A Growing Force in Republican Politics: The Email Forward

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Joe the Plumber, a campaign trail prop in 2008 and Ohio congressional candidate in 2012, is the latest conservative public figure to get busted stealing from an email created by the army of anonymous right-wing forwarders. Over the last two years, some pundits have argued that while there have always been nuts on the fringe of both parties, the right is particularly bad right now. You can't really measure objectively whether the right is worse than the left, but one bit of evidence showing which direction the flow of ideas is going is how commonplace these kinds of incidents are becoming. Last week, Oliver North plagiarized a forward in his nationally syndicated column. In a recent speech, the Arizona secretary of state floated a quasi-birther conspiracy theory, an idea that evolved online that president Obama was a poor student who got into good schools thanks to Affirmative Action. And last fall, when he was still a presidential candidate, Rick Perry quoted a forward that was satire as literal truth. 

Now Wurzelbacher, who's running for Congress in Ohio's 9th district, has joined their ranks. On Wednesday his campaign released an ad that was widely noted for its odd views about gun control. What was not noted at the time was that these views were lifted from an email forward dating from at least 2004. Compare and attempt to contrast:

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Forward: "In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917, 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were rounded up and exterminated."

Wurzelbacher: "In 1911, Turkey established gun control. From 1915 to 1917 1.5 million Armenians, unable to defend themselves, were exterminated." 

Forward: "German established gun control in 1938. From 1939 to 1945, 13 million Jews and others who were unable to defend themselves were rounded up and exterminated."

Wurzelbacher: "In 1939, Germany established gun control. From 1939 to 1945, 6 million Jews and seven million others unable to defend themselves, were exterminated."

Wurzelbacher's closing line, "I love America," appears to be his own.

Other politicians take ideas, if not lines, from forwards. Arizona Secretary of State Ken Bennett gave a speech recently in which he declared that yes, President Obama was probably born in America -- but he once lied about being born in Kenya to get into a good school. As the Arizona Republic's Mary Jo Pitzl reports, Bennet said:

"I actually think he was fibbing about being born in Kenya when he was trying to get into college and doing things like writing a book and on and on and on... So, if there was weird stuff going on, I actually think it was happening back in his college days because I think he has spent $1.5 [million] or $2 million through attorneys to have all the college records and all that stuff sealed… So, if you're spending money to seal something, that's probably where the hanky panky was going on." 

This is transcripterism, which evolved as a way to keep birtherism alive even after Obama released his long-form birth certificate. Birthers were once fixated on transcripts, circulating false forwards claiming he was a foreign student from Indonesia. Another said he won't reveal his college transcripts because he didn't really go to Columbia University. That's why Breitbart.com reported that the Columbia transfer class of 1981 -- the year Obama transferred -- averaged lower test scores and G.P.A.s than the previous classes, and therefore it is possible Obama had bad grades. If Obama had bad grades, then maybe you can blame his success not on his talent, but on his skin color. PJ Media's Roger L. Simon wrote that Obama might pretend to be Kenyan "maybe for a grant, a subvention, a scholarship that was available uniquely to students from Africa or similar locales."

In October, then-presidential candidate Rick Perry quoted an email forward about an idiot Occupy Wall Street protester who was too lazy to get up in time to protest the hard-working bankers. His lament -- "You get there at 9 a.m. and the rich bankers who you want to hurl insults at and change their worldview have been at work for two hours already. And then when it's time to go, they're still there. I guess that's why they call them the 1 percent. I mean, who wants to work those kinds of hours? That's the power of greed." -- was just too perfect. Because it was fake, originating in some Canadian satire

Conspiracies usually start at one tiny point high up in American society -- politicians --  and flow outward to the sea of conspiracy-loving constituents nationwide. The Clinton Body Count -- an official list of people who died who had some sort of connection to Bill Clinton and therefore might have been murdered by him -- started with a 1994 letter to reporters by Rep. William Dannemeyer. From there it grew, some names were added, some removed, and was forwarded around by weird aunts everywhere. But just as the Nile river sometimes flows backwards during summer monsoons, right-wing conspiracies are flowing backwards, too, from the weird aunts to the politicians.  

This article is from the archive of our partner The Wire.