David DePape did not seem like your typical right-wing militant.
A Canadian who moved to the Bay Area about 20 years ago, he became a pro-nudity activist, frequently showing skin to protest city ordinances mandating clothing. He had an on-again-off-again relationship with Russian-American pro-nudity activist Gypsy Taub and worked as a hemp jewelry maker. As of 2014, he was a member of the Green Party.
But DePape wasn’t all nude protests, hemp jewelry and sunshine. His relationship with Taub, a 9/11 truther who hosted a public access television series called “Uncensored 9/11,” demonstrated his proximity to the conspiracy world. DePape’s mental health was also tumultuous: He spent a year believing that he was Jesus, and several people who knew him have described him as prone to paranoia and megalomania.
DePape’s internet presence paints a disturbing picture. Posts in his since-deleted blog expressed support for QAnon, claiming the country was ruled by satanic, pedophilic elites. In another blog, he made a variety of antisemitic claims, among them that Jews financed Hitler’s rise to power in Germany.
After these and other conspiratorial posts, DePape broke into the home of former House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and attacked her husband, Paul Pelosi, with a hammer.
DePape’s story, that of a left-wing Green Party nudist living in Berkeley turned violent fascist, may seem unusual, but he’s far from the only one to fall down the “woo-to-Q pipeline,” in which New Agers become right-wing conspiracy theorists.
The American zeitgeist tends to associate New Agers with the cultural left, with imagery tied to the hippie movement of the 1960s and an outlook that is, on its surface, multicultural and anticlerical. But the New Age tent is a big one, ranging from now-mainstream practices like yoga and acupuncture to fringe practices like astral projection and urine therapy. It has no centralized body, and no defined orthodoxies other than, perhaps, a skepticism of established authority.
This eclectic umbrella means the New Age movement defies clean political classification, although the resistance to the establishment can converge with populism. “Many of the ideas within it don’t immediately fit into neat political categories of left and right, but they can often help form political positions,” Philip Deslippe, a historian of American religion at UC Santa Barbara, wrote in an email.
Deslippe notes the “positive thinking” movement as an example. Developing out of the late-19th-century “New Thought” movement, positive thinking asserts that success and health can be manifested via one’s mental state. Positive thinking has been highly influential in New Age circles over the years but is perhaps best known to the modern mainstream for its influence on Rhonda Byrne’s 2006 self-help film and book of the same name, The Secret, which was reported in 2020 to have sold more than 35 million copies worldwide.
“If success is a matter of your own thoughts and mindset, or if you can control your health through just your own actions, you’ve made everything a matter of personal responsibility and largely eliminated the reasons for social programs,” notes Deslippe. “That can be one reason why there was such a turn from the New Age toward reactionary politics and conspiratorial thinking over the last few years, the individual trumping the social.” Much of New Age thought places value on the individual’s thoughts and inner guidance, whether in shaping their conditions or as a source of truth. This can create a pathway to claims that problems beyond the scope of one’s individual effort or understanding are the result of vast, centuries-old conspiracies.
Further contributing to conspiratorial thinking is the claim that many New Age groups and believers deal in claims of “stigmatized knowledge,” a phrase coined by sociologist Michael Barkun to describe knowledge rejected or left uninvestigated by our fact-verifying institutions. Whether it’s a wellness guru claiming their immune system-enhancing tea is something the medical system doesn’t want you to know about, or a UFO cult providing their history of Roswell, many New Age advocates offer ostensibly esoteric truths to their peers.
“I think at the heart of stigmatized knowledge is the stigmatized healer, or knowledge bearer, who believes that they have life experiences that give them access to mystical intuition but that people don’t believe those experiences, so they won’t accept the knowledge that comes naturally from those experiences,” says Matthew Remski, a researcher, yoga practitioner and host of the Conspirituality podcast. Stigmatized healers can wear their marginalization by fact-verifying institutions as badges of honor, paradoxically demonstrating their trustworthiness to their followers.
Claims of stigmatized knowledge are not inherently untrue: Indeed, it is often the case that stigmatized knowledge later becomes publicly accepted. An example of this would be Project MKUltra, a series of illegal and inhumane experiments on human subjects conducted by the CIA during the Cold War. Initially the subject of a cover-up and denial by the CIA, the program was eventually revealed to be real by the Rockefeller commission.
