The History of Conspiracy Theories – Long-form Informational Writing Sample

Lela Smith

The following is a 3,000 word exerpt of a book on the history of conspiracy theories I wrote for a private client of mine. With the client’s permission, I’ve chosen to include this sample in my portfolio to display my skills in research based and informational writing.

Introduction

On October 21st, 2021, Netflix premiered its newest adult animated comedy, Inside Job. The series, set within the fictional headquarters of the rumored ‘Deep State,’ was merely the latest in a decades-long trend of pop culture’s fascination with conspiracy theories. From X-Files to Men in Black, the American populous’ interest in conspiracist beliefs has exploded since the 1990s. But some claim Inside Job, a show that treats the mere existence of these theories as a joke in and of itself, is a sign that this trend has gone too far.

Inside Job presents a world in which ridiculous conspiracy beliefs, such as the moon landing being faked and the Illuminati running the world’s government, are 100% true. Despite the show’s eventual success, its release was met with backlash on social media. Many viewers criticized Netflix for giving a platform to theories with such harmful, often antisemitic, origins.

In her review of the series, reporter Mira Fox of the Jewish news outlet Forward wrote that despite “plenty of missteps,” the show never suggests the anti-Jewish beliefs it pokes fun at to be taken seriously. On the contrary, Fox claimed the real problem of the show “might be that it portrays conspiracy theories as silly” (Fox, 2021). It’s easy to laugh at far-fetched tales of the Illuminati when they’re presented in the fictional setting of Inside Job. When we investigate how theories of the Illuminati spread, however, we begin to see the far-reaching impact they’ve had on the real world.

For centuries, conspiracists have invented connections between the Illuminati and various religious and ethnic groups. Though they often pointed fingers at Catholics and Pagans, early Illuminati literature’s favorite target was the Jewish community. In 1924, conspiracy theorist Nesta Webster went so far as to claim the Jewish Illuminati’s ultimate goal was to destroy the entirety of Christian civilization (Barkun, 2003). While Webster was by no means the first conspiracist to link Judaism and the Illuminati, she is often credited with, as Michael Barkun described it, the “Illuminati explosion” that occurred in 20th-century America (Barkun, 2003). The work of Nesta Webster and others like her went on to serve as the foundation for not only Illuminati beliefs, but for conspiracy theories as a whole.

When we consider how conspiracists like Webster have been able to spread antisemitic beliefs and harmful ideals through conspiracy theories, it becomes clear why so many viewers took issue with Inside Job. Even though it’s been nearly a hundred years since Webster’s ideals were first popularized, there are millions of extremists that warn of her version of the Illuminati. Yet in Inside Job, Netflix reduces the Illuminati to one of many conspiracy-based punchlines. If the audience has only a passing knowledge of conspiracy culture, they likely wouldn’t give the joke a second thought. If the viewer is familiar with Webster and her role in popularizing the Illuminati, however, they may find themselves feeling conflicted. As they watch the ideals that have been used to demonize the Jewish community for countless years mocked and trivialized, the viewer may ask themselves: If we laugh at these ideas, does it diminish their ability to cause harm? Or, considering their origins, is it unethical to joke about them in the first place?

At the end of the day, the only person who can answer these questions is the viewer themselves. Whether you decide the inclusion of conspiracy theories in modern media is harmless or utterly irresponsible, the first step is to seek out their origins. Only when we view a conspiracy theory with its history in mind can we begin to form an educated opinion on what its future should be.

Chapter 1: Pulling the Strings: The Illuminati and the New World Order

On September 11th, 1990, President George H. W. Bush addressed the country’s planned approach to the ongoing crisis in the Persian Gulf. The approach Bush laid out consisted of four main objectives, most of them relating to freeing Kuwait of Iraq’s influence. The president did, however, announce a fifth and final objective, to establish “a new world order” (Bush, 1990).

In the context of the speech, the president was clearly referring to his hope to build cooperation between the United States and other nations. Conspiracists, however, saw things differently. Though Bush was nowhere near the first to speak of a “new world order,” his speech has caused the phrase to skyrocket in use in modern conspiracy literature.

What Is the “New World Order”?

If you asked an average person to name a conspiracy theory, chances are some version of a “New World Order” theory will be the first thing that comes to their mind. Conspiracists often believe all the world’s events have been manufactured by an evil, all-powerful group pulling the world’s strings. What is the end goal, you may ask, of all this meddling? Why to establish the “New World Order,” of course!

