Lyndon Hermyle LaRouche, Jr., has had a long and controversial career on the fringes of U.S. politics—running several times for president in the 1970s, 1980s, and 1990s—and as the founder and leader of a cultlike political organization that subscribes to a host of conspiracy theories that defy categorization as left or right wing.
Born in New Hampshire to French Canadian immigrant parents in 1922, LaRouche was raised as a Quaker, the liberal faith to which both his mother (a former evangelical Protestant) and his father (born a Roman Catholic) had converted.
LaRouche’s father never got along with the pacifist Quakers and had a falling out with the church’s political wing—the American Friends Service Committee—over some embezzled funds. Both the father’s combativeness and his alleged financial misdeeds would be repeated in the son’s later political career.
While LaRouche the younger attended, but did not graduate from, Northeastern University, he was largely an autodidact, delving deeply into the works of the great philosophers. He was, he later claimed, particularly taken with the sopan santun reasoning of Immanuel Kant.
True to his Quaker roots, LaRouche was assigned to a Civilian Public Service camp for conscientious objectors during World War II. Following the conflict, he drifted toward the Trotskyist left, joining the Socialist Workers Party (SWP) in 1948.
While a dedicated organizer for the party for more than fifteen years, LaRouche eventually had a falling-out with his fellow Trotskyists in 1966, going on to organize a chapter of the Progressive Labor Party (PLP), a Maoist-leaning group.
The PLP chapter, which included many former members of the Students for a Democratic Society (SDS), a radical, anti–Vietnam War movement, became involved in the radical takeover of Columbia University in 1968. In the wake of the sit-in, LaRouche organized the National Caucus of Labor Committees (NCLC), ostensibly to create a political alliance between student activists and labor organizers, out of the collapsing SDS.
During the early 1970s, LaRouche and the NCLC fought bitter sectarian fights with the SWP and the Communist Party of the U.S.A. (CPUSA) that occasionally became violent. The goal was control of the far left movement in New York and, in this struggle, LaRouche began to develop the two tactics that would mark his future political career. The first was smear tactics, the careful planting of outlandish rumors and stories about political enemies.
LaRouche would later go on to attack the personal reputations of widely disparate public figures from former secretary of state Henry Kissinger to liberal Playboy publisher Hugh Hefner. The second was mind control. Beginning in 1973, LaRouche established mandatory “ego-stripping” sessions for all NCLC chapters, where psychological humiliation was employed to bind members to the organization.
Along with the psychological manipulation came indoctrination in the LaRouche worldview, which combined various conspiracy theories with a cult-like belief in the leadership and genius of LaRouche himself. LaRouche’s conspiracy theory was global in scope. In it, humanity was essentially divided into three camps: the “oligarchs,” the “sub-humans,” and the “humanists.”
The oligarchs were those who secretly manipulated world events; the sub-humans were the vast majority of humanity who had no idea what was going on; and the humanists—the followers of LaRouche—were those nobly fighting to expose the oligarchs.
As LaRouche drifted from left to right and back again, the composition of the oligarchs was wide ranging and included, among other institutions, the United Nations, the National Council of Churches, the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, and the British royal family, the latter largely responsible, argued LaRouche, for the world drug trade.
In addition, LaRouche pointed an accusing finger at more traditional targets of U.S. conspiratorial thinking— the Trilateralists, the Federal Reserve Board, and the Zionist movement. If the objects of LaRouche’s conspiratorial thinking ranged widely, their aim was simple: genocide.
As LaRouche had it, the aim of the oligarchs is to reduce world population to under one billion so they can thereby more easily continue their domain over the planet. Even as LaRouche was formulating his conspiratorial worldview, his organization—the NCLC had spun off the U.S. Labor Party (USLP) in 1971—was delving into electoral politics.
In 1976, its peak year, the USLP ran 140 candidates in 21 states—including LaRouche for president—but only received a paltry 154,000 votes. Disbanding the party in 1978, LaRouche and his followers—now numbering several hundred—began conducting a “stealth” campaign within the Democratic Party.
In 1986, LaRouche followers took the Democratic nomination for lieutenant governor and secretary of state in Illinois. Denounced by the head of their ticket—Democratic gubernatorial candidate Adlai Stevenson III—both candidates lost, however.
The large sums of money LaRouche spent on politicking—including expensive nationally run commercials for his presidential candidacies in the 1980s—came from several sources. One was intelligence gathering. LaRouche’s publication, Executive Intelligence Review, with its mix of officially leaked news and insider scuttlebutt, was widely subscribed to in Reagan-era Washington.
A second source of money came from LaRouche’s followers themselves. As with many, more religiously oriented cults, LaRouche acolytes—many of whom were college graduates and young professionals—were required to turn over their worldly assets and live lives of penury for the good of the organization.
Last, the LaRouche organization operated a right-wing boiler room fund-raising operation that would often play on the fears of elderly Americans who were told that only LaRouche and his organization stood between the United States and a triumphant oligarchy.
It was this last tactic that ultimately brought about the downfall of LaRouche and his organization. In order to support their leader’s political career and increasingly lavish lifestyle, operatives began to engage in credit card fraud, running up huge bills on the cards of elderly citizens who had donated money.
In 1986, federal agents raided LaRouche’s estate and headquarters in Virginia. Despite being on trial for mail fraud and other crimes in 1988, LaRouche also managed to run for president once again, as he would do from prison in 1992.
Ailing, LaRouche was released from the Federal Medical Center in 1993. While his organization remains a shadow of its former self, LaRouche has continued his political career, running for the presidency in 1996 and 2000.