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August 28, 2010

Why Americans Love Conspiracies

by Kathryn Olmsted

According to recent polls, large numbers of Americans are convinced of two things that are verifiably not true: that President Barack Obama is a Muslim, and that Muslims are building a mosque at ground zero. A great many are also convinced that Obama was not even born in America.

The tendency of most pundits and public officials is to dismiss these stories as the easily ignored theories of the lunatic fringe. But the "ground zero mosque" and "Obama-is-a-Muslim" stories have traction in the media for two reasons.

First, they're highly effective because they tap into deep, historic American anxieties about "un-American" agents within the republic--- perhaps even within the White House.

Second, these stories have some powerful sponsors in the media and in politics, sponsors who insinuate their paranoid theories into the mainstream debate to promote their own political goals.

Americans have a special relationship to conspiracy theories involving insidious foreigners. Immigrants to America have brought a wider mix of religions and ethnicities and political histories than to any other New World country, and Americans have worried that their country is especially open---and vulnerable -- to alien subversion.

The historian Richard Hofstadter argued that there was a "paranoid style" in U.S. politics, prompted in part by Americans' need to define themselves by casting out the un-Americans -- or anyone who was not white, native-born and Protestant.

Over the past two hundred years, frightened Americans have targeted Roman Catholics, Masons, Mormons, and Jews because these native groups were allegedly guided by the instructions of an alien power. Now, it's the Muslims' turn.

Throughout the nation's history, many Americans have feared that their federal government would fall victim to one of these conspiracies--- or become a tool of conspirators. Despite the U.S. Constitution's long, stable life, Americans have always been "curiously obsessed with the contingency of their experiment with freedom," as David Brion Davis has said.

Ever since the nation's founding, we have worried that the great instrument of the people's will would be turned against us.

The conspiracy theorists' greatest fear is that the nation's enemies will control the president. The far-right John Birch Society of the late 1950s and early 1960s believed that President Dwight D. Eisenhower, who appeared to be a moderate, golf-loving, business-friendly Republican, and had won World War II in Europe, was actually a conscious agent of the international communist conspiracy.

Today's birthers, like their Bircher predecessors, believe that their president is a secret agent of the nation's enemies, in this case a Kenyan-born Manchurian Candidate who has been groomed since 1962 to take over and destroy the republic. The birthers see Obama as "un-American" for several reasons: He comes from the multicultural, multiracial and geographically distant state of Hawaii; his middle name is Hussein; and he's lived in a Muslim country.

But above all, his Americanness is almost certainly suspect because he's not white. It's hard to imagine the same theories being used against Sen. John McCain--- even though he was born overseas and could have his U.S. citizenship legally challenged.

These fears are worsening now partly because the economy has fallen on hard times, and also because there is a substantial part of the American electorate that will never accept a black president as legitimate.

Though long-established traditions of nativism provide fuel for these fears, they would not have ignited if someone had not supplied a spark. The current controversies are smoldering mainly because there are political actors who see power and profit in fanning the flames of fear.

In the 1920s, the leaders of the second Ku Klux Klan found it lucrative to sell the fear of Catholics, Jews, Asians, African Americans, and immigrants to white Americans. Four million dues-paying members belonged at the height of the Klan, and the hatemongering organization controlled the politics of many cities and states, especially in the Midwest.

Public officials and pundits have encouraged conspiracy theories many times before in U.S. history.

The original Pearl Harbor conspiracists--- those who believe that President Franklin D. Roosevelt deliberately provoked the Japanese attack in Hawaii and did nothing to warn the military commanders there--- promoted their theory in part because they hated his New Deal and his internationalist foreign policies.

The extremist anti-Communists of the 1950s wanted to do more than purge the government of alleged Soviet spies: They aimed to destroy the entire liberal order.

Sometimes these official conspiracy theorists really believed in the theories they promoted; FBI chief J. Edgar Hoover, for example, did not lie when he insisted that communism was a monstrous and evil conspiracy bent on destroying America. But his promotion of this belief also was convenient, in that it helped him to get more funding for the FBI.

Other anti-Communist promoters of conspiracy theories, notably Sen. Joseph McCarthy, were simply opportunists who attacked whatever national boogeymen would get them the most attention.

Now Sarah Palin and Newt Gingrich are playing the McCarthyite role, ginning up fear of Muslims while allowing others to hint that the president is secretly their captive.

Ideas, as Rush Limbaugh likes to note, have consequences. Anti-Communist conspiracy theories led to purges of the most radical thinkers in education, culture, labor unions and politics. Among other things, extremist anti-Communism killed the possibility of universal health care in the 1940s and 1950s.

Today, the public figures who stir up hatred of Islam and imply that the president is a Muslim are attempting to delegitimize him as a leader. After all, 32 percent of Americans don't believe that Muslims should be allowed to run for president.

Americans believe many outlandish theories: about ESP, or alien abductions or Saddam Hussein's alleged responsibility for the Sept. 11 attacks. But the theories that matter are the ones promoted by media and political elites to further their own agendas.

Kathryn Olmsted, a history professor at University of California-Davis, is the author “Real Enemies: Conspiracy Theories and American Democracy, World War I to 9/11.”

See also: Islamophobia: The New Antisemitism