As I write this it’s the 20th anniversary of 9/11, a major trauma to the United States (my country). It’s also an event that’s caused a lot of negative events out of unhealthy trauma responses. As historian Kristin Kobes Du Mez points out in Jesus and John Wayne, this includes a turn in the white Evangelical religio-political community toward increasingly militant masculinity that became increasingly focused on fighting “culture wars” against other citizens of the United States. In today’s article, I want to talk about how William Cooper, the alt-right conspiracy theorist who popularized the word “sheeple,” fits into this part of the picture. After all, Cooper’s conspiracy rhetoric birthed the super unhealthy alt-right 9/11 conspiracy theories, and his classic conspiracy rhetoric focus on the enemy of the US being as much inside the US as outside of it jives remarkably well with white Evangelicals’ use of “culture war” metaphors.
Hang with me as I unwrap all of this—but know there’s no way I can get into all the details. Note that toward the end I’ll bring this back around to my thoughts on how to keep fighting for a healthier world.
A Reminder of My Background on This Stuff
Okay, so just as a quick reminder as I dive in, I’m a PK with a PhD in Communication who studies and teaches about stress, trauma and conflict communication. As I described in my previous series on conspiracy rhetoric focusing on Cooper (which starts here and continues here, here and here), I came into this strangely apocalyptic era we’re living in having studied the rhetoric of fascism and also having taken an entire PhD course on the rhetoric of conspiracy.
And in the last year, as you should know if you’ve been following closely, the book Jesus and John Wayne along with other sources has further filled in this picture for me. I talked about that here, here, and here, among other times.
Ah, the Sheeple Rabbit Hole! I Remember It Well
So yeah, last summer I started down a rabbit hole looking for the origins and popularization of the popular-with-the-alt-right insult “sheeple,” I came across a biography of William Cooper, a fringe but extremely influential conspiracy theorist broadcaster who did his thing mostly in the late 20th century. As I’ve pointed out before, he was an influential member of the right-wing Patriot Movement, who believed in “the divine right of (certain) citizens.”
That “New World Order” You Might have Heard About
Cooper’s rhetoric was full of classic conspiracy rhetoric tropes, not least of which was presuming that there was this pretty all-powerful cabal of world and US leaders who were part of an imagined devil-term conspiracy (to be fought and resisted at all costs) called the New World Order.
Hey, Look! Shocking That Hitler Would Be Involved!
Interestingly, as the bio of Cooper outlines, the New World Order was a term used by Adolf Hitler (NOTE: Cooper argues that he was the first one who used it, but he was not). It was Hitler’s term for the kind of totalitarian “utopia” he envisioned. (What a great way to ground the ultimate devil term that conspiracy believers could use to express concerns about perceived threats to their “freedoms as individuals,” eh? Ringing any bells for you, I hope?)
As False Equivalencies and Bothsidesism Get Introduced…
But yeah, the actual Nazis and the actual hallmarks of fascism didn’t remain the actual incarnation of evil for right-wing conspiracy theorists like Cooper and his forebears. According to conspiracy theorists, the new version of the New World Order came in a more subtle form than Hitler’s Germany—it came in the form of international banking mechanisms and other forms of regulation that resulted to try to keep another Hitler from ever striking out for power.
When Reasonable Regulation on People Not Taking Over the World Gets Conflated with the Actual Thing…Hmmm
Soooo yeah. Let’s get this clear—it’s not actually fascistic totalitarianism that actually tried to take over the world that post-WWII right-wing conspiracy believers see to be the problem. It’s the anti-fascistic structures that are put in place to try to prevent that sort of thing that are seen as the real problem. A lot of this got wrapped up with Cold War fears to tie in fears that conflate socialism with totalitarianism as well.
I’ve discussed that kind of conflation here in my previous post about being called a “liberal Nazi.” This current analysis should give you more context around that particular insult.
And a Right-Wing Devil Term Is Born
So yeah, THIS is the focus of the devil term the “New World Order.” And explains why things like the UN, NATO, the International Monetary Fund, and the World Bank are deep concerns and frequent mentions by people who buy into this unhealthy conspiracy rhetoric.
Hey Look! That Old Chestnut of a “God Term”—“Freedom”—Comes into the Picture
No wonder this is the case—if, after all, “freedom” is about letting letting a select group of citizens that “get it” rule at the expense of cooperation, then any reasonable regulation to prevent the rise of toxically authoritarian individuals would automatically be seen as a devil term.
Even a Broken Clock…
Also note that this rhetoric has some valid concerns as well. After all, these organizations are not perfect, as no organization is perfect. And yeah, many of us share reasonable concerns about how global our society has become. That’s, of course, how this rhetoric hooks people in—even a broken clock is right twice a day and all that.
