One hallmark of Donald Trump’s presidency is his propensity to circulate conspiracy theories. But while Trump has raised conspiracy mongering to an art form, it is important to note that this practice became a feature of the American presidency in the early days of the republic. While George Washington was especially cognizant of the importance of presidential silence, of measuring one’s words, of not poisoning the public square, many of Washington’s successors abandoned this standard.
Traitors to the Spirit of 1776
President Washington possessed a healthy fear of popular passions and the demagogues who preyed on those passions. Washington viewed the President as a unifying head of state, and acted with dignity during his tenure in office, refraining from stoking partisan divisions or giving credence to the public’s passion for conspiracy theories. All of this began to unravel with the coming of Thomas Jefferson’s “Revolution of 1800.”
Jefferson captured the presidency due to public antipathy toward the Alien and Sedition Acts, a legislative atrocity enacted into law by Federalists convinced that their fellow Americans were bewitched by France and had betrayed the nation. The Alien and Sedition Acts reaffirmed the belief of all good Jeffersonians that they were fighting against a vast conspiracy designed to subvert the Spirit of 1776.
But Jefferson’s success in the election of 1800 was also the result of a near decades long demagogic campaign directed against Federalists whom he portrayed as “monarchists” or later, as “plutocrats.” Through intermediaries such as Philip Freneau and James Callender, both of whom were at times on Jefferson’s payroll, the message was clear: the Federalist party was an organized conspiracy of Anglophiles intent on establishing an aristocracy of wealth and privilege, to “the exclusion of the influence of the people.” The Federalists were, in a word, un-American.
In the minds of most Jeffersonians, Washington’s right-hand man, Alexander Hamilton, was a British agent, a cunning immigrant who repeatedly manipulated an aging, somewhat obtuse President. Jefferson believed that Hamilton was “not only a monarchist” but an advocate “for a monarchy bottomed on corruption.” Jefferson suggested that Hamilton was something of a closet Caesar, and reported his concerns to President Washington, claiming that the Treasury Secretary was at the head of a conspiracy designed to “prepare the way for a change of the present republican form of government to that of a monarchy.” Washington found these allegations, rightly so, to be completely without merit.
By the end of Washington’s presidency, Jefferson concluded that the President was a co-conspirator, having had his head “shorn by the harlot England.” The Jay Treaty, negotiated at Washington’s behest, was an act of treason, “an alliance between England & the Anglomen of this country against the legislature & people of the United States.” Andrew Jackson of Tennessee agreed with this assessment, calling for Washington’s impeachment for his sponsorship of this “child of aristocratic secrecy.” When the impeachment effort failed, Congressman Jackson settled for voting against a tribute resolution in 1797 for the outgoing President.
Accusing a public figure of being a “monarchist” in the early American republic was comparable to being accused of being a communist in the 1950s. As Federalist leader Fisher Ames observed, the accusation of “monarchist” was “a substitute for argument, and its overmatch.” The Federalists rapidly declined in influence, running their last serious candidate for President in 1816. While many of their wounds were self-inflicted, the elimination of the Federalists was hastened by on of the most successful conspiracy mongering campaigns in the nation’s history.
Jefferson’s penchant for conspiracy mongering could be seen in his call for treason trials and capital punishment for any Virginia banker who cooperated with the Bank of the United States and in his plea for summary executions of opponents of the American involvement in the War of 1812. In 1816 Jefferson encouraged a citizen intent on revising the Constitution of the Commonwealth of Virginia not to retreat in the face of “the croakings of wealth against the ascendency of the people.” Appeals to class resentments were as much a part of the Sage of Monticello’s repertoire as were appeals to natural rights.
