Conspiracy theories unmasked: From Winston Churchill to QAnon in a few easy steps
QAnon (Kyle Grillot AFP)

Many people may believe that we live in a golden age of conspiracy theories. That's not really the case, according to German academic Michael Butter, who teaches American literature and culture at the University of Tübingen in Germany. But we do live in the golden age of conspiracy-theory studies. Butter's recent book, "The Nature of Conspiracy Theories," published just after the presidential election, does an invaluable job synthesizing a wide range of research across multiple disciplines — from psychology and sociology to philosophy, literature and cultural studies — over a period of decades.

This article first appeared in Salon.

While conspiracy theories are certainly much more prominent now than they were 20 or 30 years ago, they remain widely stigmatized. Before the 1950s, as Butter explains in his book and this interview, they were taken for a granted as a legitimate framework for describing the world. After the Nazi period and the McCarthy era they were driven to the political and social margins, and then returned under a cloud. The internet has played a central role in providing an environment where they can flourish, but the role of media is in itself hardly a new thing: Before the invention of the printing press, conspiracy theories as we know them today simply didn't exist, as far as we can tell, except in more limited scope in ancient Greece and Rome.

With America's conspiracist in chief now gone from the White House, such paranoid beliefs are not going to suddenly disappear, any more than the populism structurally associated with the dominant forms of conspiracy theories today. But what role will conspiracy theory play in the political future of the United States and the West, and what can its history tell us to expect? Salon reached out to Butter to explain the secret forces at work behind the surface of reality — or at least to discuss those questions and his new book. This interview has been edited, as usual, for clarity and length.

Winston Churchill probably isn't the first person who comes to mind when we talk about conspiracy theory, but you begin your introduction by discussing a short speech he gave in 1920. Why begin there, and what does the most famous British statesman of the 20th century have to tell us?

I begin with Winston Churchill for two reasons. On the one hand, because it's a prototypical conspiracy theory that he develops in this speech. All the elements — nothing is at it seems, nothing happens by accident, everything is connected — are there, so this allows me to define what a conspiracy theory is. Secondly and equally important, I begin with Winston Churchill because this cuts to the major point of my book, which, besides providing a general introduction to conspiracy theories, is that it used to be quite normal to believe in conspiracy theories. People that you usually do not associate with conspiracy theories, but regard very highly — people like Churchill, but also George Washington or Abraham Lincoln — spread conspiracy theories, because this is what people did in the past. It was perfectly normal.

Right. But if conspiracy theories were taken for granted then, they're seen very differently now. Before asking the obvious question — how did we get here? — I'd like you to clarify several things. First of all, what's your definition of conspiracy theory?

I like two definitions, one that has been provided by the American political scientist Michael Barkun, who says conspiracy makes three assumptions: a) nothing happens by accident, which means everything has been planned by the conspirators, b) nothing is as it seems, which means that you always have to look beneath the surface to find out what is really going on because the conspirators are operating in secret, and c) everything is connected, that once you look beneath the surface and once you realize that there is a group secretly plotting you, then you also realize that there are connections between people, institutions and events, that you would not have thought possible otherwise. For example, in coronavirus conspiracy theories that make connections between 5G technology and the virus.

After I finished the book, I realized that Geoffrey Cubitt, an English historian, comes up with a slightly different definition. I'll give you the definition first and then explain why they're different. Cubitt says that there are again three elements: intentionalism — everything has been planned, and that corresponds exactly to what Barkun means by "nothing happens by accident." The second element for Cubitt is occultism — things happen in secret, and this would correspond to what Barkun means when he says nothing is as it seems. But then Cubitt does not highlight "everything is connected," but he highlights Manichaeanism, a clear distinction between good and evil, which is something Barkun also talks about, but which he considered less important than highlighting that everything is connected.

So these are the two definitions that I very much like because I think they really capture what conspiracy theories are about. The reason why they're different is that Cubitt is thinking as a historian about conspiracy theories in the 18th and 19th centuries, and that's the time when conspiracy theories mostly focused on specific events or on specific groups — the Jews or the Communists or the Catholics, but not all of them together. Whereas Barkun is really looking at the second half of the 20th century, which is the time in which we find what he calls "superconspiracy theories," that is, conspiracy theories that basically cover all of human history and that forge connections between the Nazi and the Jews and the Communists and other groups. Therefore for him to assume that everything is connected makes a lot of sense, whereas in conspiracy theories of the 18th and 19th century, there are limits to how far a conspiracy theory will go. Taken together, I think these are two very good definitions of conspiracy theory.

