BOOK EXCERPT PASSAGES “Show me the birth certificate”: Conspiracism in the age of Obama Jonathan Kay In this excerpt from his timely book Among the Truthers, Jonathan Kay explores the Tea Party movement in the United States, and its obsession with Barack Obama and whether he was born in the United States and thus constitutionally eligible to be president. The author spent time among the Birthers and other conspiracists. Dans cet extrait d’Among the Truthers, Jonathan Kay s’intéresse au mouvement américain du Tea Party et à l’obsession qu’il entretient à l’égard de Barack Obama, qui serait né selon lui ailleurs qu’aux États-Unis et donc inéligible à la fonction présidentielle. Pour préparer son livre, l’auteur a passé un temps appréciable en compagnie des birthers et des conspirationnistes du mouvement.
concise way to describe WorldNetDaily is that it defines the exact inflection point on the spectrum of right-wing punditry where legitimate journalism ends and out-and-out conspiracism begins. On one hand, the popular website employs a staff of professional reporters who cover real stories. But it also pushes discredited conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, and has become a clearinghouse for litigious extremists challenging the constitutional legitimacy of his presidency. The brain behind WorldNetDaily is Joseph Farah, a middle-aged Arab American Christian Evangelical who originally made a name for himself two decades ago as editor of the Sacramento Union (where he picked a then-obscure pundit named Rush Limbaugh to be his daily front-page columnist). He began WorldNetDaily on a shoestring in 1997, in the days before many news websites even had advertisements, growing it into a profitable agglomeration of right-wing columns, original investigative articles, oddball medical product pitches,
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gold-buggery, an affiliated book-selling business, and, more recently, the sort of face-of-Jesus-revealed-in-oil-stain hokum usually found on the covers of supermarket tabloids. The ideology on display roughly coincides with the nativist, homophobic, socially conservative right-wing fringe of the Republican Party, but with an even heavier dose of paranoia and freakedout America-gone-to-Gomorrah sensationalism. One mass emailing sent out in April 2010, for instance, asked readers to congregate at the Lincoln Memorial on May 1 to “cry ‘May Day!’ to God for our nation in distress…The elections are seven long months away and if God doesn’t intervene now, there may not be freedom left to meet like this again.” It wasn’t always this way for Farah. “In high school, I was a revolutionary communist, a Che Guevera type,” he told me during a 2009 interview in the lobby of an upscale Virginia hotel. (The meeting spot was a compromise: I’d pestered him to show me WorldNetDaily’s Washington, D.C. offices, but he refused.) “I didn’t know
anyone who had a more radical viewpoint than me.” Only later in life did Farah follow the example of Radical Son author David Horowitz: drifting rightward across the full breadth of the American political spectrum to the opposite pole, then spending his middle-aged years denouncing the fellow travelers he left behind. As with many middle-aged Roadto-Damascus conservatives, it was the Gipper who changed Farah’s perspective. “Within a year of watching [Ronald] Reagan, I started reading everything he read, and I started thinking this makes perfect sense! During that first year — 1981 — my views changed dramatically. I saw [an ideology] that worked. The more I studied Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, too, I thought, ‘I don’t know how anyone can dispute any of this.’” In time, Reagan’s famous line from his first inaugural address — that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” — became Farah’s political mantra. Needless to say, Farah finds Barack Obama’s policies appalling. But he also
“Show me the birth certificate”: Conspiracism in the age of Obama