After securing the presidency and implementing his “Revolution of 1800,” Jefferson pushed the office in the direction of serving as the voice of the people. In Jefferson’s view, presidential legitimacy was rooted in popular consent, not in the Constitution. This transformation both democratized the presidency and had the added benefit of sinking the Federalists into an “abyss” from which they never returned. While certain aspects of Jefferson’s “revolution” had their merits, this re-founding contributed to the rise of the President as a facilitator of conspiratorial fantasies. The more the presidency of popular consent bonded with the public, the greater the tendency of Presidents to invoke conspiracies to arouse their “base.” It was a winning strategy, for rational argument was no match for allegations of traitorous conspiracies or appeals to class or racial resentment. Rational argument requires citizens to exercise the faculty of reason, while appeals to base passions are designed to banish reason from the public square.
Jefferson’s revolution paved the way for the Jacksonian populism that promoted a narrative of American history as a perpetual saga of conflict between corrupt elites and virtuous common folk. While Jefferson opened the door to the populist presidency, it was Andrew Jackson who drove the “Revolution of 1800” to its logical conclusion, the transformation of the office into the “tribune” of the people. Jackson’s presidency was fueled by class conflict rooted in the idea that somewhere, somehow, a secretive cabal was plotting against the common man. For matters high and low, conspiracy theories were the first and frequently the last resort of Andrew Jackson’s interpretation of events. One example of this can be found in President Jackson’s response to a bizarre rumor that circulated in 1834 where an alleged army of 5,000 discontented Americans were mobilizing in Baltimore and planning to “destroy” him. Jackson threatened to execute all 5,000 members of this phantom insurgency by hanging them “as high as Haman.”
As with many populist political figures, Jackson found that conspiracy theories served as a way of making sense of a complex world he had difficulty comprehending. Additionally, Jackson took all policy disputes personally, as in his famous “Bank War” with the bank’s president, Nicholas Biddle, when he told Martin Van Buren that the bank “is trying to kill me . . . but I will kill it.” Since this was a personal struggle for survival, the Bank War brought all of Jackson’s conspiratorial fantasies to the fore. The President considered the Bank to be a “monster” that sought to make “the rich richer and the potent more powerful.” In the early stages of his conflict with the bank, Jackson mentioned to James K. Polk that the “the hydra of corruption is only scotched not dead.”
Some of Andrew Jackson’s fears regarding the Bank of the United States were legitimate. The bank and its director, Nicholas Biddle, were cozy with members of congress, providing loans and hiring some members as lawyers. As with all human institutions, the bank was tarnished on occasion by corruption. The Bank of the United States had its flaws, and certainly by twenty-first century standards operated in an ethically questionable manner. But there were also powerful arguments to be made in favor of the bank. The bank had been re-chartered after the United States defaulted during the War of 1812 and had nearly lost that war by trying to win it without financing it.
Nevertheless, hatred of banks ran deep in the marrow of the Jefferson-Jackson coalition. Andrew Jackson was not known for subtlety, and unfortunately the notion of reforming the bank was never given serious consideration. In the minds of Jackson and his adherents, the bank was a threat to American liberty and must be destroyed. Reasoned arguments in favor of a national bank were ineffective in the face of accusations of corruption, invoking the specter of “hydras and monsters,” and passionate appeals based on class resentments. Jackson’s second Vice President, Martin Van Buren, eagerly endorsed the use of conspiracy mongering during the Bank War. He encouraged the President to play this card in his public messages, arguing that “this is in truth a question between Aristocracy and Democracy” and “cannot be too often or too forcibly impressed upon the minds of the people.”
Jackson assumed his opponents were constantly plotting against him, to the point where some wanted him dead. He believed the assassination attempt on his life in 1835 was the result of a conspiracy hatched by a sitting United States Senator, George Poindexter of Mississippi. At other times, the Jacksonian press fantasized that Jackson’s former Vice President, John C. Calhoun, inspired the assassin.
The Voice of Reason, the Voice of Demagoguery
This paranoia and conspiratorial fantasizing appalled Abraham Lincoln, a man of reason and a champion of the rule of law. Lincoln’s first extended speech in the Illinois House of Representatives in 1837 reveals the depth of the man’s aversion to Jacksonian conspiracy mongering. He opposed the demands of a Democratic party lawmaker, keeping with the tenor of the times, who called for an investigation of the Illinois State Bank. Such an investigation, Lincoln argued, would foster “that lawless and mobocratic spirit . . . which is already abroad in the land.” Lincoln feared the destructive effects of the politics of passion, a politics anchored in conspiracy theories focused on banks, immigrants, free-blacks, abolitionists, “Wall Street,” and various ill-defined “elites.”
