A concise way to describe WorldNetDaily is that it defines the exact inflection point on the spectrum of right-wing punditry where legitimate journalism ends and out-and-out conspiracism begins. On one hand, the popular website employs a staff of professional reporters who cover real stories. But it also pushes discredited conspiracy theories about Barack Obama, and has become a clearinghouse for litigious extremists challenging the constitutional legitimacy of his presidency. The brain behind WorldNetDaily is Joseph Farah, a middle-aged Arab American Christian Evangelical who originally made a name for himself two decades ago as editor of the Sacramento Union (where he picked a then-obscure pundit named Rush Limbaugh to be his daily front-page columnist). He began WorldNetDaily on a shoestring in 1997, in the days before many news websites even had advertisements, growing it into a profitable agglomeration of right-wing columns, original investigative articles, oddball medical product pitches, gold-buggery, an affiliated book-selling business, and, more recently, the sort of face-of-Jesus-revealed-in-oil-stain hokum usually found on the covers of supermarket tabloids. The ideology on display roughly coincides with the nativist, homophobic, socially conservative right-wing fringe of the Republican Party, but with an even heavier dose of paranoia and freaked-out America-gone-to-Gomorrah sensationalism. One mass emailing sent out in April 2010, for instance, asked readers to congregate at the Lincoln Memorial on May 1 to “cry ‘May Day!’ to God for our nation in distress…The elections are seven long months away and if God doesn’t intervene now, there may not be freedom left to meet like this again.”

It wasn’t always this way for Farah. “In high school, I was a revolutionary communist, a Che Guevera type,” he told me during a 2009 interview in the lobby of an upscale Virginia hotel. (The meeting spot was a compromise: I’d pestered him to show me WorldNetDaily’s Washington, D.C. offices, but he refused.) “I didn’t know anyone who had a more radical viewpoint than me.” Only later in life did Farah follow the example of Radical Son author David Horowitz: drifting rightward across the full breadth of the American political spectrum to the opposite pole, then spending his middle-aged years denouncing the fellow travelers he left behind.

As with many middle-aged Road-to-Damascus conservatives, it was the Gipper who changed Farah’s perspective. “Within a year of watching [Ronald] Reagan, I started reading everything he read, and I started thinking this makes perfect sense! During that first year — 1981 — my views changed dramatically. I saw [an ideology] that worked. The more I studied Reagan, and Margaret Thatcher, too, I thought, ‘I don’t know how anyone can dispute any of this.’“ In time, Reagan’s famous line from his first inaugural address — that “government is not the solution to our problem; government is the problem” — became Farah’s political mantra.

Needless to say, Farah finds Barack Obama’s policies appalling. But he also sees Obama as a possible blessing in disguise — as someone so offensive to American values that his presidency could provoke a revolutionary, rightward shift in the political landscape on a scale even greater than Ronald Reagan’s 1980 election victory: “Americans aren’t political. But with Obama, that’s changed. I haven’t seen anything like this in my life. This is bigger than the 1960s. That was just kids on campus. What we’re seeing now are ordinary Americans. This anger is finally clicking.”

The next time I saw Farah, in early 2010, he was standing behind a podium delivering a keynote address to the inaugural Tea Party National Convention in Nashville, Tennessee. The six hundred activists in attendance comprised a friendly audience: Many of them, including the conference organizer who introduced Farah, described WorldNetDaily as their primary source for news.

Farah warmed up the audience with a joke about a medical conference where doctors are bragging about their nation’s technological prowess. “A French MD says, ‘Medicine in my country is so advanced that we can take a kidney from one man, put it in another, and have him looking for work in six weeks,’“ Farah told the crowd. “A German doctor says, ‘That’s nothing. We can take a lung out of one person, put it in another, and have him looking for work in four weeks.’ To that, a Russian doctor said, ‘In my country, medicine is so advanced that we can take half a heart out of one person, put it in another person, and have him looking for work in two weeks.’

Then the American physician gets up and says, ‘You guys are way behind. We recently took a guy with no birth certificate, no brain, and put him in the White House — and now half the country is looking for work!’“

After waiting for the applause to die down, Farah launched into a lengthy dissertation challenging the idea that Barack Obama is a natural-born citizen who is constitutionally eligible to be president of the United States — a Birther conspiracy riff, in other words — every word of it carried to a national audience on C-SPAN.