Conspiracy writers offer a wide range of what this New World Order will actually look like. Some point to the New World Order as a collapse of Christianity and ‘traditional’ values. Others see the New World Order as a future where the government has total control over its people. The latter belief was the main cause President Bush’s speech caused such uproar in the conspiracist community.

Due to the nature of New World Order theories, its believers are quick to draw connections between it and other conspiracies. UFO sightings, rumors surrounding the Denver Airport, and claims of an evil serpent race have all been linked to the Illuminati and, by extension, to the New World Order theories as a whole.

The Illuminati

The New World Order theory requires a common, mysterious enemy to be responsible for its implementation. Not all conspiracists agree on precisely who this group is; many point fingers at the so-called deep state, or various religious minorities. Over the years, conspiracists have come to a general consensus that the New World Order was a result of several shadowy groups working together to form one, ultimate conspiracy: The Illuminati.

Even those with a passing knowledge of conspiracy theories are familiar with the myth of the Illuminati. Modern conspiracists often blame the Illuminati for every event, good or bad, happening in the world today. Given its now legendary status, it’s odd to think the real organization most Illuminati theories are based on was around for such a short period.

Due to the rumors and conspiracies surrounding the group, it can be difficult to discern the true history of the Illuminati. Despite this, we do know for sure of one real life organization that went by the name ‘Illuminati.’ The Bavarian Illuminati, also known as the Order of Illuminists, was formed by Adam Weishaupt in 1776. Weishaupt’s goal was to rid the world of “all established religious and political authority” (Barkun, 2003).

The Bavarian Illuminati did share a few similarities with the Illuminati spoken of today, mainly their pension for secrecy and grand ambitions. But despite conspiracists insistence of the Illuminati’s long history and wide influence, the Bavarian Illuminati disbanded in 1787, its membership never reaching far beyond 2,500. Early Illuminati literature may have referenced Weishaupt and his goals more specifically, but as time went on, stories of the Illuminati became far removed from their Bavarian origins.

Much of Illuminati conspiracy theory, as we know it today, was born in response to the French Revolution. There is no legitimate evidence suggesting Weishaupt’s Bavarian Illuminati had any involvement in the French Revolution. Not only did the organization’s members come mainly from German-speaking territories, but by the time the French Revolution began in 1789, the Bavarian Illuminati had been disbanded for years. Despite this, opposers of the revolution were quick to place blame on the Illuminati. Conspiracy authors insisted the Illuminati’s dissolution was only for show. In actuality, conspiracists claimed, the Illuminati had only slinked into the shadows, quietly enacting their plan to bring about the New World Order.

Though the French Revolution marked the transformation of the Illuminati into a global force, it wasn’t 

until the 20th century that the Illuminati reached its current, almost mythical status. The spread of Illuminati theories in this time period is often attributed to English writers Nesta Webster and Edith Star Miller. Webster and Miller were adamant not only that the Illuminati still existed, but that historical events could only be explained as “the product of the machinations of secret societies” (Barkun, 2003). While their predecessors were quick to blame the Illuminati in times of crisis, it was Webster and Miller’s works that led to modern conspiracists’ belief that everything, good or bad, is connected to the Illuminati’s grand plan.

Conspiracy and Religion

Though the idea of the Illuminati has grown far beyond Adam Weishaupt’s original vision, the goals he set out to achieve are often present in modern conspiracy writings. Weishaupt’s distaste of authority, and of religious authority in particular, has been a recurring theme in Illuminati theories for centuries.

Some sources claim the Illuminati aims to abolish religion altogether, which seems closest to Weishaupt’s original goal. As time has gone on, however, conspiracists have come to believe that the Illuminati’s New World Order is designed to target Christianity in particular. In his 1797 work, Proofs of a Conspiracy: Against All the Religions and Governments of Europe, Scottish author John Robison argued it was an undeniable fact that the Illuminati’s ultimate goal was to “abolish Christianity” (Eklund et. al, 2018). Webster and Miller, both admirers of Robison’s work, shared similar beliefs. Webster believed the Illuminati was composed of multiple groups working together, all working toward the ultimate goal of establishing “their empire on the ruins of Christian civilization” (Barkun, 2003).

In more recent years, Illuminati theories have moved further and further from Weishaupt’s original vision of rebelling against authority as a whole. Now, a large portion of conspiracists believe wholeheartedly in the anti-Christian Illuminati that Robison, Webster, and Miller originally wrote about. Webster and Miller’s theories, however, go deeper than simply determining the Illuminati’s goal. In their eyes, now that they had described the ultimate purpose of the Illuminati’s New World Order, the only remaining obstacle was to unmask its members.

