As someone who pays close attention to politics, I don’t know which I found more unsettling—the many conspiracy theories making the rounds on the right that I’d never heard of, or the ones that I’m familiar with because they have made their way into the mainstream.
If you want to check your conspiracy literacy, the Southern Poverty Law Center, originally founded to monitor the progress of the Civil Rights movement, has compiled a handy list of the Top 10 conspiracy theories, and how they have found their way into the Body Politic with the help of “enablers” in the media and on the campaign trail.
“There’s a boon in these theories,” says Mark Potok, senior fellow with the SPLC. “They’ve ratcheted up in the last six years since Obama has been in office, and they’re on steroids now.”
Americans love conspiracy theories, and they’re great fundraising vehicles. President Eisenhower’s detractors said he was a secret Communist, and that the introduction of fluoride into the water was how Ike would indoctrinate children. The Clintons were accused of killing several people and running a drug ring out of Mena airport in Arkansas. Today, some Americans still question President Obama’s birthplace and his religion.
Donald Trump was the major force behind the popularization of “birtherism,” as that phenomenon is called. He said repeatedly that Obama was not born in the United States, and that he had investigators on the ground in Hawaii looking into Obama’s parents. “They can’t believe what they’re finding,” Trump boasted. Now he doesn’t want to talk about it, and his investigators never told us what they found.
Trump didn’t deliver on his claims, yet a September Public Policy Poll found that 66 percent of Trump’s supporters believe Obama is a secret Muslim, and 61 percent believe he was not born in the United States and is therefore not eligible to be president.
Trump’s “birtherism” is emblematic of the impact that a wacko theory can have. At the same time, it is so entrenched as part of the contemporary political dialogue that it doesn’t even make the SPLC’s Top 10 list.
Number 1 concerns Common Core, a nationwide effort to lift education standards that some on the right believe is a not-so-secret plan by liberals to indoctrinate children into the “homosexual lifestyle.” Eagle Forum founder and anti-feminist crusader Phyllis Schlafly links it to Nazism, saying its ultimate goal is internment or re-education.
Next comes the “Jade Helm” military exercises in Texas earlier this year, which were portrayed as a prelude to martial law. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott fueled the conspiracy, continuously monitoring some 1,200 special ops forces training mostly on private land for overseas deployment. Rumors took hold that Texans would be interned at seven closed Walmarts in the Southwest, and that Blue Bell ice cream trucks would be used to transport bodies.
Then comes Agenda 21, a 1992 plan to encourage global sustainability signed by 178 world leaders, including the first President Bush. It wasn’t a treaty, and none of its provisions are binding—yet it is portrayed as a first step on the way to totalitarianism. “It’s a feel-good plan that wouldn’t make people do anything,” says Potok. It does mention bike lanes, which Sen. Ted Cruz has seized on to declare it would abolish golf courses and paved roads.
There’s also the old North American Union theory—that there exists a secret plot on the part of elites in the United States, Mexico and Canada conspiring to make North America a single country, forcing us to spend the hypothetical currency of “ameros” instead of dollars.
And while the idea that Sharia could be imposed on American courts is not within the realm of possibility, eight states have passed sharia bans and another eight have measures in the works to ensure U.S. judges don’t consult Sharia. In 2012, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich, then campaigning for president, called Sharia a “mortal threat” that should be banned throughout the United States.
Next there’s the persistent notion of a looming gun grab. The NRA and related gun-rights groups have spent millions spreading the idea that Obama wants to take guns away. Fox analyst and former Bill Clinton pollster Dick Morris claims the UN treaty on small arms, ratified by the U.S. Senate in 2013, allows Obama to confiscate and destroy small firearms even though the treaty only affects the international arms trade and has no effect on any country’s internal gun laws. Rand Paul calls the treaty a plot by anti-American globalists. A TeaParty.org fundraising appeal says “Obama is activating secret ‘death squads’ to target gun owners.”
And the theories just get more and more outlandish. After the gun grab comes FEMA’s secret concentration camps to intern Americans who resist. The Federal Emergency Management Agency is a popular target for anti-government rhetoric, and Alex Jones, whose Wikipedia page identifies him as an American conspiracy theorist, actively promotes the FEMA theory and other discredited conspiracies on his popular syndicated radio show, which is based in Austin, Texas. “This idea as whacked out as it is has really spread out across the country,” says Potok.
Other ideas go back decades, if not centuries, such as conspiracies concerning money manipulation. This has a long history in American politics, and in its current iteration focuses on suspicion about the Federal Reserve as a secret bank driven by private interests ripping us off. Rand Paul, like his father Ron Paul, is pressing for an audit of the Federal Reserve. People who are paranoid about the Fed generally believe that going off the gold standard destroyed the legitimacy of the U.S. financial system.
And lest we forget the secret jihadi training camps that are supposedly popping up across the country, there are between 22 and 35 in the United States depending which version you follow. “It is as utterly baseless as it is adopted by quite a few people in the mainstream,” says Potok. He cites Fox News talk show host Sean Hannity exclaiming, “It’s a frightening thought, Islamic training camps right here in America,” based on an unsubstantiated “documentary” by the Christian Action Network.
Finally, there’s the plot against Christians to promote the so-called “homosexual agenda.” Janet Mefferd, host of a nationally syndicated Christian radio show, says the country may be turning “toward a day when every Christian who supports real marriage might be made to wear a yellow patch on the sleeve…to identify us as anti-gay haters.”
Maybe this is just light reading, the political equivalent of science fiction or a summer beach novel. A country that values the First Amendment and freedom of speech surely can withstand some crackpot theories. But they take a toll, such as when fears that immigrants would spread leprosy helped kill a bipartisan plan to overhaul the immigration system in 2007.
“They’re extremely destructive to democracy because they make it that much harder to solve problems,” says Potok. And the impasse in Congress over passing universal background checks on all gun purchases would be Exhibit A.