So how can we categorize conspiracy theories in terms of who is being accused, where the supposed conspiracy comes from and who's being conspired against?

I think we can come up with a couple of useful typologies. Many people assume, because they only look at the present and the Western world, that conspiracy theories always work from below towards those above, so that they're always tackling alleged conspiracies from above, conspiracies by the elites against the people. That would be one way to categorize modern conspiracy theories, but this is not what all conspiracy theories do. In fact, for centuries, when it was still normal to believe in conspiracy theories, they usually worked the other way around: They targeted enemies from below. It was the elites who were articulating conspiracy theories, and they were concerned with alleged conspirators that were challenging their powers.

Another useful distinction is that between an enemy within and an enemy without. In the 18th and 19th centuries in the Western world, for example, we very often have this idea of an enemy who is outside the country and who is plotting, maybe with the help of some people within the country, against that nation. In the second half of the 20th century, the dominant feature that we find the Western world is that there is an enemy within — your own elite, your own government — that is in league with the conspirators. They might not be the ones pulling all the strings, but they're a big part of that. There might be an enemy without as well, but very often these conspiracy theories can do without an enemy without. So, enemies within or without, from above or from below, I think these are useful categories to think about conspiracy theories.

You also discuss how conspiracy theories are dependent on a public sphere and the right sort of media environment. For the public sphere, you go all the way back to ancient Greece and Rome, and for media environments you talk about the role of the printing press in the modern world. Can you elaborate on this?

For some time during the 1980 and 1990s, a lot of scholars thought that conspiracy theories were an anthropological given, meaning that they exist everywhere in all at all times and all places. Since then, a new generation of scholars has highlighted that this is probably wrong, and that conspiracy theories do not exist everywhere. So the question is then, where and when do they exist?

We know that we do find what we could call modern conspiracy theories from the early modern period or maybe the late medieval period onwards, with certain precursors in the 13th or 14th century. This is something one can link to the emergence of a reading public that is tied to the invention of the printing press, where texts can circulate, where many people can be exposed to these theories.

At the same time, we know that there are examples that come very close to our modern conspiracy theories in ancient Greece and ancient Rome. The reason for that is probably that in these places we already had something like a public sphere: people meeting in the market square to take decisions together in ancient Athens or people discussing events in ancient Rome. Of course conspiracy theories can circulate orally, as well as in the form of manuscripts. And then this disappears in a way. During the early Middle Ages and the high Middle Ages, at least from what we know today, it seems as if there really aren't full-blown conspiracy theories around.

And then came the printing press.

It's only with the emergence of a new public sphere and new media conditions that conspiracy theories, you could say, re-emerged, or emerged fully for the first time. They've been around since then, changing when the environment changed as well. So you could tell the whole history of conspiracy theories as the history of different media regimes. The printing press triggers the movement towards pamphlets and then later to treatises and books filled with footnotes.

The internet in turn gives us these YouTube conspiracy-theory documentaries during the early 2000s that are no longer dry and full of footnotes, that are really exciting and fun to watch, as I know from talking to lots of my students. Then the latest development would be some platform like Twitter where the restriction of 140 characters, or now 280 characters, makes for the development from full-blown conspiracy theories toward conspiracy rumors. You just make a bold claim, but you don't offer any evidence for that because there's simply no space to do that and because of the conditions of the medium. You're only talking to your followers anyway, so they don't require you to provide evidence.

What social, psychological and epistemic needs do conspiracy theories meet?

We know that there are two groups of people in the West, in the present, who in terms of psychological profile are particularly drawn to conspiracy theories. First, there are people who feel out of control and feel powerless and they can explain the fact that they are not being heard, that the country is developing in a direction that unhappy with, by resorting to conspiracy theories. Secondly, there are people who have trouble accepting insecurity and ambiguity, and what conspiracy theories do for these people is to resolve this ambiguity and provide seemingly clear answers.

Think about the beginning of the coronavirus crisis, at least in Germany and Europe, when everything went into lockdown in early March last year and we were all sitting at home and nobody knew what our lives would look like in three days or three weeks or three months. That's a situation where conspiracy theories were extremely attractive because they provided an answer. They told people, "Well, this is what's really going on. These are the people who are responsible for this, and this is what they are trying to trying to achieve."

