As Richard Hofstadter pointed out in his classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” crazy conspiracy theories have been an American tradition ever since clergymen began warning that Thomas Jefferson was an agent of the Bavarian Illuminati. But it’s one thing to have a paranoid fringe playing a marginal role in a nation’s political life; it’s something quite different when that fringe takes over a whole party, to the point where candidates must share, or pretend to share, that fringe’s paranoia to receive the party’s presidential nod.
And it’s not just gas prices, of course. In fact, the conspiracy theories are proliferating so fast it’s hard to keep up. Thus, large numbers of Republicans — and we’re talking about important political figures, not random supporters — firmly believe that global warming is a gigantic hoax perpetrated by a global conspiracy involving thousands of scientists, not one of whom has broken the code of omertà. Meanwhile, others are attributing the recent improvement in economic news to a dastardly plot to withhold stimulus funds, releasing them just before the 2012 election. And let’s not even get into health reform.
Why is this happening? At least part of the answer must lie in the way right-wing media create an alternate reality. For example, did you hear about how the cost of Obamacare just doubled? It didn’t, but millions of Fox-viewers and Rush-listeners believe that it did. Naturally, people who constantly hear about the evil that liberals do are ready and willing to believe that everything bad is the result of a dastardly liberal plot. And these are the people who vote in Republican primaries.