Jesse Walker is books editor of Reason magazine and author of a new book, The United States of Paranoia: A Conspiracy Theory. After discussing the book at the Cato Institute on September 11, Walker answered questions about conspiracies and paranoia posed by the Charlottesville Libertarian Examiner.
He commented on some well-known conspiracy theories involving President Barack Obama, the AIDS virus, and the 9/11 terrorist attacks.
One common conspiracy theory of the past few years has been based on the claim that President Obama was not born in the United States. This has earned the sobriquet “birtherism,” and includes such elements that Obama was born in Kenya and his official birth certificate from Hawaii is a fake. One prominent proponent of the birthers' views is Soviet-born California dentist, Orly Taitz. Another is real-estate magnate Donald Trump.
“There's a lot to unpack there,” Walker said about the birther theory.
In the book, he said, he gives three reasons for why “birtherism has taken hold and even has believers now, even though it's pretty hard to make the case for it being true at this point.”
The first is a “desire for a magic bullet, something that can win you a political victory without the pain of political persuasion. It's worth noting,” Walker explained, “that birtherism initially caught on among the diehard supporters of Hillary Clinton during the primaries in 2008 before it migrated to the right.”
A second reason “is the fear of the foreign.”
If someone is “afraid of foreign Muslims and [doesn't] like the president, it's easy to be attracted to the idea of the president being foreign and/or a Muslim.”
In general, he continued, “if people who are uncomfortable with the idea of America as a multicultural nation, to them, the President is metaphorically foreign for all sorts of reasons and a conspiracy theory is very good at making the metaphoric into the concrete.”
The third reason, Walker said, is that birtherism is “a way to maintain your respect for the presidency while rejecting a president. If you can say, 'he's a usurper, pretender to the throne' – you actually see these sort of royalist metaphors in a lot of birther literature” – the birther can claim respect for the office if not for the man.
Walker added that he is “not saying that every birther subscribes to all three of those. Those groups overlap.” There are people for whom none of those reasons fit, “but those are three themes that often come up in the birther literature.”
AIDS created by U.S. government?
Another conspiracy that emerged relatively recently was the idea that the U.S. government created the AIDS virus. It is often stated in the context of a government conspiracy to decimate the African-American community.
There a lot of different AIDS theories, Walker said, but the one he addresses in his book “is the idea that white doctors were injecting black babies with AIDS. You might remember that rumor in the '80s.”
That story is “obviously not true,” he noted, but still “it's easy to see how it could catch on among people who have experienced a long history of high-handed or abusive treatment from the white medical establishment, including some genuine conspiracies, like the Tuskegee Experiment. That sort of lays the ground work for believing other conspiracy theories.”
Those who refuse to believe that Islamic-extremist hijackers destroyed the World Trade Center by crashing jet planes into the Twin Towers are known as “9/11 truthers.” They often say that the U.S. government engineered the collapse of the buildings in order to trigger a war and reduce Americans' civil liberties.
The question of 9/11 trutherism is “one that people have adopted that for so many reasons; I really hate to reduce it to any one or two.”
Sometimes, Walker pointed out, “people say that trutherism is a paralyzing idea because everything is stacked against you. The flip side is that you just have to worry about what's happening in Washington not trying to disentangle what's going on in foreign lands.”
That is not, however, “the only reason that trutherism catches on,” and he addresses some of those other possibilities in his book.
In part one of this interview, Jesse Walker discussed some of the broad themes he explores in The United States of Paranoia.