The Late-20th Century Organization and Interrelation of Right and Far Right Ideology

Saturday, April 1, 2023, 1:30 PM - 3:00 PM

Type: Paper Session

Tags: Politics; Science and Technology


From Birchers to Birthers, the political right in the United States has been woven through with threads of conspiracism that tie the fringes of the mainstream right to its furthest extremes. This panel addresses the resurgent, yet profuse threads of conspiracism that have defined the American right for decades. We have most recently seen this engrained conspiracism folded together with hateful rhetoric, brought to bear in two significant but by no means exhaustive examples. Public health scholars among others have noted the distinct ways in which the ongoing pandemic has been exacerbated by a deeply engrained distrust of government institutions, echoed in the very highest chambers of federal power. This accession of hate and conspiracy into the halls of government itself led to a violent assault on the American electoral process following the 2020 election. Understanding the modern evolution and iterations of these events proves central to combatting the worst of their effects. Locating the origins of movements and groups such as QAnon and the Alt-Right renders these more modern movements, both popular and elite in nature, not as spontaneous and intractable, but as something familiar—if malignant—to the American project of democracy. The same conspiratorial threads that drove a rejection of central planning and mass society in the 1950s and 1960s fed a discarding of regulation and governmental support in the 1970s and 1980s. New technologies such as computers and the internet developed in the 1980s and 1990s in the wake of this often nihilistic disregard for regulatory authority that remains at the core of the modern conservative movement. By the late 1990s it had become clear that violent messages and acts of hate were endemic to digital communications and digital networks. Despite clear warning from activists and watchdog groups, and acknowledgement of the issue by Senators in the United States Senate Judiciary Committee’s 1999 Hearing on Hate Crimes on the Internet, little to nothing was done about the matter. While digital technologies emerged into an unregulated environment, other forms of mass media such as television and radio underwent critical deregulation. More recently, political elites within the Conservative movement have carefully cultivated their ranks. The Conservative Opportunity Society, the Tea Party, and the House Freedom Caucus have all been used to effectively curate membership and representation within the Republican party. These organizations have pulled the GOP ever further right, and made it ever more receptive of far-right messages of conspiracism and violence. This panel thus explores the often-entwined histories of far-right popular and elite political action since the 1950s to more accurately render our present situation not as a moment of circumstance, but as something directed, with relation to governmental authority.

Papers Presented

The Ideological Origins of Deep State Conspiracy Theories

The spread of conspiracy theories with probable electoral effects is leading policymakers and scholars to reconsider many of our normative agreements surrounding democracy, censorship and speech rights. In their efforts to regulate misinformation, political scientists apprehend conspiracy theory as a transhistorical ideal type, either a category of error related to cognitive bias and bad information, or as a content-neutral rhetorical style transferable across ideological divides. Centering the development of conspiracy theories of the "deep state" in the postwar United States, this paper takes a contrasting genealogical approach. Drawing from critical readings of postwar conspiracy theorist texts connecting social scientific concerns over general systems theory, managerialism and the possibility of long-term social planning with parallel approaches by conspiracy theorists. These critical approaches originated in the post-WWII, post-socialist American right's attempt to grapple with "totalitarian" threats, the political-economic complications presented by industrial warfare and increasing anxiety around the idea that social and economic planning had become necessary in modern society. In response, conspiracy theorists embraced a radical libertarian politics which rejected ideological explanations in favor of a systematic, institutional understanding of politics. Attempting to rehabilitate conspiracy theories for the era of mass public opinion, conspiracy theorists on the American right jettisoned the aristocratic, aesthetic epistemology in which knowledge of the conspiracy was only possible for a natural elite. Taking up a democratic and populist epistemological perspective, the wave of postwar conspiracy theorists laid the ideological groundwork for contemporary theories like the ones posed by QAnon.

Presented By
Winston Berg, University of Chicago

Failure to Connect: The Federal Acknowledgement and Subsequent Failure to Address the Digital Origins of the Alt-Right

The Alt-Right has occupied the attention of commentators and scholars alike since their coalescence in the early years of the Obama presidency. The Alt-Right is variably credited with the 2016 election of Donald Trump, Gamergate, and the deadly Unite the Right Rally in Charlottesville, among many others. The ecosystem of far-right ideology on the internet stretches back decades, however. Hate groups have relied on digital communications since 1984, almost since the establishment of private networks themselves. The Alt-Right and other digital far right groups are often treated as simply a byproduct and ugly perversion of early utopian views about the free exchange of information. The tacit acceptance of digital far right hate as an inevitable social and political force rests with Federal oversite, or rather, an informed, conscious lack thereof. While the Telecommunications Act of 1996 hamstrung any significant legal action towards digital content moderation, the 1999 Senate Judiciary Committee Hearing on Hate Crimes on the Internet reinforced the understanding that digital content moderation rested in the hands of the individuals operating their own websites. In the context of violent far right events motivated by hateful political action and organized in a digital context, such as Unite the Right and the January 6th Insurrection, this history renders the tacit allowance of digital hate materials as not simply an unpleasant but inevitable byproduct of digital communications, but as a product of Federal policy.