signs of skepticism. If there were any, I didn’t see them. In fact, Farah’s speech earned a series of healthy ovations. Obama’s August 4, 1961, birth in a Honolulu hospital is documented by birth announcements in not one, but two, Hawaii newspapers. He America doesn’t really produce much out of steel and wood has released a certified 2007 anymore. And a lot of what it does produce tends to be copy of his birth certificate, disproving the Birther thewelded by robots or plucked out of the ground by illegal sis that he was born in immigrants. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans Kenya or Indonesia. Every these days, tend to be well-educated urban desk jockeys — litigant who has tried to consultants, health care administrators, mortgage brokers. make an issue of Obama’s presidential eligibility in Unlike farming and other rugged pursuits, these are hard the courts has been deciprofessions to romanticize. sively rebuffed. And yet this crowd of political activists was willing After waiting for the applause to Reagan’s 1980 election victory: to put their hands together for a speakdie down, Farah launched into a “Americans aren’t political. But with er citing the Bible to support his conlengthy dissertation challenging the Obama, that’s changed. I haven’t seen tention that the president of the idea that Barack Obama is a naturalanything like this in my life. This is United States was some sort of illegal born citizen who is constitutionally bigger than the 1960s. That was just alien. Why? eligible to be president of the United kids on campus. What we’re seeing States — a Birther conspiracy riff, in now are ordinary Americans. This other words — every word of it carried “ voted for Jimmy Carter, I’ll admit anger is finally clicking.” to a national audience on C-SPAN. that,” the middle-aged New Jersey “I’m a Christian, and I make no pediatrician with a George Carlin hairhe next time I saw Farah, in early apologies about that,” Farah declared. style tells me over breakfast at the 2010, he was standing behind a “I’m a follower of Jesus Christ…I want Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, podium delivering a keynote address to share with you briefly how the most Tennessee, as we wait for the 2010 Tea to the inaugural Tea Party National important birth in history, that of Party National Convention to comConvention in Nashville, Tennessee. Jesus of Nazareth was so well documence. “And then the years passed, The six hundred activists in attenmented, unlike Barack Obama’s. Jesus and I watched as the United States dance comprised a friendly audience: established himself as the Messiah and diminished in stature. The low point Many of them, including the confersavior of the world by providing not came when our helicopters crashed in ence organizer who introduced Farah, one but two separate and distinct the Iranian desert. We couldn’t even described WorldNetDaily as their prigenealogical records, one going all the rescue our own people. That’s when I mary source for news. way back to Adam, and another tracknew something was wrong.” Farah warmed up the audience ing his kingly lineage back to Since then, he told me, things with a joke about a medical conference Abraham…There’s no doubt about have only gotten worse. Over the where doctors are bragging about their where he was born, when, and his Christmas holidays, he’d traveled to nation’s technological prowess. “A parentage. Jesus recognized those qualmainland China, visiting factories now French MD says, ‘Medicine in my ifications were essential to establishing being run by an old family friend. country is so advanced that we can his right to his earthly throne as king “The places were beautiful — air-contake a kidney from one man, put it in of the Jews. In fact, look at your Bibles. ditioned and all that. Everywhere I another, and have him looking for The first seventeen verses of Matthew looked, buildings were springing up. work in six weeks,’” Farah told the are devoted to his genealogy through Cranes and construction as far as the crowd. “A German doctor says, ‘That’s the line of Mary...That’s because God eye could see. It reminded me of the nothing. We can take a lung out of one didn’t want there to be any doubts United States back in the 1950s, my person, put it in another, and have about Jesus’ eligibility or qualifications parents’ time. Then I go back home to him looking for work in four weeks.’ To to be the King of Kings. There’s a lesNew Jersey, and I look around, and that, a Russian doctor said, ‘In my son in this story for Barack Obama. His things are dead.” country, medicine is so advanced that nativity story is much less known!” When quoted in the media, Tea we can take half a heart out of one perAs Farah went on with his conspirParty activists usually are heard railing son, put it in another person, and have acism, I looked around the room for against health care reform, cap-andhim looking for work in two weeks.’ sees Obama as a possible blessing in disguise — as someone so offensive to American values that his presidency could provoke a revolutionary, rightward shift in the political landscape on a scale even greater than Ronald
Then the American physician gets up and says, ‘You guys are way behind. We recently took a guy with no birth certificate, no brain, and put him in the White House — and now half the country is looking for work!’”