Antisemitism

Though Webster and Miller drew heavily on Robison’s theories, their writings differed from his when it came to the Illuminati’s true identity. Robinson’s work had heavy undertones of anti-Catholic sentiment. Webster and Miller, on the other hand, placed blame primarily on the Jewish community. While Webster and Miller’s writings were rife with antisemitism, Miller painted Judaism in the harshest light. Webster painted the Illuminati as a collaboration between multiple groups; Miller, on the other hand, believed Jews were wholly responsible for the Illuminati’s efforts.

Edith Starr Miller was born into a wealthy American family and married a prominent British socialite in 1921, at which point she inherited the title of Lady Queensborough . Despite her privileged background, Miller insisted that the Illuminati was run by the ultra-rich. In her mind, money was the ultimate power, and that power belonged solely to “international Jewish financiers” (Barkun, 2003).

Miller was far from the first to describe Jews as financially all-powerful. The stereotype of Jewish people being greedy and money-hungry first emerged in the Middle Ages . When American conspiracists came in possession of Miller’s writing, they used her theories to tie specific influential Jewish families to Illuminati efforts. Conspiracy theorists most often claimed the Rothschilds, a family of influential Jewish bankers, either ran or funded the Illuminati. We will discuss how financial stereotypes have made the Jewish community a common target of conspiracy theories in more depth in chapter two.

The Illuminati in Recent History

Successors of Webster and Miller rarely mention Adam Weishaupt and the original Bavarian Illuminati. Instead, contemporary conspiracy literature focuses on the Illuminati that Webster described, with several powerful groups working in tandem throughout the globe.

Gerald Winrod on the other hand, an American conspiracist who was essential in spreading Webster and Miller’s ideas across the pond, favored Miller’s theory of a unified Jewish Illuminati. In 1935, Winrod branded the Soviet Union’s communism as a direct result of Illuminati ideals, claiming Karl Marx had been directly inspired by Adam Weishaupt. As Winrod believed wholeheartedly in Miller’s theory that the Illuminati was Jewish, it seemed only logical to him that “the Moscow dictatorship [was] Jewish” as well (Barkun, 2003).

Winrod’s belief of a link between communism and the Illuminati became widespread among the greater conspiracist community. With the Illuminati now branded as both anti-Capitalist and anti-Christian, New World Order theories began to grow in popularity among alt-right extremists in the U.S.

With Robert Welch’s founding of the John Birch society in 1958, the link between far-right beliefs and conspiracy theories only grew stronger. Welch connected the Illuminati not just to communism and Judaism as scholars before him had, but to any other groups he saw as an enemy of his personal ideals. He claimed the Illuminati was responsible for “anarchism, syndicalism,” and “Irish, Italian, and German Nationalism” along with countless other movements (Barkun, 2003).

Conspiracy culture exploded in popularity among the American right following the John Birch Society’s theories. There was a sharp increase in Illuminati literature after 1965, though most of it merely restated ideas posed decades earlier. Any new Illuminati theories either referenced Webster, Miller, and Winrod directly or preserved the antisemitic sentiments present in their original beliefs.

A prime example of this is the work of Pat Robertson. First published in 1991, Robertson’s The New World Order is arguably the most influential piece of modern Illuminati literature. Robertson directly cited Nesta Webster as the source of his own beliefs. The theories present in The New World Order are in no way original, with Robertson recycling the views of conspiracists before him with little to no contribution of his own. What made Robertson’s work significant was not the originality or quality of his writing, but rather his identity outside his work. At the time of the book’s publishing, Robertson was already a prominent “television Evangelist,” former presidential candidate, and the founder of his own political organization the Christian Coalition. The publication of The New World Order marked the first instance of a national figure like Robertson endorsing Illuminati conspiracy theories.

Four years after The New World Order’s initial release, two articles in The New York Review of Books heavily criticized Robertson for encouraging antisemitism in his writing. The first, written by Michael Lind, took issue with what he saw as thinly veiled antisemitism in Robertson’s theories. The second article, written by Jacob Heilbrunn, took issue with Robertson quoting the blatantly antisemitic work of Nesta Webster. In the wake of Lind and Heilbrunn’s criticism, Robertson and Ralph Reed, the Christian Coalition’s director at the time, issued an apology to the Jewish community. Still, Robertson denied he held any antisemitic views personally, despite his theories and his use of Webster’s work suggesting otherwise.