But, Yeahhhhh…This Clock Is Still Broken
But yes, conspiracy rhetoric is in no way reasonable in its application of this idea to these and other organizations. In short, this type of rhetoric is packed with false equivalencies and bothsidesism, which ironically, as I’ve discussed many times, are the types of rhetorical devices employed by authoritarianism and fascism.
In short, the idea that cooperative enterprises like the UN designed to help solve global problems as well as possible without unnecessary world wars and totalitarianism would deserve a label created by totalitarianism itself? It would be laughable if it weren’t such a sinister form of negative projection.
But yeah, this is the kind of thing right-wing conspiracy theorists have believed since WWII—THIS is the version of history that people like William Cooper take as the “real truth of how the world works.”
Hey! Look! This Is How the Sheeple Thing Comes In!
And yes, Cooper took this idea and ran with it in a lot of directions. Prominent assumptions he made was that the “New World Order” was automatically present in anyone with “official facts”—the government, “mainstream media,” experts, (this should be sounding remarkably familiar by now), etc.
It was in talking about those who unthinkingly kowtowed to the New World Order that Cooper literally baaed into the mike, as his bio notes. That’s right—people who believed whatever “official stories” they were told were “sheeple” ripe for exploitation.
Cooper and 9/11 Trutherism
Sooo yeah. Cooper had been theorizing from these types of beliefs on his fringe radio show for a couple of decades before on June 28, 2001 he made a prediction (he made a lot of predictions—some of them were bound to come true). After seeing a story on CNN with Osama Bin Laden, Cooper predicted that there would be an attack on the US—by, of course, the New World Order—and it would be pinned on Bin Laden.
On the day of 9/11, of course Cooper found “facts” that fit in with this view of history, and thereby started the 9/11 truther movements that continue to this day. The fact that he was killed in a standoff with federal agents less than 2 months later has been taken to be further proof that he was correct, and that the “New World Order” was what killed him.
But Wait, What About White Evangelicals and Militant Masculinity?
Okay, so what does this have to do with white Evangelicalism and militant masculinity? Well, interestingly, unlike much of white Evangelicalism moving forward, as outlined in Jesus and John Wayne, Cooper decried the coming militancy he saw coming out of 9/11.
But that fact should definitely not be taken as the full truth of his views on violence, since he also saw events like Waco and Ruby Ridge as brave martyrdoms of “patriots fighting the system.”
And yeah, Cooper’s standoff that lead to his death wasn’t ultimately that different from those other events, no matter how sympathetically his biographer paints it. As the biographer notes, Cooper ended up paralyzing an officer in the process.
Cooper Only Disagreed with Some Types of Militant Masculinity
Sooooo yeah, Cooper wasn’t exactly any more foreign to militant masculinity—he just felt it needed to be enacted by the “right sort” in the “right way.” In short, those select few people who “thought for themselves” well enough to have the “divine right of citizens.”
And Cooper was deeply deeply concerned that some of the enemy were already residing in the US—in the form of those organizations and “official messages” I mentioned above, as well as those who “followed them unthinkingly”—you know, like sheep.
Resonance with the WEC “Culture Wars”
THIS ought to be having a lot of resonances with the “culture war” directions white Evangelicals were starting to take in the same era Cooper was broadcasting as well as afterwards, especially following 9/11.
Hey! Look! WECs Used the “New World Order” as a Devil Term Too!
And yeah, I don’t have time to get into all of the crossover threads and comparisons and contrasts, but I definitely don’t think it’s an accident that Du Mez in Jesus and John Wayne outlines that Hal Lindsey, Pat Robertson, and Phyllis Schafly—prominent white Evangelical leaders of similar time periods as that of Cooper—have publications referring explicitly to—wait for it—The New World Order.
As Du Mez points out, Hal Lindsey’s 1970 book The Late Great Planet Earth even refers to other classic conspiracy believer threats such as the Illuminati in unrolling his own end times views.
How Cooper Ties Into the WEC Story
Note that Cooper isn’t mentioned in Jesus and John Wayne, and in my view he was unlikely to be much of a direct influence. BUT his more increasingly mainstream conspiracist progeny, such as Rush Limbaugh, are explicitly mentioned as “secular prophets” of the white Evangelical religio-political movements within the book.
And the more I look at the overlaps between Cooper’s views and those of conservative Christians in recent years, it’s not shocking to me that he was at least a strong indirect influence. After all, both Alex Jones and QAnon have claimed Cooper as an influence. And too many large swaths of white Evangelical Christians have gone all in on those particular folks’ work.
