Margins to the Mainstream
Conspiracy theories originating on the extreme right have invaded American political life. And that's not good for democracy.
“There is nothing makes a man suspect much, more than to know little.” FRANCIS BACON, Of Suspicion, 1625
America, as the historian Richard Hofstadter famously noted in 1964, is a place peculiarly given to “the paranoid style” of politics — the idea that history is no accident, but rather the outcome of a series of conspiracies. The surface of events is never what it appears, but instead hides deep, dark and destructive forces.
What Hofstadter called “movements of suspicious discontent” have targeted imaginary threats ranging from the Illuminati, Freemasons and Jesuits of long ago all the way to the Communist infiltration alleged by Joseph McCarthy and the John Birch Society in the mid-20th century. And since Hofstadter’s seminal essay, the list of alleged evildoers has kept on growing, especially on the far right, where global elites are today seen as secretly laboring to build a totalitarian “New World Order.”
Although it is difficult to make valid historical comparisons, it is hard to avoid feeling that our country is drowning in an even larger ocean of conspiracy theories now than in decades or centuries past: President Obama is a Kenyan and a Marxist bent on seizing the weapons of all Americans; Common Core educational standards are part of a plot to impose communism on the U.S.; military exercises in Texas this summer are actually a first step toward martial law; and on and on and on.
One factor fertilizing such beliefs is the proliferation of alternative forms of media, from cable television and talk radio to social media and a seemingly endless number of websites. Almost any belief that a person has, no matter how far out or disconnected from the facts, has some kind of “news” source to back it up.
But what may be even more important in the highly polarized political environment of the United States in recent years has been the willingness of large numbers of politicians — either because they really believe or because they are willing to pander shamelessly to the extremists in their bases — to legitimize the fairy tales. Whether or not Texas Gov. Greg Abbott truly believes that a military exercise this summer was a prelude to martial law, he acted as if he might.
These kinds of words have consequences. When Sarah Palin accused the president of organizing “death panels” as part of his health care plan, the debate veered from the serious to the ridiculous. When hundreds of thousands of Americans swallowed the claim that Mexican, U.S. and Canadian elites were secretly planning to merge the three countries, it helped to derail any hope for enacting comprehensive immigration reform. When politicians allege a global conspiracy behind a United Nations sustainability plan, preserving the planet becomes even harder.
Conspiracy theories, in other words, are destructive to democracy; they substitute ignorance and suspicion for knowledge and reason, and make it that much harder to deal with the many problems before us. As Francis Bacon suggested almost four centuries ago, conspiracy theories are a way for weak minds to deal with a complex world — and to wreck any chance for finding real solutions.
What follows are 10 key conspiracy theories that have made their way from the margins of our society to often shocking levels of acceptance in the political mainstream. In addition to describing the theories, their origins and the reality of the situation, we take on some of the chief enablers of these destructive tall tales.
1. Common Core - The Plot Against Our Children
Ever since the Supreme Court ruled in 1948 that outside groups like churches couldn’t provide religious instruction in public schools — the first of a series of court decisions meant to ensure such schools would be genuinely secular — far-right forces in America have increasingly rejected the very notion of public education, attacking it as part of an anti-God, socialistic plot to poison our children’s minds.
The latest and most virulent example of that is the rapidly spreading idea that the Common Core State Standards, an ambitious effort to lift student achievement across the country, is actually a dangerous conspiracy to indoctrinate young people into “the homosexual lifestyle,” communism and globalist ideology, all the while collecting detailed and highly personal information about millions of citizens.
In actuality, the Common Core is a set of standards for math and language arts/literacy developed by the National Governors Association and the Council of Chief State School Officers and released in 2010. It does not mandate any particular curriculum or readings, although it does offer “exemplar” texts as examples of the books students should be able to understand at various grade levels. Although tests are not mandated by the Common Core, two federally funded consortia have been developing examinations that could ensure the standards have been met.
At their most benign, attacks on the Common Core have portrayed the standards as either a key step in a federal takeover of public education or yet another reform attempt that overemphasizes testing and standardization. But in the hands of radical groups like the John Birch Society and a whole array of far-right groups and politicians, the proposed program has morphed into what former Fox News host Glenn Beck characterized as “Communism. We are dealing with evil.”
Forty-five states adopted the initially uncontroversial standards in a bid to improve the competitiveness of the American work force. But the brouhaha has had consequences: Indiana, Oklahoma and South Carolina have withdrawn from the standards, and at least a dozen other states have seen similar legislation introduced.
Virtually all the radical claims about the standards are false. They do not mandate any particular texts — other than the Declaration of Independence, the Preamble to the Constitution, the Bill of Rights and Lincoln’s Second Inaugural Address. They do not promote homosexuality. They are not critical of Christianity, nor do they promote Islam. They do not require the collection of individual data that will then be sold to private interests. They don’t push the idea of global warming or hector students about “social justice” or being good “global citizens.” They are not part of a plot to impose a global government known as the “New World Order.”
Although more and more outlandish conspiracy theories are part of mainstream American political culture, wildly untrue claims about the Common Core have far more “mainstream” proponents than most. Politicians from around the country and all levels of government, pundits, a large number of Christian Right and anti-LGBT groups, and many others are part of the paranoid chorus.
David Barton, a discredited Christian “historian,” claimed the Common Core “is not education, it’s political indoctrination.” Troy Towns, the minority outreach director for the Alabama Republican Party, said, “When I heard the word ‘common,’ the first thing I thought of was communism.” He described the standards as helping the government “tak[e] over everything, contro[l] the way you think, what you do, education, health care.” Phyllis Schlafly, founder of the right-wing Eagle Forum, decried the Common Core’s “active promotion of gay marriage.” Another Eagle Forum leader, Christina Michas of Palm Springs, Fla., linked it to Nazism and the “ultimate goal” of setting up “internment or reeducation camps.”