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PASSAGES National Convention: “Burn down Bush’s presidency hang heavy over the trade carbon abatement, or some other your cities, and leave our farms, and Tea Party and its events: Virtually national policy that piques the interest your cities will spring up again as if by every conversation comes back to jobof reporters at CNN and Politico. But magic; but destroy our farms and the lessness in some way. In an echo of the when you get them in a small group, grass will grow in the street of every populist fervor that arose amidst the away from the cameras, they spend a city in the country.” economic ruts of the late nineteenthlot of time talking about state and century — when Greenbackers, Free local issues. Silver types, and bimetallists all railed Tea Party organizers tend to s recently as the recession of the at the gold-hoarders in New York City describe their agenda with five bullet 1980s and 1990s, producerism and London — there is much dark talk points: Lower taxes, less government took expression in anti-Japanese proabout the banking system and those spending, greater liberty, states’ rights, tectionism, Ross Perot, and pick-upwho run it. national security. But that quintet — truck-commercial imagery that The analogy between the populist which also summarizes the major depicted proud, unionized American movements of the nineteenth century planks of the Republican Party — is workers facing off against foreign and the Tea Party phenomenon holds misleading. The Tea Party movement sweatshops. There are thin wisps of up in some ways: Both championed a is mostly made up of refugees from the this in the Tea Party movement: Sarah mainstream GOP. They rail Palin, in particular, tends to fill hard against RINOs As with all populist uprisings, it has her speeches with homages to (Republicans In Name Only). the common workingman that attracted a fringe of angry Bipartisanship — “kumbaya would not have been out of extremists who will swallow just politics,” as it’s derisively called place a century ago. (It isn’t a — is dismissed as a sell-out. coincidence that the greatest about any accusation launched Many of them are protectionpopulist figure of our generaagainst the nation’s elite. Like the ists, in violation of Republican comes from Alaska, one of John Birch Society types who came tion free-trade dogma. Their stance the few places in America that a half-century before them, some on immigration often flirts still relies on dirt-under-the-finwith xenophobia. Unlike butgernails industries such as oil Tea Party radicals believe toned-down corporate conserand fish.) But for the most part, Washington is packed with fifth vatives, they also tend to go in such appeals are outdated: columnists seeking to undermine for oddball practices — do-itAmerica doesn’t really produce the country’s Christian character yourself solar power generamuch out of steel and wood tion, backyard food farming, and its will to fight enemies abroad. anymore. And a lot of what it Internet-peddled herbal medThe most obvious difference is that does produce tends to be weldications, homeschooling, dubied by robots or plucked out of the word “Russian” has been ous tax-avoidance schemes — the ground by illegal immireplaced with “Muslim” in the that hold out the promise of grants. Most Tea Partiers, like disentanglement from governmost other Americans these accusatory lexicon. ment regulators and their infradays, tend to be well-educated constitutionally inspired counterrevostructural grids. urban desk jockeys — consultants, lution that would empower ordinary Like all populists, Tea Partiers are health care administrators, mortgage working people by casting off the deadsuspicious of power and influence, and brokers. Unlike farming and other ening hand of society’s parasitic plutoanyone who wields them. Their villain rugged pursuits, these are hard profescrats. Yet there are also many major list includes the big banks; bailed-out sions to romanticize. differences. The late nineteenth-centucorporations; James Cameron (whose Another major difference comes in ry populists of the Great Plains and the Avatar is seen as a veiled denunciation the prevalent attitude toward capitalSouthern states cast their movement as of the US military); colleges and uniism. In the 1890s, populists typically a campaign by rural yeomen, who proversities (the more prestigious, the demanded government intervention to duced real things like timber, ore, and more evil). Their ideological heroes, protect the rural way of life from the food, against the city folk who did meanwhile, tend to be people who are predations of monopolists and nothing but count gold and trade either criticizing Washington from bankers. The Populist Party platform of stocks — a populist subphilosophy beyond its gates (Sarah Palin), or dead 1892, in particular, declared “that the described by American historians as (Ronald Reagan), and thus protected power of government — in other “producerism,” and encapsulated in from the taint of power. words, of the people — should be William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of The economic tribulations that expanded.” The manifesto called for gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic began in the last year of George W. more powerful unions, a state takeover
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“Show me the birth certificate”: Conspiracism in the age of Obama
