The GOP And The Conspiratorial Mindset
The wacko fringe of the GOP is increasingly finding room in the mainstream of the party.
Ever since Barack Obama became President, indeed while he was still running for office, there has been a cottage industry of conspiracy theories on the right making seemingly outrageous allegations about the President. They’ve ranged from the now familiar birther conspiracy that, even with the release of the President’s long-form birth certificate, still refuses to die, to claims that the Administration was conspiring to confiscate weapons from legal gun owners. For the most part, though, these conspiracy theories were mostly the province of the Internet and a segment of conservatism that most mainstream Republicans tried as best they could to distance themselves from. As John Avlon reports, though, it now seems like Republican politicians themselves are starting to engage in some of the same thinking as the fringe elements of their base:
A few days after the Boston bombings, Stella Tremblay went to Glenn Beck’s Facebook page to express her conviction that the terror attack was, in fact, orchestrated by the U.S. government.
“The Boston Marathon was a Black Ops ‘terrorist’ attack,” she wrote. “One suspect killed, the other one will be too before they even have a chance to speak. Drones and now ‘terrorist’ attacks by our own Government. Sad day, but a ‘wake up’ to all of us.”
She then linked to a video at Infowars.com called Proof! Boston Marathon Bombing is Staged Terror Attack.
Tremblay’s post, though, stood out from the wave of post-attack crazy because of her day job: she is a New Hampshire state legislator.
Like too many enthusiastic dupes, the Republican representative was echoing conspiracy entrepreneurs like Beck and InfoWars’ Alex Jones, who blend dark alternate history with a dystopian future, offering the listeners the “secret truth.”
Tremblay is part of a disturbing trend of – conservative state legislators and even congressmen entertaining conspiracy theories that are creepy and unseemly coming from average citizen, but a sign of civic rot when they start getting parroted by elected officials.
Tremblay isn’t alone:
This week in Missouri, state legislators voted to cut funding for the state’s divers license bureau because it had been tasked in 2003 with also overseeing concealed-carry permits. The wife of state Rep. Kenneth Wilson explained – in the words of theColumbia Tribune - that the bureau “was part of a plot to impose United Nations policies in this country. ‘I have been doing some study on U.N. Agenda 21,’ Melissa Wilson… told the committee. ‘With this information going to the federal government, I feel that I will be a target. With Agenda 21, I will be someone who will be put on a watch list.'” She added that Agenda 21 is being pushed through in part because of a mass brainwashing known as the Delphi Technique.
This is shadowy conspiracy theorist stuff, but this theory isn’t just isolated to a few folks in Missouri. Last November, the conservative head of the Georgia state legislature invited his conference to a four-hour briefing on Agenda 21. The invitation read: “How pleasant sounding names are fostering a Socialist plan to change the way we live, eat, learn, and communicate to ‘save the earth.'” The presentation was MC’d by a local Tea Party activist who is also a 9/11 Truther, and a Birther.
Even the Economist has felt compelled to weigh in on the absurdity of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories, for the record.
Adding to the reality-free high pitch of anxiety was the Texas state attorney general who – during the height of the North Korean escalation earlier this month – declared that the real danger to America wasn’t a communist dictatorship threatening to attacks us with nuclear weapons, but the Obama administration.
“One thing that requires ongoing vigilance is the reality that the state of Texas is coming under a new assault,” A.G. Greg Abbott said, according to the Waco Tribune, “an assault far more dangerous than what the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons. The threat that we’re getting is the threat from the Obama administration and his political machine.”
This is the leading elected law enforcement official in our second-largest state.
The bizarre behavior reaches all the way into the halls of Congress, where Congressman Louie Gohmert said on Friday that the Obama Administration’s response to terrorism, including the Boston Marathon attack, was being influenced by members of the Muslim Brotherhood who have inserted themselves into the Administration somehow. Now, admittedly, Gohmert has made crazy statements in the past, such as alleging that the real purpose of the 2011 intervention in Libya was to deplete the military so that Obama could raise a private army answerable only to him and that terrorists were illegally crossing into the United States for the purpose of having children in the United States who then would grow up to become citizen terrorists. So, it’s not at all surprising that he, or someone like Michele Bachmann, who last year was stoking anti-Muslim fires in her attack on Huma Abedin, are going to be saying things like this. However, as Avlon notes, it truly does seem to be becoming more common:
The fact that conspiracy theories are percolating up to local party leaders and even the halls of Congress should be a warning sign for the GOP. As the faithful know, you reap what you sow, and the steady diet of hyper-partisan media has seeded these conspiracy theories in the minds of party activists to the extent that they are starting to shape policy debates. The embarrassing incidents are evidence of a larger problem that needs to be confronted: when you do not condemn the use of hate and fear to serve as a recruiting tool against your political opponents, the ability to reason together is undermined and self-government is compromised. There is a cost to condoning extremism when it seems to benefit “your team.”
Jonathan Bernstein makes a similar point:
[S]ometimes, it’s worth remembering that — while there’s always a lunatic fringe on both sides of the aisle - the lunatic fringe among conservatives these days is firmly planted within the Republican conference, and treated by the sane part of the party, at least in public, as a legitimate, reasonable faction. Indeed, folks such as Gohmert and Michele Bachmann (who, David Taintor reminds us, has taken this McCarthyite route too) are treated by mainstream conservatives as conservatives-in-good-standing, while anyone who deviates in the other direction is rapidly ostracized as a RINO.
Democrats really don’t treat their fringe the same way. I don’t care about condemning Gohmert — but mainstream conservatives are making a big mistake, it seems to me, by allowing themselves to be defined by the worst Republicans out there.
They’re both right, of course. There are those on the right who have tried to warn their fellow Republicans and conservatives about the dangers of associating with people who push bizarre conspiracy theories or who mire themselves in the “Obama is a Socialist Muslim” (or what not) rhetoric that has been a staple on the fringe right since the day the President took office, and which has been stoked by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, Sean Hannity, Mark Levin, and Fox News Channel. To a large degree, those warnings have gone unheeded, especially when it comes to elected officials who sign on to these conspiracy theories. Gohmert and Buchanan are considered valuable members of the House Republican Caucus, rather than the fringe wackos that they actually are, and people like Allen West are seen as heroes to the conservative base. The people who denounce them, on the other hand, are labeled RINOs and written out of official conservatism.
This isn’t to say that every Republican and every conservative is a conspiracy theorist or a birther, of course. There are plenty of them who aren’t and who have a perfectly rational opposition to the President and his policies that doesn’t include the need to allege that he’s involved in some vast conspiracy to destroy the country. The problem is, as it always has been for the past four years, is that these voices tend to get drowned out by the shrill voices of the Obama Derangement Syndrome crowd, and it’s that crowd that becomes associated in the public mind with the party and the movement. That is the price the GOP is paying for giving these people space to grow rather than denouncing him in the manner that they should have been.