A senior fellow at the American Principles Project, founded by Christian Right thinker and law professor Robert George, said that the standards are part of “utopian, grandiose planning for a managed global economy” sought by “socialists.” Jane Robbins added that they “advance the model of a command economy.”
Right-wing commentator Michelle Malkin denounced “collectivist agitators” who have “chipped away at academic excellence in the name of fairness, diversity and social justice” and claimed that through Common Core, “Washington meddlers” are gathering data on children that the government will sell to “the highest bidders.” Never one to mince words, Glenn Beck headlined one recent piece “Common Core: A Lesson Plan for Raising Up Compliant, Non-Thinking Citizens.”
And the politicians have chimed in, too. Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) called the standards a “dangerous new curriculum” and joined with seven others to sponsor legislation banning any federal funding for them. U.S. Rep. Jim Bridenstine (R-Okla.) said they are “much like socialism.” Wrapping it all up, Tea Party activist Terry Bratton last year told an Alabama Senate committee that the Common Core standards are simply “anti-Christian, anti-Catholic and anti-American.”
2. Military Exercises - Prelude To Martial Law
When Texas Gov. Greg Abbott this summer ordered the Texas State Guard to “continuously monitor” the Jade Helm 15 U.S. military training exercise for possible violations of civil liberties or other rights, he was roundly criticized for legitimizing baseless fears that the exercise was really a first step in imposing martial law.
And rightly so. As one Republican veteran of the Texas Legislature said, Abbott either “actually believes this stuff” or was willing to “pander to idiots” as a matter of political opportunism. “Is there anybody who is going to stand up to this radical nonsense that is a cancer on our state and our party?” Todd Smith asked.
But there is a real seed from which martial law conspiracy theories, common to both some segments of the far left and especially to the radical right, have grown. Martial law has been declared in the United States about a dozen times, the most recent after Hurricane Katrina in New Orleans. More to the point, frightening contingency plans for imposing martial law really have been drawn up.
The first public notice of these plans appeared in 1984 in, of all places, The Spotlight, a now defunct anti-Semitic tabloid, under the headline “Reagan Orders Concentration Camps.” The story, which turned out to be substantially accurate, focused on another military drill, Readiness Exercise 1984, “which postulated a scenario of massive civil unrest and the need to round up and detain large numbers of demonstrators and dissidents,” according to Political Research Associates.
In 1987, a far more complete account of plans drawn up under the Reagan Administration appeared in The Miami Herald. The story reported that Lt. Col. Oliver North, then embroiled in the Iran-Contra scandal, had prepared a plan to suspend the Constitution in the event of crises including “widespread internal dissent or national opposition to a U.S. military invasion abroad.” A collaborator, then-Federal Emergency Management Agency Director Louis Guiffrida, had years earlier discussed in a paper how, in the event of an uprising by black militants, martial law might be declared and some 21 million “American Negroes” interned.
Since then, fears of martial law have metastasized on the far right. In 1996, for example, Soldier of Fortune magazine ran a breathless story about the Army’s Delta Force carrying out a nighttime exercise in Houston. By that time, the idea that the government intended to impose martial law at any moment had become a core theory of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement. And it still is today.
But the claims about Jade Helm are absurd.
The exercise was not part of a plot by the White House and the Pentagon to impose martial law. Closed Walmarts in the seven Southwestern states where it is occurred are not connected by secret tunnels and won’t be used to intern dissidents. New dome-shaped facilities built by the Federal Emergency Management Agency as storm shelters are not “Death Domes” where insurrectionists will be housed. Blue Bell Ice Cream trucks are not being converted to portable mortuaries.
Although some criticism of the military and the militarization of police in the United States may well be legitimate, Jade Helm 15 is just what officials say it is: An exercise by about 1,200 Special Operations troops that ran between July 15 and Sept. 15, mostly on private land, to prepare for fighting overseas.
The idea that Jade Helm 15 is really a nefarious government plot apparently originated with Alex Jones, the hyperventilating conspiracy theorist who broadcasts from Austin, Texas, six days a week. In March, according to The Boston Globe, Jones told some 1 million listeners he had “huge breaking news.” He had obtained a map showing where the operation would take place — and showing that Texas and Utah were designated “hostile” territories on that map. “This is going to be hellish,” he said. “[T]his is just a cover for deploying the military on the streets.”
From there, it raced across the radical right at something close to the speed of light. Militia members, other “Patriots,” and thousands of posts and comments on websites and forums echoed Jones’ alarm, all the time adding new details.
But the surprise wasn’t that so many Internet sleuths had conspiratorial ideas; it was that those ideas were more or less endorsed by many politicians. Texas Gov. Greg Abbott, naturally, was the most notorious. But U.S. Rep. Louie Gohmert (R-Texas) chimed in, saying some were “concerned that the U.S. Army is preparing for modern-day martial law” and adding that “patriotic Americans have reason to be concerned.” U.S. Sen. Ted Cruz (R-Texas) said he would be asking tough questions of the military. And Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) said he would look into the matter.
3. Agenda 21 - Conspiracy Of The Greens
Agenda 21 is a nonbinding, essentially toothless United Nations natural resources sustainability plan for our increasingly crowded planet. It’s a wish list, not a must-do-or-else list. The plan was signed in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit by the leaders of 178 countries, including President George H.W. Bush, who is no sane person’s idea of a wild-eyed, tree-hugging, anti-development environmentalist more concerned with woodpeckers than people.