“I’m a Christian, and I make no apologies about that,” Farah declared. “I’m a follower of Jesus Christ…I want to share with you briefly how the most important birth in history, that of Jesus of Nazareth was so well documented, unlike Barack Obama’s. Jesus established himself as the Messiah and savior of the world by providing not one but two separate and distinct genealogical records, one going all the way back to Adam, and another tracing his kingly lineage back to Abraham…There’s no doubt about where he was born, when, and his parentage. Jesus recognized those qualifications were essential to establishing his right to his earthly throne as king of the Jews. In fact, look at your Bibles. The first seventeen verses of Matthew are devoted to his genealogy through the line of Mary…That’s because God didn’t want there to be any doubts about Jesus’ eligibility or qualifications to be the King of Kings. There’s a lesson in this story for Barack Obama. His nativity story is much less known!”

America doesn’t really produce much out of steel and wood anymore. And a lot of what it does produce tends to be welded by robots or plucked out of the ground by illegal immigrants. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans these days, tend to be well-educated urban desk jockeys — consultants, health care administrators, mortgage brokers. Unlike farming and other rugged pursuits, these are hard professions to romanticize.

As Farah went on with his conspiracism, I looked around the room for signs of skepticism. If there were any, I didn’t see them. In fact, Farah’s speech earned a series of healthy ovations.

Obama’s August 4, 1961, birth in a Honolulu hospital is documented by birth announcements in not one, but two, Hawaii newspapers. He has released a certified 2007 copy of his birth certificate, disproving the Birther thesis that he was born in Kenya or Indonesia. Every litigant who has tried to make an issue of Obama’s presidential eligibility in the courts has been decisively rebuffed. And yet this crowd of political activists was willing to put their hands together for a speaker citing the Bible to support his contention that the president of the United States was some sort of illegal alien. Why?

“I voted for Jimmy Carter, I’ll admit that,” the middle-aged New Jersey pediatrician with a George Carlin hairstyle tells me over breakfast at the Gaylord Opryland Hotel in Nashville, Tennessee, as we wait for the 2010 Tea Party National Convention to commence. “And then the years passed, and I watched as the United States diminished in stature. The low point came when our helicopters crashed in the Iranian desert. We couldn’t even rescue our own people. That’s when I knew something was wrong.”

Since then, he told me, things have only gotten worse. Over the Christmas holidays, he’d traveled to mainland China, visiting factories now being run by an old family friend. “The places were beautiful — air-conditioned and all that. Everywhere I looked, buildings were springing up. Cranes and construction as far as the eye could see. It reminded me of the United States back in the 1950s, my parents’ time. Then I go back home to New Jersey, and I look around, and things are dead.”

When quoted in the media, Tea Party activists usually are heard railing against health care reform, cap-and-trade carbon abatement, or some other national policy that piques the interest of reporters at CNN and Politico. But when you get them in a small group, away from the cameras, they spend a lot of time talking about state and local issues.

Tea Party organizers tend to describe their agenda with five bullet points: Lower taxes, less government spending, greater liberty, states’ rights, national security. But that quintet — which also summarizes the major planks of the Republican Party — is misleading. The Tea Party movement is mostly made up of refugees from the mainstream GOP. They rail hard against RINOs (Republicans In Name Only). Bipartisanship — “kumbaya politics,” as it’s derisively called — is dismissed as a sell-out. Many of them are protectionists, in violation of Republican free-trade dogma. Their stance on immigration often flirts with xenophobia. Unlike buttoned-down corporate conservatives, they also tend to go in for oddball practices — do-it-yourself solar power generation, backyard food farming, Internet-peddled herbal medications, homeschooling, dubious tax-avoidance schemes — that hold out the promise of disentanglement from government regulators and their infrastructural grids.

Like all populists, Tea Partiers are suspicious of power and influence, and anyone who wields them. Their villain list includes the big banks; bailed-out corporations; James Cameron (whose Avatar is seen as a veiled denunciation of the US military); colleges and universities (the more prestigious, the more evil). Their ideological heroes, meanwhile, tend to be people who are either criticizing Washington from beyond its gates (Sarah Palin), or dead (Ronald Reagan), and thus protected from the taint of power.

The economic tribulations that began in the last year of George W. Bush’s presidency hang heavy over the Tea Party and its events: Virtually every conversation comes back to joblessness in some way. In an echo of the populist fervor that arose amidst the economic ruts of the late nineteenth century — when Greenbackers, Free Silver types, and bimetallists all railed at the gold-hoarders in New York City and London — there is much dark talk about the banking system and those who run it.

