Blame it on the JFK assassination. Though the conspiracy theories have been effectively shut down to basements and darker corners of the web, the cultural damage has been done. We allowed a bad spy movie to take its place at the grown ups’ table: the cloak and dagger dealings, the teams of snipers, the mythical cabal of omnipotent government agencies, the whole narrative malleable to any crackpot whim. If we still choose to believe the conspiracy theorists – not that there’s any single theory to believe, other than something was up – then we must follow their fabrications to the end. We must accept and live with all the implications of total control. That reality is preposterous, but somehow we’re still living with those implications.
Conspiracy subverts truth, cuts factual corners, leads research down aimless rabbit holes. Conspiracy is the means through which OJ Simpson’s lawyers structured his defense. Facts don’t matter, what matters are unrelated truths and impossible connections. We can then allow the jury to employ its own prejudice to complete the narrative. It’s interactive! Plus, it appeals to our desire to fight the system, to question authority. Yet there is little that can actually be done under the boot of a global world government that assassinates presidents with impunity and frames ex-football players for murder.
Thus conspiracists have invented a tyrannical government for us, and our indulgence in these fantasies works as a form of wish fulfillment. We hear: the government is monolithic, fellow citizens are deceptive and treasonous, the police force is a team of brutal racist cyborgs. Continue to believe this stuff and it will continue to manifest itself. Generalized vilification serves no practical purpose, and actually exculpates individuals in favor of ephemeral evil. Grendel lives on in bureaucratic form, terrorizing the citizens who wait for a conquering hero. Quite convenient for savvy leaders.
So we must begin with the obvious – the JFK assassination was not a conspiracy. It was the cowardly brutal “work” of one man. In order to circumvent this inconvenient truth, conspiracists must ignore facts, invent narratives, find malevolent motives in relationships. It’s a scary, dare we even say fascist, way of subverting justice – assigning guilt based solely on rumor, on the idea that this person may have known or simply conversed with that one. Much of our JFK conspiracy lexicon derives from Jim Garrison’s careless case against the men he believed were responsible for carrying out the murder under higher orders. Funny how that works – we defend American democracy by dragging citizens through a public trial founded solely on rumors.
Irony: conspiracists seeking to strike blows against the empire by “exposing” some tyrannical plan actually do the real work of tyrannical government. If power derives from fear, then these folks have been dutifully tipping the scale for many years. The scarier their charges, the more powerful their synthetic revolution. The currency of conspiracy is fear, but its cultual worth is akin to trashy celebrity rumors. Less than zero. Yet here we are with a presidential election that has further compounded them. Just when we thought we might have driven down the paranoid style, it returns to take center stage.
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The king monkey of the conspiracy jungle is radio and webhost Alex Jones. A burly man with a pumpkin head and gravelly Texas twang, Jones has built a small empire on conspiracy talk. We might recall his exposé of the bizarre elite campground Bohemian Grove (which Spy magazine already covered years before with ridicule rather than Jones’s fear mongering) or his bullhorning of political events. He’s a great entertainer – his street interviews are a bit like Triumph the Insult Comic Dog except the host doesn’t realize he’s the joke. He’s always been stridently anti-political, in that he believes in a secret cabal controlling the world, fixing elections and inciting wars, only occasionally poking its head up through the matrix for a meeting or a reference in a film. Here’s a key point: conspiracy theorists love to find “evidence” of global government in a scene from a Hollywood action movie, thus exposing their own confusion between fantasy and reality.
But recently Jones has fallen in with an actual political candidate: Donald Trump. His war against global conspiracy has found its savior in the big orange celebrity real estate mogul. Jones, for all his craziness, has always struck me as being sincere in his beliefs. Even if there’s some showmanship in his daily ranting on his hated globalists, there’s no faking that sort of commitment for that many years. So my suggestion is not that Alex Jones has “sold out” his valuable brand of conspiracy to support Trump, but rather that Trump has pivoted to the crazies. He’s even appeared several times on Jones’s show. They get along just fine.