But when it comes to Agenda 21, there are not enough tinfoil party hats to go around. Ever since the plan was announced 23 years ago, groups like the John Birch Society (JBS) have been doing their best to transform Agenda 21 in the American public mind into a secret plot to impose a totalitarian world government, a nefarious effort to crush freedom and American sovereignty in the name of environmentalism.
It’s not just extremists singing this looney tune. In January 2012, the Republican National Committee bought into the propaganda, denouncing Agenda 21 in a resolution as a “destructive and insidious scheme” that is meant to impose a “socialist/communist redistribution of wealth.”
To listen — if you can stand it — to the rants of the Birch Society and its many allies on the radical right, Agenda 21 will lead to a “new Dark Ages of pain and misery yet unknown to mankind.” It is “a comprehensive plan of utopian environmentalism, social engineering, and global political control,” the “most dangerous threat to American sovereignty” yet.
Agenda 21, they say, will “make our nation a vassal” of the UN, result in the “destruction of our lives,” force rural areas’ population to be “decimated,” and lead to having “90% of the population murdered.”
The truth is Agenda 21 is not a treaty. It has no force of law, no enforcement mechanisms, no penalties, and no significant funding. Yet fear, lies and talk of flocks of black helicopters blocking out the sun and smashing freedom when they land are winning in too many places. Alabama, for instance, has passed a law meant to outlaw any effect of the plan. Earlier, in that state’s Baldwin County, all nine members of the Planning and Zoning Commission quit in disgust after the County Commission killed their local development plan “on a pretext so devoid of relevance and merit as, in our opinion, to elicit only ridicule,” they wrote in their resignation letter.
After the County Commission acted, the audience cheered and sang “God Bless America.”
Name a right-wing conspiracy theory of the last 60 years and chances are the John Birch Society was sitting near the front of the bandwagon.
The assault on Agenda 21 is no different. Although the Birch Society has been gunning for the UN since the early 1960s, it did not fully commit to the anti-Agenda 21 crusade until 2011, when it began devoting resources and foot soldiers to it. “We’re in a fight to save our country,” the group’s CEO, Arthur R. Thompson, said of that battle in 2013. “We’re in a fight to save the people who are unwilling to bend their knee to a totalitarian state.”
Before JBS joined the fray, Tom DeWeese, founder of the American Policy Center, which focuses on “environmental policy and its effect on private property,” had been waging an almost one-man anti-Agenda 21 campaign. “It sounds so friendly. So meaningful. So urgent,” DeWeese wrote in 2009. “But the devastation to our liberty and way of life is the same as if Lenin ordered it.”
DeWeese was soon joined by a number of far-right groups, including the Constitution Party, which was founded in 1992 and says its goal “is to restore American jurisprudence to its Biblical foundations and to limit the federal government to its Constitutional boundaries.” The party’s Florida chairman, Bernie De Castro, put it like this: “Agenda 21 is the most dangerous threat to America’s sovereignty that is coming at us like a whirlwind and yet so few Americans are aware of this diabolical threat to them and their families.”
In an alarming 2012 fundraising letter, three-time presidential candidate and former U.S. Foreign Service officer Alan Keyes, a protégé of President Ronald Reagan, said: “Enemies who hate America, despise liberty, and want the United States transformed … into … a global, socialist state … are relentlessly advancing a seditious new plan — Agenda 21 — to make our nation a vassal of the United Nations.”
Prominent politicians like former House SpeakerNewt Gingrich (R-Ga.) and Sen.Ted Cruz (R-Texas) have also contributed to this agenda of fear and silliness as they denounce the plan that Cruz has claimed would “abolish” golf courses and paved roads.
4. North American Union - U.S Sovereignty On The Bank
On March 23, 2005 — a date which will live in infamy, if you listen to the conspiracy conjurers of the American right — President George W. Bush, his Mexican counterpart, Vicente Fox, and Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin met in Waco, Texas, and signed the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP).
To most observers, SPP was a benign, slow-moving attempt to coordinate technical trade and security policies among the three countries. But to right-wing conspiracy theorists, the agreement was the beginning of the end of American sovereignty, the first official steps down a dark road jammed with brown-skinned people and leading to the so-called North American Union, or NAU.
There is, of course, no such union or plan to merge the three nations into a borderless mass that uses a single currency, the “Amero.” American sovereignty is safe. Yet, that hasn’t stopped the NAU bogeyman from becoming the dominant conspiracy theory animating the anti-immigration movement for the last 10 years. (A related theory, which emerged from the American Border Patrol hate group, says that Mexico has a secret “Plan de Aztlan” to reconquer the American Southwest.)
In 2007, The Boston Globe described the NAU as perhaps “the quintessential conspiracy theory for our time,” one that “elegantly weaves old fears and new realities into one coherent and all-encompassing” kooky package.
In a nutshell — emphasis on nut — the theorists say the NAU is a plot by elitists in the government and on college campuses that will result in Mexico sending millions more of its citizens to the United States, “using bilingualism to subvert America,” as Daneen G. Peterson puts it. Peterson researches the perils of the “One World Order” and runs stopthenorthamericanunion.com, a website devoted to unmasking the “globalists” behind the NAU.
On her site, Peterson calls Bush, Fox and Martin “The Treasonous Triumvirate” for signing SPP and clearing the way for the NAU with their “multiple acts of treason” and “deceptive double-speak.”
In the United States, Peterson claims, there is “a government cabal bent on destroying our sovereignty,” while the Mexican “invasion of America” continues with “Hispanics who balkanize our cities and towns and arrogantly corrupt our unifying national language.”
