Crackpot theories are as old as the Republic, but there are a few new reasons they may be more prevalent today.
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n December of 2003, liberal NPR host Diane Rehm asked then-front-running Democratic presidential candidate Howard Dean what he thought about President George W. Bush’s “suppressing” the 9/11 independent investigation.
Dean answered that he didn’t know for sure, but there were “many theories about it,” and the most interesting one he’d heard was that the president “was warned ahead of time by the Saudis.” Much like Donald Trump inquiring into Barack Obama’s real birthplace, Dean was just asking questions.
As the columnist Robert Novak explained at the time, the comments garnered scant media attention and no denunciations from Democratic Party leaders. Dean “neither apologized nor repudiated himself for passing along this urban legend” when he appeared on “Fox News Sunday” later that week, Novak noted.
Dean likely knew he was speaking to a sizable constituency. When an Ohio University poll for Scripps Howard asked Democrats three years later, “How likely is it that people in the federal government either assisted in the 9/11 attacks or took no action to stop the attacks because they wanted the United States to go to war in the Middle East?,” 22.6 percent said it was “very likely” and another 28.2 percent said it was “somewhat likely.” Or in other words, more than half of Democrats in 2006 believed that the president probably had foreknowledge of the 9/11 attacks.
A Zogby poll the next year found that 42 percent of Democrats believed that Bush had either caused the death of over 3,000 Americans on 9/11 or let it happen. That year, then-congressman Keith Ellison was still comparing the 9/11 attacks to the “Reichstag Fire.” A 2016 Chapman University study would find that more than half of Americans still believed that the government was concealing important information about the 9/11 attacks. Indeed, it found that 74 percent of Americans thought at least one major conspiracy theory “somewhat convincing.”
Like the Clinton-era “Body Counts” and Obama birtherism, Bush conspiracy theories were often hinted at by people who knew better as a means of convincing gullible voters that the president wasn’t merely bad but illegitimate.
These days, Bush is portrayed as the honorable head of a once-rational Republican Party, but back then, Democrats would regularly accuse him of furthering fascistic policies and perpetuating war for nothing more than personal gain.
To this day, liberal pundits will claim that Bush had “stolen” the presidency. Of course, not a single recount has ever shown Al Gore winning in 2000. The Miami Herald and USA Today recount, in fact, found that Bush would have widened his lead in the election had the recount ordered by the Florida supreme court been allowed to continue using standards that even “faintly dimpled” voting cards be counted.
Speaking of imaginary stolen elections, although it seems ages ago, the moral panic of 2017 wasn’t about mere contact with Russians during an election, it was propelled by the idea that the president was an outright traitor.
I was reminded of the depth of the paranoia that still remains over 2016 when watching a new trailer for Showtime’s upcoming film, The Comey Rule.
One man asks how was it possible that Russians had infiltrated American democracy. Another responds, quite hilariously: “Ever spend much time on Facebook?”
It is likely still commonly believed that some social-media memes were enough to turn our democracy over to Putin’s control. There is “no question” that Russia altered vote totals during the 2016 election, Senate majority leader Harry Reid told us. On multiple occasions, House Intelligence Committee chairman Adam Schiff claimed to be in possession of irrefutable “direct evidence” that the president had connived with Putin to steal the election. For two years, journalists unskeptically passed on every lurid theory about how a second-rate nation such as Russia was controlling American institutions. Even moderate liberal pundits wondered, “Will Trump Be Meeting With His Counterpart — Or His Handler?” or “What If Trump Has Been a Russian Asset Since 1987?”
It’s no surprise that in 2018, a YouGov poll found that 67 percent of Democrats believe it is “definitely true” or “probably true” that “Russia tampered with vote tallies in order to get Donald Trump elected,” even though the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee report on Russia’s interference has a full sub-section titled — in all caps — “NO EVIDENCE OF CHANGED VOTES OR MANIPULATED VOTE TALLIES.”
As far as I can tell, they stopped polling Democrats on the question.
But let’s talk about Diane Rehm again for a moment. A few years after the Dean interview, the popular and respected host casually asked socialist Bernie Sanders if he had benefited from “dual citizenship with Israel.” When Bernie explained that he did hold any such citizenship, Rehm assured him that she was working off a “list” of influential Jews in America — no doubt, procured from some dark corner of the Internet.
There are two Democrats in Congress right now, vociferously supported by Bernie, who further the dual-loyalty smear, so I’m not sure why he was so taken aback. Indeed, the same year Louis Farrakhan was telling his sizable flock that 9/11 “was a false flag operation to take the world’s attention away from the great disunity in America after George W. Bush stole the election,” the then–widely celebrated Women’s March — which numerous elected Democrats attended and praised — was being led by conspiracy theorist Carmen Perez, Nation of Islam fan Tamika Mallory, and anti-Semite Linda Sarsour.
While the media was giving massive coverage to a couple hundred Nazis, the founders of the Women’s March were kicking around theories from the modern-day “Protocols of the Elders of Zion” titled, “The Secret Relationship Between Blacks and Jews.” The press was too busy praising the women’s activism to delve into the protest leaders’ beliefs.
Sarsour — as well another Farrakhan fanboy, the rapper Common — were recently seen participating in the 2020 Democratic National Convention. At first, the Biden campaign distanced itself from them, but in a few days, they were begging for forgiveness. The deference the mainstream Democratic Party shows progressive crackpots is likely envied by adherents of QAnon.
Then again, the Congressional Black Caucus itself has a long history of working with Farrakhan. California Democrats Barbara Lee and Maxine Waters — who once alleged that the CIA was dropping drugs into America’s cities to destroy African-American communities — have for decades attended his public events. Some later distanced themselves from the Nation of Islam leader, some did not. Why should they, when once-august liberal periodicals such as The Atlantic will offer apologias for the movement?
Crackpot theories are as old as the Republic — a majority of Americans still believe there was some secret plot to assassinate President Kennedy. There are, however, a few new reasons they may be more prevalent — or seem so.
One, of course, is the Internet. In the 1990s, the geographically disparate amateur crackpots could finally congregate in AOL chat rooms and compare notes on how Bill and Hillary took out Ron Brown and Vince Foster. Websites could function without any kind of responsible editorial oversight and spread conspiratorial ideas.
These days, a lack of trust in legacy news media and institutions probably makes it more difficult to temper the spread of these ideas. A big part of that problem is self-inflicted. While legacy journalism does a fine job of debunking the crackpottery on the right, they often indulge and spread the crackpottery of the left — from the dozens of major misleading Russia “collusion” stories to fanning the Democrats’ moral panic over mailboxes.
Mailboxes are the new Diebold machines.
The third reason is exaggeration of the problem. There are dozens of pieces now claiming that QAnon gained a “foothold” in the GOP. As far as I can tell, there are handful of QAnon–type candidates running for Congress, but only one of them has a chance of winning. That’s bad enough, no doubt, but to put it in perspective, there about ten fewer QAnon loons in Congress than elected Democrats who participated in Nation of Islam events.
There is always a lunatic contingency in Congress — Cynthia McKinney and Ron Paul come to mind — and we shouldn’t give it outsized importance. The vast majority of Americans have never heard of QAnon, and it’s shameful that Donald Trump is unwilling to denounce it simply because its adherents support him. Every other elected GOP leader, however, has done so. Which is more than we can say about Democrats and their own kooks.