JFK, the moon landing, Area 51. A tragically short-lived president, a globally acknowledged pinnacle of scientific achievement, and a key site during the height of Cold War tension and technological competition. Yet these events are more commonly associated with ideas of secrecy and conspiracy. American history is littered with examples of conspiratorial fear, a fear also occupying a dominant role in America’s political discourse. This climate has arguably led to a tendency to distort perceptions of current events, producing conditions susceptible to political demagoguery.
Arguably, the advance of the internet and the proliferation of its everyday usage throughout ‘western’ society has given a louder voice to conspiracy theorists who, in proportionate reality, account for a relatively small portion of society at large. However, it is important to acknowledge that conspiracy theories as a cultural phenomenon, has occupied the American political mainstream since far earlier than the inception of the internet.
The American Revolution itself was at least partially inspired by fears of a British conspiracy to exert tyrannical rule over American colonists. Consequently events such as the 1765 Stamp Act, designed to tax the colonies, were regarded as signs of British tyranny. Likewise the emergence of the pro-slavery Confederacy in the 1860s, and the subsequent American Civil War, stemmed from fears of a ‘Northern’ conspiracy to steal away the Southern states’ right to self-governance. Amongst these Southern rights was the right to own slaves, and thus the election of an anti-slavery president was enough to incite civil war. Evidently, conspiracy theory lies at the heart of US history.
The assassination of JFK and debate over the perpetrator remains perhaps the best-known example of presidential conspiracy; yet accusations of conspiracy re-emerge almost every time the presidency is contested. In recent years, Barack Obama’s idea of what it means to have an ‘American citizenship’ and thus, an important criteria to acquire the right to become president, was challenged. This was contested on the grounds of his supposed birth in Kenya, as well as his supposed Indonesian citizenship, even after his birth certificate proving his American citizenship was published. Whilst the ‘birther’ theory likely stemmed from a racially motivated response to Obama’s status as the first African-American president, it also relied on longer-running trends of accusing public figures of conspiracy against fundamental American values. It is important to note that this trend is not exclusive to a certain political ideology. For instance, the Republican president George W. Bush has equally been the subject of much conspiratorial speculation regarding his handling of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan.
As we turn to the current presidency, Donald Trump’s administration has fallen foul of many cases of conspiracy theorising. Claims of doctored images of the size of the crowd at his inaugural address in 2017, were met with Kellyanne Conway’s now infamous claim that ‘alternative facts’ had been presented by Trump’s team about the so called ‘crowd size’. Whilst cultural and comedic responses such as these appear relatively harmless and amusing, they do touch someway into revealing a climate of claims of governmental conspiracies to mislead the American people, that are not always so light-hearted.
Following the tragic Sandy Hook school shooting of 2012, in which twenty students and six staff members were killed, some fringe sections of US society alleged that the massacre was a ‘false flag’ operation by the US government, in order to justify increasingly strict gun control measures. Clear evidence to disprove such accusations has only strengthened fear of conspiracy in some quarters, with the notorious news website ‘InfoWars’ responding by suggesting that the whole event was itself a hoax, and no school children actually died.
Whilst the problems associated with such conspiracy theories are clear concerning the emotional distress they cause for the families and friends of the victims, the problems may be less clear when we look to the wider implications for rational political discourse. When the historical roots and contemporary amplification of conspiracy theories in the American political mainstream are taken into account, historian Richard Hofstadter’s mid-twentieth century assertion of a ‘paranoid style’ in American politics becomes increasingly plausible.
In the past, conspiracy theorising has not been linked to a specific political ideology, age group, religious faith or other demographic, and thus has led to the political exploitation of broad swathes of the US population by opportunist figures. This has created a political climate susceptible to demagogues like Joseph McCarthy, who used fear-mongering tactics rather than facts or evidence – amidst popular fears of a communist conspiracy – to create the infamous Red and Lavender Scares in the mid twentieth century. These ‘scares’ led to the unnecessary persecution of many ordinary Americans.
In the context of this historically-grounded paranoia, current anxieties about ‘fake news’ and ‘alternative facts’ may seem like the logical outcome of political dissension, but this need not be the case. Awareness of how conspiracy theories can distort public perception of significant events should be encouraged, in order to inhibit the growing irrationality of American political discourse, and to prevent the potential persecution of American citizens.
https://harpers.org/archive/1964/11/the-paranoid-style-in-american-politics/ – Richard Hofstadter on the ‘Paranoid Style in American Politics’.
https://abcnews.go.com/beta-story-container/US/families-sandy-hook-shooting-victims-win-legal-victory/story?id=60314174 – News article on InfoWars and the Sandy Hook conspiracy theory.
https://www.history.com/topics/cold-war/red-scare – Website on the history of the Red Scares.
https://www.nytimes.com/2018/08/31/opinion/trump-birtherism-citizenship-texas.html?rref=collection%2Ftimestopic%2FBirther%20Movement&action=click&contentCollection=timestopics®ion=stream&module=stream_unit&version=latest&contentPlacement=6&pgtype=collection – New York Times article on the potential long-term effects of the ‘birther’ conspiracy theory.