The seditious cabal is said to also include the Council on Foreign Relations and the alleged Dr. Frankenstein of the NAU, the late American University professor Robert Pastor.
In other words, as Peterson says on her website, “Treason Abounds.”
Lest you think the NAU conspiracy theory is only being pushed by one unwound webmistress, think again. The John Birch Society — whose founder once called President Dwight D. Eisenhower a communist agent — has been pushing NAU fears for years. And it also has made its way into the mainstream.
In 2006, four congressmen — U.S. Reps. Virgil Goode (R-Va.), Ron Paul (R-Texas), Walter Jones (R-N.C.) and Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) — sponsored a resolution opposing a “NAFTA superhighway” that conspiracy theorists believe is connected to the NAU. In 2007, Tancredo demanded an end to the SPP and insisted that belief in the NAU theory was not limited to “right-wing kooks.”
A somewhat less mainstream group, the Coalition to Block the North American Union, was formed in 2006 by the late Howard Phillips, three-time presidential candidate for the theocratic Constitution Party and founder of The Conservative Caucus. Phillips’ co-founders in the coalition were the Eagle Forum’s Phyllis Schlafly and Jerome Corsi, author of the notorious “Swift Boat” book attacking and distorting 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry’s Vietnam service. Corsi accused President Bush of having a “secret agenda” and warned that “an executive branch coup d’etat may be under way.”
The coalition had almost 70 members, many of them members of the Constitution Party. Others included Brent Bozell of the Media Research Center; Bay Buchanan of Team America; Tom DeWeese of the American Policy Center; Joan Hueter of the American Council for Immigration Reform; the Rev. William Owens of the Coalition of African American Pastors; Ronald D. Ray of the Coalition of American Veterans; Chris Simcox of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps; Elizabeth Ridenour of the National Council on Bible Curriculum in Public Schools; and several leaders of the American Independent Party.
5. Shariah Law - Coming To A Courtroom Near You
For more than six years, much of the American right has been afflicted with a feverish brain disorder that writer Adam Serwer calls “sharia panic.”
The fever shows no signs of breaking any time soon.
The disorder is a delusional and apparently highly contagious conspiracy theory that contends American Muslims are trying to undermine the U.S. Constitution and maybe even overthrow the government someday by implementing Shariah religious law in legal proceedings across the country.
The truth is that Shariah is essentially a code of ethics, or, as The New York Times put it, “Islam’s road map for living morally and achieving salvation.” In some Islamic countries, it forms the basis of an often harsh legal code that governs crime, public morality and other matters. It is occasionally used in other countries in private civil contracts between individuals (such as agreements between spouses to abide by its precepts in any future divorce), just as Christians or Jews will sometimes draw up private contracts about similar matters based on their own religions.
But it cannot, under the Constitution, supersede American law.
Nevertheless, to a growing number of mostly Republican legislators from Vermont to Alabama, Shariah has become — particularly around election time — a blueprint for world domination. So to thwart the sneaky Muslims — and pick up a few more votes — politicians have introduced bills in almost three dozen states in recent years, seeking to ban Shariah law in U.S. courts. In the last five years, eight states have actually passed such needless measures.
“All of this in spite of the fact that no instance of sharia law superseding U.S. Constitutional law exists,” Todd Green, author of The Fear of Islam: An Introduction to Islamophobia in the West, wrote in the Huffington Post this spring. In any case, he added, “at one percent of the population, Muslims are not in the position to impose any kind of law on any state.”
The bills are essentially the same across the country. They are modeled after legislation written by a 59-year-old Hasidic Jew, David Yerushalmi, a lawyer who is widely considered to be the driving force behind the anti-Shariah movement. He is also, according to the Anti-Defamation League, a man “with a record of anti-Muslim, anti-immigrant and anti-black bigotry.” One of Yerushalmi’s clients and close allies is Pamela Geller, perhaps the best-known and most unhinged anti-Muslim ideologue in the United States.
Yerushalmi began writing his model statute — “American Laws for American Courts” — in 2009. The statute, according to the Times, “would prevent state judges from considering foreign laws or rulings that violate constitutional rights in the United States.” Yerushalmi admitted later that his purpose was not so much to ban the imposition of Islamic religious law — already impossible under the Constitution — but “to get people asking this question, ‘What is Shariah?’”
In 2010, backed by a $60,000 campaign funded by the Muslim-bashing group ACT! for America, the bill was passed in Oklahoma with 70% of the vote. But the Oklahoma law explicitly targeted Shariah and was later struck down by a federal court. After that, the anti-Shariah movement wised up and watered down its bigotry, shifting its focus and language onto banning all foreign laws.
But “as these restrictions pile up,” according to an article in 2014 on the website of the Brennan Center for Justice at New York University School of Law, “the bans come full circle and reveal their true purpose: to demonize the Islamic faith.”
While conceding that Shariah was “not an imminent threat in Oklahoma yet,” Republican then-state Rep.Rex Duncan, a chief sponsor of that state’s anti-Shariah bill, told ABC News in 2010 that “[i]t’s a storm on the horizon in other states,” adding, “The only entities that could oppose this measure are those that admittedly support applying international law and sharia law in American courts.”
Cathie Adams, the former chairwoman of the Texas Republican Party and current leader of the Texas chapter of Phyllis Schlafly’s Eagle Forum, has said that immigration reform is a “tool of Satan that will lead to the enactment of Sharia law and usher in the End Times.”