accusation launched against the nation’s elite. Like the John Birch Society types who came a half-century before them, some Tea Party radicals believe Washington is packed with fifth columnists seeking to undermine the country’s Christian character and its will to fight enemies abroad. The most obvious difference is that the word “Russian” has been Whatever the details, the overarching thesis hews to the same replaced with “Muslim” in False Prophecy myth: That Obama is not an ordinary politician, the accusatory lexicon. or, indeed, on some cosmic level, an ordinary human being. This conspiracist fringe had a sizable presence at Rather, he is counterfeit in some fundamental and very dangerous the Nashville conference. way — a Manchurian Candidate — an unholy replicant who has Roy Moore — the former come from beyond American shores (metaphorically or Alabama chief justice who otherwise) to tempt Americans along some demonic path. was fired for refusing to remove a five-thousandpound sculpture of the Ten ly note, has spiked radically upward in build up colossal fortunes [by those Commandments from his courthouse the years since he’s come into office — who] despise the Republic and endan— gave a blistering Sodom-andmoving America toward a Europeanger liberty.” But they identify the Gomorrah speech in which he warned style tax-and-spend model, complete thieves as Washington tax collectors, of a “UN guard being stationed in with universal health care. not railway barons. One telling every house.” There was also an “emerMany Tea Partiers in Nashville moment, for instance, came in April gency preparedness” seminar in which went further, and told me that Obama 2010, when the SEC charged Goldman we learned what to do when is a Marxist who hates capitalism, that Sachs with civil fraud relating to its Armageddon comes. During one meal, he is deliberately trying to sabotage marketing of securitized mortgages — I sat next to a conference attendee America’s position as a superpower, exactly the sort of move that would from Clearwater, Florida — an accomthat he has a secret plan to sell out have caused populists of old to cheer. plished and well-spoken computer Israel to the Arabs, or even that he is a Instead, many Tea Party types programmer who worked for a major closet Muslim in league with Iran. In denounced the move as another American technology company — building their case, they often focused instance of Obama-style socialism. who suggested to me that the on small, symbolic gestures: Obama’s The smug left-wing take on the American government had deliberatedecision to bow to Saudi King Tea Party movement is that its memly sparked the financial crisis of 2008 Abdullah and Emperor Akihito of bers are nothing but shell-shocked so they could devalue the currency to Japan, his lack of an American flag racists. (In the words of Janeane zero, pay off the nation’s debts with lapel pin at a 2008 campaign event, his Garofalo: “It’s not about taxes. They worthless currency, and then create a failure to hold his hand over his chest have no idea what the Boston Tea new currency — the “Amero” — in during the playing of the national Party was about. They don’t know monetary union with Mexico and anthem in 2007 — all of which they their history at all. It’s about hating a Canada. At first, I dismissed him as an take as proof of a secret hatred of black man in the White House.”) But I outlier. But later on, the entire conferAmerica and its values. saw little evidence of that in Nashville. ence was subjected to a screening of It would be entirely wrong to call True, the conference floor was an Generation Zero, a conspiracist film Tea Partiers a straightforward conspiralmost unbroken six hundred-strong arguing a similar theme. acist movement. Many of their politisea of white, middle-aged faces: I In between speeches, we would all cal gripes about big government are counted just four black people at the file out of the main conference room shared by tens of millions of mainentire conference. But two of those and into a wide hallway area where stream Americans: In a September people ended up speaking from the various conservative groups had set up 2010 survey, 71 percent of Republican podium — including Washington, DC kiosks. There were also small businessrespondents said they have a “positive media personality Angela McGlowan, es selling Tea Party-themed jewelry, Topinion” of the Tea Party movement. who received a series of massive ovashirts, and books. Inevitably, though, But as with all populist uprisings, it tions for her barnburner speech. the center of attention was a middlehas attracted a fringe of angry extremMost Tea Party activists do indeed aged man from Brunswick, Georgia ists who will swallow just about any distrust Barack Obama, but not of the railroads, and an increase in the money supply. Tea Partiers, on the other hand, tend to embrace capitalism unreservedly. They agree with the preamble to the 1892 Populist Party platform, which declares that “the fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to
because he’s black. Instead, they’ve latched on to him as a living, breathing symbol of the expansion of government that’s taken place in America since the New Deal, and of the decline of American influence on the world stage — the anti–Sarah Palin, in other words. Federal spending, they correct-
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Most Tea Party activists distrust Barack Obama, writes Jonathan Kay, “but not because he’s black,” but because he “symbolizes the expansion of government.”
