I have an aversion to conspiracy theories. It has little to do with whether they’re true. Indeed, some things we now consider common knowledge were once conspiracy theories. It has everything to do with the obstacles they create and political reform they undermine.
The murky notion that President Obama is some sort of secret-Kenyan-Muslim-communist is a prevalent fantasy held among some elements on the Right, from the “Birther” movement spurred on by attention-whore Donald Trump to Dinesh D’Souza’s movie “Obama 2016.” Before the election, The American Conservative’s Michael Tracey summarized D’Souza’s sleeper hit: “The central theme of D’Souza’s film is that deep-down, Obama harbors seething hatred for America, and thus his presidency has been designed to bring about its downfall by a host of surreptitious means. It’s a revolting hour-and-a-half of cinema, targeted at the most angst-ridden and pliable Americans looking for answers…”
When I was boarding a plane leaving Tampa after the Republican convention in August, I sat near two men probably in their mid-to-late 50s. Said one man, and I’m paraphrasing: “You know what you need to see? That Obama 2016 movie.” The other man replied, “Oh yeah, I heard that was really good. Gives us a good idea of what we’re really up against.”
It’s no secret what conservatives are “up against” when it comes to Barack Obama. There’s no mystery to it. From unemployment and staggering debt to ObamaCare—the president’s record is as public as it is repugnant.
Pushing conspiracy theories to “explain” Obama’s record undermines the actual awfulness of his record. What if Obama’s policies really are part of some contrived, anti-American agenda—would the president’s big government onslaught somehow be preferable if it were all-American in origin? Is the problem that the policies themselves are bad? They likely aren’t very different from what a President Hillary Clinton—or let’s face it, Mitt Romney—would have pursued. Must conservatives also prove there is some underlying, unpatriotic plot?
No secret motives are needed to explain obvious bad government.
Conservatives are usually on solid ground when they argue against Obama’s damaging policies. They are on even better ground when they can offer attractive policies of their own. But they are on counterproductive and unwinnable ground when they insist that Obama is an anti-colonial, Kenyan, secretly Muslim communist. These arguments not only sound stupid—they aren’t even arguments. The American Conservative’s James Antle captures why such thinking is entirely beside the point: “Is there anything less interesting than the theorizing about why Obama governs as he does? Obama is a liberal, and a fairly banal one at that … Yet there remains a cottage industry of explanations for why a liberal president has compiled a record of generally liberal policy positions, something akin to a discovery process as to why a quarterback is so taken with throwing touchdown passes.”
It’s no surprise that Romney lost the election given that the core message of his campaign was that he is not Obama. It should also come as no surprise that a GOP void of any positive agenda would double down on the negative. Republicans as high profile as Newt Gingrich complained about Obama’s “Kenyan, anti-colonial behavior.” When conservatives could no longer articulate what they stood for, this characteristic negativity veered deeper into conspiracy paranoia. Refusing to examine themselves, conservatives instead began subjecting their enemies to cartoonish levels of scrutiny.
Conspiracy theories are not ideas. They represent an absence of ideas. The subtext to most conspiracy theories is that there is no point in arguing over philosophies of better governance, because those who govern are beholden to secret agendas beyond the control of participatory politics. Why vote? We’re all doomed.
While such theories are not always implausible, they are also generally more fun than fact. There will always be a large audience for this stuff for the same reason Americans are more interested in Tom Cruise’s divorce or Kate Middleton’s baby than foreign or monetary policy—it’s titillating and easy.
It’s also a major distraction. As the conservative movement tries to recover, are voters more likely to listen to Republican conspiracy theorists demanding to see the President’s birth certificate and ranting about Obama’s “anti-colonial rage”?
Or liberal Democrats who believe federal stimulus and healthcare is a godsend? Who sounds crazy? Who sounds reasonable?
Like many conservatives in this election, the two men I heard on the plane speaking glowingly about D’Souza’s movie didn’t have anything particularly praiseworthy to say about Romney or the GOP, so of course they were attracted to the idea that Obama was the bogeyman of their worst nightmares. It was all they had left.
Conspiracy theories can be fun. But they will also continue to cripple any serious conservative effort to promote limited government.
Jack Hunter is the co-author of The Tea Party Goes to Washington by Sen. Rand Paul and serves as New Media Director for Senator Paul. The views presented in this essay are the author’s own and are independent of any campaign or other organization.