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The Utterly Bizarre Life of Lyndon LaRouche

American politics produces no small number of eccentrics. Lyndon LaRouche, who died yesterday, towered above them all.

Lyndon LaRouche in 2016. LaRouche PAC

American politics produces no small number of eccentrics. From the grotesque currently inhabiting the White House to Ross Perot to recently announced Democratic primary candidate Marianne Williamson (formerly Oprah’s “spiritual advisor”), the American political scene seems uniquely suited to creating and elevating very strange people. Among connoisseurs of crankery, however, one name has always stood above the rest: Lyndon H. LaRouche, Jr, who died yesterday, age ninety-six.

Originating on the far left, in the Trotskyist Socialist Workers Party, LaRouche would eventually forge what is easily the strangest path from left to right in twentieth-century America. His cult, forged in street fights with the Communist Party in the late 1960s, now spends most of its time propagandizing on behalf of both Donald Trump and China’s Belt and Road Initiative. In between, LaRouche was, at various points, a drug warrior, a Reaganite “Star Wars” backer, a dedicated foe of figures from Queen Elizabeth (“a genocidal drug runner”) to Walter Mondale, a federal prisoner, an advocate for Glass-Steagall, and, of course, a psychoanalyst. Only in America!

What the Hell Happened?

Lyndon LaRouche Jr was born in 1922 to a New England Quaker family. Though Quakerism is today associated with the Left, LaRouche’s parents were more the Richard Nixon kind of Quaker than the Joan Baez kind. Fervent anticommunists, they sent young Lyndon to Quaker camp not to enjoy campfire worship and living simply, but to organize his fellow campers against the allegedly left-wing, Bolshevik-sympathizing camp counselors. Lyndon learned sectarian factionalizing, quite literally, at his father’s knee.

As a young man, LaRouche drifted a bit, until he joined the Socialist Workers Party in the late 1940s. By most accounts an earnest Trotskyist for a time, LaRouche soon exhibited signs of the megalomania that would be, along with his delusional paranoia, a defining feature of his public career for the next half-century. He read, with boundless energy, about cybernetics and computing, becoming convinced that the Trotskyists weren’t thinking big enough about the upcoming transformations the world would go through. At the same time, he started a management consulting company, advising managers how to control workers during the day, organizing as a Trotskyist militant in the evenings.

Unsurprisingly, this wasn’t a stable combination. Throwing his lot in briefly with the dissident hardline Trotskyists led by Tim Wohlforth (whose group would later evolve into the prolix and bathetic Socialist Equality Party), LaRouche struck out on his own in the mid-1960s, setting up shop as a maverick Marxist intellectual in Greenwich Village.

This was a good time for entrepreneurship of this sort, and LaRouche managed to recruit a circle around himself, consisting largely of students and recent graduates he won away from the Stalinist Progressive Labor Party. Indeed, his followers were a major presence among Columbia students during the famous university occupation in 1968. When Students for a Democratic Society split in 1969, fracturing the largest left organization of the time, LaRouche reaped the benefits, attracting students who wanted something more serious than SDS’s endless internal factionalism. He called his new group the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC).

For a few years, the NCLC operated and grew as a somewhat strange but accepted part of America’s far-left ecosystem. LaRouche himself was a frequently invited guest of radical students on college campuses. In 1971, his followers even managed to set up a debate between LaRouche (who would soon be advertising himself as the greatest economist on the planet) and the great post-Keynesian economist Abba Lerner.

Around 1973, however, this changed, as LaRouche launched “Operation Mop-Up,” essentially a declaration of war on the rest of the Left. Focused initially on the rump Communist Party, which he accused of being an FBI front, LaRouche’s backers were soon engaged in physical combat with leftists from the Stalinist PLP to his former comrades in the SWP. Indeed, LaRouche’s offensive, in which his followers physically disrupted other left groups’ meetings, and attacked their supporters using nunchucks, produced touching moments of left unity in those otherwise fractious years, as various far leftists worked together to defend each other from LaRouche’s thuggery.

Around this same time, LaRouche’s group was becoming a bona fide cult. Long fascinated by psychoanalysis, LaRouche began employing techniques of “ego-stripping” and psychological manipulation to his own followers. An internal shake-up was organized around his contention that the KGB had kidnapped an NCLC member and brainwashed him or her into a Manchurian candidate whose mission was to assassinate LaRouche. The resulting attempts to ferret out the supposed infiltrator initiated any number of bizarre internal practices aimed at ensuring LaRouche’s total control over his followers.

