April 28, 2011

Some folks flee from conspiracy theorists — birthers, truthers, those who think that Lee Harvey Oswald didn’t act alone or that Jim Morrison is still alive. Not me. In the past three years, I’ve interviewed hundreds of them.

The assortment of people who believe that President Obama was not born in the United States — even after he released his long-form birth certificate on Wednesday — shows that not all conspiracy theorists are unhinged, bug-eyed loners. They often come in more respectable guises: state legislators, radio talk-show hosts or real estate magnates turned reality-TV stars with hopes of landing the 2012 GOP presidential nomination.

What distinguishes them from the rest of us isn’t a big bankroll or a particular political persuasion — it’s a twisted relationship with reality. Conspiracy theorists retreat into fantasy worlds, bending fact and history to meet their psychological needs and emotional motivations. Here’s a taxonomy of true fake believers:

1. Apocalyptic Doomsayers

The Apocalyptic Doomsayer — usually, though not always, an evangelical Christian — embraces conspiracy theories to funnel a bewildering mix of anxieties into a simple good-vs.-evil narrative approximating that of the Book of Revelation. Many Apocalyptic Doomsayers scan the news for signs that the world is moving toward an epic confrontation between the forces of light and darkness.

A leading Doomsayer is prominent birther Joseph Farah, a socially conservative born-again Christian whose popular WorldNetDaily Web site fetishizes Obama conspiracies. This site’s readers think conservative American values must battle an Islamist, Afrocentric, socialist president bent on destroying the country.

2. Failed Historians

All ideologues — from Marxists to tea party activists, Islamists to radical Zionists — shoehorn history into preconceived templates, developing triumphalist story lines that will eventually lead to the victory of a chosen group and the vanquishing of an enemy. When history doesn’t cooperate, explanations become necessary. For Failed Historians, conspiracy theories supply those explanations.

An extreme example of the Failed Historian is the Holocaust denier. As Michael Shermer and Alex Grobman concluded in their 2000 book, “Denying History: Who Says the Holocaust Never Happened and Why Do They Say It?,” these conspiracy theorists “like the idea of a rigid, controlled, and powerful state. Some are fascinated with Nazism as a social/political organization and are impressed with the economic gains Germany made in the 1930s. . . . The history of the Holocaust is a black eye for Nazism. Deny the veracity of the Holocaust, and Nazism begins to lose this stigma.”

3. The Mentally Unbalanced

Are all conspiracy theorists unhinged? Certainly not. Modern conspiracy movements are usually collaborative enterprises that take root on the Internet, and mentally ill people often struggle with sustained collaborations of any kind. But are some conspiracists troubled? You bet.

In my research, I met a sad fellow who pops up at events such as the We Demand Transparency conspiracy conference in New York City in 2009. He says he was a limousine driver who ferried the Sept. 11 hijackers on reconnaissance trips in and out of New York. I’m not a psychiatrist and can’t verify his claims, but he’s inserted himself into a wild narrative, just as some mentally ill people spin conspiracy theories centered on people they know — estranged spouses, landlords waiting for rent checks and former employers. This isn’t a sign of clear thinking.

4. The Midlife Crisis Case

There’s no polite way to say this: Many conspiracy theorists I met were paunchy 40- and 50-something men facing disappointment in their personal lives. In interviews, it seemed clear that they were struggling with midlife crises and trying to reinvent themselves for a new audience.

Consider Sept. 11 conspiracy theorist Richard Gage, an architect who abandoned his business to roam the world preaching the notion that “controlled demolition” brought down the twin towers. “I’ve never been happier,” he told me in 2009. “I feel blessed, in fact. This is my destiny, my mission. I’ve lost my career. I’ve lost my marriage. I’ve lost my house. But I’m working with patriots, spreading the truth about what’s happened to their country. What more could I ask?”

5. Fakers

I’ve never interviewed Donald Trump, but his sudden interest in birtherism smells like a publicity stunt. What better way to galvanize the Republican Party’s Obama-phobic base?

Perhaps the Donald has been plotting this all along: building a real estate empire in the 1980s, then willfully going bankrupt in a ploy for sympathy before rebuilding a bigger, better brand bolstered by “The Apprentice” and a signature hairdo. I mean, The Washington Post reported this past week that Trump has donated more to Democrats than Republicans. What’s the deal with that? Maybe he engineered Obama’s unlikely win in 2008 just so he could run against him in 2012.

Of course, that’s just a theory.

Jonathan Kay is the managing editor of Canada’s National Post and the author of “Among the Truthers: A Journey Through America’s Growing Conspiracist Underground,” from which this essay is adapted.

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Conspiracy theory researcherJonathan Kay explains the paranoid fringe