Old conspiracy theories never die. They just mutate with the times.

Earlier this week, Richard Evans, David Runciman and I did a gig about our research project at the opening of the Cambridge Festival of Ideas. We were joined on the panel by Tony Badger, who is the Paul Mellon Professor of American History at Cambridge, an expert on FDR and the New Deal and on McCarthyism. We had an agreeably large audience who asked some good questions. Towards the end, someone asked a question that none of us had ever considered: how do conspiracy theories end? Tony Badger took it on, and talked about how the anti-communist hysteria of Senator Joe McCarthy’s time had endured over time, taking different forms in different eras, right down to the present Tea Party conviction that Obama is a socialist and that Obamacare is, essentially, a commie plot. In that context, it’s intriguing to find an excellent New Yorker blog post by Adam Gopnik which makes more or less the same point. Here’s the key bit:

As it happens, I’ve been doing some reading about John Kennedy, and what I find startling, and even surprising, is how absolutely consistent and unchanged the ideology of the extreme American right has been over the past fifty years, from father to son and now, presumably, on to son from father again. The real analogue to today’s unhinged right wing in America is yesterday’s unhinged right wing in America. This really is your grandfather’s right, if not, to be sure, your grandfather’s Republican Party. Half a century ago, the type was much more evenly distributed between the die-hard, neo-Confederate wing of the Democratic Party and the Goldwater wing of the Republicans, an equitable division of loonies that would begin to end after J.F.K.’s death. (A year later, the Civil Rights Act passed, Goldwater ran, Reagan emerged, and we began the permanent sorting out of our factions into what would be called, anywhere but here, a party of the center right and a party of the extreme right.)

Reading through the literature on the hysterias of 1963, the continuity of beliefs is plain: Now, as then, there is said to be a conspiracy in the highest places to end American Constitutional rule and replace it with a Marxist dictatorship, evidenced by a plan in which your family doctor will be replaced by a federal bureaucrat—mostly for unnamable purposes, but somehow involving the gleeful killing off of the aged. There is also the conviction, in both eras, that only a handful of Congressmen and polemicists (then mostly in newspapers; now on TV) stand between honest Americans and the apocalypse, and that the man presiding over that plan is not just a dupe but personally depraved, an active collaborator with our enemies, a secret something or other, and any necessary means to bring about the end of his reign are justified and appropriate. And fifty years ago, as today, groups with these beliefs, far from being banished to the fringe of political life, were closely entangled and intertwined with Senators and Congressmen and right-wing multi-millionaires.

Plus ca change.