Jared Yates Sexton is an American author, political commentator, and an associate professor in the Department of Writing and Linguistics at Georgia Southern University. On this episode of Failed State Update, we discuss conspiracy theories: how they work, who they affect, and how they embolden fascist movements. His book American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People comes out in September.
Below, Jared and I continue the discussion we began on the podcast.
JARED YATES SEXTON: My last book was The Man They Wanted Me to Be: Toxic Masculinity and a Crisis of Our Own Making, which is all about the persona politics and masculine insecurity leading to fascism. The one that's getting ready to come out is called American Rule: How a Nation Conquered the World But Failed Its People, which is basically American history without exceptionalism. It gets into all the myths of our history that have basically led to now.
FAILED STATE UPDATE: How does (conspiracy theorist) William Cooper become part of that?
JYS: Bill Clinton and the DLC (the Democratic Leadership Council) were centrist Democrats. And all of a sudden you start having the Democratic Party and the Republican Party pretty much in a consensus about how the economy should work. And Republicans had to choose a way to differentiate themselves. So they start calling Democrats socialists and radicals and traitors, and they all start dog-whistling the New World Order. And all of a sudden Bill Cooper and that whole group, and Alex Jones, end up becoming the narrative-makers of the Republican Party.
FSU: I think that probably has exact ties to what we're talking about now. I mean, you can kind of say that this weird crossing over of conspiracy ideas into the mainstream is the end result of that process.
JYS: The weird thing about it is that conspiracy theories have always gone hand-in-hand with white supremacy, right? So if you actually look at every major influential conspiracy theory, it's always the power group, which is a white supremacist power group, being afraid of their own tactics being used against them.
FSU: You always see the police and the government going after the left, because they're actually a threat to their power. As opposed to people on the right who they might not agree with. A more conservative right-wing person is not going to feel threatened by a right-wing militia, even if they don't agree with it.
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JYS: Because when the right-wing looks at either what you would call leftist uprisings or uprisings by people of color, they see potential for violence, right? And this goes back to the founding of the country. I didn't know any of this until I started researching the book. The actual constitution that we live under, the only reason that it exists was to put down uprisings.
Most of us think in 1776, America just started, right? But the truth was that we were actually living under the Articles of Confederation after the revolution. But then, what ends up happening after the founding of America, before the Constitution, you actually have all these old revolutionary soldiers who start rising up because they're like, the country's unfair, and we're not being treated well. And so they end up having these rebellions, particularly in Massachusetts, but they start spilling over. And all these mercantile people start hiring mercenaries, and militias to take them on. But it's not enough. And it actually becomes this really dangerous situation that terrifies people like George Washington.
When the constitution gets drafted, they're not supposed to make a new constitution. They're supposed to go to Philadelphia to revise the Articles of Confederation. But James Madison gets there before everyone else, and he just starts drawing up a new government. So the entirety of the Constitution is based upon putting down uprisings. And it all has to do with your perspective of what a legitimate revolution is, and what a danger is, right? So the militias, that is a “legitimate revolution.” White people can have their moments of “revolution,” but with black people in particular, the state sees them as not just a danger to the order but to the state overall, which is one of the reasons why we had the Constitution in the first place.
We were sort of given this really flattened-out story of America, which is basically like black and white, good and evil. America has always been good. It's always been on the right side of every battle. We're always doing the right thing. So what actually has happened — and you can trace all of American history through this — is there has always been a battle over what America really is. It's like the Confederacy, which we all misunderstand. We always look at the Confederacy and it's like, oh, well, they started their own nation, right? But it wasn't their own nation. They believed that they were the actual America. They believed that they were the ones who were the ancestors and holders of the legacy of George Washington and Jefferson and all these people.
FSU: The people in militias nowadays believe that they're patriots.
JYS: They really do. They're like the Minutemen of the past, and they're ready to take on threats. The problem is that the America that they believe in, unfortunately, is a simplified America, right? It's an America where all of our problems and sins and vices and paradoxes have been scrubbed clean, right? It's the America that won World War Two, it's the America that put a man on the moon. And so that history, unfortunately, that they think that they are playing a role in, is a right-wing history. And it's been defined by multiple political battles, to lead to this moment where these people literally believe that they have to go to war against their fellow people, which again, is how the Civil War started.
We do a really bad job of understanding why the Civil War happened. And one of the reasons it started is because these people started to believe that they were different from other Americans. They thought they were different and that they were involved in these conspiracies, so they believed they had every right to kill them. And so you have militias where their entire worldview is based upon the idea that certain Americans are traitors, particularly liberal Americans who are either just outright knowingly terrorists or they're being manipulated by a George Soros, right? They truly believe that they are guarding freedom, but they're fighting an invisible paranoid war that doesn't exist. So they're lost in that alternate reality, which, unfortunately, millions of Americans are lost in right now.
FSU: Yeah. And then when you have YouTube algorithms, making money off of promoting that sort of thing, that's when everything goes out the window.
JYS: It does. And if you've spent any time on YouTube looking at this stuff, it doesn't take long for that for that algorithm to snap in. Because it rewards extremist thinking. And it just drives you further and further to the edge until you are digesting a bunch of these narratives. Like, that Americans who vote differently from you are sacrificing children and involved in a Satanic conspiracy. And then the question remains, how do you live in a country with those people? Then that leads to fascism, which means I have to crush them because they will crush me if I don't crush them first.