The anti-Shariah movement is not confined to statehouses across the country. It has national allies as well. In a speech to the American Enterprise Institute in 2010, former House Speaker Newt Gingrich said, “I believe Shariah is a mortal threat to the survival of freedom in the United States and in the world as we know it.” In 2011, Republican presidential candidate Herman Cain told ThinkProgress that he would not appoint a Muslim to his administration or as a federal judge because there is “this creeping attempt, there is this attempt to gradually ease Sharia law and the Muslim faith into our government.” In 2012, as a candidate for the U.S. Senate from Texas, Ted Cruz described Shariah as “an enormous problem.”
6. Gun Grab - The Coming Seizure Of Americans' Firearms
For at least the last half century, many Americans, goaded by groups like the John Birch Society and more recently the National Rifle Association, have believed that a government “gun grab” is just around the corner. Despite living under what are among the most relaxed gun ownership laws in the industrialized world, huge numbers think that this seizure is planned as a first step toward dictatorship.
These fears are now a core theory of the antigovernment “Patriot” movement, which believes that various elites are about to impose martial law, seize all civilian arms, and toss any who resist into secret, government-run concentration camps. That, in turn, is seen as the prelude to the imposition of global government.
For many on the far right, the 1993 federal raid on religious cultists in Waco, Texas, proved the point. The Branch Davidians were manufacturing and selling weapons, and that, to the extremists, is why the government initiated the bloody siege. Guns mixed with heterodox ideology would not be permitted.
When Barack Obama appeared on the national political scene in 2008 as the Democratic candidate for president, the conspiracy theorists went into overdrive.
The National Rifle Association (NRA) spent a whopping $15 million on a national campaign — bearing the scare slogan “Prepare for the Storm in 2008” — that, according to Factcheck.org, made “unsubstantiated claims that Obama plans to ban use of firearms for home defense, ban possession and manufacture of handguns, close 90 percent of gun shops and ban hunting ammunition.”
All of these claims, of course, were false.
But they persist to this day, with almost every new mass shooting described by conspiracy theorists as a “false flag” operation designed to terrify Americans into accepting draconian gun control measures. In the first years of Obama’s presidency, such fears drove a massive surge in gun and ammunition sales. At the same time, the NRA and other far-right activists have claimed that a United Nations treaty meant to regulate international arms trafficking is aimed at taking away Americans’ guns — a complete falsehood, as it would apply to no country’s internal gun laws.
A key claim made by the fear-mongers, based on a couple of fabricated quotes, is that Hitler imposed gun control as a first step in his dictatorship and genocide of the Jews. In fact, as numerous scholars have conclusively demonstrated, Hitler’s 1938 German Weapons Act actually dramatically loosened a gun control regime forced on the country after Versailles — except for Jews. And, as historians point out, even if the Jews had been armed, they would have been no remote match for a military apparatus that was able, for a time, to take on much of the world.
In recent times, the NRA, and particularly its executive vice president, Wayne LaPierre, has been the lead purveyor of the gun seizure myth, helped along mightily by radical antigovernment groups and conspiracy-mongers like Alex Jones.
But he’s gotten plenty of other help as well.
Shortly after Obama was elected in 2008, Milwaukee radio host Mark Belling told his audience that “[e]verybody’s buying guns before Obama comes in and outlaws them all.” A few days later, G. Gordon Liddy, the convicted Watergate felon and radio host, warned that people should not register their weapons no matter what the law said. In early 2009, far-right ideologue Ann Coulter warned that “Big Brother [is] coming in and taking our guns and schools and doctors.”
Then-Fox News host Glenn Beck sounded similar that year, saying Obama “will slowly but surely take away your gun or take away your ability to shoot a gun, carry a gun. He will make them more expensive, he’ll tax them out of existence.” In the same way, in his 2012 propaganda tome Here Come the Black Helicopters!, Fox News contributor Dick Morris devoted a chapter to the bogus claim that the proposed UN treaty regulating international gun sales would allow the Obama Administration to “[c]onfiscate and destroy all ‘unauthorized’ civilian firearms.”
And in 2013, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) warned that Obama was working with “anti-American globalists” at the UN — which he said was controlled by “petty dictators and one-world socialists” — to plot a major U.S. gun confiscation. Then-Senate Minority Leader Mitch McConnell (R-Ky.) joined in, telling supporters in an E-mail that they were “literally surrounded. The gun-grabbers in the Senate are about to launch an all-out assault on the Second Amendment.” He was wrong.
7. FEMA - America's Secret Concentration Camps
For decades, as the stubborn conspiracy theory goes, the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA) has been secretly building 600 to 800 concentration camps on American soil, some equipped with gas chambers. The empty camps are scattered across the country, waiting to swing into action once the oligarchs in D.C. declare martial law on behalf of their buddies at the United Nations.
Railroad boxcars and cheap coffins are also ready to ship unruly American citizens away — to either the camps or, if the people resist too much, to mass graves.
It’s such an outlandishly grim fairy tale that even ultraconservative commentator Glenn Beck, himself a conspiracy theory promoter (see Agenda 21) who initially said of the FEMA theory that he “wanted to debunk it” but couldn’t, spent two nights in April 2009 doing just that.
“I’m sick of seeing the E-mails about FEMA camps,” Beck declared on his now-defunct Fox News show. “Look, let’s just stick to the facts. There is enough truth out there that pisses people off. We don’t need all the lies.”
Beck said that, along with the “9/11 truthers,” the “evil concentration camps” claim is “one of the most pervasive conspiracy theories on the Internet because it comes with supposed video” with “well over a million views on YouTube.”
