The Biden Administration is seeking to radically narrow the boundaries of respectable American political thought. The administration has repeatedly issued statements and reports that could automatically castigate citizens who distrust the federal government. We may eventually learn that the new Biden guidelines spurred a vast increase in federal surveillance and other abuses against Americans who were guilty of nothing more than vigorous skepticism.
Biden is Nixon on steroids
The Biden team is expanding the federal Enemies List perhaps faster than any time since the Nixon Administration. In June, the Biden Administration asserted that guys who are unable to score with women may be terrorist threats due to “involuntary celibate–violent extremism.” That revelation was included in the administration’s National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism, which identified legions of new potential “domestic terrorists” that the feds can castigate and investigate.
The White House claims its new war on terrorism and extremism is “carefully tailored to address violence and reduce the factors that…infringe on the free expression of ideas.” But the prerogative to define extremism includes the power to revile disapproved beliefs. The report warns that “narratives of fraud in the recent general election…will almost certainly spur some [domestic violent extremists] to try to engage in violence this year .” If accusations of 2020 electoral shenanigans are formally labeled as extremist threats, that could result in far more repression (aided by Facebook and Twitter) of dissenting voices. How will this work out any better than the concerted campaign by the media and Big Tech in fall 2020 to suppress all information about Hunter Biden’s laptop before the election? And how can Biden be trusted to be the judge after he effectively accused Facebook of mass murder for refusing to totally censor anyone who raised doubts about the COVID-19 vaccine?
The Biden Administration is revving up for a war against an enemy which the feds have chosen to never explicitly define. According to a March report by Biden’s Office of the Director of National Intelligence, “domestic violent extremists” include individuals who “take overt steps to violently resist or facilitate the overthrow of the U.S. government in support of their belief that the U.S. government is purposely exceeding its Constitutional authority.” But that was the same belief that many Biden voters had regarding the Trump Administration. Does the definition of extremism depend solely on which party captured the White House?
The Biden report writers were spooked by the existence of militia groups and flirt with the fantasy of outlawing them across the land. The report promises to explore “how to make better use of laws that already exist in all fifty states prohibiting certain private ‘militia’ activity, including…state statutes prohibiting groups of people from organizing as private military units without the authorization of the state government, and state statutes that criminalize certain paramilitary activity.” Most of the private militia groups are guilty of nothing more than bluster and braggadocio. Besides, many of them are already overstocked with government informants who are counting on Uncle Sam for regular paychecks. Some politicians and pundits might like to see a new federal crime that labels any meeting of more than two gun owners as an illegal conspiracy.
The Biden report promises that the FBI and DHS will soon be releasing “a new edition of the Federal Government’s Mobilization Indicators booklet that will include for the first time potential indicators of domestic terrorism–related mobilization.” Will this latest publication be as boneheaded as the similar 2014 report by the National Counterterrorism Center entitled “Countering Violent Extremism: A Guide for Practitioners and Analysts”?
The new Red Guard
As the Intercept summarized, that report “suggests that police, social workers, and educators rate individuals on a scale of one to five in categories such as ‘Expressions of Hopelessness, Futility,’…and ‘Connection to Group Identity (Race, Nationality, Religion, Ethnicity)’…to alert government officials to individuals at risk of turning to radical violence, and to families or communities at risk of incubating extremist ideologies.” The report recommended judging families by their level of “Parent-Child Bonding” and rating localities on the basis in part of the “presence of ideologues or recruiters.” Former FBI agent Mike German commented, “the idea that the federal government would encourage local police, teachers, medical, and social-service employees to rate the communities, individuals, and families they serve for their potential to become terrorists is abhorrent on its face.”
Biden’s “National Strategy for Countering Domestic Terrorism” report also suggested that “enhancing faith in American democracy” requires “finding ways to counter the influence and impact of dangerous conspiracy theories.” In recent decades, conspiracy theories have multiplied almost as fast as government lies and cover-ups. While many allegations have been ludicrously far-fetched, the political establishment and media routinely attach the “conspiracy theory” label to any challenge to their dominance.
