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Whenever political conspiracy theories break out into the open, pundits and intellectuals name-check the brilliant but flawed essay "The Paranoid Style in American Politics" by
Such theories have been commonplace since the 18th century, when the Masons first took over this country and duped people into thinking elections matter.
I kid, I kid.
Like many other contagions, such notions tend to get disinfected when brought out into the sunlight. And then we forget about them.
The problem, however, is that the contagion is still there, like mold spores beneath the floorboards. Conspiratorial thinking really isn't about politics, it's about life. And it has no permanent ideological home.
Indeed, "conspiratorial thinking" isn't even the right term. A better one might be "gnosticism." Properly speaking, gnosticism should be capitalized (even my spellchecker says so) because the capital G version refers to a heretical Christian faith born in the second century. There's no need to delve too deeply into all of that, but the word gnosis means "knowledge" in Greek, with a connotation of "secret knowledge," or, if you will, the hidden truth.
In an era when everything was suffused with religious meaning and orthodoxy, the heretical Gnostics argued that the official story of Christianity was a ruse. They claimed special insight and secret wisdom. They knew the real deal. If the Gnostics were alive today, they might send you email spam saying, "Click here to learn the five things the Church doesn't want you to know about your eternal soul."
Today, religion doesn't suffuse everything, and for many Americans it doesn't inhabit anything at all. But the gnostic impulse is alive and well, eating away all forms of orthodoxy like termites behind the drywall.
Many of us have our pet theories that the food industry or the medical establishment or some other corporate behemoth is concealing the truth about what to eat or how to live or who really makes the decisions out there. And if you don't, you almost certainly know someone who does.
Whole industries depend on the deep-seated suspicion that "they" are keeping you in the dark. If you have an email account, you've heard from people promising to tell you the "one trick" doctors don't want you to know. Infomercials populate the television ecosystem promising they have the secrets
The political parties tell me every day in fundraising emails that hidden forces and secret radical agendas can be held at bay if I donate
Indeed, Trump has been playing this game for years. He still won't back off his poisonous belief that vaccines cause autism. The roots of his current presidential bid (he's tried before) lay in his "birther" shtick. His spamtastic
For millennia, snake oil salesman have promised shortcuts, quick fixes, secret tricks and easy riches by claiming that the Powers that Be are deliberately hiding the good stuff. In the past, the Powers that Be could hold such claims at bay, particularly in the political realm.
But now, the spammers are inside the gates, threatening to overturn it all with one secret trick that will deliver happiness, justice and, of course, winning forever.