One wellness influencer, Kelly Brogan, cites MKUltra in her eBook Owning Yourself In the Time of COVID-19 as evidence that the COVID-19 pandemic could be a manufactured “false flag” event. Brogan neatly fits Remski’s model of the stigmatized healer. A former psychiatrist (her board certification expired at the end of 2019), Brogan has renounced psychiatric medicine along with vaccines, the connection between HIV and AIDS, and germ theory, and often promotes herself as a former medical professional who saw past the lies of the medical establishment. In telling her personal story, Brogan notes that she suffered from Hashimoto’s thyroiditis, for which she was unsuccessfully prescribed medication for years before curing it with dietary changes. In 2020, Brogan, a former writer for Gwyneth Paltrow’s Goop, was named one of The Center For Countering Digital Hate’s “Disinformation Dozen,” the 12 social media influencers most responsible for the spread of anti-vax misinformation.
The medical establishment, much like the CIA, has at times abused the public’s trust: Whether it’s the opioid epidemic or the continuing history of medical racism in America, the practice of medicine is not ethically spotless. And even in the best of circumstances, our engagements with medicine do not always engender trust.
“Doctors have 10-15 minutes with patients, at least in the allopathic model of care,” says Stevie Inghram, a certified yoga therapist and student of naturopathy at Sonoran University of Health Sciences. “How can you expect to not only do what’s needed to care for a patient’s chronic condition but then simultaneously in the midst of a pandemic, also in that same appointment, address a patient’s concern about a new vaccination that’s just come to market?” Inghram often finds herself in a difficult position, as someone who supports both pharmaceutical and holistic approaches to medicine. In spite of her continued critiques of the medical system, she says this approach often results in her being dubbed a “big pharma shill” by others within New Age spaces.
When celebrities turn to conspiracy, there can be even wider repercussions given their large audiences. Russell Brand, who became famous for films such as Forgetting Sarah Marshall, now hosts a web series called Stay Free With Russell Brand on Rumble, a video sharing platform mainly popular with the American right. Brand, who credits Kundalini yoga in part for helping him overcome his struggles with substance addiction, was once heavily associated with left-wing British politics, was an ardent Labour Party supporter and an anti-war activist. But he took a hard-right turn during the pandemic; recent titles from Stay Free’s Rumble channel include “Shhh… Don’t Mention The Vaccines,” “IT’S COMING: Tim Pool & Russell Brand Discuss The Collapse of America,” and “Ukraine & The New World Order.”
These shows are notable for the tone of Brand’s coverage of systemic issues. The military-industrial complex, medical industry, United States government, big tech and the mainstream media are not simply presented as separate, if untrustworthy institutions that often have mutually exclusive goals. Instead they are blended into the conspiracy sausage of a nebulous “they.”
Most conspiracy theorists won’t outright say that “they” are “the Jews.” Indeed, the “they” of conspiratorial thought is often explicitly cited as another group; financiers, lizard people and energy vampires are abundant in conspiratorial thought. “They’re not out there Kanye-ing around,” says Remski, “but the attitudes that they have pretty much fall down the line of the endorsement of antisemitic stereotypes.”
So conspiracy theorists don’t need to say that the world is run by Jews to say that it’s controlled by the Rothschilds, “Cultural Marxists,” financiers, Zionists, or perhaps most effectively, the unspecified “they.” But the idea of a separate group, which has achieved world domination behind the scenes and has controlled your life for centuries, is a small step from age-old conspiracy theories about Jews. By not saying that the conspiracy is explicitly Jewish, promoters can couch their arguments in social acceptability while making direct appeals to antisemitic talking points and beliefs. The false claim that the Rothschild family patented COVID tests in 2015, for instance, evokes elite Jewish puppeteers while couching itself in criticism of one family in finance.
Audiences holding an antisemitic worldview can form the Jewish connection themselves. A member of Brand’s Rumble community, responding to an episode of Stay Free discussing the World Economic Forum, commented: “They are an enormous threat and probably unstoppable now. I believe they’re creating the environment where their Masonic, New Age, Talmudic messiah, aka the Antichrist, can take power.” And there is a real market for feeding these viewpoints.
Christiane Northrup is an alternative medicine activist who became a household name in the aughts with many Oprah appearances and books such as Women’s Bodies, Women’s Wisdom. A known quantity in wellness spaces, Northrup is another wellness guru who took a hard-right turn during the pandemic, appearing at rallies with QAnon activist and former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn, posting about “The Great Awakening” and “jokingly” advocating for pediatricians who vaccinate adolescents to be executed via firing squad.
Today Northrup is also expanding upon her career-long warnings about the dangers of energy vampirism. “I thought that I wrote Dodging Energy Vampires just for the everyday narcissist in everyone’s life, like your Aunt Ruth or whoever it is. No, I was writing about a global system that has enslaved humanity and is now gaslighting the bejesus out of us,” she said in a recent interview. One need not be a dog to hear the whistle.