The perils of losing one's grip on reality
Some of Barack Obama's detractors content themselves with arguing that he is a bad president. Others go further. "Birthers" insist that he was not born in the United States and is therefore constitutionally barred from being president. Yet Mr. Obama's birth certificate says he was born in Hawaii, and there is not a shred of evidence to the contrary. There is even an announcement of his birth in the archive of the Honolulu Advertiser, a local newspaper. Yet the internet crackles with theories as to how all this was faked so that, 48 years later, Mr. Obama could impose a socialist state on America. And a YouGov poll for The Economist found that 26% of Republicans think Mr. Obama is probably foreign-born.
Other conspiracy theories about Mr. Obama are even loopier. For example, some Americans think he is the Antichrist. The evidence for this, apparently, is that in the Bible Jesus is quoted as predicting that Satan will come down like lightning from heaven, and the words for “lightning” and “heaven” in Hebrew sound a bit like “Barack Obama”. Plus, his presidential limo is nicknamed “The Beast”. For those who think this is too far-fetched, there is the theory that Mr. Obama is a closet Nazi. He thinks abortion should be legal. Historically, some abortion advocates have also been eugenicists. Therefore he must be one of them. Also, he wants to discourage smoking. So did Hitler!
Hofstadter, writing at the time of Barry Goldwater’s insurgency, argued that political paranoia—a mix of anger, heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy—was most evident on the extreme right. And there are plenty of examples of right-wingers peddling nutty tales. Isolationists in the 1940s accused Franklin Roosevelt of deliberately letting the Japanese bomb Pearl Harbour to provide an excuse for war. Talk-radio crackpots in the 1990s accused the Clintons of having Vince Foster, a depressive friend of theirs who killed himself, murdered.
But the left is hardly immune to such fantasies. Some people, including Mr. Obama’s own former pastor, Jeremiah Wright, believe that AIDS was cooked up by the government to kill blacks. A staggering 18% of Americans think that the government of George Bush probably knew in advance about the attacks of September 11th 2001 but allowed them to proceed anyway. Some even contend that Mr. Bush orchestrated the attacks himself, to create an excuse for invading Iraq. To believe this, you have to believe that the Bushies were both wicked enough to murder thousands of Americans and brilliant enough to execute such a mind-bogglingly sophisticated plot without a single leak—in a culture where Richard Nixon could not even hush up a burglary.
Belief in conspiracy theories can be comforting. If everything that goes wrong is the fault of a secret cabal, that relieves you of the tedious necessity of trying to understand how a complex world really works. And you can feel smug that you are smart enough to “see through” the official version of events. But widespread paranoia has drawbacks. For a start, it makes calm, rational debate rather tricky. How can you discuss the trade-offs of health-care reform, for example, with someone who thinks the government is plotting to kill grandma? It does not help, either, that politicians on both sides are willing to fan the flames. Sarah Palin calls Mr. Obama’s health-care proposals “evil”. Harry Reid, the Senate majority leader, calls the protesters who loudly oppose them “evil-mongers”. Nancy Pelosi, the speaker of the House of Representatives, calls them “un-American”.
In his book “Voodoo Histories: The Role of the Conspiracy Theory in Shaping Modern History”, David Aaronovitch argues that conspiratorial fantasy can have dangerous real-world consequences. Hitler read and believed The Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a bogus account of a global Jewish conspiracy. So did the founders of Hamas. Timothy McVeigh killed 168 people with a bomb in Oklahoma in 1995 because he thought the federal government was hatching various dastardly plots.
Some people watch the ferment at town-hall meetings in America today and worry that another Oklahoma-style atrocity is brewing. A few protesters are waving placards wishing for Mr. Obama’s death. Others are ostentatiously wearing firearms outside his rallies. A recent report by the Southern Poverty Law Centre describes an uptick in the number of “Patriot” militia groups since Mr. Obama’s election and frets that some could turn violent.