The analogy between the populist movements of the nineteenth century and the Tea Party phenomenon holds up in some ways: Both championed a constitutionally inspired counterrevolution that would empower ordinary working people by casting off the deadening hand of society’s parasitic plutocrats. Yet there are also many major differences. The late nineteenth-century populists of the Great Plains and the Southern states cast their movement as a campaign by rural yeomen, who produced real things like timber, ore, and food, against the city folk who did nothing but count gold and trade stocks — a populist subphilosophy described by American historians as “producerism,” and encapsulated in William Jennings Bryan’s “cross of gold” speech at the 1896 Democratic National Convention: “Burn down your cities, and leave our farms, and your cities will spring up again as if by magic; but destroy our farms and the grass will grow in the street of every city in the country.”

As recently as the recession of the 1980s and 1990s, producerism took expression in anti-Japanese protectionism, Ross Perot, and pick-up-truck-commercial imagery that depicted proud, unionized American workers facing off against foreign sweatshops. There are thin wisps of this in the Tea Party movement: Sarah Palin, in particular, tends to fill her speeches with homages to the common workingman that would not have been out of place a century ago. (It isn’t a coincidence that the greatest populist figure of our generation comes from Alaska, one of the few places in America that still relies on dirt-under-the-fingernails industries such as oil and fish.) But for the most part, such appeals are outdated: America doesn’t really produce much out of steel and wood anymore. And a lot of what it does produce tends to be welded by robots or plucked out of the ground by illegal immigrants. Most Tea Partiers, like most other Americans these days, tend to be well-educated urban desk jockeys — consultants, health care administrators, mortgage brokers. Unlike farming and other rugged pursuits, these are hard professions to romanticize.

Another major difference comes in the prevalent attitude toward capitalism. In the 1890s, populists typically demanded government intervention to protect the rural way of life from the predations of monopolists and bankers. The Populist Party platform of 1892, in particular, declared “that the power of government — in other words, of the people — should be expanded.” The manifesto called for more powerful unions, a state takeover of the railroads, and an increase in the money supply.

Tea Partiers, on the other hand, tend to embrace capitalism unreservedly. They agree with the preamble to the 1892 Populist Party platform, which declares that “the fruits of the toil of millions are badly stolen to build up colossal fortunes [by those who] despise the Republic and endanger liberty.” But they identify the thieves as Washington tax collectors, not railway barons. One telling moment, for instance, came in April 2010, when the SEC charged Goldman Sachs with civil fraud relating to its marketing of securitized mortgages — exactly the sort of move that would have caused populists of old to cheer. Instead, many Tea Party types denounced the move as another instance of Obama-style socialism.

The smug left-wing take on the Tea Party movement is that its members are nothing but shell-shocked racists. (In the words of Janeane Garofalo: “It’s not about taxes. They have no idea what the Boston Tea Party was about. They don’t know their history at all. It’s about hating a black man in the White House.”) But I saw little evidence of that in Nashville.

True, the conference floor was an almost unbroken six hundred-strong sea of white, middle-aged faces: I counted just four black people at the entire conference. But two of those people ended up speaking from the podium — including Washington, DC media personality Angela McGlowan, who received a series of massive ovations for her barnburner speech.

Most Tea Party activists do indeed distrust Barack Obama, but not because he’s black. Instead, they’ve latched on to him as a living, breathing symbol of the expansion of government that’s taken place in America since the New Deal, and of the decline of American influence on the world stage — the anti–Sarah Palin, in other words. Federal spending, they correctly note, has spiked radically upward in the years since he’s come into office — moving America toward a Europeanstyle tax-and-spend model, complete with universal health care.

Many Tea Partiers in Nashville went further, and told me that Obama is a Marxist who hates capitalism, that he is deliberately trying to sabotage America’s position as a superpower, that he has a secret plan to sell out Israel to the Arabs, or even that he is a closet Muslim in league with Iran. In building their case, they often focused on small, symbolic gestures: Obama’s decision to bow to Saudi King Abdullah and Emperor Akihito of Japan, his lack of an American flag lapel pin at a 2008 campaign event, his failure to hold his hand over his chest during the playing of the national anthem in 2007 — all of which they take as proof of a secret hatred of America and its values.

