Are Conspiracy Theories Central to U.S. Political Debate?

Anne Applebaum’s piece in Slate argues that

we have been blessed in recent history by a political system that has, for the most part, kept them [conspiracy theories] outside the mainstream of American political life. With the possible exception of the anti-masonic movement in the 19th century and some of the madder moments of the Nixon presidency, conspiratorial thinking has never been central to the political debate.

She goes on to say that Americans have had a “longstanding aversion to conspiracy theory.”

I couldn’t disagree more. One need only read the work of Robert Goldberg, Richard Hofstadter, and Kathryn Olmsted to see the centrality of conspiratorial thinking. The list of significant events and experiences in U.S. history tied to conspiracy theories is long: The American Revolution, the political battles of the 1790s, Andrew Jackson’s fight against Nicholas Biddle’s Bank, northern accusations about a “slave power” conspiracy and southern accusations about an abolitionist conspiracy, the Know Nothings, the Populist party, the two Charles Lindberghs and their fear of the military-industrial complex and FDR’s fascist intentions (respectively), fundamentalist Christian accusations that FDR was the Antichrist, Area 51, McCarthyism, the John Birch society, the multiple political assassinations of the 1960s, the moon landing, the Iran-Contra affair, Waco, Ruby Ridge, Oklahoma City, Hillary Clinton’s “vast right-wing conspiracy,” Vince Foster and Whitewater, the New World Order, 9/11 truthers, weapons of mass destruction, birthers, Sandy Hook–the list goes on and on.

Applebaum’s larger point is that Donald Trump’s supporters “prefer satisfying stories.” Earlier this week, I wrote that comparisons of Trump and Andrew Jackson missed the mark. Buried in that post was the suggestion to look at why people are drawn to politicians such as Trump. In his case, despite his outrageous remarks and claims, Trump seems to have tapped the inner fears that have always been present in U.S. society. His ability to do so and to use those fears to vault himself to the top of the Republican party’s list of presidential candidates says more about American voters than it does about him.

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