Ron Paul, Conspiracy Theories, and the Right

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The Texas congressman's detractors are right to criticize some of his remarks and associations. If only they'd broaden their critique.

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On the New York Times "Campaign Stops" page, James Kirchick, author of several conversation changing pieces on the Ron Paul newsletters, shifts his attention from their racist and anti-gay content to the candidate himself and his career-long cultivation of support from conspiracy theorists. For example, he's long associated with the John Birch Society, regularly appears on a Texas radio show hosted by Alex Jones, and once responded to the question, "Why won't you come out about the truth about 9/11?" by replying, "Because I can't handle the controversy, I have the I.M.F., the Federal Reserve to deal with, the I.R.S. to deal with -- no because I just have more, too many things on my plate." As it happens, these and other conspiracy theories with which Paul is associated are virtually all of the variety for which I haven't even a tiny bit of patience.

For that reason, I have no intention of defending the Texas congressman for his pandering or his most embarrassing beliefs (it is difficult to tell in which categories some of his statements belong). There are positive and negative aspects to his candidacy. This part is a huge negative.

But Rep. Paul's critics are on questionable ground when they write as if he alone among Republican Party members fails to confront -- or even leverages -- conspiracies in which his supporters believe, or that he is unique in consorting with conspiracy theorists. Alex Jones broadcasts some indefensible nonsense, from what little I've heard of his show. I've insufficient basis to compare it to other broadcasters I've listened to much more frequently, but I can say this: if Glenn Beck's show on Fox News was less nutty than the Alex Jones Show, as it may well have been, it nevertheless was rife with nutty conspiracy theories -- and lots of prominent conservatives were happy to appear on it. Sarah Palin, for one. Is that where she told us to fret about death panels? How many prominent conservatives slyly said that they hadn't personally examined Obama's birth certificate, and couldn't know for sure if he was born in the United States? How many conservative talk-radio hosts sold commemorative coins at a substantial markup because they're supposedly the last gold the government would confiscate?   

How many election cycles has the conservative movement used the canard that reinstating the Fairness Doctrine was agenda item one for Democrats if they regained control of the government? How many Sean Hannity radio listeners think that Barack Obama is a secret Muslim? Haven't Michele Bachmann, Newt Gingrich, and Herman Cain all played on conspiratorial fears that we're on the verge of sharia law being implemented right here in America?

National Review employs as a national-security journalist a man who alleges that President Obama is allied with our Islamist enemies in a "Grand Jihad" against America, and Gingrich dissents from that theory only because he believes the Dinesh D'Souza thesis that it is actually Kenyan anti-colonialism that guides Obama's behavior. In some parts of the GOP, the theory of evolution and all climate science are also regarded as elaborate conspiracies. And don't get me started on Clinton-era conspiracy theories. The notion that this pathology is somehow unique to Paul or the libertarian wing of the Republican Party is flat-out indefensible.

Conspiracy theories are not in fact created equal. The most pernicious are grounded in vilifying a vulnerable minority group. Victims of genocide like Tutsis and Jews. Ethnic minorities during war time, like Japanese Americans during World War II (that Muslim Americans have escaped a similar fate during the War on Terror is no thanks to right-wing sharia-phobes). Here Paul has a mixed record. He associates with people -- the authors of his newsletters, for example -- who were happy to engage in ethnically tinged conspiracy theories. At the same time, he's been a voice of reason when it comes to speaking out for the rights of Muslim Americans.

Make of that mixed record what you will.

There are, too, evil conspiracy theorists, like Timothy McVeigh, for whom no condemnation is too strong, but I'm inclined to think that such conspiracy theories are more the exception than the rule in the United States. Far more common is an American who believes that there's more to the assassination of JFK than we know. Or that the federal government is covertly listening in on our phone calls and reading our email via a secret NSA program known to the nation's biggest telecommunications companies and its newspaper of record, but kept secret from the public.

See, that last example sounds like a conspiracy theory. But it happened. Though I share the frustration and disdain for the anti-government conspiracy theories mentioned so far in this piece, I object as strenuously to the notion that conspiracy theories are objectionable because we ought to trust in the benevolence of our leaders and the basic goodness of our government.

Nonsense.

Governments, ours included, are frequently complicit in unthinkable acts, whether sanctioned from the top, like forcing water into the lungs of prisoners in secret CIA facilities, or perpetrated by rogue actors, like Abu Ghraib. Peruse the Church Report. Read about the Tuskegee Syphilis Experiment. Or if it's domestic matters that interest you, read Radley Balko's work on bite mark analysis


9/11 Truthers are wrongheaded and irresponsible because all credible evidence so clearly and persuasively discounts their inane theories. And even in the immediate aftermath of the attacks, I never suspected that President Bush was involved. I nevertheless want the standard, even after an act as heinous as that one, to be a full, independent investigation by people whose minds are open to any outcome. That is the sort of attitude that helps prevent outliers in government from attempting some audacious act of evil. Aversion to false conspiracy theories must never turn into myopia about the possibility of wrongdoing. It's awful to think a dead child might have been murdered by its parent. You still investigate, and until the evidence starts to tell a story you don't vilify the detective for asking questions. 

For an example of the myopia that can result from the opposite attitude, see this interview between talk-radio host Hugh Hewitt and National Review's Kevin Williamson, author of a new piece about the corrupt relationship between elected officials and big Wall Street firms. It goes into some detail documenting the specific firms that funnel tons of campaign cash to politicians whose decisions they benefit from directly. Though he focuses on Democrats, the party now in power, he notes Mitt Romney's cozy relationship with the same donors who've done so much to fund Obama's first term.

