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Artillery Row

America’s Popish Plot

The maze of lunacy surrounding one of the USA’s most outlandish conspiracy theories

For those outside of the increasingly bizarre and surreal loop, something called QAnon is a pretty big thing in the United States, with increasing influence internationally. It’s a far-right conspiracy theory claiming that a secret deep state plot is at work against Donald Trump, who is the only person capable of smashing the power of a Satan-worshipping cabal of pedophiles composed of liberal and Democrat politicians, Hollywood celebrities, and high-profile mainstream media figures. There, nothing at all odd or bonkers about that. It goes on to allege that a planned coup by Hilary Clinton, Barack Obama, and – as always – George Soros was only prevented when President Trump hired former FBI director Robert Mueller to investigate.

The people who embrace all of this, and there are a large and increasing number of them, roar all sorts of quasi-religious language in their tweets and posts, speak of “The Storm” and “The Great Awakening” and are convinced that once they’re victorious, thousands of their enemies will be detained, incarcerated, likely sent to Guantanamo Bay, and the military will the take over the nation. Everyone loves a happy ending.

There’s plenty more involved, and every conspiracy theory one can imagine generally comes into play. Dive into social media and you’ll find the Q zealots, but look around a Trump campaign event and their posters and slogans will be just as common. Indeed, Republican candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene, a proud believer in QAnon, recently won the congressional nomination in Georgia’s 14th district. In that this area gave its last Republican candidate 76% of the vote it’s virtually impossible that Greene will not be a member of Congress. Many in her party were appalled but Donald Trump tweeted, “Congratulations to future Republican Star Marjorie Taylor Greene on a big Congressional primary win in Georgia against a very tough and smart opponent. Marjorie is strong on everything and never gives up — a real WINNER!” In other words, this is a serious concern.

Outside of democratic politics, the so-called Pizzagate scandal was part of the QAnon maze of lunacy. False claims were made that hacked personal e-mail accounts had revealed the existence of a child-sex ring involving several leading Democrat politicians. The whole thing was, it was alleged, based in a pizzeria in Washington DC. A North Carolina conspiracy believer then travelled to DC and opened fire in the restaurant with a high-powered weapon.

It’s likely that the people behind the entire Q madness are making a great deal of money and it could be that they’re not even directly politically motivated. Whatever their motives, it’s all gone well beyond its origins and was pushed into high gear when the apparently genuine case of the Jeffrey Epstein scandal came to light. His alleged links to senior lawyers, Democrats, and a member of the royal family, plus a bewildering suicide, were meat and drink to every conspiracy theorist with a mum’s basement worth the name.

Which is where, perhaps strangely, Britain’s Popish Plot of the late seventeenth- century enters the scene. As odd as that may sound, some of the parallels are eerily redolent. Between 1678 and 1681 a wave of anti-Catholic hysteria grabbed England and parts of Scotland. It was initiated by a genuinely odious character named Titus Oates who claimed that an elaborate and organised plot existed, involving most of the leading Catholics of the day and intent on assassinating King Charles II and allowing Catholicism to be re-established in the country. Oates was bitter and angry at personal slights he’d experienced at the hands of Catholics, but was likely just as interested in fame and fortune. The allegations may have been unbalanced and fantastic but they led to 22 men being executed and a number of others killed, the marginalisation of the already mistrusted Catholic minority, and the Exclusion Bill Crisis, where attempts were made to remove Charles’ brother James, a Catholic, form the succession.

Cue ignorant people longing for empowering answers, cue hatred and paranoia, Cue Q

Oates brought his allegations to the government, and was supported by a genuinely anti-Catholic zealot – who may well have been mentally unhinged – named Israel Tonge. He listed virtually everybody he could think of who was Catholic and influential, and some of these people had indeed been in correspondence with European Catholic leaders. That was hardly surprising, and mainly concerned trying to influence the British government to be more pro-French in its foreign policy. Even so, arrests were made. Oates also claimed that the Jesuits were behind the plot, and nothing appealed more to an anti-Papist in post-Restoration Britain than the idea of clever, secret Jesuits doing what Jesuits allegedly did. Think a seventeenth-century version of Q-soaked anti-Semitism.

Sensible observers still considered most of this to be ridiculous, but then a coincidence of Epstein-like proportions occurred. Sir Edmund Berry Godfrey, a magistrate and MP and an enthusiastic supporter of the Protestant cause, was murdered. It was Godfrey to whom Oates had made his first depositions. His murderers are still not known and while it’s likely it was a revenge attack by someone Godfrey had convicted, it certainly wasn’t a gang of Catholic radicals. That, of course, was irrelevant at the time. London went into sectarian frenzy, Catholics were banished from a radius of 20 miles, and Parliament declared, “This House is of opinion that there hath been and still is a damnable and hellish plot contrived and carried out by the popish recusants for assigning and murdering the King.”

For some time almost anything Oates claimed was taken seriously, and it took three years for people to realise how many obvious inconsistencies existed in the plot, but in that time the Jesuits in particular were terribly persecuted – nine were executed and another twelve died in prison – and ordinary Catholics were mistrusted for years to come; the Gordon Rioters a century later still referred back to The Popish Plot. Oates were flogged, imprisoned, and fined, but eventually set free and even given a pension. His work, however, was done. Cue ignorant people longing for empowering answers, cue hatred and paranoia, Cue Q. These are deeply troubling but not unprecedented times.

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