Donald Trump’s decision to release 2,800 secret documents on the assassination of JFK was the first act of his presidency I could get behind. Everyone loves a good conspiracy theory. Like most people of my generation, I grew up obsessing over the various anomalies: the magic bullet, umbrella man, the three hobos, the grassy knoll; and now my children have studied it at school it’s a game the whole family can play. Perhaps the new files would answer the questions that have dogged the US for more than half a century: was Lee Harvey Oswald a lone wolf or a patsy? And if the latter, who masterminded the killing: the mafia, the CIA, Cuba, the Soviets or vice president Lyndon B Johnson?
Even as we were waiting with bated breath, however, another, much more damaging conspiracy theory, was playing out on the opposite coast of America. Braden Matejka, who was shot in the head during the massacre outside the Mandalay Bay Hotel in Las Vegas last month, revealed he had been receiving death threats from people who claim the atrocity was a false flag operation; those people believe Matejka and others are “crisis actors” hired as pretend witnesses to an event that never took place.
Crazy though it sounds, such theories are not the wild haverings of a handful of extremists; they are relatively widespread. Ever since Alex Jones, founder of the fake news website Infowars, suggested Barack Obama’s administration was responsible for Sandy Hook, a large number of Americans appear to find it easier to believe the government would kill, or fake the killing of, a large number of citizens in pursuit of its own agenda than that one mentally unhinged individual would commit a mass murder for reasons known only to himself.
How on earth did the country get itself into such a state? Some would say the US has always been prone to bouts of psychosis. They would probably quote historian Richard Hofstadter, whose essay, The Paranoid Style Of American Politics, has come back to prominence since Donald Trump’s election almost a year ago.
Writing just after Barry Goldwater won the Republican nomination in 1964, Hofstadter argued a “sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness and conspiratorial fantasy” were a fundamental part of the national psyche which could be traced back to the anti-slavery movement and which resurfaced at times of national crisis (eg McCarthysim as a backlash to the rise of Communism).
But there’s a substantive difference, surely, between being willing to countenance the idea that sinister forces could be behind the death of a famous figure like Kennedy (or Princess Diana) and convincing yourself your country’s leaders would be complicit in bringing down the Twin Towers.
There’s a difference in the level of proof required to invest in modern conspiracy theories too. Those quaint 1960s ones germinated in a vacuum caused by the lack or suppression of hard facts; the new ones flourish in the face of incontrovertible evidence demonstrating their falsity .
As with so many things, much blame for the new strain of conspiracy theory can be laid at the door of the internet. As far back as 1995, Jones – then at the beginning of his radio career – claimed the Oklahoma City bombing was carried out by the Clinton administration to embarrass Conservatives, and in 2001 (by which time his show was syndicated on 100 stations) he was a leading light in the “jet fuel doesn’t melt steel beams” brigade.
His rise, and the concomitant rise in fake news, was perpetuated by the burgeoning of social media; soon, he was not only a shock jock, but had built an online audience running into millions.
Within that bubble, ideas that would once have been denounced as crackpot were given validity as a growing number of people liked and shared them. The phenomenon also fed and was fed by the rise of the alt-right and a suspicion of the so-called “ Washington elite”.
It has found its apotheosis in Trump: architect of the “birther” movement, climate change denier and propagator of news so fake there is no need to pass it through a bullshit detector machine.
Every fad from chewing gum to hippies crosses the Atlantic eventually, so naturally the Infowars-style conspiracy has landed on our shores. Back in May, comedian Rufus Hound said the timing of the attack at the Manchester Arena – just as Labour was making inroads in the general election campaign – had been serendipitous for Theresa May and implied she might have allowed it to happen to boost her poll ratings. The fact Hound – who has 1.2 million Twitter followers – is a Corbynista shows tin-hattedness is not confined to the alt-right. In general, though, such theories do not gain as much traction in the UK; perhaps Hofstadter had a point about the American psyche.
To an extent it is understandable that conspiracy theories thrive at a time of great uncertainty. You can see it might be soothing to pretend the current state of chaos is not evidence of global haplessness, but the product of a perfectly orchestrated conspiracy cooked up by overlords establishing a New World Order. But how long can this culture of suspicion be sustained?
Psychologists suggest the people most susceptible to conspiracy theories are those who like to portray themselves as superior, to believe they alone are privy to what’s happening in the world.
But, back in 2013, Jones’ radio show was already attracting a weekly audience of two million and Infowars.com and Prison Planet TV an audience of four million, while his YouTube channel had 350,000 subscribers and received 260 million views.
When such ideas enter the mainstream, buying into them ceases to mark you as part of an exclusive band of seers. When the man at the forefront of fomenting a distrust of government is in the Oval Office, you have to wonder where devotees of his particular brand of paranoia have left to go. As long as victims of the Las Vegas shooting are on the receiving end of tweets accusing them of being “scumbag government actors”, however, I guess the answer is: it has some time left to run.
So far, the JFK documents have told us little new. We know Oswald contacted a KGB officer in the Soviet Union a month before the assassination and that the FBI received a death threat against him the day before he was shot by Jack Ruby. But there is no smoking gun to disprove the official version of events: that Oswald acted alone.
Still, the documents have served as a portal back to simpler times, when all the US had to worry about was, er, Vietnam, the Soviet Union and the spectre of nuclear war. They have offered us a brief respite from the pressing problems of today.