Observe how Hewitt tries to delegitimize his critique:

WILLIAMSON: Hugh, I'm not sure that you actually understand my position here. I'm not really anti-Romney. Out of the major candidates in the race, I'd say Romney's probably the one who I think would be the most wise to support. But I think that you should, yes, be suspicious of what Wall Street wants out of him, and always keep an eye on what these guys are up to. So yeah, I think you misunderstood the piece, and the stuff about the Bilderberger stuff, you just kind of cheesed me off with that. I mean, that's just...

HEWITT: This is very Bilderbergerish.

WILLIAMSON: No, it's not.

HEWITT: Oh, it's absolutely Bilderbergerish.

WILLIAMSON: I'm talking about two very simple things. I'm talking about two very simple aspects of structured finance that should have been looked at when we're doing these regulations, instead of all the dumb stuff we did. One is the off-balance sheet vehicles, which is what brought down Lehman, and what messed up M.F. Capital, and that stuff, which is where you've got giant exposures that due to certain kinds of accounting shenanigans that exploit the way the regulations are written, that allow you to make your books look better than they are, and leverage limits. Those are the two things...

HEWITT: Let me read from [your piece]. "Either way, the last thing Wall Street wants is for the Corzine scandal to launch a new round of frenzied outrage out there in the fruited plains where dwell people who don't know an IPO from a CDS, and who might suspect something here is not entirely on the up and up. They're hoping that conservatives can be buffaloed with a cheap bit of free market rhetoric into not noticing that something is excruciatingly amiss here. They are the repo men, headpiece filled with subprime-mortgage derivatives, and they are looking to repossess the Republican party they abandoned in 2008." That's Bilderberger, Kevin.

WILLIAMSON: No, it's not. That's nonsense. I mean, ask yourself. Why did they give 70% of their donations to Obama last time around? And why are they turning the other way this time? You think it's just out of goodness of their heart? Or because they're suddenly, got a case of being pro-life late in life? Or what? Why did they change their mind?

HEWITT: I don't think they act as a "they."

WILLIAMSON: You tell me why they changed their mind. I'd love to hear your theory on this.

HEWITT: I don't think they act as a "they." What I'm saying is whenever you say "they," that's Bilderberger, and it assumes...it's like when people used to say oh, you believe in a media elite that's controlling the media. No, I don't. I believe that there are similarly-situated people who live in certain parts of the country who act certain ways. But there's no conspiracy, and there's no Wall Street conspiracy. It's Occupier stuff.

WILLIAMSON: Well, I'm not saying it's conspiracy. I'm saying in the aggregate, they behaved one way in 2008, and in the aggregate, they're behaving a different way this time around. And I assume that there's a reason for that, and I assume knowing these guys reasonably well, the reason is self-interest.

HEWITT: These guys -- how many of them are there?

WILLIAMSON: How many Wall Street employees are there? 200,000 in New York?

HEWITT: When you say these guys, are they in a clubhouse somewhere? I mean, when you say these guys, you're implying these guys, that there's a list. How many of them are they? Are they getting together at the Harvard Club on the 3rd floor in the Library Wednesday night for drinks to decide the world? Kevin, that's what this piece looks like.
Although I think Hewitt is earnestly naive about Wall Street, this exchange is a rather neat illustration of how the powerful might use the conspiracy-theorist charge to delegitimize critics and watchdogs asking legitimate questions whenever the malfeasance they allege is even the slightest bit complicated.

Shortcuts are tempting, but prudently assessing the evidence is almost always the best approach. Once that's been done, only the most dedicated conspiracy theorists will still deny what is before their eyes.

But our contempt is often better directed elsewhere.

Conspiracy theories are rarely true, and false ones can be pernicious. That is one reason why it's so corrosive for the U.S. government to fuel such theories with its constant invocations of secrecy. If Paul bears some culpability for failing to disabuse his most conspiratorial followers of their pathologies, so too does President Bush, for doing things like secretly spying on Americans and running a network of secret overseas prisons; and President Obama, for green-lighting a fake vaccination campaign in Pakistan and keeping secret assassination lists of Americans; and the Fed, for its surreptitious, gargantuan wealth transfer to ailing American banks.

Mark Steyn got at this same idea in a separate interview with Hugh Hewitt:

HEWITT: Now can someone, do you think it's right for someone to go to the Iowa Caucus and say I agree with Ron Paul on the Fed, so I'm going to put aside this nuttery, and I'm going to ignore his newsletters, and I'm going to ignore his other baffling and incoherent positions on issuing letters of mark and reprisals and all the rest of it because I want to make a statement? Is that a right way to conduct yourself, Mark Steyn?

STEYN: Well you know, a couple of weeks ago, I would have been inclined to that view, because four years ago, for example, when he was talking about the Federal Reserve, a lot of people thought it was kooky. Four years on, when for most of this year, the Fed has been buying 70% of U.S. Treasury debt, you begin to think well hang on, maybe all this incomprehensible mumbo-jumbo about fiat currencies, he may actually be on to something here.
We'll never be without conspiracy theories, but decreasing their presence and power in American politics would be a lot easier if the government would stop doing wildly controversial and corrupt things, often in secret, whether at home and abroad, on Wall Street, in the halls of Congress, or at the Fed. It would also be easier if Paul critics were as outraged by the conspiracy theories that are deeply ingrained in the conservative movement, and the subject of frequent pandering.

Image credit: Hammer 51012
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Conor Friedersdorf is a staff writer at The Atlantic, where he focuses on politics and national affairs. He lives in Venice, California, and is the founding editor of The Best of Journalism, a newsletter devoted to exceptional nonfiction.

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