In the years since Pat Robertson’s book was published, New World Order and Illuminati conspiracy theories have changed very little. A large portion of conspiracists still claim the Illuminati is among us, plotting to destroy Christian, Capitalist, and Traditionalist values. While current conspiracists may not add many new ideas to Webster and Miller’s original beliefs, this doesn’t mean they aren’t dangerous. On the contrary, contemporary conspiracy theorists have the potential to do more harm than their predecessors not because of their new ideas, but due to their visibility. While the spread of Webster, Miller, and Winrod’s ideals were slowed by their reliance on the publishing world, current conspiracists have no such limitations. The average American’s access to tools like television, radio, and the internet have given fringe conspiracy beliefs the ability to spread faster and more effectively than ever before.

Perhaps the best example of a public, modern Illuminati believer is Alex Jones, owner of the alt-right extremist website InfoWars. Jones has long used the InfoWars platform to share various conspiracy theories, most of which he connects back to the New World Order. Shortly before the historic capital riot in 2020, Jones told protestors marching in support of President Donald Trump to “declare 1776 on the New World Order” (Angsley, 2022). Alex Jones also promotes the typical antisemitism associated with New World Order theories and frequently rants about the so-called “Jewish Mafia”.

Alex Jones lacks the complex arguments utilized by past conspiracy writers like Nesta Webster. Nevertheless, he’s managed to build a reputation as a prominent conspiracist and far-right figure. The visibility Jones’ has managed to gain over the years can be attributed mainly to two factors.

First, when Jones began spreading his theories, America was already deeply entrenched in conspiracy culture. Thanks to the work of public figures like Pat Robertson, there were few Americans that hadn’t heard of the Illuminati. Instead of having to build a following from the ground up, Jones was able to tap into the nation’s pre-existing interest in conspiracy theories.

Second, once again, Jones had access to the tools of modern society. If Jones were to share his theories in Winrod’s time, he likely would have distributed them via book or pamphlet. There would be a limited number of copies available and due to the fringe nature of Jones’ beliefs, the material would likely never reach average Americans. Instead, Alex Jones has the advantage of spreading his theories in the 21st century. As InfoWars is a publicly available website, it gave Alex Jones the ability to reach more Americans than Winrod and Welch could have dreamed of. Both mainstream and independent news outlets have criticized Jones’ claims, therefore making more Americans aware of him, driving more traffic to the InfoWars site, and exposing more people to these theories.

References

Anglesey, A. (2022, May 10). Alex Jones slams QAnon, says “Q is the worst people on earth.” Newsweek. https://www.newsweek.com/alex-jones-slams-qanon-says-q-worst-people-earth-1705223

Anti-Defamation League. (2023). Antisemitism uncovered: Myth–Jews are greedy. Antisemitism Uncovered. https://antisemitism.adl.org/greed/

Barkun, M. (2003). A culture of conspiracy : apocalyptic visions in contemporary America. University Of California Press.

Bush, G. H. W. (1990, September 11). Address before a joint session of the congress on the persian gulf crisis and the federal budget deficit. https://bush41library.tamu.edu/archives/public-papers/2217

Eklund, D., Alteveer, I., Brown, M. A., Miller, J., Olmsted, K. S., Saunders, B., & Lethem, J. (2018). Everything is connected : art and conspiracy. Metropolitan Museum Of Art.

Encyclopedia Britannica. (2020). French Revolution | Causes, facts, & summary. In Encyclopædia Britannica. https://www.britannica.com/event/French-Revolution

Fox, M. (2021, October 28). Does Netflix’s “Inside Job” encourage antisemitic conspiracy theorists? The Forward. https://forward.com/culture/477345/netflix-inside-job-antisemitic-conspiracy-theorists-qanon/

Heilbrunn, J. (1995, April 20). His anti-Semitic sources. NYbooks. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/04/20/his-anti-semitic-sources/

Isikoff, M. (1992, September 10). Christian coalition steps boldly into politics. Washington Post. https://www.washingtonpost.com/archive/politics/1992/09/10/christian-coalition-steps-boldly-into-politics/90c8bf0b-3268-4088-ba12-b49c93537bba/

Lind, M. (1995, February 2). Rev. Robertson’s grand international conspiracy theory. NYbooks. https://www.nybooks.com/articles/1995/02/02/rev-robertsons-grand-international-conspiracy-theo/?lp_txn_id=1420479

Meredith, M. (2019, August 5). Edith Starr Miller (1887-1933). Househistree. https://househistree.com/people/edith-starr-miller

Rosen, A. (2016, October 27). “InfoWars” host and internet-fueled conspiracy theorist Alex Jones goes off about the “Jewish Mafia.” Tablet Magazine. https://www.tabletmag.com/sections/news/articles/alex-joness-bigoted-buffoonery-goes-viral-in-the-time-of-trump