Obviously, it's easier for some people to believe that a group of conspirators is pulling the strings than to accept that nobody is putting the strings, because it's easier to accept that people are acting intentionally than to accept that there's a lot of chaos and contingency at work. If human agents are responsible, then of course you have scapegoats, you have people you can point your finger at and blame for everything. If it's abstract forces like globalization, or just coincidence and chaos, then you really can't point your finger at anybody. And if human agents are responsible for all that, then no matter how powerful they might appear they can, at least in theory, be defeated. Even though this might prove difficult to achieve, at least it's possible. You can't really defeat chaos or an abstract force like globalization. So this is what makes conspiracy theories attractive.

Then, in the present period, where it's no longer normal to believe in conspiracy theories, believing in them also allows you to reassure yourself that you are special: You can claim that you are somebody who has understood something that most people are missing. While they are walking through life with their eyes closed, sleeping, you have opened your eyes. You've woken up, and these are powerful metaphors in conspiracy's discourse. You can claim that you are special because you know something that others don't.

Let's get back to the journey from Winston Churchill in 1920 to us in 2021. First, you describe a three-phase process of stigmatization in Europe and North America, focused both on psychology and epistemology. How did that process begin?

We need to keep in mind that during the 1950s it was still normal in the United States to believe in conspiracies. The majority of people believed there was a vast conspiracy orchestrated by Moscow in the 1950s to subvert the country. We may think today of Sen. [Joseph] McCarthy as a raving madman, but he was really representative of a specific historical moment, and only a couple of years earlier in Germany, belief in a different conspiracy theory — that of the Jewish Bolshevist world plot — had led to the Holocaust. So Western countries were rife with conspiracy theories, and then this changed rather quickly, because by the mid-1960s only a minority of Americans, usually those on the extreme right, believed in this communist plot. So what happens?

What happens is a popularization of insights from psychology and the social sciences that basically had two different sources. On the one hand, you have scholars like Theodor Adorno and other émigrés of the Frankfurt School, who are sitting in exile in the United States in the 1940s and early '50s looking at what's happening in Europe, and seeing what conspiracy theories can result in — namely the extermination of European Jews. So they begin to argue that conspiracy theories are dangerous.

At the same time, other people, especially from sociology — and I'm thinking particularly here of Karl Popper — argue that conspiracy theories are an inadequate explanation of what is going on in social reality, because they always overemphasize intentional action and tend to neglect structural effects or unintended consequences.

So these two arguments — conspiracy theories are dangerous and conspiracy theories are bad explanations — would be the first step in the stigmatization, and are, at least initially, really restricted to the ivory tower. I mean, hardly anybody reads all 800 pages of "The Authoritarian Personality."

What happened next to create broader criticism?

During the early 1950s, liberal American scholars and journalists pick up on these ideas and develop them further, because they are trying to defend themselves against accusations by conspiracy theorists that they are part of a Moscow-orchestrated communist plot. One way of countering this activation is of course to dismiss this mode of thinking entirely. So you have people like Edward Shils, for example, who do not write 800 pages on the authoritarian personality in a book nobody will ever read outside academia, but who write 800 words for Harper's or The Atlantic or other magazines. So these ideas get developed and popularized.

This works incredibly well, so by the early 1960s, as I mentioned earlier, only people on the extreme margins of society still confess to openly believe in conspiracy. This in turn allows a third generation of scholars — we can think of somebody like Richard Hofstadter — to make the argument that conspiracy theories are always populist, and that they are always the instruments of minority movements, and that there is no path and no place for them in mainstream American politics, that they are always a dangerous populist cry from the margins. This is basically the argument Hofstadter makes in his seminal 1964 essay, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics," in which he so powerfully associates belief in conspiracy theories with paranoia.

You mentioned earlier that around this same time a lot more people were being exposed to the social sciences, and to a more sophisticated understanding of causality in the social sphere.

That's the other development. In that sense, we have two-way development. One is that more and more people get exposed to these ideas from social science and psychology because these ideas become part of the more popular general discourse. At the same time, of course, more and more people are attending college because of the G.I. Bill, which multiplies the number of students in American colleges within a couple of years. Of course, in college people take classes in psychology, in sociology, in political science, and it's obvious that they were exposed to these ideas there, and this also contributed to this stigmatization of conspiracy theories.

In the second part of this interview, Butter describes the three-phase process that brought conspiracy theories back into the public sphere, their structural relationship to populism, the case study of Donald Trump and more.