When John Stormer died Monday, he left behind a chaotic political landscape that he helped create.
Author of the best-selling 1964 book “None Dare Call It Treason,” Stormer pioneered a form of right-wing conspiracy literature that remade the conservative movement and the Republican Party. Timed to coincide with Barry Goldwater’s presidential campaign, “None Dare Call It Treason” showed that conspiracy could be a powerful — and profitable — electioneering tool. And he uncovered an appetite for conspiracy lit that, over time, would become more and more central to conservative media, paving the way for the election of the current Conspirator in Chief.
A religious fundamentalist based in Missouri, Stormer had long been active in the state’s Republican Party and the Christian anti-communist movement. By the early 1960s, Stormer had become a fixture in Christian conservative media, penning a column for the Christian Beacon newspaper. What made Stormer a star, however, was his book — documenting what he called “America’s retreat from victory.”
“None Dare Call It Treason” claimed that America was losing the Cold War to the Soviet Union not because of Soviet dominance, but because of subversion from within. He argued that the State Department, not the Kremlin, had fomented every communist revolution of the 20th century, including Russia’s. Spies, dupes and traitors in the U.S. government had given Eastern Europe, China and Cuba to the communists and the bomb to the Soviets. “Every communist country in the world literally has a ‘Made in the USA’ stamp on it,” he concluded.
Nor were these traitors just abetting communists abroad. American leaders, manipulated by communist spies, were also quietly selling their own people into slavery to the Soviets, ensuring that within a generation, every American would be either Red or dead. “Once the takeover comes, you, like millions of others … can be slaughtered like diseased animals or worked to death in slave labor camps or brothels for the Red Army,” Stormer informed his readers. “The communists are after your children or grandchildren who can still be molded into obedient slaves of the State.”
Stormer embellished this conspiracy with others, suggesting, for instance, that when Lyndon B. Johnson convened the Warren Commission to look into John F. Kennedy’s assassination, he did so under orders from the Daily Worker, a Communist Party newspaper.
These were remarkable, and risible, claims. Yet they resonated with conservatives who believed that for more than a decade liberal elites had conspired to keep them out of mainstream institutions: universities, media, the two main parties. Add in a belief that Joseph McCarthy was right, that there was a massive communist conspiracy in the U.S. government, one that had been covered up by both Democratic and Republican administrations dating to Franklin Roosevelt, and the path from National Review to “None Dare Call It Treason” became an easy one.
The 75-cent paperback was an instant success. Self-published under the imprimatur Liberty Bell Press, “None Dare Call It Treason” sold its first printing of 100,000 books in a few months, then another 100,000 in the first half of April. Another 100,000 sold two weeks later. By the time of the Republican National Convention in June, the book was on its eighth printing. Before Election Day, Stormer had printed 6.8 million copies, the number of sales limited only by how many he could produce.
Nor was it the only piece of conspiracy lit circulating at the time of the election. Phyllis Schlafly’s “A Choice Not an Echo” — about “a group of secret kingmakers” who had sold out the Republican Party — and J. Evetts Haley’s “A Texan Looks at Lyndon” — an Infowars-level tract accusing Johnson of stolen elections and about a dozen murders — also were self-published in 1964. Conservatives treated them as campaign literature: handing them out at rallies, distributing them at the convention, mailing them to Republican delegates. By Election Day, 16 million copies of the three books were in circulation.
These paperbacks were part of a flourishing conservative media scene in 1964. Seeing an opportunity in Goldwater’s candidacy, conservative media activists began making the case for his presidency, propelled not only by their excitement over Goldwater but their belief that his campaign — though considered extreme by many people, including Republicans — wasn’t going far enough in the making the case itself. The belief that established media were not covering Goldwater fairly also stoked the right’s appetite for conservative fare. In that atmosphere, the lines between right-wing political analysis and conspiracy lit blurred, and even more respected magazines like National Review heartily endorsed the campaign paperbacks.
The election wasn’t a victory for Goldwater, but it was a huge win for the conservative movement, which in the coming years would take over the GOP. Conservative media, too, would become increasingly powerful within American politics. And while the next few decades witnessed occasional efforts to sideline the fringe-y and conspiratorial, the right continued to find slopes to slip down, landing again and again in the muck of conspiracy. The Vince Foster conspiracies of the 1990s. Glenn Beck and his “beautiful-mind” chalkboards in the 2000s. Dinesh D’Souza’s conspiracy flicks in the 2010s. Birtherism and Alex Jones and just about everything that has come out of Donald Trump’s mouth since 2011. Conspiracies all.
So why has the right become so vulnerable to conspiracy? The broader ecosystem of conservative media — even the respectable, non-conspiratorial conservative media — shares a good deal of the blame. Whether they’re talking about health-care legislation or the murder of Seth Rich, columnists and radio talkers and cable news hosts have trained conservatives to evaluate sources based on ideology, not facts or logic. Asserting that all media are biased, they have told their audiences to treat trust and truth as functions of tribalism.
And while conspiracy lit didn’t land Goldwater in the White House, it helped pave the way for Trump. Not because all conservatives are conspiracists, but because, over the past 50 years, they’ve been trained not to bat an eye at the crazy claims coming from their side. As Stormer showed a half-century ago, conspiracy sells, and conservatives are buying.