Conspiracy Theories Are Not Funny
Conspiracy theories are poisoning the United States. That's no joke.
Americans have a tradition of laughing at conspiracy theories that is as long as America’s strange predilection for believing that sinister cabals are working hard against all that is good and decent. However, it’s time to stop laughing at conspiracy theories, given how pernicious they are. Conspiracy theorizing has complicated American politics before, and now it is even a bigger destructive force.
I’ll admit, I’m guilty of the occasional chuckle at conspiracy theorists. While the stereotypical tin foil hat person is just silly, I did enjoy the antics of the Lone Gunmen on The X-Files. There was a memorable episode of a related TV show, Millennium, in which someone drew on every square foot of a room an elaborate map of a conspiracy in which all arrows ultimately led to himself. I used to play a conspiracy theory card game, Illuminati!, understanding that it was intended to be tongue in cheek and deliberately ridiculous. (“The Disciples of Cthulhu control the Trilateral Commission through the Boy Scouts? Who knew, but now it all makes sense!”)
At the same time, I felt a little guilty about the humor. Now, I feel very guilty. Conspiracy theory humor needs to go to the same cultural dump as the 1950s meme of horny bosses chasing secretaries around their desks, blonde jokes, and whatever the hell Micky Rooney was doing in Breakfast At Tiffany’s (and whoever voted to give him an Academy Award for doing it).
Conspiracy theories are poison. The body politic can tolerate them in small amounts, when the conspiracy theorists are a small, relatively isolated demographic. The problem is, at times in American history, they haven’t stayed on the fringes. Not surprisingly, there is a strong connection between many conspiracy theory movements and nativism. For example:
- The fear of the Bavarian Illuminati’s purported influence over world affairs goes as far back in American history as the 1790s. Fear of foreign ideas (French Jacobinism in particular) helped fuel these anxieties.
- Jacksonian populism congealed into the Anti-Masonic Party in the 1820s and 1830s, when there were fears about the immoral secret organizations working behind the scenes against the salt-of-the-earth Americans. Masons were the original focus, but eventually the aperture of fear expanded to include Catholics and Jews.
- The Know-Nothing Party saw, in an era of large Catholic immigration from Europe, a vast Catholic conspiracy against a Protestant America. The Party’s propaganda often featured cartoon versions of immoral Irishmen and lecherous priests.
These early conspiracy theories exacerbated tensions that already existed in the early history of the United States: rural versus urban; elites versus average people; nativists versus immigrants; Protestants versus Catholics. As you slide ahead in the timeline of American history, you find new conspiracy theories, such as the Red Scare.
I grew up in Orange County, California, where a contemporary conspiracy theory got its legs. The John Birch Society had 38 chapters in Orange County in the 1960s, and its membership included notables like the actor John Wayne and Walter Knott, jelly magnate and owner of the theme park Knott’s Berry Farm. Congressman John Schmitz, who represented the wealthier part of Orange County in the House of Representatives, was a very vocal supporter of the John Birch Society, and a promoter of the ideas in extremist books like None Dare Call It Treason.
In all these cases, the establishment successfully ignored, curbed, or absorbed the conspiracy theorists. (An interesting example of absorption: a Know Nothing politician elected to Congress, Nathaniel P. Banks, later switched parties and eventually became one of the Union’s “political generals” during the Civil War.) While there were scary moments for the establishment, such as the fuel that Bircher-minded right wingers added to Goldwater’s campaign in 1964, the establishment always won.
Now, the Oval Office is occupied by the conspiracy theorist in chief. Aside from his support for conspiracy theories, such as the infamous birther charge against Barack Obama, he and many of his followers display the dangerous mindset of conspiracy thinking. Enemies are everywhere. Every factual challenge to the conspiracy theory (no, there is no basement in the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in DC) can be rebutted with even more tortured thinking. People who are in positions of authority are not to be trusted, because they’re really trying to inject tracking chips into you, or harm you in some other way. This thinking is inherently anti-democratic, because there is no democratic debate with secret devils who are trying to kill or enslave you.
We now have candidates for public office who are avowed supporters of the QAnon conspiracy, so the problem isn’t confined to the Current Occupant. We are far beyond the point where the establishment can ignore conspiracy theorists, and it may not be possible to blunt them in the fashion that, say, William F. Buckley was able to provide a conservative counter-balance to Birch founder Robert Welch’s wild ravings, such as Eisenhower was a secret communist, and (yet again) the Illuminati are running the world. Instead of the establishment absorbing the conspiracy theorists, the conspiracy theorist in chief has absorbed the Republican establishment.
Therefore, there’s nothing funny about conspiracy theories. The people in real or metaphorical tinfoil hats aren’t pestering people in their community, one unhappy person at a time. They find fellow travelers and new converts through social media and other mass channels dedicated to preventing vaccinations and “proving” that the Earth is flat. They are organized and mobilized at a scale that rivals, or possibly exceeds, the Anti-Masons and the Know Nothings. That’s no laughing matter. As Richard Hofstadter ended his famous essay, “The Paranoid Style In American Politics”:
We are all sufferers from history, but the paranoid is a double sufferer, since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.
We are now trapped in these fantasies with the fantasists.