By David Kurlander

The FBI last week released a threat assessment called “Adherence to QAnon Conspiracy Theory by Some Domestic Violent Extremists.” The report highlighted the centrality of QAnon in the January 6th insurrection and warned that movement leaders may seek to “change from serving as digital soldiers towards engaging in real world violence.” This week on Now & Then, Heather Cox Richardson and Joanne Freeman discussed how the contemporary GOP has made common cause with QAnon, relating the concerning alliance to other entanglements between government and extremist organizations, from the Salem Witch Trials to Jonestown. In the mid-1980s, perennial presidential candidate Lyndon LaRouche’s National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), a conspiratorial and surreal organization that had much in common with QAnon’s worldview, also infiltrated national elections and political debates. 

In January 1985, Washington Post journalist John Mintz published a three-part exposé on Lyndon LaRouche’s ten-year journey from “Marxist theoretician to red-white-and-blue conservative.” Mintz traced the mysterious LaRouche’s rise from Quaker beginnings outside of Boston, to his participation in New Left anti-war efforts in late-1960s New York, to his early 1970s feud with the Communist Party USA, during which LaRouche encouraged his increasingly devoted followers to learn karate and street-fighting to defeat what he oddly called the “Nixon-allied” communists in “6-8 weeks.” The battle, which intensified LaRouche’s existent rightward drift, led to at least 40 physical fights between NCLC and Communist Party members in New York during 1973. 

Mintz interviewed several former NCLC members, who described the following year’s “Great Freakout of 1974.” The “freakout” started when LaRouche convinced the group that one of their members, Christopher White, had been kidnapped and brainwashed by the CIA and Soviet Agents and sent to assassinate LaRouche. LaRouche conducted a series of “deprogramming” exercises on White and on other members that he suspected had been turned. Mintz’s sources said that the sessions consisted of food and sleep deprivation and verbal abuse. “I became theirs,” one ex-NCLC member said. “That’s when it turned from being a political organization to being a cult.” 

LaRouche first ran for president in 1976. He garnered only 40,000 votes, but he began to get national coverage for his shocking claims. When the infectious Legionnaires disease broke out in Philadelphia, LaRouche claimed that Senator Edward Kennedy was suppressing a cure as part of a “genocidal policy.” In a 1978 LaRouche pamphlet, the NCLC argued that “Israel is ruled from London as a zombie-nation” and that Hitler was ushered into power “largely on the initiative of the Rothschilds, Warburgs, and Oppenheimers.” After his second presidential run in 1980, LaRouche only accelerated his claims, suggesting that Queen Elizabeth was involved in the international narcotics trade and that Jewish charity organization B’nai B’rith had assassinated Indian Prime Minister Indira Gandhi and bombed Air India Flight 182

 Even as LaRouche’s anti-Semitism and fantastical statements proliferated, he managed to entrench himself within the national security establishment. LaRouche had been one of the earliest backers of particle beam technology, publishing a 1977 pamphlet calling the weapons “crucial to our nation’s survival” and bankrolling the Fusion Energy Foundation and a publication called Fusion Magazine, which published pro-beam interviews with respected scientists. President Reagan arrived at a similar conclusion to LaRouche, announcing in 1983 the Strategic Defense Initiative (SDI), a new nuclear deterrence strategy that included proposals to create space-based nuclear missile defense systems with particle beams. 

While Reagan administration officials denied that LaRouche had influenced the program, NSC staffer Ray Pollock, one of SDI’s most influential voices, acknowledged to the New Republic that he had met with LaRouche several times before Reagan’s announcement to discuss fusion and particle beams, even though he found LaRouche to be “a frightening kind of fellow.” 

A slew of Reagan defense figures admitted to the press that they, too, had met with LaRouche to discuss SDI and other national security issues. Dr. Norman Bailey, the NSC’s Senior Director of International Economic Affairs, claimed that LaRouche’s international outposts made up “one of the best private intelligence services in the world.” Former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger—who LaRouche frequently attacked and claimed was having romantic liaisons with former McCarthy aide and controversial fixer Roy Cohn—had strong words about the administration’s decision to interact with LaRouche: “It’s a revolting episode…What can they possibly know we can’t find out ourselves?” 

LaRouche’s movement continued to surge in the aftermath of his SDI advocacy. In 1986 alone, 114 LaRouche-affiliated candidates ran for the U.S. House of Representatives, 14 for the U.S. Senate, and more than 600 for local and state posts. Despite their far-right views, most ran as “conservative Democrats.” This confusing nomenclature caused a political disaster in Illinois. LaRouche candidate Janice Hart won the Democratic primary for Secretary of State, while another devotee, Mark Fairchild, won the race for Lieutenant Governor. Hart made waves after her victory by claiming that she would fight Chicago’s worsening drug problem by summoning “the spirit of Abraham Lincoln and General Patton. We’re going to roll our tanks down State Street.” Fairchild, for his part, advocated quarantining all AIDS patients. 

Adlai Stevenson III—the Democratic gubernatorial nominee, former Senator, and son of the two-time Democratic presidential candidate—called the LaRouche affiliates “neo-Nazis” and decided to bolt the Democratic Party rather than run alongside Fairchild. He lost in the fall to popular Republican Governor Jim Thompson, who offered a blunt assessment of the whole episode: “This is insane.” 

The new attention on LaRouche, however, also led prosecutors to take a closer look at his organization’s finances. In October 1986, Boston U.S. Attorney Robert Mueller III announced the indictment of ten LaRouche associates on 117 counts of credit card fraud, with his office alleging that LaRouche’s organization had taken around $1 million in unauthorized withdrawals from donors during LaRouche’s 1984 presidential campaign. Over the next two years, LaRouche faced indictments in Boston for attempting to obstruct the Mueller investigation and in Loudoun County, Virginia—where he lived in a heavily-guarded compound—for mail fraud, and tax evasion. In December 1988, he was sentenced to 15 years in prison. LaRouche called the conviction “an all-out frame-up by a state and federal task force,” who he stated were trying to kill him. 

LaRouche still ran for president from prison in 1992, where one of his central planks was colonizing Mars. The Federal Election Commission initially denied his claims for federal matching funds, but he later received $100,000 after the Supreme Court rejected the FEC’s argument. He was paroled in 1993 and continued running for president in every race until 2008. 

 A convoluted tap-dance between a conspiratorial movement and the political establishment is playing out once more, with QAnon’s reach in congressional races and across its passionate base continuing to surge. And while LaRouche’s political strivings did not lead to the paranoid fantasies and doomsday scenarios he prophesied, the body politic will have to see whether QAnon—in the words of Heather Cox Richardson at the end of this week’s episode of Now & Then—is “ultimately going to go in a different, darker way.” 

For an in-depth (and condemnatory) account of LaRouche’s rise, read journalist Dennis King’s 1989 Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism. For a tour through the political fringes that crafted LaRouche’s worldview, check out Matthew Sweet’s entertaining 2018 Operation Chaos: The Vietnam Deserters Who Fought the CIA, the Brainwashers, and Themselves.

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