Presented By
Ian Glazman-Schillinger, Syracuse University

Digital Martyrs and Mothers: Far-Right Memorials and Gender in Modern Antigovernment Ideologies since the 1990s

On January 6, 2021, Capitol police officer Michael Byrd shot Ashlii Babbitt, an insurrectionist trying to breach the Speaker’s Lobby next to the U.S. House chamber. Months later, former president Donald Trump began commemorating Babbitt as a martyr, a status she already held on the internet’s darkest corners. The day Babbitt died, she joined the list of dead white women that white supremacists have claimed as righteous victims of the state. This paper analyzes the legacies of two of her predecessors: Kathy Ainsworth and Vicki Weaver—white supremacist women killed in conflicts with U.S. law enforcement in 1968 and 1992, respectively. It argues that discourses about endangered white mothers have powerfully animated far-right antigovernment ideologies. As white power organizations radicalized during the 1980s, they developed memorial practices to celebrate those who fell fighting the government. After Weaver died in 1992, white power groups depicted her and Ainsworth as distinct archetypes of white motherhood under attack. Propagandists constructed Weaver as an innocent mother slain by law enforcement, and Ainsworth—who died in a police shootout—increasingly symbolized militant mother killed while fighting back. As white supremacists moved their memorials online, propagandists consistently portrayed both women as martyred mothers and condemned the U.S. government and its supposed handlers as existential threats to white mothers, their children, and all white Americans by extension. The persistent trope of the persecuted white mother suggests far-right anxieties about white motherhood were, and remain, animating forces within modern antigovernment ideologies that Ainsworth, Weaver, and Babbitt now embody.

Presented By
William Robert Billups, Emory University

Session Participants

Chair: Jason Morgan Ward, Emory University

Presenter: Winston Berg, University of Chicago
I am a PhD candidate in the Political Science department at the University of Chicago. My historical research focuses on the development of conspiracy theory in American political thought. Taking an ethnographic approach, I examine the emergence and operation of conspiracy theorist knowledge production institutions, particularly those that emerged from the milieu of the contemporary online right.

Presenter: William Robert Billups, Emory University
Robert Billups researches violence against the US civil rights movement during the mid-twentieth century. Between the mid–1950s and early 1970s, American white supremacists carried out numerous attacks—including hundreds of bombings and arsons—against civil rights activists, allies, and institutions. Though concentrated in southeastern states, anti–civil rights terrorism was a national phenomenon that Robert analyzes through digital maps, charts, and graphs that visualize major patterns of arsons and bombings. He also assesses the political ramifications of racial violence by evaluating when and how law enforcement and Congress reacted to such attacks. His dissertation and related articles employ case studies to analyze how individuals, businesses, and communities experienced anti–civil rights terrorism, resisted it, remembered it, and rebuilt in its wake.
Robert has written book reviews for three scholarly venues and peer-reviewed articles that are forthcoming in the Journal of American History and the Journal of Southern History. He is grateful to the American Jewish Archives, Baylor University’s Texas Collection and Wardlaw Fellowship Fund, Duke University’s John Hope Franklin Research Center for African and African American History and Culture, Emory University’s Bill & Carol Fox Center for Humanistic Inquiry and Center for Digital Scholarship, the Gerald R. Ford Presidential Foundation, the LBJ Foundation, the Southern Baptist Historical Library & Archives, and the University of Alabama’s Frances J. Summersell Center for the Study of the South for supporting his research.

Presenter: Ian Glazman-Schillinger, Syracuse University
I am a current History PhD candidate at Syracuse University, and received an MSc in Contemporary History from the University of Edinburgh in 2018. My research focuses on early digital hate materials, examining how hate groups utilized early digital networks in the 1980s to effectively obfuscate their communication, collaboration, and dissemination of information. My research further includes the Federal response, or lack thereof, to burgeoning digital hate materials in the 1990s and how these unattended threads have woven their way into our present social and political fabric.

My previous research projects have spanned a wide variety of topics from recording oral histories of the Holocaust to mapping the effects of digital collaboration amongst historians.

Commentator: Stephanie Rolph, Millsaps College
Stephanie R. Rolph is Associate Professor in the History Department at Millsaps College in Jackson, Mississippi, where she also serves as Director of Experiential Learning and Strategic Initiatives. As a scholar of white supremacy, Rolph's work looks at the intersections of race and conservative politics during and after the civil rights movement. Her book, Resisting Equality: The Citizens' Council, 1954-1989, was published in 2018 and won the McLemore Prize for the best scholarly book in Mississippi history in 2019 from the Mississippi Historical Society. Her work has appeared in the Journal of Women's History and the Journal of Southern History.