You’re All Nuts!

How America became the land of Truthers, Triggers, Birthers, and Dan Brown fans.

A protesters at a Tea Party rally

Good news, everyone! We have survived the latest flare-up of the conspiracy theory generally known as “Trig Trutherism”—the discredited hypothesis that Sarah Palin’s youngest son is not hers.

Last week, The Lies of Sarah Palin author Geoffrey Dunn published a lengthy piece—spiked by the Huffington Post, then acquired by the traffic-hungrier Business Insider—going over the same turf. His argument was blown to smithereens by Justin Elliott at Salon as well as by other reporters who sighed and decided to engage with one of the duller conspiracy theories of all time. (A serious conspiracy theory should seem less like a General Hospital subplot.)

Much less dull was the explanation Dunn gave for writing his piece.

“This past week Palin had the gall to giggle and smirk her way through an interview on Fox News in which she supported Donald Trump’s investigation of President Obama’s birth certificate in Hawaii,” Dunn wrote. “The hypocrisy is staggering. There is one person who can put an end to the Trig matter immediately and instantly, and that is Sarah Palin.”

It’s a familiar rationale for conspiracy theorists: They investigate as much in sorrow as in anger. They are always just one confession away from the truth. This kind of logic is much more understandable, if no more sensible, after reading Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground, a smart and serious new book by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay. His book shows why Americans are becoming so willing to believe lurid fantasies about the government or politicians they don’t like or vaccines or the theory that the federal government was behind the attacks of 9/11 (these believers are the “truthers” of his title). And you realize that the world of conspiracies is only going to get larger.

There are basically two reasons for this, and they’re entwined. The media, as Kay points out, is more fragmented than ever. Information is easier to come across, and bogus information has a way of jumping to the top of Google’s search pages. That fragmentation is happening at a time of intense partisan anger and economic angst. 

All of those facts are well-known, and thoroughly studied. The Gallup Poll asks an annual question about whether voters trust the government. In 2010, only 19 percent said they did, and only 43 percent—a record low—said that they trusted the media. That same year, the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans got most of their news online, 54 percent got it from the radio, and only 50 percent got it from newspapers. The more people read news online, the easier it is for them to find news that jibes with their ideology.

Kay’s book is half reportage and half evidence. Both halves demonstrate that mistrust in institutions—which aren’t doing the best job of running things right now—is driving a wave of conspiracy-mongering. To a man, the leading 9/11 Truthers that Kay interviews say that they found their obsession because they didn’t trust the government and they sought out information from some samizdat source. Richard Gage, the best-known member of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, tells Kay that he tuned into the lefty KPFA northern California radio station one day and caught a terrifying, authoritative-sounding—and bogus—interview with 9/11 Truther icon David Ray Griffin.

“How come I’d never heard of any of this?” Gage remembers thinking. “I was shocked. I had to pull my car to the side of the road to absorb it all.”

Robert Balsamo, a co-founder of Pilots for 9/11 Truth, has a similar story. He turned on the news one day and saw Glenn Beck trying to debunk conspiracy theories about the 9/11 attack on the Pentagon with new, grainy video. Balsamo wasn’t convinced, and he “started poking around on the Internet, seeing if he could find a clearer version of the video. Instead, what he found were Truther sites.”

The Truthers who Kay quotes here are the leading lights of the movement. They’re dug in more than the average Web surfer. But they started to dig because they felt uneasy, and they surfed the Web, and they found a whole alternate history (and occasionally, alternate science) that looked and felt more comfortable than the one they were living through. And so did a lot of other people. They were motivated by mistrust in their “leaders.” And the motivations weren’t always wrong.

Look at the 9/11 conspiracy. Some of Kay’s sources have tenuous connections to reality. Most of them got interested in the conspiracy because something else seemed … wrong. As Kay points out, “Trutherism” didn’t really take off until 2003, when it was clear there were no weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. If you were already inclined to think that George W. Bush had been unfairly put into office in 2000, if you had read the Project for a New American Century’s letters from the end of the Clinton years, well, this was enough to drive you nuts.

A 2006 poll conducted by the Scripps Survey Research Center at Ohio University famously found that 36 percent of all Americans, and more than half of Democrats, suspected that “people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted to United States to go to war in the Middle East.”* There’s some room for misunderstanding here. After all, most Americans are now aware of the intelligence failures that preceded the attacks. But the numbers remained high when respondents were pressed on other, darker conspiracy theories. They found that 21.1 percent of Democrats, and 18.5 percent of liberals, said it was at least somewhat likely that “the Pentagon was not struck by an airliner captured by terrorists but instead was hit by a cruise missile fired by the United States military.” And 24.8 percent of Democrats, and 21 percent of liberals, said it was at least somewhat likely that “the collapse of the Twin Towers in New York was aided by explosives secretly planted in the building.”

You can see what they were thinking. You can see what a large number of today’s conservatives are thinking when they admit to pollsters that they’ve got some doubts about Obama’s citizenship. Kay sums it up: “If the mainstream media isn’t willing to investigate the dirt about Obama we do know to be true … who knows what other dirt is out there?” How and when do people stop thinking like that if they don’t trust the media, and if “unreported facts” about their obsessions are a click of the “I’m feeling lucky” button away? They don’t stop.

Kay’s research is reassuring, in its way, because by taking all these obsessions seriously, he can diagnose their origin. The problem of the conspiracy theorist is the problem of the “failed historian.” Kay gives an example. For a while, Sigmund Freud believed that Shakespeare wrote Hamlet after his father died. When Freud wrote The Interpretation of Dreams, he cited the play as a key Oedipal work. But in 1919, historians discovered that Shakespeare wrote the play before his father died. How did Freud respond? He became obsessed with the conspiracy theory that the 17th Earl of Oxford had written the plays credited to “William Shakespeare.”

Are the paranoid Democrats of 2006 and the unhinged Republicans of 2011 following in the footsteps of Sigmund Freud? Maybe. They might even argue that the stakes are higher for them: All Freud had to do was defend a thick chunk of his book. They’re on the cusp of losing their country. In that sense, these modern-day political conspiracy theories may actually be comforting: They assume that our political leaders are hyper-competent. They’ve developed, then covered up, Rube Goldberg designs to get what they want and maintain their power. This is no small achievement. If, on the other hand, the conspiracy theorists are wrong, well, that means the world is random, and the people who wield power or influence can screw up like everyone else. No one wants to believe that.

Correction, April 26, 2011: This article originally misstated the university that hosts the Scripps Survey Research Center. It is Ohio University, not Ohio State. (Return to the corrected sentence.)