According to Cass Sunstein, Harvard Law professor and Oba- ma’s regulatory czar, a conspiracy theory is “an effort to explain some event or practice by reference to the machinations of powerful people, who have also managed to conceal their role.” Reasonable citizens are supposed to presume that government creates trillions of pages of new secrets each year for their own good, not to hide anything from the public.
“Conspiracy theory” is a magic phrase that expunges all previous federal abuses. Many liberals who invoke the phrase also ritually quote a 1965 book by former communist Richard Hofstadter, "The Paranoid Style in American Politics." Hofstadter portrayed distrust of government as a proxy for mental illness, a paradigm that makes the character of critics more important than the conduct of government agencies. For Hofstadter, it was a self-evident truth that government was trustworthy because American politics had “a kind of professional code…embodying the practical wisdom of generations of politicians.”
The rise of conspiracy theories
In the early 1960s, conspiracy theories were practically a non-issue because 75 percent of Americans trusted the federal government. Such credulity did not survive the assassination of John F. Kennedy. Seven days after Kennedy was shot on Nov. 22, 1963, President Lyndon Johnson created a commission (later known as the Warren Commission) to suppress controversy about the killing.
Johnson browbeat the commission members into speedily issuing a report rubber-stamping the “crazed lone gunman” version of the assassination. House Minority Leader Gerald Ford, a member of the commission, revised the final staff report to change the location of where the bullet entered Kennedy’s body, thereby salvaging the so-called “magic bullet” theory.
After the Warren Commission findings were ridiculed as a whitewash, Johnson ordered the FBI to conduct wiretaps on the report’s critics. To protect the official story, the commission sealed key records for 75 years. Truth would out only after all the people involved in any coverup had gotten their pensions and died.
The controversy surrounding the Warren Commission spurred the CIA to formally attack the notion of conspiracy theories. In a 1967 alert to its overseas stations and bases, the CIA declared that the fact that almost half of Americans did not believe Oswald acted alone “is a matter of concern to the U.S. government, including our organization” and endangers “the whole reputation of the American government.”
The memo instructed recipients to “employ propaganda assets” and exploit “friendly elite contacts (especially politicians and editors), pointing out…parts of the conspiracy talk appear to be deliberately generated by Communist propagandists.” The ultimate proof of the government’s innocence: “Conspiracy on the large scale often suggested would be impossible to conceal in the United States.”
The New York Times, which exposed the CIA memo in 1977, noted that the CIA “mustered its propaganda machinery to support an issue of far more concern to Americans, and to the C.I.A. itself, than to citizens of other countries.” According to historian Lance deHaven-Smith, author of Conspiracy Theory in America, “The CIA’s campaign to popularize the term ‘conspiracy theory’ and make conspiracy belief a target of ridicule and hostility must be credited…with being one of the most successful propaganda initiatives of all time.” In 2014, the CIA released a heavily-redacted report admitting that it had been “complicit” in a JFK “cover-up” by withholding “incendiary” information from the Warren Commission. The CIA successfully concealed a wide range of assassinations and foreign coups it conducted until congressional investigations in the mid-1970s blew the whistle.
“Conspiracy theory” allegations sometimes merely expose the naivete of official scorekeepers. In April 2016, Chapman University surveyed Americans and announced that “the most prevalent conspiracy theory in the United States is that the government is concealing information about the 9/11 attacks with slightly over half of Americans holding that belief.”
That survey did not ask whether people believed the World Trade Centers were blown up by an inside job or whether President George W. Bush secretly masterminded the attacks. Instead, folks were simply asked whether “government is concealing information” about the attacks. Only a village idiot, college professor, or editorial writer would presume the government had come clean.
