If you fear a plot, organize one yourself.
-- Umberto Eco, Foucault's Pendulum
The actions of conspiracy theorists fall into a remarkably consistent pattern: those who believe in plots almost always engage in them. Conspiracy theorists often up as conspirators. What begins as a search for subversives ends in subversion; haters of the hidden hand take on the very characteristics they loathe. As Edward A. Shils, the sociologist, puts it, "the phantasy of conspiracy requires the reality of counterconspiracy."
The first stirrings of the Ku Klux Klan offer a classic example of this pattern. When the Klan came into existence in the late 1860s, it bristled with conspiracy theories about secret societies infiltrating the United States and undermining its way of life; it was an anti-conspiracy organization. But soon enough, it adopted the insignia, rituals, and signs of a secret society. It also became deeply conspiratorial. By 1924, not only did the Klan oppose a resolution condemning secret societies at the Democratic National Convention, but it used conspiratorial methods to defeat the resolution.
It was, as the historian David Brion Davis notes, a "movement of countersubversion becoming in itself a secret and genuinely subversive force." More broadly, Davis described nineteenth-century American nativism in similar fashion:
By condemning the subversive's fanatical allegiance to an ideology, he affirmed a similarly uncritical acceptance of a different ideology; by attacking the subversive's intolerance of dissent, he worked to eliminate dissent and diversity of opinion; by censuring the subversive for alleged licentiousness, he engaged in sensual fantasies; by criticizing the subversive's loyalty to an organization, he sought to prove his unconditional loyalty to the established order. The nativist moved even farther in the direction of his enemies when he formed tightly-knit societies and parties which were often secret and which subordinated the individual to the single purpose of the group. Though the nativists generally agreed that the worst evil of subversives was their subordination of means to ends, they themselves recommended the most radical means to purge the nation of troublesome groups and to enforce unquestioned loyalty to the state.
By similar token, the American Protective Association, founded to battle a Catholic conspiracy to take over the United States, distributed a forged papal encyclical calling for the execution of heretics. The John Birch Society mimicked its communist enemy in its tactics (for example, establishing front organizations). A latter-day Know-Nothing Society, founded in 1965, sought to combat left-wing organizations by secretly infiltrating them and quietly affiliating them to the Know-Nothing organization.
The classic non-American conspiracy-theorist conspirator was Pyotr Ivanovich Rachkovsky, chief of the Okhrana (tsarist secret police) office in Paris, and the official responsible for forging the Protocols of the Elders of Zion. The French police arrested Rachkovsky in 1879 for sheltering terrorists who engaged in an assassination attempt. To win his freedom, Rachkovsky agreed to become a police informer. Eleven years later, he uncovered a Parisian organization which provided bombs to be set off in Russia against official targets; seventy anarchists were arrested by the Okhrana. It later turned out Rachkovsky himself had provided the bombs, hoping they would enhance Franco-Russian police cooperation, which in turn would be a first step towards military alliance.
But these were just warm-up exercises; Rachkovsky's greatest plotting came in 1902, when he created a French-Russian anti-Semitic league. "To ensure its success," writes Umberto Eco (only a novelist could hope to capture its logic), "he declares that the league exists, so that people will then create it. But he uses another tactic, too; he cleverly mixes truth with falsehood, the truth apparently damaging to him, so that nobody will doubt the falsehood."
Rachkovsky's Protocols was a key text for the Nazis who predictably emulated the very conspiracy they phantasized about. Hitler's global ambitions echoed those of the putative Elders; like them, he disdained democracy and legality; he controlled a whole country like a grand master rules his novices; he relied simultaneously on the big lie and on secrecy; and his organization maintained the trappings of a clandestine society (initiation rites, elaborate hierarchies, mistrust of outsiders) at the same time that it was publicly acknowledged. Just as Jews had their religion, the Nazis had their organization, which resembled a cult more than a political party. Nazis fully adhered to the Protocols declaration that "to attain a serious end it behooves us not to stop at any means or to count the victims sacrificed for the sake of that end."
Similar syndromes have long characterized the left. Lenin portrayed monopoly capitalists as a cohesive group who shared interests and willfully imposed their wishes on everyone else. That gave him an idea:
In form a strong revolutionary organisation in an autocratic country may also be described as a "conspiratorial" organization .... Secrecy is such a necessary condition for this kind of organisation that all the other conditions (number and selection of members, functions, etc.) must be made to conform to it.Nor did the Russian cycle of conspiracy stop in 1917. The Bolshevik secret police, the GPU, established the Monarchist Union of Central Russia, known as the Trust. The Trust seemed to be an organization of White Russians and other monarchists dedicated to overthrowing the Bolsheviks; in fact, it served the GPU as a mechanism to monitor enemies and, on occasion, to lure them to the Soviet Union where they would disappear. To convince skeptics, the Trust not only distributed anti-Soviet materials but actually stimulated counterrevolutionary disturbances. Only arch-conspirators could have devised so elaborate a pseudo-monarchical conspiracy and made it work. Internal fakery included the dissemination of Trust literature within the Soviet Union among the Communist Party elite.
The tendency continued to the end. In the hardliners' effort to overthrow Mikhail Gorbachev, the conspirators inevitably raised the specter of a conspiracy. According to The Wall Street Journal, Vladimir Kryuchkov, the head of the KGB, set the plot in play by warning his fellow-conspirators on the afternoon of August 18, 1991, of an armed uprising about to take place. He told them that strategic points (the television building, railroad stations, and residences of members of parliament) were being surrounded as he spoke. Of course, this was untrue. The Soviet Union died as it was born, in counterconspiracy.
Compared to these specialists in conspiracy, Perot is but an amateur. But he shows promise. The ingredients are all there: a belief in imaginary coverups and clandestine government; secretiveness; and an inclination to run all institutions along military lines. The record suggests that someone with this temperament will eventually make the move from conspiracy theories to actual conspiracies.