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A Nation of Birthers

Why are Americans so prone to conspiracy theories? Jesse Walker explains in The United States of Paranoia.

As elaborate and bewildering as they often seem, conspiracy theories address a very simple psychological need: they offer an explanation for evil. This is why conspiracy theories always proliferate in the shadow of great trauma, such as that produced by World War I, the assassination of JFK, and 9/11.

But conspiracy theories also have a political function: they provide ideologues, partisans, and religious zealots with a narrative to explain away their defeats and to cast their mission in the dramatic, even apocalyptic, language of good versus evil. Sadly, some radicalized conservatives became a case study in this phenomenon following the election of Barack Obama as president in 2008.

Tea Party activists, fringe libertarians such as Alex Jones, and even some commentators on Fox News, have compared Obamacare to policies imposed by the Nazis, spread debunked theories about the president’s birthplace, and claimed that he has a secret plan to destroy the American economy (the so-called “Cloward-Piven strategy”) so he can construct a socialist worker state on its ashes. Others accused Obama of plotting with the Muslim Brotherhood to impose shariah on the United States or of conspiring to send political dissidents to FEMA camps. These theories are not embraced by mainstream Republicans or libertarians, but they have nonetheless provided liberal critics with an easy avenue to discredit conservative politicians and ideas.

Jesse Walker, books editor for Reason, supplies a needed counterpoint in The United States of Paranoia. The author does not try to defend the unhinged theories spouted by the likes of Jones and Glenn Beck. Instead, he argues that U.S. political culture, on all sides, has been infused with a spirit of wild-eyed fear-mongering since the nation’s founding. Paranoia isn’t a hallmark of conservatism. It’s a hallmark of America.

The Founding Fathers themselves were big-time conspiracy-mongers, Walker reports. George Washington, for instance, accused the Brits of hatching “a regular Systematick Plan” to turn colonists into “tame & abject Slaves.” Much of this over-the-top language found its way into the Declaration of Independence, which presented George III as a sort of 18th-century Stalin.

Once the United States came into being, bickering federalists and anti-federalists co-opted such hyperbole for their own purposes. One delegate to the 1787 constitutional convention, for instance, called the blueprint that emerged “the most complete, most abject system of slavery that the wit of man ever devised, under the pretense of forming a government of free states.” When John Adams became president, rumors spread that he would interlock his family with British royalty and thereby become “King of America.” Is that really so different from Rush Limbaugh’s claims that Barack Obama is plotting to become America’s “socialist dictator”?

Indeed, Walker argues that the seeds of American paranoia were planted at least a century before the revolution that brought the United States into existence. Early settlers from Britain spread all sorts of fantastical stories about local Indian tribes. During King Philip’s War in the 1670s, many settlers believed that their Indian foes were Satan-worshippers who had been brought to the New World by the devil himself.

Much of America’s paranoid spirit, Walker argues, is connected to religion—in particular, the phobic attitude of Puritans to Shakers, Mormons, Adventists, Oneidans, and other Christian offshoots. Catholics often were especially feared because their faith was presumed to put them in league with a foreign power (usually the French). Convents were imagined to be full of sex slaves, as well as armies of papist foot soldiers set on conquering the continent.

Walker’s chapter on the Salem witch trials supplies a concise and finely written summary of the events of 1692 and 1693. But he also uses the episode to push forward a libertarian-tinged thesis about the role of government in the incubation of popular paranoia. Until the Salem witch trials, the author notes, “the use of malevolent magic was difficult to prove, so the New England courts were ordinarily reluctant to take on such cases. But now the state was throwing itself into the conflict, creating a situation closer in spirit to Europe’s persecutions than to traditional tiffs between neighbors.”

In this case, the state’s interest was to sniff out a demonic plot to subvert Massachusetts’s Puritan mission. But over the next three centuries, the state would turn its phobic gaze to abolitionists, tramps, strikers, communists, Japanese Americans, pacifists, student activists, black-power leaders, and survivalists. We often think of paranoia as something that ordinary citizens direct at their government. The overarching theme of Walker’s book is that government just as often returns the favor.