Three months after the Chapman University survey was conducted, the Obama Administration finally released 28 pages of a 2003 congressional report that revealed that Saudi government officials had directly financed some of the 9/11 hijackers in America. That disclosure shattered the storyline carefully constructed by the Bush Administration, the 9/11 Commission, and legions of media accomplices. (Lawsuits continue in federal court seeking to force the U.S. government to disclose more information regarding the Saudi government role in the attacks.)
Conspiracy theories a tool for control
“Conspiracy theory” is often a flag of convenience for the political-media elite. In 2018, the New York Times asserted that Trump’s use of the term “Deep State” and similar rhetoric “fanned fears that he is eroding public trust in institutions, undermining the idea of objective truth and sowing widespread suspicions about the government and news media.” However, after allegations by anonymous government officials spurred Trump’s first impeachment in 2019, New York Times columnist James Stewart cheered, “there is a Deep State, there is a bureaucracy in our country who has pledged to respect the Constitution, respect the rule of law….They work for the American people.” New York Times editorial writer Michelle Cottle proclaimed, “the deep state is alive and well” and hailed it as “a collection of patriotic public servants.” Almost immediately after its existence was no longer denied, the Deep State became the incarnation of virtue in Washington. After Biden was elected, references to the “Deep State” were once again labeled paranoid ravings.
Much of the establishment rage at “conspiracy theories” has been driven by the notion that rulers are entitled to intellectual passive obedience. The same lèse-majesté mindset has been widely adopted to make a muddle of American history. Arthur Schlesinger, Jr., the court historian for President John F. Kennedy and a revered liberal intellectual, declared in 2004, “historians today conclude that the colonists were driven to revolt in 1776 because of a false conviction that they faced a British conspiracy to destroy their freedom.” What the hell is wrong with “historians today”?! Was the British imposition of martial law, confiscation of firearms, military blockades, suspension of habeas corpus, and censorship simply a deranged fantasy of Thomas Jefferson? The notion that the British would never conspire to destroy freedom would play poorly in Dublin, where the Irish suffered centuries of brutal British oppression. Why should anyone trust academics who were blind to British threats in the 1770s to accurately judge the danger that today’s politicians pose to Americans’ liberty?
How does the Biden Administration intend to fight “conspiracy theories?” The Biden terrorism report called for “enhancing faith in government” by “accelerating work to contend with an information environment that challenges healthy democratic discourse.” Will Biden’s team rely on the “solution” suggested by Cass Sunstein: “cognitive infiltration of extremist groups” by government agents and informants to “undermine” them from within?
Does the Biden Administration also propose banning Americans from learning anything from the history of prior federal debacles? Nixon White House aide Tom Charles Huston explained that the FBI’s COINTELPRO program continually stretched its target list “from the kid with a bomb to the kid with a picket sign, and from the kid with the picket sign to the kid with the bumper sticker of the opposing candidate. And you just keep going down the line.” A 1976 Senate report on COINTELPRO demanded assurances that a federal agency would never again “be permitted to conduct a secret war against those citizens it considers threats, to the established order.” Actually, the FBI and other agencies have continued secretly warring against “threats,” and legions of informants are likely busy “cognitively infiltrating” at this moment.
Permitting politicians to blacklist any ideas they disapprove won’t “restore faith in democracy.” Extremism has always been a flag of political convenience, and the Biden team, the FBI, and their media allies will fan fears to sanctify new government crackdowns. But what if government is the most dangerous extremist of them all?
James Bovard has authored ten books, including "Attention Deficit Democracy," "Public Policy Hooligan," "The Bush Betrayal," and "Lost Rights: The Destruction of American Liberty." He has written for The Wall Street Journal, The New York Times, Playboy, The New Republic, The Washington Post, Reader’s Digest, and numerous other publications. He sits on the USA Today Board of Contributors, is a frequent contributor to The Hill, and also serves as a contributing editor for American Conservative.
Editor's Note: This piece originally appeared on the Future of Freedom Foundation.