Beck’s guest for the debunking was James Meigs, then editor-in-chief of Popular Mechanics, which did an even more detailed debunking of its own. (The same magazine in 2005 had published an important knockdown of 9/11 conspiracy theories.) For example, pictures of a “confirmed concentration camp built on American soil in rural Wyoming” were actually images of forced-labor camps and prisons — in North Korea.
The images, according to Popular Mechanics, were taken from a Washington D.C.-based human rights group’s report exposing North Korea’s hidden prison camps.
On the show, Beck asked Meigs about a video showing a small building, purportedly the entrance, equipped with motion-activated detectors and electronic turnstiles, to an American concentration camp, surrounded by a fence.
It was portrayed as some kind of American Auschwitz, Meigs said.
But researchers from Popular Mechanics visited the site and found, according to Meigs, “an Amtrak repair facility in Beach Grove, Indiana.”
“Well,” Beck said, “Auschwitz had trains. I’m just saying.”
“But once you go down that road,” Meigs replied, “if somebody wants to be convinced of that, they can’t really debunk that.”
Beck pointed out that the videos were not new and even predated all the Obama-did-it conspiracy theories.
“This video,” Meigs said, “actually dates from about 1995. But like so many of these conspiracy theories, it gets re-cut and re-edited and circulated around the Internet.”
And so, the concentration camp conspiracy theory marches on.
Recently, fuel was added to that fire by an unlikely source, retired general and former Democratic presidential candidate Wesley Clark. In an interview on MSNBC in July, Clark called for World War II-style internment camps to be revived to combat Muslim extremism.
“If these people are radicalized,” Clark said, “and they don’t support the United States and they’re disloyal to the United States as a matter of principle, fine, that’s their right. It’s our right and our obligation to segregate them from the normal community for the duration of the conflict.”
In some basement somewhere in America, a new video is hurriedly being edited.
One of the earliest mentions of the FEMA theory came in 1982, in a newsletter of the extreme-right, anti-Semitic Posse Comitatus warning “hardcore Patriots” would be interned in FEMA-run detention camps. It picked up speed with the 1987 revelation that then-FEMA director Louis Guiffrida had collaborated with Lt. Col. Oliver North on a secret plan to suspend the Constitution in case of widespread internal dissent or other crises (see Military Exercises).
Linda Thompson, an Indianapolis lawyer and militia enthusiast, in 1994 produced her third conspiracist video, “America Under Siege,” alleging FEMA was building a system of concentration camps. One of the places she named as such a camp turned out to be the Amtrak repair facility in Indiana.
In 2009, Stewart Rhodes formed a radical-right group called the Oath Keepers, composed largely of current and former members of the military and law enforcement, that listed the 10 “Orders We Will Not Obey,” which included any command to herd Americans into concentration camps. (Rhodes did not mention FEMA by name.) Around the same time, William Lewis Films and Gary Franchi Productions released a film, “Camp FEMA: American Lockdown.”
The following year, conspiracy-monger Alex Jones produced and directed “Police State 4: The Rise of FEMA,” a similar film that he boasted “conclusively proves the existence of a secret network of FEMA camps… . The military-industrial complex is transforming our once free nation into a giant prison camp.”
On his Facebook page in 2012, Jones linked to a story from Disclose TV, “List of All FEMA Concentration Camps in America Revealed.” Jones’ Infowars.com website is littered with similar stories with headlines such as “Exclusive: Government Activating FEMA Camps Across US,” “Secretive FEMA Camp Drill Running in Iowa” and “Bombshell: FEMA Camps Confirmed.”
8. Money Manipulators - How The Bankers Keep Us Down
The fear that regular people are being ruthlessly exploited by financial elites — bankers, major business interests and other players in high finance — goes back almost to the first days of our nation. And while it is certainly true that moneyed interests have long taken advantage of the financially vulnerable, the American far right has specialized in conspiratorial explanations with no basis in reality.
As early as the 1790s, many people suspected that Freemasons — a fraternal group whose sometimes secretive practices engendered many specious conspiracy theories — were covertly controlling U.S. government policies through financial and other manipulations. This ultimately fed into a national debate a full century later over banking, credit, money and the use of gold and silver.
Such theories gained a particularly nasty twist with the publication in the very early 1900s of the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, a forgery alleging a Jewish plot to take over the world and, through control of the banks, all its wealth. Although the book attacked Jews for financial troubles in Russia, it reached American automaker Henry Ford, who popularized the idea of Jews sabotaging the U.S. economy.
Suspicions about elite financial plots heated up in 1910, when a group of bank moguls and U.S. senators gathered at Georgia’s Jekyll Island resort to plan what would become, in 1913, the Federal Reserve, the system that today regulates the money supply in America. Later conspiracy theorists, like G. Edward Griffin, author of the 1994 book The Creature From Jekyll Island, see this as the beginning of a massive rip-off of the American people. Today’s antigovernment “Patriot” movement despises the Fed, which it wrongly claims is controlled by “international bankers” (often described as Jewish bankers) who manipulate the system to their own advantage. Patriots say that paper money, or “Federal Reserve Notes,” is not real money like gold.
Another landmark event in this world of conspiracy theories is President Franklin D. Roosevelt’s 1933 dropping of the gold standard, which meant that the government no longer promised to redeem paper money for gold. At around the same time, Father Charles Coughlin, an infamous anti-Semitic radio broadcaster, popularized the term “banksters,” by which he meant Jewish bankers.
In contemporary times, a whole array of malefactors have been identified by the radical right as manipulating American finance at the expense of the rest of us: the Rothschilds, Roosevelts and Rockefellers, the British royal family, the Council on Foreign Relations, the Trilateral Commission and the Bilderberg banking summits. For neo-Nazis, naturally, the enemy is always the Jews.
