Conspiracy theories are spreading faster than ever and causing real damage to America, says journalist Jonathan Kay. He took a deep two-year dive into America’s “vast conspiracist subculture,” a teeming twilight zone that includes Obama Birthers, 9/11 Truthers, JFK assassination obsessives, alternative-medicine advocates, fluoride phobics, and otherwise normal-seeming people convinced that Jewish bankers run the world. (And that’s just a tiny sample.) He sat through their conferences, surfed their websites and message boards, joined their Facebook groups, and interviewed them in their homes and offices. He came away convinced that while many of these theories – and the millions of people who believe them – may seem harmless, taken together they’re causing a “cognitive rift” in the national psyche, destroying the sense that Americans, whatever their disagreements, share the same basic reality. All this is the subject of Kay’s well-received new book, Among the Truthers. We recently got him on the phone to get the low-down on his travels in America’s conspiracist underground.
What’s up with conspiracy theorists? Are they crazy? Dumb?
A lot of people I interviewed for the book are incredibly intelligent people – former professors, investigative journalists, scientists, engineers; but they have no idea what to believe anymore, so they go online every morning and each time it’s a fresh trip down the rabbit hole. And their intelligence, far from being a bulwark against nonsense, it just turbo-charges their descent into nonsense. You could spend your whole life analyzing every hundredth of a second of every video that’s out there of the fall of the World Trade Center looking for hints of demolitions going off. And very, very smart people are spending their lives doing this, because they’re convinced it will give them some glimpse into the truth. And they wouldn’t be doing this if they had some satisfying worldview that gave them the kind of intellectual and emotional stability they were looking for in their life.
Do they tend to believe in multiple conspiracy theories, or are they single-issue types?
I found that virtually all conspiracy theorists over a certain age, like, 55 or 60, whether they were birthers or truthers or whatever, are often also J.F.K. conspiracy theorists. Often you’ll find that there was a period in their life when they lost faith in public institutions, in the mass media, in the government, in the judiciary. What happens is that once someone embraces one conspiracy theory, it shapes their entire view of the world. Conspiracism is a sort of creed; it’s the idea that there is a secret power in the world that can’t be changed by elections, that it has evil motivations and that it’s trying to destroy our way of life. They come to see the world as presented by the mainstream media and other institutions as sort of a counterfeit hoax. And their minds start digging behind everything, and they stop trusting anything. Which is actually very sad, because in a lot of cases it consumes their whole lives.
What about their politics? Are they more likely to be left- or right-wing?
Conspiracism is associated with people who feel alienated by conventional politics, and who feel distrust for conventional politics, and I’ve found it manifests itself on both sides of the political spectrum. The narratives are slightly different – on the left, conspiracy theories tend to revolve around large corporations, and on the right, they tend to revolve around super-national entities such as the United Nations and that sort of thing. But the basic narrative of the world being secretly controlled by evil agents who have some kind of global headquarters, whether it’s in Iran or Turtle Bay – it’s basically the same narrative.
It comes through in the book that for a lot of believers, conspiracism is a kind of religion.
A lot of people need something that resembles a religion in their life. But they don’t believe in God. What I say is that we always make such a big deal about how God is precious in people’s lives, but we forget that demons are also precious in people’s lives – because we need something that explains bad things, or a lot of people do. A lot of these conspiracy theories are people looking for explanations why bad things happen – why the Twin Towers fell, why the 2008 elections didn’t turn out the way they wanted them to turn out.
Donald Trump got pretty good mileage out of a conspiracy theory, at least for a while. What did you make of that?
The Donald Trump phenomenon surprised me, because he isn’t some completely marginal figure; he was a front-runner in the race to be Republican presidential nominee, and he got there largely by peddling this birther nonsense. When people saw that happen, I think it was a wake-up call. It meant that wacky conspiracy theories weren’t just a fringe phenomenon, but were beginning to infect mainstream American politics. And then when Barack Obama felt compelled to show his long-form birth certificate, a lot of people felt this had gone too far.
What does it take for a conspiracy theory to migrate into the mainstream?
I think it has to do with the political climate. In the past few years, I think mainstream political figures have been skeptical of getting on board with anyone who is considered a conspiracy theorist. In my book, I took it for granted that conspiracism was sort of a fringe phenomenon, even if it was growing. But Trump is the first example I’ve encountered of a modern political figure who’s cynically embraced conspiracy theories for political gain.
Do you think birtherism is really about race – i.e., some people just can’t accept a black president?
There’s a very common talking point among liberals that birthers were all racist. I didn’t find that. When I interviewed birthers, they didn’t focus on Obama’s race. What they focus on is what they believe is an agenda of “socialism” and Afrocentrism, which is tied to his race only indirectly – and many believe that he has a secret agenda to make the United States vulnerable to the influence of sharia. And because they feel that his ideology is un-American, there’s the psychological pressure to create the fantasy in which he is not a real American. They want the details of his birth to align with their emotional needs. However, I don’t think he’s a special case; conspiracy theories you hear about Obama in many ways mirror the conspiracy theories about communist infiltration in the Cold War.
Were you surprised how quickly Osama bin Laden conspiracy theories sprouted up after his killing?
Not at all. Deaths of public figures always create conspiracy theories – J.F.K., Princess Diana, Elvis, Jim Morrison. Take your pick. There are people who believe that Hitler survived the second World War and went off to South America. There’s something in human psychology that finds it difficult to believe the death of any public figure, whether good or evil.