Whatever the details, the overarching thesis hews to the same False Prophecy myth: That Obama is not an ordinary politician, or, indeed, on some cosmic level, an ordinary human being. Rather, he is counterfeit in some fundamental and very dangerous way — a Manchurian Candidate — an unholy replicant who has come from beyond American shores (metaphorically or otherwise) to tempt Americans along some demonic path.

It would be entirely wrong to call Tea Partiers a straightforward conspiracist movement. Many of their political gripes about big government are shared by tens of millions of mainstream Americans: In a September 2010 survey, 71 percent of Republican respondents said they have a “positive opinion” of the Tea Party movement.

But as with all populist uprisings, it has attracted a fringe of angry extremists who will swallow just about any accusation launched against the nation’s elite. Like the John Birch Society types who came a half-century before them, some Tea Party radicals believe Washington is packed with fifth columnists seeking to undermine the country’s Christian character and its will to fight enemies abroad. The most obvious difference is that the word “Russian” has been replaced with “Muslim” in the accusatory lexicon.

This conspiracist fringe had a sizable presence at the Nashville conference. Roy Moore — the former Alabama chief justice who was fired for refusing to remove a five-thousand-pound sculpture of the Ten Commandments from his courthouse — gave a blistering Sodom-and-Gomorrah speech in which he warned of a “UN guard being stationed in every house.” There was also an “emergency preparedness” seminar in which we learned what to do when Armageddon comes. During one meal, I sat next to a conference attendee from Clearwater, Florida — an accomplished and well-spoken computer programmer who worked for a major American technology company — who suggested to me that the American government had deliberately sparked the financial crisis of 2008 so they could devalue the currency to zero, pay off the nation’s debts with worthless currency, and then create a new currency — the “Amero” — in monetary union with Mexico and Canada. At first, I dismissed him as an outlier. But later on, the entire conference was subjected to a screening of Generation Zero, a conspiracist film arguing a similar theme.

In between speeches, we would all file out of the main conference room and into a wide hallway area where various conservative groups had set up kiosks. There were also small businesses selling Tea Party-themed jewelry, Tshirts, and books. Inevitably, though, the center of attention was a middle-aged man from Brunswick, Georgia named William Temple — a sort of unofficial Tea Party mascot who crisscrosses the country, appearing at events dressed in his trademark threecornered hat and authentic Revolutionary garb. When journalists interview him (which is often — his outfit draws them in like a magnet), he cheerfully holds forth, flecking his speech with antique turns of phrase drawn from the days of Thomas Paine.

Sarah Palin’s speech the next day — which attracted more mainstream media attention than the rest of the conference put together — was actually quite moderate and sensible by comparison: Most of what she said about the war on terrorism, spendthrift Washington policies, and Barack Obama’s lobbyist cronies sounded like talking points borrowed from a stack of clipped Wall Street Journal editorials. (To her credit, she even had a kind word for some of Barack Obama’s policies — promoting nuclear power, and staying the course in Afghanistan, for instance — something no other speaker at the conference had done.) Nevertheless, she was received rapturously by the Tea Party faithful, especially when she dropped allusions to her son in the infantry and the plight of “special needs children.”

A common image evoked by Palin, and by many other speakers, was that of decent, godly people awoken from a long political slumber by Washington’s steady drumbeat of liberal outrages. The theme of uplift and revival was much in keeping with the evangelical tone that was everywhere in evidence — something I hadn’t expected. Virtually every keynote speaker appealed directly to America’s Christian character, and specifically identified the Tea Party project as a direct manifestation of divine will.

For anyone looking to neatly categorize Tea Partiers using conventional poli-sci typology, their odd combination of extreme libertarianism with social conservatism appears confusing: On one hand, they are deeply suspicious of any government effort to redistribute wealth and manage the US economy. On the other, they demand that this same government muscularly assert itself in the social sphere, and remake America in a Christian image. What binds these two strands of the movement is not any single notion of government, but a generalized nostalgia for America’s past.

Like Tea Partiers, the Jon Stewart brigade has a narrative about a country that has been hijacked by extremists. For the Tea Partiers, those extremists are Barack Obama and his bigspending socialist” allies in Congress. For the Stewart-ites, the hijackers are the Tea Partiers themselves, along with the enabling hard-right media culture spawned by FOX News.