Of course, there is nothing whatever to any of these theories. Indisputably, banking and other financial interests have sometimes worked to profit unfairly at the expense of others. But the idea that there is an elaborate plot by an identifiable group of conspirators to defraud America and its citizens is entirely false.
Through the centuries, a huge number of people, some of them powerful men like Henry Ford, Father Charles Coughlin and Adolf Hitler, have promoted various false conspiracy theories about financial manipulation, in the case of those three blaming the Jews. They are far too numerous to list.
Dennis Fahey, an anti-Semitic Catholic writer, was one who wrote of “money manipulations” during the 1940s. In 1971, another virulent Jew-hater, the late Eustace Mullins, began writing about similar plots, ultimately influencing many neo-Nazis and others on the radical right. G. Edward Griffin, who in 1994 wrote The Creature From Jekyll Island about the alleged evils of the Federal Reserve, has denied being an anti-Semite, but a number of his critics disagree.
For decades, the John Birch Society (JBS) has played a primary role in promoting a series of similar conspiracy theories, although they do not point to Jewish evildoers. JBS pamphlets in recent years have pushed gold in place of paper money and said the Fed has put Americans at “the mercy of booms and busts unleashed by the mandarins of high finance to serve their own political ends.”
In his 1991 book The New World Order, Pat Robertson, chair of the Christian Broadcasting Network and host of “The 700 Club,” talks about secret forces whose “principal goal is the establishment of a one-world government where the control of money is in the hands of one or more privately owned but government-chartered central banks.” He identifies evildoers who include the Illuminati, the Council on Foreign Relations, Freemasons and certain Jewish banking families.
More recently, both former congressman Ron Paul and his son, Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.), have attacked the Fed and paper money, while the elder Paul has tirelessly promoted a return to the gold standard. And an endless list of companies selling gold and silver have sought to take advantage of the conspiratorial beliefs of many on the far right by urging them to buy metal instead of saving dollars.
9. Secret Muslim Training Camps - The Enemy Within
Pushers of the conspiracist canard that there are between 22 and 35 secret Muslim terrorist training camps hidden in plain sight in rural areas scattered across the country have a simple explanation for why the authorities have not cracked down to save America from the peril of homegrown jihad.
Local police and sheriff’s departments, not to mention the FBI and the Department of Homeland Security, have their heads in the sand, probably because of too darn much political correctness.
“We toured a lot of these camps and by and large all the camps have a pretty good working relationship with the police department or the sheriff that is in the immediate area,” Martin Mawyer, head of the Christian Action Network, which is listed as a hate group by the Southern Poverty Law Center, complained to the far-right online “news” outlet WorldNetDaily this January. “Whenever we’ve tried to meet with any of these police agencies and present our findings they won’t let us in to show any of the evidence. Maybe it’s just to keep their heads buried in the sand because they certainly don’t approach this group with any degree of seriousness.”
Despite the dismissive reception from law enforcement, the campinistas have been pushing the conspiracy theory hard for years, compiling lists of the suspected terrorist compounds and making videos about them. One of those is “Homegrown Jihad: The Terrorist Camps Around U.S.,” which was produced by Mawyer’s group and since 2012 has had nearly 400,000 views on YouTube.
Islamberg, one of the alleged “terrorist training camps” in upstate New York, is a popular target of the conspiracy theorists — figuratively and, earlier this year, literally.
In actuality, Islamberg, located about 110 miles northwest of New York City near the town of Hancock, is home to a small community of mostly African-American Muslims. It is one of at least a dozen similar enclaves around the country. A Reuters story about Islamberg this June ran with a headline describing it as “a tranquil Muslim hamlet in the Catskills.” Six months earlier, a local sheriff’s office spokesman told a radio show host that he knew Islamberg well and was “perplexed” by the idea that it posed a threat. Asked about a grainy video made by the Islam-bashing Clarion Project claiming to show women engaged in paramilitary training there, he said that “nothing we have developed or had contact with has made us believe there is any credit to those videos.”
But to an “array of far-right organizations,” as Reuters put it, Islamberg is a terrorist training camp, featured in the “Homegrown Jihad” video and endless Internet rants. And a 63-year-old former congressional candidate from Tennessee, Robert Doggart, was apparently inspired by the training camp hysteria. In July, a federal grand jury indicted Doggart for allegedly soliciting others to burn down the mosque at Islamberg.
Another location that often appears on the lists of training camps is the Alabama town of Marion, population 3,686.
On July 25, 2002, less than a year after the horror and mass murder of the 9/11 attacks, ABC News published a story about a possible terrorist training camp linked to Muslim extremists, operating just outside of Marion. The camp was called “Ground Zero.”
The report talked provocatively about “[b]ullet-riddled police cars and a school bus with mannequin targets” scattered across the property and, inside a huge shed, “an equally macabre scene: shot-up mannequins, male and female, in domestic settings, some with red, blood-like stains on them.”
“The looming question for law enforcement,” ABC said, “is whether there is a connection between the camp and the al Qaeda terror network.”
ABC did acknowledge that the British man who owned the compound — described as probably an “unwitting accomplice” — said it was a legal training facility for law enforcement that provided world-class training in automatic weapons, urban warfare and other tactics, “supposedly to fight terror attacks.”
The day after the ABC report, The Associated Press reported that that was, in fact, precisely what the camp was — a training facility for law enforcement. The police chief of Marion, saying he’d been misquoted by ABC, explained that the camp was used by police officers from Alabama and Louisiana. An FBI spokesman in Birmingham told the AP that his agency’s probe found no link to any terrorist or other unlawful activity. The state’s Department of Public Safety agreed.