Lincoln’s fear of conspiracy theories stemmed from his devotion to reason and his aversion to unbridled passions. The latter, he concluded, will in the future “be our enemy.” It was “reason – cold, calculating, unimpassioned reason – [that] must furnish all the materials for our future support and defense.” The “temple of liberty” could not be protected by emotion or custom, but only by “the solid quarry of sober reason.” One of Lincoln’s greatest biographers remarked that the President was earnestly committed to “impos[ing] rationality on public life.” In his famous debates with Senator Stephen A. Douglas, one observer contrasted the latter’s appeal to “popular prejudice and bigotry” with Lincoln’s penchant for going “straight to the reason of the question.”
William Lee Miller noted that Abraham Lincoln “did not mark down the names of those who had not supported him, or nurse grudges, or hold resentments, or retaliate against ‘enemies’ –indeed, he tried not to have enemies, not to ‘plant thorns.'” Lincoln’s magnanimity was boundless; when his nemesis Roger Taney died in 1864, the President attended his funeral.
In contrast, Lincoln’s successor Andrew Johnson seemed to be energized by his enemies. In the tradition of his hero Andrew Jackson, a fellow Tennessean, Johnson was motivated by resentment, embraced conspiracy theories, lacked any sense of magnanimity, and practiced the politics of divisiveness. Johnson’s speeches were punctuated with attacks on America’s “aristocrats,” particularly its banks and bankers, and often accompanied by a firm defense of slavery. Despite the absence of noticeable talents, exploiting public resentments was enough to launch Johnson on a successful political career and were adequate for the presidency of popular consent. His service as a congressman, governor, senator, vice president, and president showcased the power of class and racial antagonism as a stepping-stone to high office in mid-nineteenth century America.
In keeping with the penchant of populist presidents to embrace conspiracy theories, Johnson accused his opponents of planning his murder and compared his situation to that of Jesus Christ. This martyr to the cause of, himself, note that “if my blood is shed, let it be shed….But let the opponents of the government remember that when it is poured out ‘the blood of the martyrs shall be the seed of the Church.'” Abandoning Lincoln’s practice of “rhetorical silence,” Johnson, in a manner that would become conventional practice in the 20th century, traveled the nation berating his opponents and exploiting partisan and sectional resentments.
Johnson’s radical Republican opponents were publicly described by the President as equivalent to Jefferson Davis and other high-ranking Confederates: they were all traitors. At one stop, when a heckler called for the hanging of former Confederate President Jefferson Davis, Johnson retorted, “Why not hang Thad Stevens [a Pennsylvania congressman calling for Johnson’s impeachment] and Wendell Phillips [an abolitionist]?” In one of Johnson’s public addresses, without the slightest sense of irony, the President noted that he “did not care about his dignity.” The dignified presidency envisioned by George Washington and Alexander Hamilton had been destroyed less than a century after it was launched, razed with a certain amount of glee by one of Washington’s unfit successors.
A Bipartisan Embrace of Conspiracism
In the twentieth century populist presidents continued the practice of playing on the fears of secretive elite entities, particularly “big business,” or the “invisible empire” as Woodrow Wilson called it. Wilson, Franklin Roosevelt, and Harry Truman all condemned the “plutocrats,” and “the money changers of the Temple” who conspired against the public good. In 1944, Franklin Roosevelt claimed that a Republican victory that year would represent the triumph of fascism in the United States at the very moment fascism was being defeated abroad.
Franklin Roosevelt’s “money changers” were merged with the “deep state” in the minds of many Americans after the murder of President Kennedy in 1963. It was widely accepted that Kennedy was the victim of a conspiracy involving reactionary oil men, mixed with a dollop of organized crime, aided by elements of the “Deep State.” This American “Deep State,” which is accepted as an article of faith by President Donald Trump, was seen as a composite of the CIA, the FBI, and the National Security Agency, with other government entities added into the mix depending on the partialities of the conspiracy theorist.
