the first to widely peddle antiabortion messages and hand out bumper stickers in some of the earliest campaigns advocating for tougher law enforcement, despite concerns over police abuse against people of color.
Leading conservative writer William F. Buckley and a circle of Republican establishment leaders pushed Welch from the conservative movement, fearing he was going too far in his conspiratorial views and the radicalization of the Republican Party. But A. J. Bauer, an assistant professor at the University of Alabama, said there is a common misconception that the Republican Party was able to eliminate or marginalize its extremist wing.
“The John Birch Society continued and did not stop after Buckley told them to stop,” he said. Magazines published by Welch continued to circulate widely at the grass-roots level for decades. When Governor George Wallace of Alabama, notorious for his racism and opposition to the civil rights movement, launched a populist third-party campaign for president in 1968, he espoused many of the Birchers’ racist and conspiratorial ideas.
And when the next wave of populism took hold with the rise of the Tea Party movement after the Great Recession and the election of Barack Obama as the first Black president, some of the most fiery conservative activists to join were those who had kept their John Birch Society subscriptions for decades. Some John Birch Society meetings morphed into early Tea Party meetings.
Bauer likened the party’s conspiratorial strain to a duck in water: calm and cool above the surface, “a lot going on underneath.”
Negotiation with the conspiratorial arm of the party has been a constant since, with establishment leaders often leaning on them to rally the base. “Playing footsie with the conspiracy theories has always been how the establishment has got and kept power,” Perlstein said.
Through the years, the content has tended to remain similar, historians said: A despised group — Jews, Catholics, Muslims, or civil rights activists — is targeted as proxies for foreign governments. It has at times spilled into the open, such as with the Oklahoma City bombing and during the Iraq War. But in recent years, they’ve lost control, opening a Pandora’s box, he said.
By 2004, when the Republican National Committee was trying to reelect George W. Bush, it sent out fliers in West Virginia and Arkansas that accused the Democratic Party of trying to outlaw the Bible. “This wasn’t the John Birch Society saying this, it was the Republican National Committee,” Perlstein said.
Trump has been a singular figure in US history because he has exploited the most vitriolic strands of populism, bigotry, and nativist fears. Indeed, conspiracy theories were a key part of his defense strategy during his first impeachment trial.
Reining him in — and the conspiratorial ideas he has injected into the mainstream — will be just about impossible, historians and scholars said. Trump is not a sole actor like McCarthy, and his ascent has come as many of the Birchers’ ideas have gained new prominence with the rise of conservative talk radio, Fox News, and online right-wing sites such as the Breitbart News Network.
“These types of venues are going to absolutely hold your feet to the fire if you behave in ways that don’t appeal to them — ask Mitt Romney,” said Sarah Sobieraj, a sociology professor at Tufts University. “Even when you would like to try to refute disinformation, it is often much more politically judicious to say nothing.”
The next few years will be a major test on Republican establishment leaders and institutions, as conspiracies are now more quickly spread online, historians said. One of the most powerful theories is that of QAnon, which holds that Trump is saving the nation and the world from a cabal of Democratic pedophiles. But Porter warned against conflating its power with its popularity.
“QAnon can be very powerful, despite the fact that most Americans and even most Republicans are not aligned with it,” he said. “What is the case is that a large number of political activists do believe in it, which in turn can shape the behavior of political officials.”
Yet, top Republican leaders have been reluctant to denounce and castigate members who parrot the most dangerous conspiracy theories, like Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene of Georgia. Those theories culminated with the deadly attack on the Capitol.