named William Temple — a sort of unofficial Tea Party mascot who crisscrosses the country, appearing at events dressed in his trademark threecornered hat and authentic Revolutionary garb. When journalists interview him (which is often — his outfit draws them in like a magnet), he cheerfully holds forth, flecking his speech with antique turns of phrase drawn from the days of Thomas Paine. Sarah Palin’s speech the next day — which attracted more mainstream media attention than the rest of the conference put together — was actually quite moderate and sensible by comparison: Most of what she said about the war on terrorism, spendthrift Washington policies, and Barack Obama’s lobbyist cronies 82
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sounded like talking points borrowed from a stack of clipped Wall Street Journal editorials. (To her credit, she even had a kind word for some of Barack Obama’s policies — promoting nuclear power, and staying the course in Afghanistan, for instance — something no other speaker at the conference had done.) Nevertheless, she was received rapturously by the Tea Party faithful, especially when she dropped allusions to her son in the infantry and the plight of “special needs children.” A common image evoked by Palin, and by many other speakers, was that of decent, godly people awoken from a long political slumber by Washington’s steady drumbeat of liberal outrages. The theme of uplift and
revival was much in keeping with the evangelical tone that was everywhere in evidence — something I hadn’t expected. Virtually every keynote speaker appealed directly to America’s Christian character, and specifically identified the Tea Party project as a direct manifestation of divine will. For anyone looking to neatly categorize Tea Partiers using conventional poli-sci typology, their odd combination of extreme libertarianism with social conservatism appears confusing: On one hand, they are deeply suspicious of any government effort to redistribute wealth and manage the US economy. On the other, they demand that this same government muscularly assert itself in the social sphere, and
“Show me the birth certificate”: Conspiracism in the age of Obama
Prophecy myth: That Obama is not an ordinary politician, or, indeed, on some cosmic level, an ordinary human being. Rather, he is counterfeit in some fundamental and very dangerous way — a Manchurian Candidate — an unholy replicant who has come from beyond American shores (metaphorically or otherwise) to tempt Like Tea Partiers, the Jon Stewart brigade has a narrative Americans along some about a country that has been hijacked by extremists. For the demonic path. As with all conspiracy Tea Partiers, those extremists are Barack Obama and his bigtheories, there is a sliver of spending “socialist” allies in Congress. For the Stewart-ites, truth to the Birthers’ antithe hijackers are the Tea Partiers themselves, along with the Obama mythology: th America’s 44 president enabling hard-right media culture spawned by FOX News. truly does have an unusual “I can in no way detect that the Holy movement, Evangelical Christianity, background, one full of genuinely radiSpirit produced it” and, “My spirit canand Barack Obama conspiracy theocal influences. In his teenage years, not accommodate itself to this book.” ries, but also Joseph Farah’s seemingly Obama took cocaine and flirted with Even for a modern lay reader, it’s easy odd comparison between Obama and radical leftist ideologies. While climbing to understand Luther’s thinking: Jesus Christ. the ladder of influence in Chicago, he Revelation reads like a treatment for a Throughout recorded history, crimade his bed with a menagerie that full-on horror movie, a sort of Cujo sis, conspiracism, and millenarianism included a crook, a former terrorist, and meets 2012 for the age of Domitian. all have tended to flare up at once, fola black-power preacher who spouted Revelation describes, almost in lowing a script first set out no fewer toxic anti-American conspiracy theories. passing, a more mysterious figure who than 2,500 years ago in the book of For a brief period during his childhood, also fights on the dark side — a “false Daniel. Norman Cohn called this moreover, Obama was raised as a prophet” who “deceived those who script “revolutionary eschatology.” In Muslim in Indonesia, and received a had received the