Why Dumb-Ass Conspiracy Theories Are An American Tradition
If you've been paying any attention to the way the right-wing media has been criticizing Hillary Clinton recently, you've heard whispers about the "Clinton body count" -- a conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary and Bill have been covertly assassinating their most troublesome foes and critics for several decades. Of course, it's complete bullshit (surprise!), and as much as the pundits are trying to make it a Big Election Thing, it won't have any noticeable effect on the votes. The only impact will be felt by the families who have to watch their deceased loved ones swung around and used as sledgehammers in this bizarre Gallagher routine of an election.
"No no, it's Mike Gallagher, Newt."
As tempted as you might be to shake your fists at the sky at how we've allowed conspiracy theories to get legitimate traction within our electoral system, you might be reassured to know that this sort of thing isn't new. Americans simply have a short memory (ask the guy who shot Cecil the Lion). Accusing presidents and presidential candidates of being duplicitous, Armani-wearing werewolves who slaughter their interns every fiscal quarter to feed their insatiable thirst for the blood of the innocent is a proud tradition within our democracy, on par with attack ads and not bothering to vote. In fact, stupid conspiracy theories might actually be keeping us sane.
When he wasn't being called the Antichrist by both religious loonies and his political opponents (some of whom were religious loonies), Obama's 2008 and 2012 presidential campaigns were dogged by accusations that he wasn't born in the United States and therefore wasn't eligible for office. It was crazy, racist horseshit ... which 58 percent of GOP voters believed and which, contrary to popular belief, was initially popularized by Hillary supporters during the 2008 primaries. This act of bipartisan hackery prospered among the hardcore anti-Obamantichrists on the left and right, and it perhaps later softened the blow of having a president in office whom they never, ever wanted. We know that the birther sentiment never disappeared during his first term -- over 25 percent of voters still believed the conspiracies, a figure which only dropped to 13 percent after Obama released his long-form birth certificate. The Antichrist rumors, meanwhile, remain uninvestigated.
You know this is painted on a panel van somewhere.
It was the exact same situation for George W. Bush in 2004 (we didn't have a hashtag for it, because they hadn't been invented yet). A wildly-imaginative bipartisan conspiracy prospered among his most vocal critics during an election run-up, only to get more and more intense after his victory.
Although the conspiracy theories surrounding 9/11 began before the dust had even settled, they were really kicked up a notch as Decision 2004 approached. Starting out in the left, they hitched themselves to wagons like Fahrenheit 9/11 and began their insensitive march across the political frontier, collecting members of the anti-government right like dysentery cases as they went. In October 2004, a highly publicized petition signed by public officials and relatives of those killed in the attacks was released which accused the administration of "deliberately [allowing] 9/11 to happen, perhaps as a pretext for war."
All you need to blow the lid off the government's evil plans is $130-$180 and the ability to make paper airplanes.
It was only during his second term that the "Bush did 9/11" conspiracy train switched tracks from Crazytown to FuckThatGuyville. In April 2005, the first cut of Loose Change -- essentially Blackfish for the tinfoil hat brigade -- was released to widespread acclaim from people who don't know how science works, while the government became so inundated with conspiratorial bullshit that they had to create a website specially dedicated to debunking it all. These conspiracy theories had formed a movement so powerful and unstoppable that ... it pretty much collapsed after Bush left office in 2008. Huh.
Whenever you look at these types of conspiracies in detail, you'll find that the obsession with truth, justice, and restoring the system only extends as far as the presidential career of their target. It's not as if GWB is shackled up in a black site as punishment for apparently coordinating the worst terrorist attack in history. He retired to Texas and took up painting. And we'd probably be looking at the end of birther conspiracies if Donald Trump hadn't gone on to make them a mainstay of his political career.
Little did we know that he was doing us all a favor the whole time.
And that's the point. We use conspiracy theories like these to keep us from going crazy with the knowledge that we're being led by people we didn't vote for. As long as we hold these cardboard battleaxes over their heads, they'll never be "real" presidents in our minds -- just a bunch of criminals who undermined the democratic process and will be kicked out once the "true" president arrives. It's no accident that this is nearly always a candidate from our side of the political spectrum; the intense "you're either with us or against us" dichotomy of our system provides a fertile breeding ground for lunatic rhetoric, and perhaps it's why you don't hear much about overseas political conspiracies. A vast number of political systems in the world consist of three or more parties, so any insane outbursts are the equivalent of peeing in a swimming pool as opposed to a drinking glass; it gets diluted into nothingness.
As for other conspiracies, there's plenty to dish out. George H.W. Bush was suspected of helping to coordinate the assassination of JFK -- who, along with Ronald Reagan and FDR, was accused of being the Antichrist. Which is weird, because we'd sure as hell remember something about the false prophet being a Voltron-esque mass of presidential torsos. Oh, and in case you were worried that truthers are a byproduct of the internet, there were also "FDR did Pearl Harbor" and "Chester A. Arthur is a Dirty Foreigner" movements.
"The only thing we have to fear is people with too much free time."
The prize for best political conspiracy, however, goes to the guys who tried to hinder Thomas Jefferson's presidential dreams by proclaiming he was, no shit, going to end the world. Step up, Infowars. By comparison, it doesn't look like you're trying that hard.
When we don't like the people in charge, we concoct conspiracies to bring them down, and when that doesn't work, we cling to them as a constant reminder of how broken the system is, how shadowy elites rule everything, and how that'll change when our preferred candidate gets into office. Our country was founded on a process kick-started by crazy conspiracies. It's in our culture. We're not saying that you have to embrace it. But be aware that Breitbart is possibly the only thing standing between us and the next full-scale insurrection. We've yet to decide whether that's a good thing or not.
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