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Tomgram: Steve Fraser, Was American History a Conspiracy?

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It might be deplorable of me to say so, but conspiracy theorizing at the highest level of government gave me one of the greatest gifts of my childhood, a TV set. I once wanted to write an essay called "Thank God for Senator McCarthy!" about that time. In April 1954, my mother, a theatrical and political caricaturist, was asked by the then-liberal New York Post to draw the Army-McCarthy Hearings, about to be shown on ABC. I was almost 10 years old and televisions were just beginning to enter significant numbers of American homes, but not mine. I had to go to a friend's apartment to catch the Adventures of Superman and other must-sees of that moment, while begging my parents (then essentially broke) for a set of our own.

The Post must have purchased that black-and-white TV for her so she could cover those dramatic hearings. Their focus: charges lodged against the U.S. Army by that anti-communist conspiracy monger Senator Joseph McCarthy for being "soft" on the Reds. He was a monster, but not quite of Trumpian proportions (not being the president of the United States). Still, I can remember walking in the front door of our apartment after school one day and seeing my mother sitting in front of that new TV, drawing the senator's iconic face. His was, in fact, the first image I ever saw on a TV screen in my own house and, to me, he looked boringly normal -- that is, belligerent and pugnacious like so many of the 1950s fathers I knew, including my own.

So I was both unfazed by and thankful to him. After all, though he brought misery to so many with his red-scare tactics and fantastically wild charges about commies in the government, he brought me Disney and Lucy and Ed Sullivan. As a result, I've been less surprised than some by the connection between our present conspiracy monger par excellence and the many screens and entertainments of our present lives -- a blur of (mis)communication that puts that ancient black-and-white TV of ours to shame.

As TomDispatch regular Steve Fraser suggests today, while reviewing the history of the conspiratorial thinking of this country's leaders since the Salem witch hunts, we now have the ultimate conspiracist-in-chief and TV personality in the White House. He's far more belligerent and pugnacious than any 1950s dad I ever knew and, by the way, only recently labeled Democratic vice-presidential candidate Kamala Harris a "communist." I wonder how my mother might have drawn him as he continues to pump out manic tweets and videos in a haze of Covid-19 and a potentially steroidal euphoria. Tom

The United States of Paranoia
From the Salem Witch Hunt to Conspirator-in-Chief Donald Trump
By Steve Fraser

News is "faked"; elections are "rigged"; a "deep state" plots a "coup"; Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died suspiciously in bed with a pillow over his face; aides of ex-president Barack Obama conspire to undermine foreign policy from a "war room"; Obama himself was a Muslim mole; the National Park Service lied about the size of the crowd at the president's inauguration; conspiracies are afoot in nearly every department and agency of the executive branch, including the State Department, the CIA, the Justice Department, the Federal Drug Administration, the Department of Homeland Security, and the FBI ("What are they hiding?"). Thus saith, and maybe even believeth, the president of the United States.

Donald Trump is not the first commander-in-chief to believe in conspiracies. And some of those conspiracies were real enough, but he is our first conspiracist president. "Conspire" in Latin means to "breathe together." Conspiracy thinking is the oxygen that sustains the political respiration of Trumpism. Oval Office paranoid fantasies metastasize outside the Beltway and ignite passions -- fear and anger especially -- that leave armies of Trump partisans vigilant and at the ready.

Members of the administration's inner circle keep the heat on. Michael Flynn, whose career as national security adviser lasted but a nanosecond, tweets "New York Police Department blows whistle on new Hillary emails: Money Laundering, Sex Crimes with Children, etc... MUST Read." Michael Caputo, now on leave from his post at the Department of Health and Human Services, uncovered a supposed "resistance unit" at the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention committed to undermining the president, even if it meant raising the Covid-19 death toll.

On a planet far, far away -- but not so far as to prevent the president from visiting when he's in the mood or the moment seems propitious -- is QAnon, where the conspiratorial imagination really exhales and goes galactic.

The earliest moments of QAnon, the conspiracy theory, centered around "Pizzagate," which alleged that Hillary Clinton was running a child sex-trafficking ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizzeria where children were supposedly stockpiled in tunnels below the store. (There were no tunnels -- the restaurant didn't even have a basement -- but that didn't stop it from nearly becoming a murder scene when a believer in Pizzagate walked into the shop armed with an assault rifle and began shooting wildly.)

But QAnon was playing for bigger stakes than just child sex-trafficking. Q (him or herself a purported ex-government agent) supposedly relayed inside information on Trump's heroic but hidden plans to stage a countercoup against the "deep state" -- a conspiracy to stop a conspiracy, in which the president was being assisted by the Mueller investigation flying under a false flag.

QAnon supporters are only the best known among conspiracy-oriented grouplets issuing alerts about a covert CIA operation to spread lesbianism or alt-right warnings that FEMA storm shelters are really "death domes" and/or places where "Sharia law will be enforced"; or dark revelations that the "mark of the beast" is affixed to the universal price code, smart cards, and ATMs; or, even grislier, radio talk show performer Alex Jones's rants about "false flag" events like the slaughter of children at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Connecticut, where (he claimed) "crisis actors" were employed, paid by George Soros, to simulate a massacre that never happened.

The point of it all is to make clear how close we are to The End; that is, to the overthrow or destruction of the Constitution and the Christian Republic for which it stands.

President Trump flirts with such a world of conspiracy thinking. He coyly acknowledges an affinity with it, then draws back from complete consummation, still sensing that it's good medicine for what otherwise threatens to shorten his political life expectancy. QAnon "members" show up in the thousands at Trump rallies with signs and shirts reading "We Are QAnon." (And 26 QAnon-linked candidates are running for Congress this November.)

Conspiracy thinking has always been an American pastime, incubating what the novelist Phillip Roth once called "the indigenous American berserk." Most of the time, it's cropped up on the margins of American life and stayed there. Under certain circumstances, however, it's gone mainstream. We're obviously now living in just such a moment. What might ordinarily seem utterly bizarre and nutty gains traction and is ever more widely embraced.

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Tom Engelhardt, who runs the Nation Institute's ("a regular antidote to the mainstream media"), is the co-founder of the American Empire Project and, most recently, the author of Mission Unaccomplished: Tomdispatch (more...)

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