Another Piece in the White Evangelicals Supporting This Unhealthy Crap Puzzle
And the more I’ve read about Cooper, his views, and his influence on the Patriot movement and other right-wing conspiracy rhetoric, the more I realize why white Evangelicals are currently tossing out words like sheeple, seeking to “own the libs” in the instance of fighting and fighting “socialism” and the “mainstream media.”
How Cooper Differed From WECs
At the same time, I can see how Cooper’s views diverged at times from those of white Evangelicals—after all, the “Moral Majority” ended up going all in on the Iraq War and the xenophobic propaganda that came after 9/11 as a way to gain power. Cooper, on the other hand, at least in what he said around the events of 9/11, would have been deeply concerned about that kind of move.
Ironies Upon Ironies—that Broken Clock Is Still Right at Times!
It’s ironic, really, to think about, on this anniversary of 9/11. After all, it’s a skepticism I shared with Cooper (as well as many other Americans, especially those on the left) about the use of 9/11 as a reason to start the Iraq War that started to lead me away from voting staunchly Republican, as I’d been taught by white Evangelicals was the “moral” way to vote.
Which is a helpful reminder when I think about how to respond to and appropriately resist unhealthy conspiracy theories and conspiracy thinking moving forward. Because yeah, while I disagree tremendously with the specifics of right-wing conspiracy thinking and of the false equivalencies and misguided interpretations of threat where it isn’t inherent in right-wing conspiracist views of history, I can appreciate the ways real and occasionally valid concerns lay at its base.
So How, Then, to Confront Conspiracy Rhetoric?
Now, this doesn’t mean that it would always or even regularly be fruitful for me to engage in conversations with those holding conspiracy views, especially if I did so with an aim to persuade that particular person. After all, if the person knew I tended to identify with “the other side,” well, my views would largely be discounted anyway.
I mean, as a progressive, I’m wayyy too embroiled with “The New World Order.” Never mind that as a scholar of rhetoric I don’t automatically agree with forms of “official rhetoric” either—I don’t fit the profile of the stereotype of a “sheeple” super well, as it happens. 😉
Other Reasons to Keep Speaking Up
But, yeah, as I’ve discussed previously here on the blog, there are other reasons to speak up, especially publicly, in the presence of conspiracy rhetoric. And that reason boils down to being an alternative voice to the unhealthy rhetoric. In fact, being a incarnated reality of the fact that the false equivalencies and demonizations of “the other side” simply don’t make sense can do a lot on its own to knock down the power of this type of thinking, even if you’re unlikely to convince everyone to agree with your views.
So yes, there are no perfect or easy solutions for any of this—but hopefully today’s analysis has helped you understand a little more about the rhetorical religio-political landscape on the right.
Tying It All Together
That includes a fuller understanding of why and how white Evangelicals have increasingly been buying into conspiracy theory views of history, as well as distrusting things they associate with the “New World Order” while embracing the kinds of views that led to the violence of January 6.
Hm…We Might Need to Incarnate the Devil Term, In a Way (Oops! Sorry!)
And yeah, hopefully we can all take this understanding and DO something with it—specifically, to realize how important it still is to make sure we, er, well, “regulate” these views.
After all, this false equivalency between reasonable cooperative problem solving and totalitarianism is extremely dangerous. And saying that isn’t “demonizing the other side.”
It’s, ironically, using my critical thinking skills combined with a reasonable reliance on expert research, which I know itself is formed with a lot of critical thinking, to come to that conclusion. If that makes me part of the “New World Order,” so be it.
Reflecting on the 9/11 Anniversary and Such
But on this 20th anniversary of 9/11, just don’t call me a sheeple, will you? 😉 After all, while I don’t by a long shot believe that 9/11 was caused by the “New World Order,” I do think, along with a bunch of other people, including William Cooper, that it was really crappy that we went to war with Iraq about it.
And I’m okay sitting in the discomfort with the fact that he and I agree on that. After all, I’d like to think that he would be just as uncomfortable about the fact that I agreed with him on that.
The Problem with Reactionary “Critical Thinking”
See, ultimately, the flaw in conspiracy theorists’ calls to “think for yourself” is that they assume that the end result should ALWAYS be to differ from the “official version” of things and agreeing with the alternative views just because they are different. Unfortunately, that can boil down to actually kowtowing to actual fascism in the name of fear of things like the UN.
And that’s neither remotely okay nor normal, even while it is both ironic and sad. I, for one, will continue to strive to use my critical thinking skills to side with what is actually authoritarian and unhealthy, rather than what conspiracy believers might wish me to do. But hey, I don’t really mind that I’ll occasionally share some of their concerns either.
A Final Charge
Go team #AssertiveSpirituality! Let’s do what we can, where we are, with what we’ve got to keep speaking up against the toxic crap and especially the bullies having the loudest voices toward a healthier world for us all. We can do this thing.