Like QAnon's Capitol rioters, the Nashville bomber's lizard people theory is deadly serious

Bonkers? Sure. Harmless? Definitely not.

The outlandish trope has roots in the second half of the 19th century.NBC News; Getty Images

The deadly Capitol siege was fueled by far-out conspiracy theorists, including Ashli Babbitt, a QAnon supporter fatally shot by police as she tried to breach a barricaded doorway. Meanwhile, federal investigators are still looking into the belief system of Anthony Quinn Warner, who made statements about a conspiracy of lizard people taking over the planet before the explosion that damaged 41 buildings and injured three people in Nashville, Tennessee, on Christmas Day.

The notion of shape-shifting, blood-sucking reptilian humanoids invading Earth to control the human race sounds like a cheesy sci-fi plot.

Many are scratching their heads. Why are people embracing such bizarre ideas?

The notion of shape-shifting, blood-sucking reptilian humanoids invading Earth to control the human race sounds like a cheesy sci-fi plot. But it's actually a very old trope with disturbing links to anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic hostilities dating to the 19th century.

Bonkers? Sure. Harmless? Definitely not.

Law enforcement sources say Warner's writings indicate his interest in a number of conspiracy theories — including the lizard people takeover. He may even have had a pastime of hunting such aliens in the park. Before the blast, Warner sent packages to friends filled with material expounding on his bizarre worldview. They included a letter that began "Hey Dude, You will never believe what I found in the park."

The world-ruled-by-lizard-people fantasy shot to prominence in recent years in part through the ramblings of David Icke, a popular British sports reporter-turned-conspiracy theorist known for his eccentric ideas.

Icke would have you believe that a race of reptilian beings not only invaded Earth, but that it also created a genetically modified lizard-human hybrid race called the "Babylonian Brotherhood," which, he maintains, is busy plotting a worldwide fascist state. This sinister cabal of global reptilian elites boasts a membership list including former President Barack Obama, Queen Elizabeth II of Great Britain, former Federal Reserve Chairman Alan Greenspan and Mick Jagger.

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This nonsense is espoused by a variety of internet conspiracy-mongers, including far-right, Trump-loving QAnon adherents, one of whom was accused in 2019 of murdering his own brother because he thought he was a lizard. As many as 12 million Americans believed in this lizard people conspiracy in a 2013 Public Policy Polling survey. It's safe to assume the number is higher today.

This nonsense is espoused by a variety of conspiracy-mongers, including one of whom was accused of murdering his own brother because he thought he was a lizard.

The outlandish trope has roots in the second half of the 19th century, when the Industrial Revolution, Darwin's theory of evolution and rapid scientific advances upended time-honored traditional ways of life, leaving people unsettled and unsure what to believe. It emerged more strongly toward the end of the century, when anxieties about perceived outsiders, especially Jewish ones, were fueled by waves of immigrants flooding urban centers in Great Britain and the United States in search of economic prosperity and religious freedom. The tide of immigrants ignited cultural conflicts, as well as health and sanitation crises, in cities that lacked adequate infrastructure for the millions of arrivals.

Amid this tumult, a colorful array of gurus and charismatic figures arrived on the scene claiming secret knowledge of world affairs and answers to burning questions. The writings of the Russian-born mystic Helena Blavatsky, the founder of Theosophy, bristle with cosmic energies and mysterious knowledge — including her claim of an ancient race of dragon men from a lost continent mentioned in her esoteric 1888 tome, "The Secret Doctrine."

Blavatsky's florid imagination influenced a slew of artists and writers, including, as political scientist Michael Barkun notes, one Robert E. Howard. His widely popular "Conan the Barbarian" stories in the early 20th century featured reptilian humanoids who deploy their shape-changing and mind-control talents to dominate humanity.

Bram Stoker's "Dracula," the 1897 tale of a Romanian vampire who plans to take over London using his renowned shape-shifting abilities, also carries traces of this trope. The count possesses a number of reptilian qualities — from his association with the knightly Order of the Dragon, from which his name derives, to his cold-blooded nature and talent for shimmying down walls lizard-fashion.

Dracula's protruding teeth, pointed ears and blood-sucking habits mark him as a species apart, a motif of "othering" read by some critics as code for Jewishness. From this perspective, Stoker's book is part of the British response to the increasing numbers of Jewish immigrants arriving from Eastern Europe. The vampire is a stealthy invader, passing as a proper citizen but secretly plotting domination and destruction.

Blood-sucking, as Stephanie Winkler observes, is a common metaphor for greed, a trait often linked to Anglo-Jews associated with banking and stock trading. This coupling of Jewishness and greedy blood-sucking gained momentum as wealthy British Jews — such as banker Baron Lionel de Rothschild, who was admitted to the House of Commons in 1858 — gained influence in society. Eventually, paranoia that Jews, through their financial power and connections to royalty, would seize the opportunity to take over an empire facing ever more complex challenges helped drive the mounting anti-Semitism.

Does any of this sound familiar? It should, because today's internet postings by conspiracy theorists often carry traces of just the sort of anti-immigrant and anti-Semitic tensions that show up in history whenever segments of the population feel betrayed by elites and fear loss of their own social and economic status.

It may not surprise you that Icke, who wrote a theosophical work about the origins of Earth, also endorses the infamous anti-Semitic forgery "The Protocols of the Elders of Zion," which appeared in 1903 and was likely created by the Russian czar's secret police. Henry Ford, for one, helped circulate the pamphlet, which purported to reveal a secret Jewish society conspiring to control the banks, the media and, ultimately, the entire Earth. Though it was quickly discredited, the Nazis used it as propaganda.

Icke denies animosity toward Jewish people. But whether he is or isn't deliberately using the notion of reptilian invaders as coded anti-Semitism, it is nonetheless the case that the idea tends to circulate, as writer Miikka Jaarte points out, among neo-Nazis, Illuminati conspiracy proponents and various other groups that insist that we are being manipulated by sinister "puppeteers" who often just happen to be Jewish. Billionaire George Soros is a frequent bête noire among this crowd, and he is often depicted as a world-dominating reptile.

The lizard takeover, with its Jewish-cabal links, has, unfortunately, become so commonplace that it even made an appearance in Netflix's hit sci-fi series "The Umbrella Academy" — now taking some heat for its alleged use of anti-Semitic tropes in the form of a shadowy society of lizard people who run the world, complete with a Yiddish-speaking villain.

History shows that when panic is rising, institutions seem to be failing and the masses feel betrayed by wealthy elites, finding scapegoats can seem alluring. If charismatic influencers are able to channel the grievances toward secret cabals, immigrants and religious groups, eventually, something terrible is likely to happen.

The real problems, however, won't change.