She grew up in affluent Beverly Hills, the daughter of a rabbi so prominent he regularly went for bike rides with Albert Einstein. She preferred domestic life—until John F. Kennedy’s assassination radicalized this erstwhile Carmel, California, homemaker. She launched a radio show on Carmel’s KLRB to spread her theories. Her first published article for the underground magazine the Realist and John Lennon financed it.
Until recently, I had never heard of Mae Brussell. You probably hadn’t, either. Thanks to an episode of Slate’s “Slow Burn” podcast, Brussell’s name ID is enjoying something of a renaissance. And thanks to YouTube, you can still listen to segments of some of her broadcasts. You can hear about the Nazi connections to the JFK assassination, how Ted Kennedy was framed at Chappaquiddick, and how Hitler was still alive in 1981. (These examples, of course, just scratch the surface.)
But why is it that I was unfamiliar her—and why is it important that we remember her? One of the problems with not remembering history is that we tend to assume that things we encounter today are unprecedented and unique. Just as every generation believes they discovered sex, every generation thinks that it was the first to have to deal with political cranks.
Today, there is a sense we are in unchartered waters—that American democracy is teetering. Although the internet and social media pose serious new challenges (for one thing, they help conspiracy theorists to efficiently record and widely distribute their ideas), there’s nothing new under the sun. Once we put things in historical context, we realize that American politics have always been terrible.
Take, for example, current concerns about salacious and ravenous political media. Compare today’s tabloid journalism to that infamous scribbler James Callender, the “journalist” for hire who revealed the sexual scandals of Federalist Alexander Hamilton and Republican Thomas Jefferson. There has always been “fake news” (although, in fairness to Callender, his hottest scoops turned out to be true).
Likewise, conspiracy theorists have always been around—and have frequently been bipartisan. Take, for example, radio host Father Charles Coughlin, an early booster of Franklin Roosevelt—who later turned on him. Coughlin was hugely influential in boosting the New Deal, but also spread crazy theories. He “lambasted ‘Jewish’ financiers and their control over world politics,” according to the United States Holocaust Memorial Museum, “culminating with a story recounting his own version of the infamous 20th Century forgery, the so-called Protocols of the Elders of Zion, which purported to be minutes of meetings of Jewish leaders as they plotted to take over the world.”
Likewise, the iconoclastic Brussell defied ideological labels, though she was probably more left-wing than right-wing. Crazy knows no bounds.
“Watergate turned everyone into a conspiracy theorist,” host Leon Neyfakh tells us (as you might have guessed, Brussell had theories about Watergate, too). “The Watergate plot proved that the paranoiacs were right,” he continues. “Thanks to Watergate, wild-eyed speculation about invisible forces and schemes no longer seemed all that crazy. And it wasn’t just crazy people who took it seriously. Between 1963 and 1976, the percentage of Americans who thought Lee Harvey Oswald had acted as part of a conspiracy jumped from 52% to an astonishing 81%.”
Rather than viewing this as a linear regression where things are progressively getting worse, it is probably more accurate to view this as cyclical. Conspiracy theorists are more likely to flourish during certain moments throughout history. We have always had crackpots, but the American public seem to be more susceptible to conspiratorial fantasies when (a) there is evidence that we aren’t being told the whole truth by their government, and (b) people feel like things are coming apart. Sound familiar?
As easy as it might be to compare the Trump era to Watergate, the rise of modern conspiracy theorists certainly predates the rise of Trump (he’s more a symptom than a cause). Alex Jones—the radio host who suspects governmental involvement in faking the moon landing, 9-11, the Sandy Hook school shooting, and the Oklahoma City bombing—didn’t just materialize in 2016. We have had a pretty long run of weirdness since Watergate began chipping at American’s faith in institutions. Anecdotally, it seems to have accelerated in a 21st century that has endured 9-11 and a major economic downturn. But is it absurd to think that certain flashpoints might make us more susceptible to conspiracy theories?
Right after the 2013 government shutdown, I documented a series of strange events that occurred in a short span of time: (a) a man with “the delusional belief that he was being controlled or influenced by extremely low frequency electromagnetic waves” went on a killing spree at the Washington, DC, Navy Yard; (b) a woman attempting to ram through a White House barricade was shot and killed by authorities; (c) a man set himself on fire on the National Mall; and (d) just before the House voted to reopen the government, a House stenographer seemed to lose her grip on reality. “It is deception here,” the woman reportedly yelled. “This is not one nation under God. It never was. Had it been, it would not have been… It would not have been, the Constitution would not have been written by Free Masons. They go against God. You cannot serve two masters. You cannot serve two masters. Praise be to God, Lord Jesus Christ.”
Just as some entrepreneurs prosper during financial downturns, difficult political times tend to be a boon for conspiracy theorists. After Watergate, Brussell’s show got picked up by radio stations all across the nation—on stations in places like New York and Boston. (Fans known as “Brussell sprouts” who didn’t live in an area where the show aired were mailed audio tapes.)
It would be a mistake to think that the progenitors are purely rational actors who are manipulating their audience. Conspiracy theorists may arise due to sincere concern about their nation and families. "My concern over who killed John Kennedy was basically selfish," Mae said, "to find out if there had been a coup--was the United States going fascist? Would I be like Anne Frank's father, who told his family that things were okay and that people were basically good--while they were living their last days--instead of saying when it was coming down that some people are worse than others?”
Who was Mae Brussell? She was Alex Jones before Alex Jones was even born. She was Louise Mensch before Louise Mensch was Louise Mensch. Her name was Mae Brussell. She was known as the “queen of conspiracies.”
Like the poor, Mae Brussell will always be with us. The “paranoid style in American politics,” as Richard Hofstadter dubbed it in his 1964 essay by the same name, turns out to be an evergreen title.