One of Kennedy’s progressive successors, President Bill Clinton, arguably saved his presidency by claiming he was the victim of a conspiracy. While there was an effort to delegitimize Clinton’s presidency by the so-called “Arkansas Project,” the President “gave them a sword,” to borrow from Richard Nixon, on which he impaled himself. Clinton and his allies raised the specter of Joe McCarthy, claiming that the President was a victim of “sexual McCarthyism.” The First Lady was enlisted in this effort, declaring that her husband was the target of a “vast right-wing conspiracy.”
Large segments of the American public accepted this argument and would go on to embrace a bizarre conspiracy theory regarding the terrorist attacks of September 11, 2001. A survey taken in July 2006 found that thirty-six percent of Americans believed that the United States government assisted in the 9/11 attacks, or deliberately chose not to prevent the attacks. This was followed by a May 2007 survey which found that thirty-five percent of the nation’s Democrats believed that George W. Bush knew in advance of the 9/11 attacks.
The Apotheosis of the Conspiracist Presidency
Conspiracy theories have always been with us, but in the twenty-first century the internet permitted conspiracy mongers to peddle their views in a sophisticated manner and disseminate them widely. Endorsing the views of anonymous internet trolls while disparaging the views of “elitist” experts proved to be one of Donald Trump’s most effective electioneering tools. In keeping with Andrew Jackson (who Trump occasionally celebrated) and Andrew Johnson, Trump promoted conspiracies theories involving murder. He suggested in 2016 that Ted Cruz’s father had assassinated President Kennedy and implied that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was suffocated in his sleep. He also suggested that a former member of Congress turned television host murdered an intern who worked in the Congressman’s office.
Trump was also something of a spokesman for the “birther” movement that claimed that his predecessor, Barack Obama, was born in Kenya, and he also argued that two of his 2016 primary opponents, Ted Cruz and Marco Rubio, were ineligible to run for president due to similar citizenship issues. Additionally, according to Trump, Senator Cruz’s triumph in the 2016 Iowa Republican Caucuses was the result of theft and fraud, anticipating allegations he would level after his loss to Joe Biden in 2020. Channeling Howard Zinn, Trump raised the specter of a “criminal deep state” comprised of the nation’s intelligence and law enforcement entities that covertly manipulated the American government. Candidate Trump seemed to endorse the so-called 9/11 truther movement when he proclaimed that if he were elected “you will find out who really knocked down the World Trade Center. Because they have papers in there that are very secret . . . But you will find out.”
To borrow from Daniel Patrick Moynihan, President Trump repeatedly “defined[d] deviancy down” regarding standards of presidential conduct. Trump is the antithesis of the presidency envisioned by Washington, Hamilton, Madison, and Lincoln – a demagogue who practiced “the little arts of popularity,” a man lacking the attributes of a magnanimous soul, a president incapable of distinguishing between himself and the office he temporarily holds, and a purveyor of conspiracy theories.
One of Trump’s predecessors observed that “the words of a president have an enormous weight and ought not to be used indiscriminately. It would be exceedingly easy to set the country all by the ears and foment hatred and jealousies.” This would, Calvin Coolidge added, “help nobody and harm everybody.” The frequently derided “Silent” Cal understood that presidents make a difference, that their conduct affects the entire body politic. Presidents can choose to unite or divide, to appeal to what binds us or capitalize on our resentments. Presidents can promote intelligent discourse or circulate bizarre conspiracy theories, and while the latter have always been with us, presidents have it within their power to amplify them or repress them. The choice is theirs, but in the end the American public must also choose to reject the siren call of demagogic conspiracy mongers.
Stephen Knott is the author of several books on American political history, including The Lost Soul of the Presidency, Alexander Hamilton and the Persistence of Myth, and Rush to Judgment: George W. Bush, The War on Terror, and his Critics.