A flavor of the madness reigning in the group in these years comes from a leaked document, in which LaRouche upbraids his followers for their supposed “impotence” rooted in, so he said, their delusional phobias:

Impotence! Fear of rats! CIA-rats, KGB-rats, FBI-rats, trade-union-official-rats, Left-rats generally. Rats! Rats! Rats! Save yourself! Be impotent! The rats hate anything which is not impotent! There are so many rats! Gigantic, awfully monstrous beetles, malevolent beetles with beetle eyes and gigantic sexual organs are coming to rape us. . . . Find a woman to be a surrogate for your mother, and propitiate the awful gigantic rat of a mother-image sadist within you with another woman. . . . You feel better at the same time you feel the awfulness of that degradation. Mother always loved you again after you were punished. . . . Live a private life of Hell, keep your frightened Self cowering within the rat-mask you wear for the edification of the world of rats. Be impotent; be a “Trotskyist.”

At the same time, LaRouche’s own literary output began to assume a particular style of classically informed (Plato, Liebniz, and Schiller being particular touchstones) long-winded psychosis. A good example is the twenty-six-thousand-word treatise “The Sexual Impotence of the Puerto Rican Socialist Party,” which covers everything from Hegel and “the agony of self-consciousness” to LaRouche’s racist ramblings on Latin American “macho” culture. From here on out, this kind of prose would remain LaRouche’s métier.

Operation Mop-Up proved to be LaRouche’s exit from the Left, and he soon pivoted to the far right. Antisemitic conspiracy theories began occupying a more prominent part of the group’s output, with a cabal of the Rothschilds and the British aristocracy coming to occupy pride of place in LaRouche’s rantings. In 1976, the group ditched Lenin and Trotsky for Benjamin Franklin and Alexander Hamilton (unfortunately, what LaRouche thought of Lin-Manuel Miranda’s musical remains unknown). The group also began producing “intelligence reports” monitoring the far left, offering its services to the FBI. Even more startlingly, LaRouche began working hand in hand with the far right, launching a defense campaign of KKK member Roy Frankhouser, who would soon rise rapidly in the organization.

When Reagan came to power in 1980, LaRouche saw an opportunity for his particular brand of now far-right crankery, and eagerly affiliated himself with the Republican right. He was a major backer of the “Star Wars” Strategic Defense Initiative, an advocate of the most draconian responses to the AIDS crisis, and a Cold Warrior of the most bellicose variety.

In this last guise, LaRouche prosecuted a particular vendetta against Henry Kissinger, whose comparatively mild posture towards the USSR, along with his Jewish background, marked him for special attention. LaRouche’s group came to some prominence in the early 1980s after some of his followers, pamphleteering in the Newark airport, came upon Kissinger and his wife, and accosted him, shouting “Is it true that you sleep with young boys at the Carlyle Hotel?”

The Reagan administration was evidently willing to overlook these and other peccadilloes on LaRouche’s part, as evidence of high-level contact between administration figures and the group is plentiful in these years. As Dennis King, LaRouche’s most assiduous chronicler, points out in his invaluable biography, the group’s Executive International Review secured interviews in 1981 with

Agriculture Secretary John Block, Defense Under Secretary Richard DeLauer, Commerce Under Secretary Lionel Olmer, Treasury Under Secretary Norman Ture, Assistant Attorney General Lowell Jensen, and the chairman of the President’s Council of Economic Advisers, Dr. Murray Weidenbaum [as well as] Senator Orrin Hatch (R.-Utah), a friend of the President, and Senator John Tower (R.-Tex.), chairman of the Senate Armed Services Committee.

Pentagon officials spoke at LaRouche group rallies, and higher-ups in the organization became frequent guests of the National Security Council.

Even as LaRouche was developing close contacts with the Reagan administration, he continued electoral efforts begun in the last decade inside the Democratic Party. LaRouche had run in the Democratic primaries against Jimmy Carter in 1980, and NCLC-affiliated candidates in local Democratic races had intermittent success in the 1980s, as they would continue to do over the next few decades.

LaRouche himself became an active political candidate in these years, putting out ads lambasting environmentalists. He gained enough prominence to be interviewed in mainstream venues, for example Evans and Novak. He even, in a surreal spectacle, made it on to Good Morning America, delivering a dose of weirdness morning news shows haven’t come close to matching since.

