Welcome to Infomercial America, or, if you prefer, the United States of Spam.
Whenever political conspiracy theories break out into the open, pundits and intellectuals name-check the brilliant but flawed essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics” by Richard Hofstadter.
Under President George W. Bush, the “ 9/11 Truthers” were the poster boys and girls of the paranoid style. Others hinted that the flooding of New Orleans during Hurricane Katrina might have been deliberate. Under President Obama, it was the “Birthers.” A related theory was that Obama is a secret Muslim. A generation before that, it was the John Birch Society and various other groups convinced that fluoridated water was a nefarious communist plot. And let’s not even get started on the issue of who really killed Kennedy.
Such theories have been commonplace since the 18th century, when the Masons first took over this country and duped people into thinking elections matter.
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I kid, I kid.
Like other contagions, such notions tend to get disinfected when brought into the sunlight. And then we forget about them.
The problem, however, is that the contagion is still there, like mold spores beneath the floorboards. Conspiratorial thinking really isn’t about politics, it’s about life. And it has no permanent ideological home.
Indeed, “conspiratorial thinking” isn’t even the right term. A better one might be “gnosticism.” Properly speaking, gnosticism should be capitalized (even my spellchecker says so) because the capital G version refers to a heretical Christian faith born in the second century. There’s no need to delve too deeply into all of that, but the word gnosis means “knowledge” in Greek, with a connotation of “secret knowledge,” or, if you will, the hidden truth.
In an era when everything was suffused with religious meaning and orthodoxy, the heretical Gnostics argued that the official story of Christianity was a ruse. They claimed special insight and secret wisdom. They knew the real deal. If the Gnostics were alive today, they might send you email spam saying, “Click here to learn the five things the Church doesn’t want you to know about your eternal soul.”
Today, religion doesn’t suffuse everything, and for many Americans it doesn’t inhabit anything at all. But the gnostic impulse is alive and well, eating away all forms of orthodoxy like termites behind the drywall.
Many of us have our pet theories that the food industry or the medical establishment or some other corporate behemoth is concealing the truth about what to eat or how to live or who really makes the decisions out there. And if you don’t, you almost certainly know someone who does.
Whole industries depend on the deep-seated suspicion that “they” are keeping you in the dark. If you have an email account, you’ve heard from people promising to tell you the “one trick” doctors don’t want you to know. Infomercials populate the television ecosystem promising they have the secrets Wall Street doesn’t want publicized. Commercials on talk radio blare out warnings that if you don’t find out the hidden truth about this or that, you won’t be prepared for the apocalypse just around the corner.
The political parties tell me every day in fundraising emails that hidden forces and secret radical agendas can be held at bay if I donate $5. Bernie Sanders is a veritable spokesman for anti-billionaire paranoia. He’s the redeemer who will fight the stygian forces of the Kochtopus at Megiddo.
Donald Trump is all about the gnosis. He insists that the idiots in Washington don’t understand anything, particularly the “Art of the Deal” (Now in paperback!). If elected, he will simply apply his magical secret wisdom to the black hole in Washington and turn it into a supernova of winning.
Indeed, Trump has been playing this game for years. He still won’t back off his poisonous belief that vaccines cause autism. The roots of his current presidential bid (he’s tried before) lay in his “birther” shtick. His spamtastic Trump University – now called the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative and being sued for fraud – promised to reveal the secret techniques Trump used to amass his fortune. Students say they paid thousands and got nothing.
For millennia, snake oil salesman have promised shortcuts, quick fixes, secret tricks and easy riches by claiming that the Powers that Be are deliberately hiding the good stuff. In the past, the Powers that Be could hold such claims at bay, particularly in the political realm.
But now, the spammers are inside the gates, threatening to overturn it all with one secret trick that will deliver happiness, justice and, of course, winning forever.
Jonah Goldberg: firstname.lastname@example.org