Irony: the portrayal of Donald Trump as a fascistic lunatic only empowers his otherwise weak, scatterbrained candidacy. Trump is no national boogeyman – he’s just a nationalist. He taps on fear, dances on prejudice – it may be distasteful, but it’s coldly effective. He too is a conspiracist, finding easy routes through complicated problems by blaming convenient enemies. We must pinpoint this conspiratorial agenda, as the cries of racism, misogyny, and fascism only play into his supporters’ fancies of the PC left. We’ve seen it over and over – he says something provocative, various groups and pundits get offended, then he appeals to and strengthens his own base. So let’s dispense with exaggerations about Trump. He has a certain charisma, and by eschewing the practiced formalism of other politicians, he has managed to win over a loyal following.
But Donald Trump exists in a conspiratorial vacuum. He quotes gossipy right wing websites, trades in rumor and innuendo. He espouses a worldview that disregards compromise, that finds enemies everywhere and answers only in allegiance to his leadership. He imagines himself as a guardian at the gates of American democracy. This is the stock role for any politician but Trump has drawn from darker sources for his portrayal. He’s part Travis Bickle, part Gordon Gecko – ridding the world of punks and screwheads with New York mogul capitalistspeak. He’s the perfect politician for the paranoid style.
It’s no wonder why conspiracists recognize a true ally with Trump. He likes catchy slogans and fantastic promises without logic. He will build a wall at the southern border and Mexico will pay for it. Because reasons. “Build the wall” is not unlike “magic bullet” or “grassy knoll” – a meaningless phrase that connotes a certain message without any evidence. It’s an easy rhetorical tactic. But you can’t just say “magic bullet” – you have to be able to explain every implication of that allegation, the introduction of multiple shooters, evidence planted or tampered with, multiple branches of government and police departments conspiring to maintain the cover up in perpetuity. Nothing of the sort has ever been proven. But like Trump’s wall, it sounds neat and gets the crowds going.
Richard Hofstadter diagnosed the problem in his seminal 1964 Harper’s essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Even as it presents a contextual history of paranoid beliefs of the early 60s landscape of Birchers and cold warriors, it reads as a perfect summation of the Trump Doctrine: “America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to repossess it and to prevent the final act of subversion.” He stops just short of describing red caps with snappy slogans. The genius of the essay is its scope, its refusal to define the paranoid style merely in terms of partisan politics. Both expanding out to religious zealotry and retreating inward to psychological issues, the paranoid style is presented a basic human problem manifested in all public forms.
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Who would direct the Donald Trump Story? Oliver Stone? He did give us Gordon Gecko, a character who surely played a role in the early media rise of Donald Trump. He’s a masterful director and an important American voice – his Vietnam dramas Platoon and Born On The Fourth Of July work as a powerful companion piece, and as a screenwriter he’s responsible for the crime classic Scarface. But JFK has had the most significant cultural impact, contributing unfortunately to the perpetuation of the paranoid style. It’s a fine drama, full of tension and rich with visual metaphor, but its masquerade as an actual historical document is ridiculous. Garrison has been elevated to folk hero, his case fused with the even more far out theories of retired colonel Fletcher Prouty. Everything, we are told, worked perfectly according to plan with the assassination, from airplane routes to secret service complicity to medical examiners sneaking about to tamper with the evidence. Oswald demoted to patsy. Murders occurring to keep the whole thing silent. All of this somehow fitting into the larger picture of Vietnam and the military industrial complex. Who was not involved in the JFK conspiracy?
So we’ve uncovered another problem with conspiracies, this belief that the world is governed by sinister forces working in concert. In order to fully believe Stone’s account of the JFK assassination and cover up, we would have to indict thousands of people. These individuals would have had to plan this unprecedented crime, then carry it out, then begin the impossible task of covering tracks and silencing witnesses, constantly introducing more players into the fold to carry it out. Consider the Watergate scandal, a real conspiracy of a select few that was not only exposed but saw every player write a book about it. Upon inspection, Oliver Stone’s worldview looks suspiciously like Alex Jones’s.