mark of the beast and his classic study of eschatology in the standard Islamic-themed education at a those who worshiped his image.” His Middle Ages, The Pursuit of the public school in that country — not role in Revelation is brief: He is barely Millennium, he summarized its main damning facts in and of themselves, but introduced before being flung into the plot elements this way: “The world is unprecedented for someone who would Lake of Fire along with Satan. Yet somedominated by an evil, tyrannous become president of the most religious how, he has attained a starring role in power of boundless destructiveness — Christian nation on the planet. many of the secular conspiracy theories a power moreover which is imagined Moreover — and this is the fact that have grown out of America’s not as simply human but as demonic. that truly sticks most painfully in the Evangelical Christian tradition, includThe tyranny of that power will become craw of many Birthers I’ve interviewed ing the conspiracist mythology curmore and more outrageous, the suffer— the mainstream media has seemed rently at play on the extreme right ings of its victims more and more entirely uninterested in investigating wing of American politics. intolerable — until suddenly the hour any of this. Worse: It heaps abuse and False prophets pop up elsewhere will strike when the Saints of God are accusations of racism on those who in the Bible. Deuteronomy, for able to rise up and overthrow it. Then do, suggesting that their inquiries can instance, warns the faithful of polygathe Saints themselves, the chosen, be explained by nothing except bigmous confidence men who pretend to holy people who hitherto have otry. (And yet this is the same media predict the future, and commands groaned under the oppressor’s heel, that went after George W. Bush’s past death for one who “speaks in the name shall in their turn inherit dominion so ferociously that a veteran CBS of other gods.” But the false prophet in over the whole earth.” anchor was willing to sacrifice his Revelation is not just some wandering According to this narrative, the entire career for the sake of a dubious nuisance, tempting villagers with Tea Party’s radicalized activists are the tidbit about the President’s wartime hocus pocus: He is a singular creature, self-appointed Saints. As for Barack discharge records.) If the mainstream the seductive scout of the Antichrist Obama, he might not be the “tyranmedia isn’t willing to investigate the himself. nous power of boundless destructivedirt about Obama we do know to be Whatever the details, the overarness” — but he’s the next worst thing. true — the theory goes — who knows ching thesis hews to the same False The book of the Revelation of what other dirt is out there? remake America in a Christian image. What binds these two strands of the movement is not any single notion of government, but a generalized nostalgia for America’s past. There’s something deeper at play, too — something that explains not only the linkage between the Tea Party
John — known simply as Revelation — almost didn’t make it into the Bible. Many early Christian scholars believed the text’s lurid, phantasmagoric images were simply too disturbing. In his preface to Revelation in the first edition of his New Testament, published in 1522, Martin Luther declared,
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PASSAGES None of this is to excuse the wild Birther extrapolations detailed [in my book]. But it does go some way to show that their accusations don’t exactly rise out of the ether: In a way, Birthers are a product of the liberal media that now heaps abuse on them.
mental issue of whether the very concept of government itself is a presumptive force for good or evil. How did the United States become so profoundly divided on such a basic question? America’s most exalted ideal is liberal individualism — the belief that each person’s fate should be limited only by their God-given talents, the breadth of their imagination, and the strength of their character. From the Declaration of Independence, to the Bill of Rights, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the notion has continued to sit at the very foundation of America’s national self-conception. It’s an inspiring vision. But also an emotionally exhausting one — for it makes every American the master of his own failures.