The inner workings of government
Keep track of who’s doing what to get federal policy made. In The Functionary.
The Functionary
Our newsletter about the public service. Nominated for a Digital Publishing Award.

There’s something deeper at play, too — something that explains not only the linkage between the Tea Party movement, Evangelical Christianity, and Barack Obama conspiracy theories, but also Joseph Farah’s seemingly odd comparison between Obama and Jesus Christ.

Throughout recorded history, crisis, conspiracism, and millenarianism all have tended to flare up at once, following a script first set out no fewer than 2,500 years ago in the book of Daniel. Norman Cohn called this script “revolutionary eschatology.” In his classic study of eschatology in the Middle Ages, The Pursuit of the Millennium, he summarized its main plot elements this way: “The world is dominated by an evil, tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness — a power moreover which is imagined not as simply human but as demonic. The tyranny of that power will become more and more outrageous, the sufferings of its victims more and more intolerable — until suddenly the hour will strike when the Saints of God are able to rise up and overthrow it. Then the Saints themselves, the chosen, holy people who hitherto have groaned under the oppressor’s heel, shall in their turn inherit dominion over the whole earth.”

According to this narrative, the Tea Party’s radicalized activists are the self-appointed Saints. As for Barack Obama, he might not be the “tyrannous power of boundless destructiveness” — but he’s the next worst thing.

The book of the Revelation of John — known simply as Revelation — almost didn’t make it into the Bible. Many early Christian scholars believed the text’s lurid, phantasmagoric images were simply too disturbing. In his preface to Revelation in the first edition of his New Testament, published in 1522, Martin Luther declared, ”I can in no way detect that the Holy Spirit produced it” and, “My spirit cannot accommodate itself to this book.” Even for a modern lay reader, it’s easy to understand Luther’s thinking: Revelation reads like a treatment for a full-on horror movie, a sort of Cujo meets 2012 for the age of Domitian.

Revelation describes, almost in passing, a more mysterious figure who also fights on the dark side — a “false prophet” who “deceived those who had received the mark of the beast and those who worshiped his image.” His role in Revelation is brief: He is barely introduced before being flung into the Lake of Fire along with Satan. Yet somehow, he has attained a starring role in many of the secular conspiracy theories that have grown out of America’s Evangelical Christian tradition, including the conspiracist mythology currently at play on the extreme right wing of American politics.

False prophets pop up elsewhere in the Bible. Deuteronomy, for instance, warns the faithful of polygamous confidence men who pretend to predict the future, and commands death for one who “speaks in the name of other gods.” But the false prophet in Revelation is not just some wandering nuisance, tempting villagers with hocus pocus: He is a singular creature, the seductive scout of the Antichrist himself.

Whatever the details, the overarching thesis hews to the same False Prophecy myth: That Obama is not an ordinary politician, or, indeed, on some cosmic level, an ordinary human being. Rather, he is counterfeit in some fundamental and very dangerous way — a Manchurian Candidate — an unholy replicant who has come from beyond American shores (metaphorically or otherwise) to tempt Americans along some demonic path.

As with all conspiracy theories, there is a sliver of truth to the Birthers’ anti-Obama mythology: America’s 44th president truly does have an unusual background, one full of genuinely radical influences. In his teenage years, Obama took cocaine and flirted with radical leftist ideologies. While climbing the ladder of influence in Chicago, he made his bed with a menagerie that included a crook, a former terrorist, and a black-power preacher who spouted toxic anti-American conspiracy theories. For a brief period during his childhood, moreover, Obama was raised as a Muslim in Indonesia, and received a standard Islamic-themed education at a public school in that country — not damning facts in and of themselves, but unprecedented for someone who would become president of the most religious Christian nation on the planet.

Moreover — and this is the fact that truly sticks most painfully in the craw of many Birthers I’ve interviewed — the mainstream media has seemed entirely uninterested in investigating any of this. Worse: It heaps abuse and accusations of racism on those who do, suggesting that their inquiries can be explained by nothing except bigotry. (And yet this is the same media that went after George W. Bush’s past so ferociously that a veteran CBS anchor was willing to sacrifice his entire career for the sake of a dubious tidbit about the President’s wartime discharge records.) If the mainstream media isn’t willing to investigate the dirt about Obama we do know to be true — the theory goes — who knows what other dirt is out there?

None of this is to excuse the wild Birther extrapolations detailed [in my book]. But it does go some way to show that their accusations don’t exactly rise out of the ether: In a way, Birthers are a product of the liberal media that now heaps abuse on them.

