A recent article published in the Salt Lake Tribune highlights the paranoid style currently dominating the Utah political mindset. The article—titled “Some Mormons stocking up amid fears that doomsday could come this month,”—details a pervasive movement among many of the state’s residents. “Prepping,” as the movement is termed, is on the rise, but this time it’s not for the usual run-of-the-mill disaster such as a storm or earthquake. Instead, according to the article, many Utahns are preparing for a political and economic collapse that many believe will usher in the end times. So why, despite no real indication that doomsday is upon us, have so many citizens adopted the gloomy attitude that this country is headed straight down the flusher? One must, perhaps, only look to the past in order to illuminate the present.
From the earliest days of the Republic, American politics has been a contentious scene. New ideas—and a venue in which to promote them—formed the basis of a marketplace of numerous perspectives. Tolerance of diverse ideas stands as proof of America’s commitment to acceptance, but unfortunately it has also led to the dissemination of misinformation. It’s no surprise, then, that this nation has harbored, and often welcomed, what can accurately be termed “conspiracy theories,” as well as the promoters of such notions. Humanity’s tribal roots make it hard for people to resist adopting an outlook of “us versus them,” leading many to embrace an attitude of paranoia when the “powers that be” don’t jive with their particular worldview.
This “paranoid style” is nothing new to the United States. According to American historian Richard Hofstadter, before the turn of the 19th century, paranoia over supposedly vast and deeply entrenched subversive organizations had already gripped the American psyche. The first major outbreak of conspiratorial paranoia took form in the belief that the United States had been infiltrated by an organization of intellectual subversives called the “Bavarian Illuminati.” Sounding like a story ripped from the pages of a Dan Brown novel, fear of “illuminism” stemmed from angst over the global effects caused by the increasingly volatile French Revolution. Two centuries later, one can look back on such a hysterical frenzy with a chuckle and a belief that no such non-sense could possibly infect the minds of today’s Americans. But unfortunately, it seems, present day America is just as, if not more, susceptible to false information and paranoia.
One needs only to look at the current political climate to get a sense that modern Americans are just as eager as their supposedly less informed predecessors to latch onto wild theories of fear and doom. Take, for example, the recent panic over the military training exercise code-named “Jade Helm.” The operation, designed to train U.S. Special Forces in unconventional warfare, raised alarms among many conservatives convinced that the exercise was just a pretense for a military occupation of conservative-leaning states by the Obama administration. Now, with only days left until Jade Helm ends and with no such occupation having taken place, this conspiracy theory can be moved onto the same dusty shelf of history that holds other previous relics of the “paranoid style of American politics.”
Jade Helm stands as a testament to the general paranoia of the American mindset, but it also illustrates the unfortunate reality of the paranoid style in Utah politics. Many of the most ardent supporters of Jade Helm conspiracy theories came straight out of Utah. This local paranoia was fueled by the revelation that part of the Jade Helm training scenario included treating Texas and Utah (two right-wing states) as “hostile territories.” Conservative pundits and radio commentators jumped on this news as “proof” of foul intentions.
So what is it that has made Utah politics a hotbed for conservative conspiracy theorists? In order to understand the roots of the paranoid style in Utah politics, one must look back into the dark and distrustful years of the Cold War and the beginnings of McCarthyism. The presidency of Dwight Eisenhower saw the rise of a new faction of American conservatism; abandoning their previously held platform of isolationism and non-interventionism, conservatives of the 1950s began to embrace the doctrine of Soviet containment as a hedge to the perceived threat of Communist world domination. This new proactive—but ultimately shortsighted—approach to foreign policy received endorsement from the likes of Vice President Richard Nixon and Wisconsin Senator Joseph McCarthy. Nixon and McCarthy, along side FBI Director J. Edgar Hoover, led the “Communist witch-hunt” of the 1950s by employing a ruthless crusade of character assassination and political demagoguery.
This vicious smear campaign ended only after McCarthy took things a step too far and began to accuse some top military officials of being Communist sympathizers (a lesson in and of itself of the untouchable nature of the American military). But despite McCarthy’s fall from grace, his legacy lived on, particularly through the ultra-Conservative John Birch Society, the philosophical offspring of McCarthyism.
So what do a disgraced Wisconsin Senator, a Communist witch-hunt, and a paranoid right-wing political organization have to do with current Utah politics? The answer is a man by the name of Ezra Taft Benson: U.S. secretary of Agriculture and former President of the LDS Church. Benson took to the anti-Communist rhetoric of the 1950s, so much so that in 1962 he described the John Birch Society as “the most effective non-church organization in our fight against creeping socialism and godless Communism.” Benson promoted the writings of prominent John Birchers as though they were scripture, including an endorsement of conservative journalist Gary Allen’s book “None Dare Call it Conspiracy” during the LDS Church’s April 1972 General Conference.
Now, four decades later and still Communist-free, America has once again fallen under the paranoid spell of Benson and his fellow Birchers. Among the most prominent philosophical heirs to the John Birch movement is conservative radio personality and LDS convert Glenn Beck. His political commentary pours the paranoia-filled rhetoric of the Birchers into a modern day context. Instead of promoting fear of a Soviet takeover, he and his followers advance a fear of liberal progressives whom Beck has described as “nothing more than patient Communists.” Beck uses his prominence in the conservative community to sponsor books like “None Dare Call it Conspiracy” to a new generation of paranoid underlings.
It is in this context that one must analyze the current state of Utah politics. Conservative anxiety over a black man in the White House, anger over the triumph of marriage equality, and paranoia over faltering markets and nuclear deals have combined to stir a frenzy that hasn’t been seen since the turbulent days of the Cold War. This is, however, still a state which is ultimately led by the sovereignty of the people, and so it is the people who can and must temper this paranoid style in Utah politics.