A few days after the Boston bombings, Stella Tremblay went to Glenn Beck’s Facebook page to express her conviction that the terror attack was, in fact, orchestrated by the U.S. government.
“The Boston Marathon was a Black Ops ‘terrorist’ attack,” she wrote. “One suspect killed, the other one will be too before they even have a chance to speak. Drones and now ‘terrorist’ attacks by our own Government. Sad day, but a ‘wake up’ to all of us.”
She then linked to a video at Infowars.com called Proof! Boston Marathon Bombing Is Staged Terror Attack.
Tremblay’s post, though, stood out from the wave of post-attack crazy because of her day job: she is a New Hampshire state legislator.
Like too many enthusiastic dupes, the Republican representative was echoing conspiracy entrepreneurs like Beck and InfoWars’ Alex Jones, who blend dark alternate history with a dystopian future, offering the listeners the “secret truth.”
Tremblay is part of a disturbing trend of—conservative state legislators and even congressmen entertaining conspiracy theories that are creepy and unseemly coming from the average citizen, but a sign of civic rot when they start getting parroted by elected officials.
Of course, craziness is a bipartisan issue, with Republicans frequently pointing to former congresswoman Cynthia McKinney as a Democratic example—but the right has been particularly prone to paranoia since Bush Derangement Syndrome on the left gave way to an epic case of Obama Derangement Syndrome from the other side.
This week in Missouri, state legislators voted to cut funding for the state’s drivers license bureau because it had been tasked in 2003 with also overseeing concealed-carry permits. The wife of state Rep. Kenneth Wilson explained—in the words of the Columbia Tribune—that the bureau “was part of a plot to impose United Nations policies in this country. ‘I have been doing some study on U.N. Agenda 21,’ Melissa Wilson … told the committee. ‘With this information going to the federal government, I feel that I will be a target. With Agenda 21, I will be someone who will be put on a watch list.’” She added that Agenda 21 is being pushed through in part because of a mass brainwashing known as the Delphi Technique.
This is shadowy conspiracy theorist stuff, but this theory isn’t just isolated to a few folks in Missouri. Last November, the conservative head of the Georgia state legislature invited his conference to a four-hour briefing on Agenda 21. The invitation read: “How pleasant sounding names are fostering a Socialist plan to change the way we live, eat, learn, and communicate to ‘save the earth.’” The presentation was emceed by a local Tea Party activist who is also a 9/11 truther, and a birther.
Even The Economist has felt compelled to weigh in on the absurdity of Agenda 21 conspiracy theories, for the record.
Adding to the reality-free high pitch of anxiety was the Texas state attorney general who—during the height of the North Korean escalation earlier this month—declared that the real danger to America wasn’t a communist dictatorship threatening to attacks us with nuclear weapons, but the Obama administration.
“One thing that requires ongoing vigilance is the reality that the state of Texas is coming under a new assault,” A.G. Greg Abbott said, according to the Waco Tribune, “an assault far more dangerous than what the leader of North Korea threatened when he said he was going to add Austin, Texas, as one of the recipients of his nuclear weapons. The threat that we're getting is the threat from the Obama administration and his political machine."
This is the leading elected law enforcement official in our second-largest state.
In North Carolina, conservative state lawmakers decided to push forward a clearly unconstitutional bill to allow the state “to declare an official religion, in violation of the Establishment Clause of the U.S. Bill of Rights, and seeks to nullify any federal ruling against Christian prayer by public bodies statewide,” in the words of local station WRAL. When one of the sponsoring lawmakers, Michele Presnell, was asked if she would be comfortable with a Muslim prayer to Allah before a public meeting, according to the Raleigh News and Observer, she replied, "No, I do not condone terrorism."
This sickness is starting to infect the halls of Congress. Friday, Congressman Louie Gohmert couldn't resist telling WND radio that, "This administration has so many Muslim Brotherhood members that have influence that they just are making wrong decisions for America."
That remark came just a day after Republicans Jim Jordan of Ohio and Jason Chaffetz of Utah held a hearing "to examine the procurement of ammunition by the Department of Homeland Security and Social Security Administration Office of Inspector General."
Despite the innocuous language, the hearing represented a capitulation, if not an outright endorsement, of conspiracy theories promoted by the likes of—you guessed it—Alex Jones and InfoWars, namely that the Homeland Security Department is stockpiling ammunition to use against Americans in a massive imposition of martial law. As Media Matters’ Tyler Hanson detailed, these conspiracy theories have been echoed in opinion pieces published on The Daily Caller and Fox News and in Forbes—in addition to the usual suspects like Breitbart and WorldNetDaily, where Michele Bachmann’s staffers have said she gets much of her “news.”
Perhaps the highest-profile impact of conspiracy theories to date on national policy was the defeat of the universal background check bill—specifically the widespread claims that closing existing loopholes would be a first step toward a national gun registry that would in turn bring Hitler-style confiscation to America. That, of course, would in turn lead to martial law, as former Arkansas governor and 2008 Republican presidential candidate Mike Huckabee explicitly claimed on his radio show earlier this month.
Never mind that the bill explicitly made it a criminal offense to make any such list—fear-fueled hyperpartisan narratives can outweigh facts. As Jonathan Swift famously put it, “You cannot reason someone out of something they were not reasoned into.”
The fact that conspiracy theories are percolating up to local party leaders and even the halls of Congress should be a warning sign for the GOP. As the faithful know, you reap what you sow, and the steady diet of hyperpartisan media has seeded these conspiracy theories in the minds of party activists to the extent that they are starting to shape policy debates. The embarrassing incidents are evidence of a larger problem that needs to be confronted: when you do not condemn the use of hate and fear to serve as a recruiting tool against your political opponents, the ability to reason together is undermined and self-government is compromised. There is a cost to condoning extremism when it seems to benefit “your team.”