So while we can easily attack the Trumpian brand of paranoia and his right wing ilk, let us consider that the left is just as guilty of mythologizing conspiracy. For example, we can revisit the supposed connection between the CIA and the crack cocaine epidemic in the 80s, with the allegation that drugs were purposely introduced in urban environments as a form of racial warfare. Gary Webb’s series of articles and book Dark Alliance is the touchstone, and the fact that he died “suspiciously” is the exclamation point. Webb actually uncovered real connections between the CIA and Contras in Nicaragua but the accoutrements assigned by conspiracists obscured the point. Why invent a fictional racial component when the magnitude of that implication blurs the real issue of racial inequality in enforcement and imprisonment? We don’t need a conspiracy theory to prove that, but thanks to these delusions the real problem can seem tame by comparison.
We must confront this inclination of the radical left to personify the government as a malicious monster. That’s not healthy, and it’s not effective as a guiding force for political dissidence. We must not view political leaders as puppeteers, the government itself as a control board at which knobs and switches can be pressed at will to affect societal changes. Hofstadter on this sort of imagined enemy: “He makes crises, starts runs on banks, causes depressions, manufactures disasters, and then enjoys and profits from misery he has produced.” We can actually learn from our JFK analysis – imagine all the particulars, all the gears working in tandem, all the people that would have to be involved to organize, carry out, and then keep silent just one conspiracy. It’s impossible, magical thinking.
This is also a product of political disenfranchisement. We’re not here to throw all the blame on conspiracists who are trying to make sense of an unjust world. Having seemingly lost any semblance of power or influence, one chooses to believe in these wild tales of pervasive control. It’s a sad state that perpetuates itself. So too does the animosity between figures of authority and the disenfranchised. Protests turn violent, routine traffic stops become battles in an ongoing war between citizens and the police. Police brutality as a political issue is spiraling, with lines drawn, casualties mounting, compromise seemingly out of the question. Just we shouldn’t label someone an enemy for supporting Trump or Clinton, we can’t vilify someone for wearing a uniform. “We’re all wearing a uniform,” said Frank Zappa. But so long as we see it as a war, war it will be.
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A final admission that might already be evident – I’ve been guilty of conspiratorial thinking, of generalized anger at authority. I can’t help a certain fascination with conspiracy – my bookshelves include names like William Cooper and Art Bell in among the more literate fare. I was an angry young man too. A crooked eye for every cop, a complicated conspiracy for every acronym, a harangue at every party or bar. Here’s a newspaper headline with a photo of me in college: “Young Man Shakes Fist At Cloud.”
This is unhealthy. Fanatics in any form are bad news. It’s mental illness projected out to the world, infecting the lives of the rest of the folks who “just don’t get it.” It’s not unlike the religious zealots who must convert or otherwise destroy the heathens. Fear, paranoia – the dark heart of it all. “[T]he paranoid is a double sufferer,” Hofstadter writes, “since he is afflicted not only by the real world, with the rest of us, but by his fantasies as well.”
For myself, I found a certain clarity through sobriety, not coincidentally with its repetition of the Serenity Prayer which neatly cuts through the muck with a few lines of poetry. Addicts live under the strictest form of control – Hitchens referred to belief in the judgment of god and the afterlife as “celestial North Korea,” but I would amend that fine phrase to include drug addiction as well. Don’t move, don’t breathe, don’t live without consulting the pipe. Chemical North Korea? And I propose that many of these radical conspiracies are the manifestation of some personal human issue, whether mental illness or drug addiction or anger issues or persecution complexes. Consider that these are all self-inflicted wounds, to which we have no one else to truly blame, no matter how hard we try.
Politics at its roots is a civil, humane endeavor, this business of collectively deciding who we are and what sort of society we want to leave behind. To subscribe to conspiracy is to believe the worst in human behavior, to follow the same sort of foul logic as the crackpots and fanatics. You don’t like Trump or Clinton? Fine, come November or even earlier you won’t have worry about one of them anymore. Your neighbor will still be there. Be nice to each other. As Richard Pryor said, “When somebody does some wrong shit to us, it’s not Nixon. It sure as hell ain’t gonna be Reagan. It’s the guy who says, ‘I got mine, fuck you.’”