And yet, 13 years later, Marion still shows up on Internet lists as one of the 22 secret Muslim terrorist training camps that the police just won’t do anything about.
Although Martin Mawyer appears to be the principal promoter of the Muslim training camp myth, no anti-Muslim conspiracy theory would be complete without the input of Pamela Geller. Geller has been on the trail of the fictional camps since 2007 and says the authorities have not raided them “because there is a great reluctance among government and law enforcement agencies across the board, no matter who is president, to appear to be anti-Muslim.”
Patti Pierucci is another promulgator of the canard. She and Mawyer are co-authors of Twilight in America: The Untold Story of Islamic Training Camps Inside America. People who purchase the book on Amazon frequently also buy another page-turner, How Obama Embraces Islam’s Sharia Agenda by Andrew C. McCarthy.
Sean Hannity, along with a number of other Fox News hosts, has also tried to spread the word. In 2009, he devoted a segment of his program to the subject. His “expert” guest was Mawyer. “It’s a frightening thought,” Hannity said. “Islamic terrorist training camps right here in America, in our backyards.”
10. The Homosexual Agenda - The End Of Civilization
The idea that there is a “homosexual agenda” — a concrete plan, worked out with Machiavellian cunning and aimed at convincing straight Americans to accept the unacceptable — dates to the early 1980s, when the gay rights movement was for the first time ever beginning to gain a little bit of real political traction.
Perhaps the first important book to suggest a program of devious infiltration was Enrique Rueda’s 1982 tome, The Homosexual Network, which expanded more soberly on David Noebel’s The Homosexual Revolution: End Time Abomination, a crude 1977 book that savaged homosexuality. A tsunami of similar publications, increasingly pointing to a detailed and secret gay agenda, soon followed. Beverly LaHaye’s 1991 booklet, The Hidden Homosexual Agenda, was typical.
There is some argument on the religious right as to just how the “agenda” came to be. Some locate the beginning in early demands for gay rights like Carl Wittman’s 1970 article, “Refugees from Amerika: A Gay Manifesto,” which called for making alliances with other progressive movements and appealing to younger people. Later, a large number of anti-gay activists claimed it started with a 1990 book, After the Ball: How America Will Conquer Its Fear and Hatred of Gays in the 90’s, by psychologist Marshall Kirk and advertising expert Hunter Madsen.
That book proposed a straightforward campaign — tactics such as speaking openly about homosexuality, portraying gays as victims and their enemies as bullies, and seeking sympathetic allies — but it was painted as an evil conspiracy.
Amusingly, other anti-gay forces mistook a 1987 satire in a Boston gay newspaper for a real plan. Among its most famous lines: “We shall sodomize your sons, emblems of your feeble masculinity, of your shallow dreams and vulgar lives.” It ended with this: “Tremble, hetero swine, when we appear before you without our masks.” It was even entered into the Congressional record — minus its first line, saying it was “a tragic, cruel fantasy, an eruption of inner rage,” a parody.
Over the years, the religious anti-gay right has added ever more florid descriptions of the alleged homosexual agenda. Anti-gay groups have repeatedly claimed, falsely, that the gay rights movement seeks to abolish all sexual age-of-consent laws. Many asserted that the American Psychiatric Association’s 1973 declassification of homosexuality as a mental disorder was merely appeasement of gay activists. Efforts to prevent bullying of LGBT students in lower schools were depicted as cynical attempts to “recruit” children into the “homosexual lifestyle”
The truth is that there is no “homosexual agenda” beyond the decades-long attempt by LGBT people to win equal rights — to be safe in their homes and on the streets, to be able to marry the people they love, to not be discriminated against in housing, jobs and so on. But there most certainly is an anti-gay agenda, and it is one that often will stop at almost nothing in its efforts to smear LGBT people.
The history of those who work to isolate and defame LGBT people, in particular with respect to the alleged “homosexual agenda,” is a long one. But it has gotten even worse as gay people have come closer and closer to real equality.
Janet Porter, president and founder of Faith2Action, said in an anti-gay documentary released earlier this year that “God and his commandments were kicked out of the classroom” and replaced with “a dark agenda that robs children of their innocence and puts their life at risk.” Appearing with her in the film, “Light Wins,” was Scott Lively, who claims that gay men orchestrated the Holocaust, and Sen. Rand Paul (R-Ky.) and former Arkansas Gov. Mike Huckabee.
John Stemberger, who heads Trail Life USA and opposed the Boy Scouts decision to allow gay Scouts, said that if the Scouts went further and allowed gay Scouting leaders, it would endanger “the safety and security” of the boys in the group and allow “the homosexual agenda to infiltrate the church.”
Also this year, Christian Coalition founder Pat Robertson told a viewer of his TV show, “The 700 Club,” that “the gays want to control everything” and warned that “[t]his is part of the left-wing agenda to do away with Christian values.”
Countless others have chimed in on a variety of mythological plans attributed to the gay agenda, all of them baseless — that hate crime laws will be used to send pastors to prison if they publicly disagree with homosexuality, that speech will soon be curtailed to disallow any negative comments about LGBT people, that the legalization of same-sex marriage will destroy heterosexual marriage and so on.
In the words of Janet Mefferd, a far-right syndicated radio host, the country may be moving “toward a day when every Christian who supports real marriage might be made to wear a yellow patch on the sleeve … to identify us as ‘anti-gay haters.’” She didn’t mention that the idea is ridiculous on its face and, in any case, would be entirely impossible under a constitutional system.