WASHINGTON — Often described as an extremist crank and fringe figure, Lyndon H. LaRouche Jr. cut a shadowy and alarming path through American politics for a half-century. He built a political organization often likened to a cult and ran for president eight times, once while in prison for mail fraud.
In recent decades, he operated from a heavily guarded compound near Leesburg, Va.
Mr. LaRouche, who built a worldwide following based on conspiracy theories, economic doom, anti-Semitism, homophobia, and racism, died Feb. 12. He was 96.
His political organization, Larouche PAC, confirmed the death but did not say where or how he died.
Mr. LaRouche, who grew up in Lynn, Mass., drew headlines for his more outrageous claims: that England’s Queen Elizabeth II was a drug trafficker and that the International Monetary Fund created and spread the AIDS virus. He also said the CIA, KGB, and British intelligence officials were plotting to assassinate him, according to a 1985 Washington Post profile that included interviews with followers.
LaRouchians, as the group was known, never numbered more than 3,000, according to some estimates, but were a vocal, sometimes disturbing presence on the American political landscape. They heckled, harassed, and occasionally threatened opponents.
His followers ‘‘made extraordinary inroads into American politics, surpassing the achievements of any other extremist movement in recent American history,’’ wrote Dennis King, a New York-based LaRouche expert in his 1989 book ‘‘Lyndon LaRouche and the New American Fascism.’’
‘‘They built a nationwide election machine that fielded thousands of candidates in Democratic primaries in the mid-1980s, frequently picking up 20 percent or more of the vote and winning dozens of nominations for public office,’’ he wrote.
Members of his National Democratic Policy Committee ran several hundred candidates a year in state and local elections, and won many local seats and Democratic Party posts in the 1980s.
LaRouche candidates often ran disguised campaigns on mainstream tickets in an effort to trick voters into voting for them; one of their methods was to campaign under a misleading slogan such as ‘‘F.D.R. Democrats.’’
During the 1984 presidential election, Mr. LaRouche received more than 76,000 votes, his highest count. Calling himself a conservative Democrat that year, he aligned his followers with the strong military and defense posture of the Reagan White House.
His campaigns proved financially lucrative. By raising $5,000 in 20 states, he qualified for federal matching funds that brought his organization millions of dollars over the years.
His operation suffered a massive blow in 1988 after he was convicted of income-tax evasion, mail fraud, and a scheme that took money without permission from the credit card accounts of elderly donors. He served five years of a 15-year sentence and ran his 1992 campaign from a federal prison in Rochester, Minn.
In appearance, the bow-tie-sporting, Mr. LaRouche was more avuncular than reactionary firebrand. He was raised in a Quaker family that was also drawn to fervent anticommunism. As a young adult, Mr. LaRouche seemed to reject his upbringing and became a socialist ideologue, but his rambling and paranoid style increasingly sidelined him within that marginal faction.
In the late 1960s, he attracted well-educated, Vietnam-era liberals who found enlightenment in his stream-of-consciousness blend of philosophy, economics, and science and his purported belief that the working class was endangered by a conspiracy between the Soviet Union and the United States.
Within a few years, his vision shifted far rightward and became ultraconservative and apocalyptic, and he presented himself as the moral savior of mankind.
Mr. LaRouche denounced those he deemed a danger to his cause — a rotating list of villains that included prosecutors, politicians, bankers, and Zionists. LaRouche followers could be confrontational with those they viewed as dangers to society.
A LaRouchian once hissed insults at former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger as he was walking through Newark International Airport. A physical altercation then ensued between Kissinger’s wife, Nancy, and the LaRouchian. Nancy Kissinger was acquitted of charges.
Mr. LaRouche ‘‘leads what may well be one of the strangest political groups in American history,’’ the conservative Heritage Foundation wrote in a 1984 report. ‘‘LaRouche has managed to attract a small but fanatical following to his conspiratorial view of the world.’’
According to King, the LaRouche expert, those who did not embrace his views or who wanted to leave the group were branded as communists and traitors.
Mr. LaRouche was said to exert strong control over the personal lives of his disciples. In interviews over the years, many former members likened him to a cult leader who was obsessed with their sexual desires and challenged their mental toughness.
The LaRouche movement eventually became a multimillion-dollar industry, according to King. Mr. LaRouche’s properties included publications such as Executive Intelligence Review and political front groups such as the Fusion Energy Foundation, the Schiller Institute, and the National Caucus of Labor Committees.
By some accounts, he attempted to monetize a large private intelligence network that compiled back-channel intelligence on corporations, governments, political parties, unions, and activists.
Lyndon Hermyle LaRouche Jr. was born in Rochester, N.H., on Sept. 8, 1922, and grew up in Lynn. His father, an executive at a shoe-manufacturing firm, also edited an anticommunist newspaper.
He attended Northeastern University in Boston but left, according to his memoir, ‘‘The Power of Reason,’’ when teachers refused to indulge in his questioning of accepted truths in geometry class. He was a conscientious objector at the outbreak of World War II and served as an Army medic in Burma, according to the 1985 Post profile.
LaRouche associates have said their leader was drawn to revolutionary politics after the war, inspired by India’s independence from British rule. He joined the Socialist Workers Party, a Trotskyist group. Later, in New York City, he led socialist study groups. He supported himself, at times, by working as a management consultant.
In 1977, Mr. LaRouche married Helga Zepp, a German-born LaRouche organizer. The think tank he founded, the Schiller Institute, was led by his wife. They moved from New York to Loudoun County, Va., by the mid-1980s. A complete list of survivors was not immediately available.