By the mid 1980s, LaRouche had established a formidable international presence as well, with numerous supporters in West Germany and Italy. In the latter country, his followers managed to advance a particular hobby horse of his, the proper tuning of musical instruments, into debate in the parliament. LaRouche had long been concerned with the effects of music on psychology, writing in 1980 that “Rock was not an accidental thing. This was done by people who set out in a deliberate way to subvert the United States. It was done by British intelligence,” and that the Beatles were “a product shaped according to British Psychological Warfare Division specifications.” The brainwashing of John, Paul, and company could be resisted, however, through proper tuning.  (LaRouche and his followers favored A4 tuned to 432 Hz). The legislation in Italy failed, but not before attracting the support of figures including Plácido Domingo and Luciano Pavarotti.

Things were looking good for LaRouche until 1986, when the federal government launched a series of cases against his organization that eventually resulted in prison time for the cult leader and several of his associates. The case, which was led by none other than a federal prosecutor named Robert Mueller, revolved around various sorts of fraud, from unlicensed credit card transactions to soliciting loans from his followers. LaRouche, of course, saw the mark of conspiracy on his prosecution, alleging that everyone from the KGB to Oliver North was behind his incarceration. While in prison, he shared a cell with disgraced televangelist Jim Bakker, who later wrote of LaRouche that “To say that Lyndon was slightly paranoid would be like saying the Titanic had a bit of a leak.” (Bakker was, however, impressed by his cellmate’s knowledge of the Bible).

LaRouche was released on parole in 1994, and for the next few years, remained fairly quiet. He opposed the Clinton impeachment hearings as a plot by the British Intelligence community (naturally), and mainly campaigned for his own exoneration.

This all changed in the Bush years. 9/11 gave a fillip to LaRouche-style conspiracy theories. Larouche himself put his own unique mark on these theories by blaming not the US government, but rather a “Saudi-British conspiracy.” He also formed the LaRouche Youth Movement, which organized against the war on Iraq and established a not insubstantial presence on college campuses. The LYM distinguished itself from the broader antiwar movement with its odd demand to “Impeach Cheney First!”

When Obama came to power, and the paranoiacs of the far right shifted into high gear, LaRouche saw that the market niche had changed, and adapted himself accordingly. Now, Obama was the new Hitler. Around the same time, LaRouche developed a fixation on the BRICS economies as new saviors of humanity, inclining particularly strongly towards Russia and China.

Given this posture, it’s unsurprising that when Trump came to power, the LaRouche group emerged as strong backers, but not before a valiant attempt at advancing Martin O’Malley’s Democratic primary campaign. A cult with a long history at this point of preying on troubled people, the group could smell a loser a mile off. Trump, however, was a winner, and a particularly flexible screen on which could be projected any number of LaRouche’s increasingly deranged fixations. In his nineties at this point, his writings became ever more untethered. Embracing the digital age despite his senescence, LaRouche began conducting a number of fireside chats via YouTube, from which he would dispense wisdom such as the following:

We are about to do a job on the study of China, with the idea of the development of the back of the Moon. What is the secret behind the back of the Moon? Now, the back of the Moon is not just some fantasy. The back of the Moon is a very specific kind of physical principle. That principle, when properly understood, will change the history of mankind.

A few years ago, some defectors from the cult released a series of internal minutes, which were full of bizarre challenges LaRouche issued to his followers, such as, “Prove to me that Ireland’s going to continue to exist — {then} we’ll discuss Ireland, if you can give a plausible case for its existence!”

His group, meanwhile, continued its bizarrely confrontational antics which had marked it since the 1970s, with one particularly memorable example taking place at a New York Barnes & Noble a few years ago, when a few LaRouchies confronted chess champion Garry Kasparov as a NATO pawn, and assailed him with “Sieg Heils” and “Heil Hitlers” before a crowd of bewildered Manhattanites.

We’ll See You Again

For the last three years, LaRouche himself has been scarce, as his dementia and cognitive decline became too obvious to hide even from abused supplicants. Veteran LaRouche watchers have long known this day was coming. Nonetheless, it feels off-putting to know the world is now a little less strange with him gone. In all likelihood, his group will begin to fall apart without his unifying megalomania, despite his wife Helga Zepp-Larouche’s efforts to fill the void.

Yet as the last few years have reminded us forcefully, the pathologies of American society and politics will continue to throw up cranks like LaRouche, even if he reached heights few others could attain. Looking at the America of 2019, it seems LaRouche may have been closer to the mainsprings of American politics than we would like to imagine.