On October 30, 2010, nine months after I’d attended the inaugural Tea Party National Convention in Nashville, I spent time with another, equally fed-up voting bloc. But these people weren’t angry. They were just…bemused. The event was Jon Stewart’s “Rally to Restore Sanity and/or Fear,” a comedy and music jamboree on the National Mall in Washington, DC. It was billed as nonpartisan — with Jon Stewart playing the role of “sane” centrist jousting with faux-blowhard faux-fearmongering Stephen Colbert. But when I spoke to people in the crowd, it became clear that this was a solidly left-wing event. Not so much pro-Democrat — these folks are too jaded for party politics — as anti-Tea Party.

Like Tea Partiers, the Jon Stewart brigade has a narrative about a country that has been hijacked by extremists. For the Tea Partiers, those extremists are Barack Obama and his big-spending “socialist” allies in Congress. For the Stewartites, the hijackers are the Tea Partiers themselves, along with the enabling hard-right media culture spawned by FOX News.

The signs I saw on the Mall that day said it all. One trio at the rally dressed up in an Alice-in-Wonderland motif, and had a placard that read “I stopped having Tea Parties when I was 17!”

Walking among these people, it was almost hard to believe that they shared the same country with the people I’d met in Nashville. It wasn’t just that they urged their government to support different political priorities. They disagreed on the far more fundamental issue of whether the very concept of government itself is a presumptive force for good or evil.

How did the United States become so profoundly divided on such a basic question?

America’s most exalted ideal is liberal individualism — the belief that each person’s fate should be limited only by their God-given talents, the breadth of their imagination, and the strength of their character. From the Declaration of Independence, to the Bill of Rights, to the Emancipation Proclamation, to Martin Luther King’s “I have a dream” speech, the notion has continued to sit at the very foundation of America’s national self-conception.

It’s an inspiring vision. But also an emotionally exhausting one — for it makes every American the master of his own failures.

In every society preceding the American Revolution (and in many non-Western societies, still), a man’s life largely was governed by factors beyond his control — by birth order, ancestry, caste, guild, religious edicts, and the feast-or-famine vicissitudes of nature. Every major decision in his life — whom he would marry, where he would live, what profession he would follow — was decided by others: parents, priests, clan patriarchs.

The modern Western mind recoils at such strictures. But it is important to remember that they at least served to confer some measure of dignity upon society’s bottom rungs. A low-caste 19th-century Indian latrine cleaner or corpse handler may have had every reason to curse his fate as an “untouchable” — but he could not feel responsible for his own failure to rise up in society: The rules precluding him from advancing in life were explicitly articulated and enforced by a very real conspiracy of high-caste elites. In America, on the other hand, life’s losers have no one to blame but themselves. And so the conceit that they are up against some all-powerful corporate or governmental conspiracy comes as a relief: It removes the stigma of failure, and replaces it with the more psychologically manageable feeling of anger.

America’s culture of individualism can drive even the most successful Americans to conspiratorial social fantasy — though for reasons connected more with politics than personal achievement.

On parchment, the United States may be the land of freedom. Yet the reality of 21st-century America is a place where citizens are constrained in virtually every sphere of human activity. A libertarian social contract — a realistic option in the pastoral frontier society of America’s formative years — is an anachronism in today’s industrialized, high-density consumer society, in which government is expected to regulate trillions of dollars’ worth of trade between strangers, protect more than 300 million people from crime, ensure universal literacy, prevent epidemics, save endangered species, police the airwaves, prop up failing banks, take care of the poor and old, and maintain a continental network of public roads and airports. From the very moment of America’s creation, the march of technology and the growing complexity of society have given politicians no choice but to systematically prune the individual freedoms the proud American yeomen of yore took for granted — a process that’s put much of life in the hands of government, corporations, and even machines.

Populist conspiracism flourishes in America in part because it helps resolve the cognitive dissonance generated by this gulf between liberalism’s theory and practice — between the ideals embedded in America’s national myths, and everyday reality. (In this respect, it follows the pattern of the “failed historian” conspiracist type […] But not for the evil machinations of this or that cabal, the fantasy goes, we’d be able to dial back the national time machine to a golden age of frontier libertarianism.

