How America became the land of Truthers, Triggers, Birthers, and Dan Brown fans.

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April 25 2011 7:14 PM

You're All Nuts!

How America became the land of Truthers, Triggers, Birthers, and Dan Brown fans.

A demonstrator questions the citizenship of President Obama. Click image to expand.
A protesters at a Tea Party rally

Good news, everyone! We have survived the latest flare-up of the conspiracy theory generally known as "Trig Trutherism"—the discredited hypothesis that Sarah Palin's youngest son is not hers.

David Weigel David Weigel

David Weigel, a former Slate politics reporter, is a reporter for Bloomberg Politics

Last week, The Lies of Sarah Palin author Geoffrey Dunn published a lengthy piece—spiked by the Huffington Post, then acquired by the traffic-hungrier Business Insider—going over the same turf. His argument was blown to smithereens by Justin Elliott at Salon as well as by other reporters who sighed and decided to engage with one of the duller conspiracy theories of all time. (A serious conspiracy theory should seem less like a General Hospital subplot.)

Much less dull was the explanation Dunn gave for writing his piece.

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"This past week Palin had the gall to giggle and smirk her way through an interview on Fox News in which she supported Donald Trump's investigation of President Obama's birth certificate in Hawaii," Dunn wrote. "The hypocrisy is staggering. There is one person who can put an end to the Trig matter immediately and instantly, and that is Sarah Palin."

It's a familiar rationale for conspiracy theorists: They investigate as much in sorrow as in anger. They are always just one confession away from the truth. This kind of logic is much more understandable, if no more sensible, after reading Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America's Growing Conspiracist Underground, a smart and serious new book by Canadian journalist Jonathan Kay. His book shows why Americans are becoming so willing to believe lurid fantasies about the government or politicians they don't like or vaccines or the theory that the federal government was behind the attacks of 9/11 (these believers are the "truthers" of his title). And you realize that the world of conspiracies is only going to get larger.

There are basically two reasons for this, and they're entwined. The media, as Kay points out, is more fragmented than ever. Information is easier to come across, and bogus information has a way of jumping to the top of Google's search pages. That fragmentation is happening at a time of intense partisan anger and economic angst. 

All of those facts are well-known, and thoroughly studied. The Gallup Poll asks an annual question about whether voters trust the government. In 2010, only 19 percent said they did, and only 43 percent—a record low—said that they trusted the media. That same year, the Pew Research Center found that 61 percent of Americans got most of their news online, 54 percent got it from the radio, and only 50 percent got it from newspapers. The more people read news online, the easier it is for them to find news that jibes with their ideology.

Kay's book is half reportage and half evidence. Both halves demonstrate that mistrust in institutions—which aren't doing the best job of running things right now—is driving a wave of conspiracy-mongering. To a man, the leading 9/11 Truthers that Kay interviews say that they found their obsession because they didn't trust the government and they sought out information from some samizdat source. Richard Gage, the best-known member of Architects and Engineers for 9/11 Truth, tells Kay that he tuned into the lefty KPFA northern California radio station one day and caught a terrifying, authoritative-sounding—and bogus—interview with 9/11 Truther icon David Ray Griffin.

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