corpse handler may have had every reason to curse his fate as an “untouchable” — but he could not feel responsible for his own failure to rise up in society: The rules precluding him from advancing in life were explicitly articulated and enforced by a very real conspiracy of high-caste elites. In America, on the other hand, life’s losers have no one to blame but themselves. And so the conceit that they are up against some all-powerful corporate or governmental conspiracy comes as a relief: It removes the stigma of failure, and replaces it with the more psychologically manageable feeling of anger. America’s culture of individualism can drive even the most successful Americans to conspiratorial social fantasy — though for reasons connected more with politics than personal achievement.
n October 30, 2010, nine months after I’d attended the inaugural Tea Party National Convention in Nashville, I spent time with another, equally fed-up voting bloc. But these people weren’t angry. They were just…bemused. The event was Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a comedy and music jamboree on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It was billed as nonpartisan — with Jon Stewart playing the role of “sane” centrist jousting with fauxFrom the very moment of America’s blowhard faux-fearmongering n parchment, the United Stephen Colbert. But when I States may be the land of creation, the march of technology spoke to people in the crowd, freedom. Yet the reality of 21stand the growing complexity of it became clear that this was a century America is a place where society have given politicians no solidly left-wing event. Not so citizens are constrained in virtuchoice but to systematically prune ally every sphere of human much pro-Democrat — these folks are too jaded for party the individual freedoms the proud activity. A libertarian social conpolitics — as anti-Tea Party. American yeomen of yore took for tract — a realistic option in the Like Tea Partiers, the Jon pastoral frontier society of granted — a process that’s put Stewart brigade has a narraAmerica’s formative years — is much of life in the hands of tive about a country that has an anachronism in today’s been hijacked by extremists. government, corporations, and even industrialized, high-density conFor the Tea Partiers, those sumer society, in which governmachines. extremists are Barack Obama ment is expected to regulate In every society preceding the and his big-spending “socialist” trillions of dollars’ worth of trade American Revolution (and in many allies in Congress. For the Stewartbetween strangers, protect more than non-Western societies, still), a man’s ites, the hijackers are the Tea Partiers 300 million people from crime, ensure life largely was governed by factors themselves, along with the enabling universal literacy, prevent epidemics, beyond his control — by birth order, hard-right media culture spawned by save endangered species, police the airancestry, caste, guild, religious edicts, FOX News. waves, prop up failing banks, take care and the feast-or-famine vicissitudes of The signs I saw on the Mall that day of the poor and old, and maintain a nature. Every major decision in his life said it all. One trio at the rally dressed continental network of public roads — whom he would marry, where he up in an Alice-in-Wonderland motif, and airports. From the very moment of would live, what profession he would and had a placard that read “I stopped America’s creation, the march of techfollow — was decided by others: parhaving Tea Parties when I was 17!” nology and the growing complexity of ents, priests, clan patriarchs. Walking among these people, it society have given politicians no choice The modern Western mind recoils was almost hard to believe that they but to systematically prune the individat such strictures. But it is important to shared the same country with the peoual freedoms the proud American remember that they at least served to ple I’d met in Nashville. It wasn’t just yeomen of yore took for granted — a confer some measure of dignity upon that they urged their government to process that’s put much of life in the society’s bottom rungs. A low-caste support different political priorities. hands of government, corporations, 19th-century Indian latrine cleaner or They disagreed on the far more fundaand even machines.