In the economic sphere, populist conspiracism also serves as an outlet when popular frustration boils over in the face of gross wealth inequality, abusive corporate practices, and cataclysmic economic busts — the populist uprising of the 1890s and the most extreme elements of today’s Tea Party movement being the most obvious bookends.

In broad strokes, American-style populism (especially the left-wing strain that predominated till the late 1940s) shares some attributes of Marxism in the sense that both presume an epic conflict between society’s elites and its toiling masses. But while Marxists cast the fight between rigidly defined classes as an eternal, defining aspect of capitalism, populists do not. True to the evangelical spirit, they regard even the worst abuses as a function of a particular kind of predatory capitalist (and his political enablers) whose perverting effect upon the economy can be purged through spiritually infused collective action, thereby restoring American capitalism to its original state of grace. Unlike many Europeans, who retain vestiges of a precapitalist class mentality, even the poorest American believes he can become rich — if only Big Government and corrupt corporations get out of the way.

Perhaps the purest example of this brand of populism to be found on the modern American stage is FOX News host Glenn Beck. In the summer of 2010, Beck published a conspiracist novel, The Overton Window, in which an evil cabal of government officials, Wall Street tycoons, and multinational corporations seek to sow the seeds of oneworld corporate tyranny by staging a false-flag nuclear attack in Las Vegas. In a telling speech, one of the novel’s heroines tells an assembled crowd that their mission is to “restore what’s been forgotten [in America]. Restore. Not adapt, not transform…restore.”

American populism is not, strictly speaking, a utopian creed, like Marxism or fascism: It does not imagine society being driven toward some purified paradise. It acknowledges that capitalism produces winners and losers, and merely demands something resembling a fair playing field. But it does share with utopian ideologies and religious faiths the idea of returning society to some original state of grace — the sparsely populated, lightly taxed, barely regulated nation of self-reliant farmers, prospectors, craftsmen, and rural yeomen that existed in the decades following independence. In its Tea Party manifestation, it also urges rigid fidelity to a foundational text — the US Constitution — that is imagined to provide ancient answers to our modern problems.

The idea that an 18th century social contract can cure America of its 21st century ills is attractive in the way that all romantic political ideologies seem attractive in turbulent times. But as several generations of conservative populists can attest, the romance always ends in heartbreak: Once elected, every modern politician, no matter how ostensibly conservative, eventually will have to hang up his tricorner hat, sit down at his desk, and confront the same modernworld realities that greeted his predecessor. Ronald Reagan is the greatest hero in the history of American conservatism. But even he couldn’t find a way to eliminate a single major spending program during his presidency. George W. Bush, denounced by liberals as a heartless “neocon” during his two terms in office, actually added a major spending program — the Medicare drug benefit.

The same phenomenon manifests itself today among conservatives who make radical claims about the need to scale back the size of government, but also express satisfaction with classic welfare-state programs such as Medicare and Social Security. In late 2010, a poll conducted by the Washington Post, the Henry J. Kaiser Family Foundation, and Harvard University revealed that a majority of Americans who say they want more-limited government also believe that Medicare and Social Security are “very important.” Likewise, more than half of self-declared Tea Party supporters said the government should maintain or increase its involvement in poverty eradication.

This explains why the war is not only shrill, but endless: Since most American conservatives would never actually accept the much smaller government they claim as their goal, their war demands will never be met — even when their legislative armies conquer Washington.

So, instead, populist conservatives send waves of culture warriors into an unending series of symbolic proxy battles — “death panels,” liberal media bias, border fences, evolution, gay marriage, don’t ask/don’t tell — that allow them to express their “schizoid” frustration through angry rhetoric, partisan attacks, and sometimes outright conspiracism, all without much changing the size of government, or preventing it from performing the functions on which we have come to depend.

This aspect of the American intellectual landscape has pathologized political debate — turning every discussion about legitimate policy areas into a screaming match about which of the Founding Fathers are being made to spin in their graves, and by whom. Yet it is also an aspect that most Americans seem to take utterly for granted, not realizing how strange it all seems to an outsider. (Perhaps that is why the book you are reading was written by a Canadian.)

Excerpted from Among the Truthers (Penguin Books Canada, 2011). By permission of the author and the publisher, HarperCollins Canada.

Photo: mark reinstein / Shutterstock

Jonathan Kay is managing editor, Comment, of the National Post.

You are welcome to republish this Policy Options article online or in print periodicals, under a Creative Commons/No Derivatives licence.

Creative Commons License