Walker is a media historian at heart. (His first book, published in 2001, was Rebels on the Air: An Alternative History of Radio in America.) And The United States of Paranoia is filled with all sort of interesting excursions into pop culture. In his section on the ludicrous anti-German hatred that enveloped America in 1917, for instance—the city of Pittsburgh banned Beethoven—he reproduces a fascinating strip from the comic Katzenjammer Kids, in which the title characters tell a judge that they are actually Dutch: “Chudge, ve vant our dod-gasted name changed! Ve iss from Holland by Edam-On-Der-Cheese, but ven ve get tooken for choimans it’s a ding-busted nuisance!”

Elsewhere, Walker illustrates the “Enemy Within” brand of American paranoia (more on this typology below) with a lengthy and detailed discussion of the various extraterrestrial body-snatcher movies of the Cold War period. Another chapter contains a standalone analysis of all four “Rambo” films and their evolving message about America’s malign elites. Jesse Walker is a deep political thinker, but he evidently also has spent much of his life watching some extremely bad movies.

The United States of Paranoia is a loosely organized book. Most of the chapters begin with a sketch of some conspiratorial mania drawn from the history books and then proceed therefrom in a stream-of-consciousness manner. Over the course of the book, Walker attempts to assign conspiracy theories into four broad categories: the Enemy Within (as described above), the Enemy Below (slave-revolt plots, tramp scares, and the like), the Enemy Abroad (modern Islamist phobias would supply an example), and the Enemy Above. For purposes of understanding the current political climate, this latter category is the most important since it covers both left-wing theories about Wall Street and right-wing theories about One World Government and the like.

In Chapter six, “Conspiracies of Angels,” Walker also adds in a fifth, benevolent type: the Christian and New Age view that supernatural forces are in conspiracy to bring peace, harmony, and happiness to our world. In its most harmless form, the conspiracy of angels manifests in the angel-shaped tchotchkes that appear on car dashboards and the child-goes-to-heaven genre of non-fiction literature. But it also can lead to the creation of religious cults led by unhinged rip-off artists—as detailed in Walker’s fascinating profile of Christian/wiccan conspiracy theorist and serial sex criminal John Todd (1950–2007), who roamed the country telling congregations of a world-domination plot involving witches, the Illuminati, Ayn Rand, Big Oil, Elton John, and the Denny’s restaurant chain.sep-issuethumb

“It isn’t clear to what extent Todd was a con man and to what extent he was a crazy man,” Walker writes. Then again, the distinction doesn’t seem to matter much to the author: The United States of Paranoia is based on historical sources, not interviews, and Walker is far less interested in the inner lives of the conspiracy theorists he profiles than in showing how their seemingly disconnected fantasies fuse together into one grand American paranoid pastiche.

Describing this pastiche is an ambitious intellectual project. But at times, Walker’s approach seems overly reductionist. As the author describes it, “paranoia” is a broad label that can be applied to just about any activist group, Internet discussion forum, lone nutbar, cleric, politician, or agency that exhibits any sort of unfounded fear. Toward the end of the book, as his libertarian stripes become more apparent, Walker exploits this broadly constructed definition of paranoia to draw dubious comparison between dangerous, hard-boiled conspiracy theorists and the government agents seeking to monitor them.

In one breath, for instance, Walker describes the CSA, a failed terrorist group whose rabidly racist leadership warned followers of a coming “one-world Zionist Communist government,” under which “witches and satanic Jews will offer people up as sacrifices to their gods, openly and proudly; blacks will rape and kill white women and will torture and kill white men; homosexuals will sodomize whoever they can, [and] all but the elect will have the mark of the Beast.” Then, on the next page, Walker discusses the disastrous government interventions at Ruby Ridge and Waco and argues that these episodes show that, in one sense, the FBI, ATF, and CSA are all just peas in a pod because they all succumb to “violence” that is motivated by “paranoia.” It’s a nice linguistic trick. But to my mind, the comparison is completely unwarranted: the episodic overreaching and violent clumsiness of national police organizations that are charged with defending more than 300 million people from criminals and terrorists cannot be casually compared to the unhinged hatemongering of groups such as the CSA.

Such libertarian excesses notwithstanding, Walker has produced a book worth reading. In the Obama age, liberals like to pretend that the fight between left and right is fundamentally a struggle between enlightenment and fear. But as The United States of Paranoia demonstrates, political and religious fear-mongering has been a near-universal constant of public life in this country for more than three centuries. It’s a ding-busted nuisance—but it’s as American as Denny’s.

Jonathan Kay is managing editor for comment at the National Post in Canada and a fellow at the Foundation for Defense of Democracies in Washington, D.C.