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“Show me the birth certificate”: Conspiracism in the age of Obama
Populist conspiracism flourishes in America in part because it helps resolve the cognitive dissonance generated by this gulf between liberalism’s theory and practice — between the ideals embedded in America’s national myths, and everyday reality. (In this respect, it follows the pattern of the “failed historian” conspiracist type [...] But not for the evil machinations of this or that cabal, the fantasy goes, we’d be able to dial back the national time machine to a golden age of frontier libertarianism. In the economic sphere, populist conspiracism also serves as an outlet when popular frustration boils over in the face of gross wealth inequality, abusive corporate practices, and cataclysmic economic busts — the populist uprising of the 1890s and the most extreme elements of today’s Tea Party movement being the most obvious bookends. In broad strokes, American-style populism (especially the left-wing strain that predominated till the late 1940s) shares some attributes of Marxism in the sense that both presume an epic conflict between society’s elites and its toiling masses. But while Marxists cast the fight between rigidly defined classes as an eternal, defining aspect of capitalism, populists do not. True to the evangelical spirit, they regard even the worst abuses as a function of a particular kind of predatory capitalist (and his political enablers) whose perverting effect upon the economy can be purged through spiritually infused collective action, thereby restoring American capitalism to its original state of grace. Unlike many Europeans, who retain vestiges of a precapitalist class mentality, even the poorest American believes he can become rich — if only Big Government and corrupt corporations get out of the way. Perhaps the purest example of this brand of populism to be found on the modern American stage is FOX News host Glenn Beck. In the summer of 2010, Beck published a conspiracist novel, The Overton Window, in which an evil cabal of government officials, Wall Street tycoons, and multinational cor-
porations seek to sow the seeds of oneworld corporate tyranny by staging a false-flag nuclear attack in Las Vegas. In a telling speech, one of the novel’s heroines tells an assembled crowd that their mission is to “restore what’s been forgotten [in America]. Restore. Not adapt, not transform…restore.” American populism is not, strictly speaking, a utopian creed, like Marxism or fascism: It does not imagine society being driven toward some purified paradise. It acknowledges that capitalism produces winners and losers, and merely demands something resembling a fair playing field. But it does share with utopian ideologies and religious faiths the idea of returning society to some original state of grace — the sparsely populated, lightly taxed, barely regulated nation of selfreliant farmers, prospectors, craftsmen, and rural yeomen that existed in the decades following independence. In its Tea Party manifestation, it also urges rigid fidelity to a foundational text — the US Constitution — that is imagined to provide ancient answers to our modern problems. The idea that an 18th century social contract can cure America of its 21st century ills is attractive in the way that all romantic political ideologies seem attractive in turbulent times. But as several generations of conservative populists can attest, the romance always ends in heartbreak: Once elected, every modern politician, no matter how ostensibly conservative, eventually will have to hang up his tricorner hat, sit down at his desk, and confront the same modernworld realities that greeted his predecessor. Ronald Reagan is the greatest hero in the history of American conservatism. But even he couldn’t find a way to eliminate a single major spending program during his presidency. George W. Bush, denounced by liberals as a heartless “neocon” during his two terms in office, actually added a major spending program — the Medicare drug benefit. The same phenomenon manifests itself today among conservatives who make radical claims about the need to scale back the size of government, but
also express satisfaction with classic welfare-state programs such as Medicare and Social Security. In late 2010, a poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University revealed that a majority of Americans who say they want more-limited government also believe that Medicare and Social Security are “very important.” Likewise, more than half of self-declared Tea Party supporters said the government should maintain or increase its involvement in poverty eradication. This explains why the war is not only shrill, but endless: Since most American conservatives would never actually accept the much smaller government they claim as their goal, their war demands will never be met — even when their legislative armies conquer Washington. So, instead, populist conservatives send waves of culture warriors into an unending series of symbolic proxy battles — “death panels,” liberal media bias, border fences, evolution, gay marriage, don’t ask/don’t tell — that allow them to express their “schizoid” frustration through angry rhetoric, partisan attacks, and sometimes outright conspiracism, all without much changing the size of government, or preventing it from performing the functions on which we have come to depend. This aspect of the American intellectual landscape has pathologized political debate — turning every discussion about legitimate policy areas into a screaming match about which of the Founding Fathers are being made to spin in their graves, and by whom. Yet it is also an aspect that most Americans seem to take utterly for granted, not realizing how strange it all seems to an outsider. (Perhaps that is why the book you are reading was written by a Canadian.) Jonathan Kay is managing editor, Comment, of the National Post. Excerpted from Among the Truthers (Penguin Books Canada, 2011). By permission of the author and the publisher, HarperCollins Canada. [email protected]
POLICY OPTIONS SEPTEMBER 2011