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Ericson: The persistence of a conspiracy cult

Lyndon LaRouche was an abuser and a fraud, but some still carry on his message.
Image by Ava Weinreis

“To say that Lyndon was slightly paranoid would be like saying the Titanic had a bit of a leak.”

This is what disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker wrote about the man with whom he shared a cell in a Minnesota federal prison. Both Bakker and the conspiracy theorist Lyndon LaRouche had been convicted of defrauding their followers. Bakker is somehow still broadcasting, but LaRouche died in 2019.

Before his death, LaRouche, who ran for president 8 times, earned an image as a consummate conspiracy-monger. He was referenced on the Simpsons, and fellow disgraced politician Al Franken played him on SNL.

While he never achieved real mainstream power, LaRouche did manage to gain mastery of a profitable — and abusive — subculture. He started off his political career as a follower of the early Soviet leader Leon Trotsky. His group split off from the leftist group Students for a Democratic Society, calling itself the Caucus of Labor Committees.

Over the decades, however, his politics became much more syncretic. In addition to adopting some right-wing views, LaRouche became infamous for his increasingly bizarre ideas. For instance, that Queen Elizabeth II was a drug trafficker or that opera singers are using the wrong pitch.

LaRouche’s ideology was also notable for its antisemitism. He was an aficionado of conspiracy theories about the Jewish Hungarian financier and philanthropist George Soros. He even denied the Holocaust. In 2004, a British Jewish student named Jeremiah Duggan died mysteriously after attending a LaRouche protest and conference in Germany.

That protest was ostensibly about opposing the Iraq War. Carl Beijer, who writes under a pen name, is a left-wing journalist who said he first encountered LaRouche’s followers around the same time, as a young anti-war protester in grad school.

At George Mason University during the Iraq War, “we had a large LaRouche presence on campus,” Beijer said. “They’re doing the same things that they’re doing now, where they would try to, sort of, infiltrate the anti-war movement.”

In a 2004 article about Duggan’s death, the Washington Post reported some of LaRouche’s followers had been with him since they were students protesting the war in Vietnam. And this pattern continues today. Beijer pointed to a recent D.C.-area rally called “Rage Against the War Machine,” at which Lyndon’s widow Helga Zepp LaRouche spoke on video.

That rally’s other listed speakers included names you’ve probably heard before, like Pink Floyd co-founder Roger Waters and former members of Congress Ron Paul, Tulsi Gabbard and Dennis Kucinich. LaRouchite Senate candidate Diane Sare addressed the rally, as did the pugilistic influencer Jackson Hinkle, who has 140,000 Twitter followers and once appeared on Tucker Carlson. Hinkle is also an erstwhile proponent of “MAGA Communism,” a political slogan that may as well have been designed to alienate as many normal people as possible.

Far from being anti-war, Hinkle vehemently supports Russian imperialism. He has also expressed support for LaRouche on social media, and spoke at a LaRouche event last October.

That event, in typical LaRouchite gobbledegook, was billed as “Build the New Paradigm, Defeat Green Fascism.” Beijer said he watched a six-hour livestream. “You have to read between the lines a little bit, but what’s going on is that they are very, very conscious of how the anti-war stuff is bringing in people into their movements,” he said.

Beijer pointed to comments that Helga Zepp LaRouche made at that ev​​ent about how publicity stunts were driving traffic to LaRouche media.

“She was talking about how their publicity stunts, where they show up at town halls and rail against AOC and stuff like that, how that was bringing eyes and clicks and web traffic,” Beijer said. “They were also very conscious of the social media actors who were promoting them.”

Using one fringe belief — in this case, opposition to U.S. military aid to Ukraine, or opposition to the Iraq and Vietnam wars — to bring people into a broader conspiratorial worldview is a common phenomenon.

Javier Granados Samayoa is a social psychologist and a postdoctoral fellow at the University of Pennsylvania. He and his colleagues have found belief in conspiracy theories related to COVID-19 was associated with adopting other conspiracy theories later.

“What you saw was belief in COVID-19 conspiracy theories at the earlier time point led to an increase in these generic conspiracy ideas over a six-month period, suggesting that it’s sort of migrating them down that conspiracy theory rabbit hole,” he said.

I’m not trying to suggest being anti-war is the same as being a conspiracy theorist. While I do support arming Ukraine against Russian aggression, I generally consider myself to be very anti-war. The danger is the LaRouche movement is trying to use anti-war sentiment as a way to bring people into a broadly conspiratorial and dangerous worldview.

The danger of LaRouchism is not just ideological. LaRouche wrote that recruiters should try to strip people of their egos, and ex-members have accused the group of psychological abuse. In 1973 and 1974, LaRouche carried out a violent campaign called Operation Mop-Up in which his followers physically attacked members of rival left-wing groups. A LaRouche newspaper accused the Communist Party of being allied with Richard Nixon.

It’s this violent history that makes Beijer reluctant to attend LaRouche events. “You don’t actually want to go to their meetings,” Beijer said. “They can be dangerous.”

Karl Marx famously said, in history, great people and events show up twice: first as tragedy, and then as farce. Lyndon LaRouche’s life and influence managed to be farcical and tragic all at once. I don’t know if his followers’ current activities are the last gasps of a dying movement, or a sign that they’re here to stay. We can only hope it’s the former.

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  • goodopinionhaver
    Mar 20, 2023 at 9:02 am

    The LaRouche cult is trash. But so is your geopolitical analysis.
    You should talk to actual anti-war activists, like the ones who held an anti-war rally in uptown on Saturday in solidarity with the march in DC.
    You can’t say you’re anti-war and then in the same breathe say you support the largest empire and purveyor of military violence in the world sending weapons to arm another country.