Birthers, Birchers, and Death Panels
On February 18, 2010, The New York Times ran a story about a significant undercurrent within the Tea Party movement. “Urged on by conservative commentators,” it said, “waves of newly minted activists are turning to once-obscure books and Web sites and discovering a set of ideas long dismissed as the preserve of conspiracy theorists. . . . In this view, Mr. Obama and many of his predecessors (including George W. Bush) have deliberately undermined the Constitution and free enterprise for the benefit of a shadowy international network of wealthy elites.”
It wasn’t exactly news to me. In the fall of 2009, I published a book called Cults, Conspiracies, and Secret Societies. I had written it to satisfy my curiosity about, as one of my blurbers put it, “the wilder reaches of human belief”—and, more particularly, about totalizing systems of thought and faith, a subject I had become interested in while I was researching my previous book, ’Isms & ’Ologies. By the time I finished writing it, I’d learned all I thought I’d ever need to know about the New World Order and its demonic financiers, from the Templars of the twelfth century to the Illuminati, the Elders of Zion, and the Bilderberg elites today.
I delivered Cults to my publisher just after Election Day 2008. When the copyedited manuscript came back to me in January, I couldn’t help noticing that the controversy about the president-elect’s birth certificate wasn’t fading; in fact, it was beginning to gain some real traction. I considered adding a paragraph or two to bring the book up to date but after due reflection decided that references to such a transitory political derangement might just as easily date it. “Who will remember any of this in six months?” I thought.
Had I ventured to define birtherism back then, I would have called it the wishful notion, cherished by a hard core of Obama haters, that he is a citizen of Kenya or Indonesia and hence ineligible to be president. Birthers believe that a sinister cabal created a false identity for Obama that would enable him to be elected president despite his foreign birth, one that was sophisticated enough to pass muster at the highest levels yet so shoddy that anyone with a modem and a few minutes to spare could crack it. His Social Security number, for example, had originally been assigned to a Connecticut resident who was born in the 1890s, and it was just one of the dozens that Obama was purported to have used; the computer-generated shortform birth certificate that he did provide was said to lack the raised seal that would have ensured its authenticity. And why, they asked (until April 27, 2011, when he did), didn’t he release the handwritten long-form certification of live birth that was signed by the doctor who delivered him? Such a conspiracy would have required either supernatural forethought or time travel, as not only is a birth certificate with a raised seal and signature on file in Hawaii’s office of vital records but contemporaneous announcements of Obama’s birth were printed in two Honolulu newspapers.
But citizen or not, who’s to say that Obama’s not a Communist sleeper, a Manchurian candidate who wasn’t just destined for the presidency but literally bred for it? Lisa Schiffren—who made her name writing speeches for Dan Quayle when he was vice president, most famously the one that attacked television’s Murphy Brown for having a child out of wedlock—played with these notions in a piece she wrote for National Review Online in February 2008. “I don’t know how Barack Obama’s parents met,” she noted, before going on to pointedly assert that mixed-race children of Obama’s age tend to be “the product of very culturally specific unions . . . For a white woman to marry a black man in 1958, or 60, there was almost inevitably a connection to explicit Communist politics. . . . It was, of course, an explicit tactic of the Communist party to stir up discontent among American blacks, with an eye toward using them as the leading edge of the revolution.” Other bloggers have speculated that Obama’s real father was Malcolm X or the Communist writer Frank Marshall Davis.
By the time my book hit the stores, I’d seen the words “Where’s the Birth Certificate?” printed in ten-foot-tall letters on a billboard beside Interstate 78, not far from Harrisburg, Pennsylvania. Not just birthers but Tea Partiers were ubiquitous on talk radio, cable TV, and conservative Web sites like Newsmax, Townhall, and World-NetDaily. Rumors of one world government, creeping Socialism, and Latin American plots to conquer and annex the southwestern states, once the stuff of cheaply printed samizdat publications and shortwave radio broadcasts from backwoods compounds with biblical names, were being trumpeted by big-name pundits and even some elected officials. The Five Thousand Year Leap: 28 Great Ideas That Changed the World, a thirty-year-old book by the late anti-Communist conspiracy theorist W. Cleon Skousen, was perched atop the Amazon best-seller list with a new foreword by cable TV and talk radio’s Glenn Beck.
Now best remembered in far-right-wing Mormon circles, Skousen drew a straight line from the biblical patriarchs through America’s founding fathers and found them equally inspired, but in general he took a more dire view of things; most of the time he seemed convinced that he was living in the Republic’s last days. “There is an extremely high-powered, well-financed campaign afoot to abolish the United States Constitution,” he wrote in 1971 in Law & Order (a trade magazine for policemen that he edited), sounding uncommonly then as Glenn Beck does now. And as long as we’re on the subject of the then hugely popular, agenda-setting Beck (with the expiration of his contract with Fox News, Beck’s future as a TV personality is up in the air), most of his September 2, 2009, Fox News show was devoted to an exposé of the subliminal propaganda that he’d discerned embedded in art deco sculptures, murals, and wall friezes at Rockefeller Center—stunning proof, for those who know how to see it, that its builder, John D. Rockefeller, was a crypto-Communist. It was hardly a coincidence, Beck insinuated, that Fox News’s archrival MSNBC—the employer of Beck’s ideological adversaries and ratings rivals Keith Olbermann (who has since left the network) and Rachel Maddow—would be headquartered in a place so replete with images of hammers and sickles. Oddly enough, Fox News’s headquarters is also located in Rockefeller Center, albeit in a newer, more reliably capitalistic precinct of the vast complex. Walled off from its neighbors’ insidious influences, 1221 Avenue of the Americas, one can only presume, is the West Berlin of television news.
But it wasn’t just conspiracies that people were talking about as my book went out into the world; secret societies and cults were enjoying a renaissance too. Stewart Rhodes’s Oath Keepers, which enlists soldiers and policemen to swear to disobey any orders they deem unconstitutional, was just getting off the ground. Some of the most vociferous early opponents of health-care reform—the ones who first started painting Hitler mustaches on pictures of Barack Obama—turned out to be not Tea Partiers exactly but followers of Lyndon LaRouche.
On the wider cultural front, the novelist Dan Brown, whose megabest-selling Angels & Demons and The Da Vinci Code had revived some of the most egregious anti-Catholic stereotypes of the Know-Nothing era, was getting ready to launch his next blockbuster. Instead of scheming cardinals and Opus Dei hit men, The Lost Symbol focused on Freemasons in Washington, D.C., with all of their esoteric secrets and hidden histories. In Brown’s telling, the awesomely powerful Masons—billionaires, politicians, and paradigm-changing scientists—not only quaff rare vintages from human skulls but are on the brink of discovering the secret of eternal life.
Ingenious deconstructions of videos by rappers like Jay-Z, Rihanna, and the cult star Lady Gaga were popping up all over the Internet, exposing their cultic and conspiratorial content. The 2009 MTV Music Awards, the Web site the Vigilant Citizen reported, was “a large scale occult ceremony, complete with an initiation, a prayer and even a blood sacrifice.” Millions of people were downloading documentaries like Zeitgeist: The Movie (2007) and Zeitgeist: Addendum (2008), which a reviewer for the Web aggregator Boing Boing likened to “the John Birch Society on acid.” We were living in strange times.