The United States was born in paranoia. From the American Revolution (thought by some to be a conspiracy organized by the French) to the Salem witch trials to the Satanic Panic, the Illuminati, and QAnon, one of the most enduring narratives that defines the United States is simply this: secret groups are conspiring to pervert the will of the people and the rule of law. We'd like to assume these panics exist only at the fringes of society, or are unique features of the internet age. But history tells us, in fact, that they are woven into the fabric of American democracy.
Dickey, a meticulous researcher, unearths fresh detail about our best-known ruptures with reality ... I wish this book allowed more Americans drawn to such false theories to speak ... Dickey presents a thoroughgoing record of panics and violence all but erased by history. But his accounting, particularly of the colonial period and early 19th century, is so dense that it is hard to track who did what to whom and when.
Timely ... Mr. Dickey is a lively writer, and it’s interesting to read how similar conspiracy tropes resurface throughout history ... Mr. Dickey has a penchant to assign all conspiracy imaginings equal weight ... There are moments, too, when Mr. Dickey’s rhetoric seems to leap ahead of reality.
Dickey vividly retells the histories of many of these conspiratorial fables and offers complex, well-informed analyses ... Dickey follows a straightforward if occasionally sluggish chronology ... Dickey is at his most effective when drawing clear lines between the secret societies of yore and the conspiratorial moment we’re living in today. He vividly describes the rise of the second Ku Klux Klan ... But Dickey’s focus on the United States also means an occasional, and understandable, tendency to make American history slightly too large in the overall history of conspiratorial thinking ... If he doesn’t quite close that loop at first...it’s because he’s busy examining much more obscure and fascinating incidents ... The book comes more fully to life, and shows moments of welcome humor, in its second half ... Dickey’s writing is elegantly thoughtful, sure-footed and occasionally luminous.