Have you ever tried arguing with a conspiracy theorist? I did that recently and in the process gained fresh appreciation for the vicious vortex of irrationality that is sucking in the Republican Party.

It occurred while I was traveling the country to talk about my new book on Edward Lansdale, the legendary covert operative who in the 1950s helped to defeat a communist insurgency in the Philippines and then to create the state of South Vietnam. While Lansdale was once known as a pioneer of counterinsurgency, in recent years he has acquired notoriety among conspiracymongers who think that he was responsible for John F. Kennedy’s assassination.

This astonishing claim was first made by the now-deceased L. Fletcher Prouty, an Air Force officer who worked for Lansdale at the Pentagon in the early 1960s. In retirement, Prouty became a prolific conspiracy theorist who was associated with the neo-Nazi Liberty Lobby and Lyndon LaRouche. He said that “the Churchill Gang” murdered FDR and that David Rockefeller stage-managed the fall of the Berlin Wall. 

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Prouty conveniently waited until after Lansdale’s death in 1987 before naming his old boss as the mastermind of a plot to kill Kennedy. His evidence? A photo taken in Dallas on Nov. 22, 1963, showing a man in a suit walking by three tramps who are being escorted by police officers. The man is visible only from the rear and wears a ring (which Lansdale’s son told me he never did). But Prouty claimed to recognize his old boss. 

This would seem a thin reed on which to hang a charge of murdering a president. The most thorough investigations, such as Vincent Bugliosi’s massive book “Reclaiming History: The Assassination of President John F. Kennedy,” have concluded that Lee Harvey Oswald was the lone gunman. Yet Oliver Stone’s 1991 movie “JFK” hinted that Lansdale, identified as “General Y,” was responsible, and the theory remains alive on the Internet.

After a book talk in Austin, I found myself debating a conspiracy connoisseur who kept listing reasons that Lansdale would have wanted to kill JFK: Hadn’t Kennedy forced him out of the Pentagon and orchestrated the murder of his friend Ngo Dinh Diem, the South Vietnamese president? When I pointed out that there was no actual evidence that Lansdale had killed JFK, and that Prouty was a crank, he wanted to know if I thought that Marine Gen. Victor “Brute” Krulak had been delusional, too. Krulak supposedly joined Prouty in identifying the man from the rear as Lansdale. All my attempts to refute his arguments failed, for the simple reason that such theories are based on faith, not fact.

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Conspiratorial thinking is nothing new: See Richard Hofstadter’s classic 1964 essay “The Paranoid Style in American Politics,” which notes the prevalence in U.S. history of theories involving Jesuits, Freemasons, the Illuminati and other bogeymen. The John Birchers even claimed that President Dwight D. Eisenhower was a commie.

But while paranoid views have always existed, never, since the heyday of McCarthyism, have they occupied such a central place in our politics. That is due in part to the ability of social media to spread craziness and in part to the embrace of that craziness by our chief executive.

President Trump has insinuated that Barack Obama forged his birth certificate, that global warming is a Chinese hoax, that Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia was murdered, that millions of undocumented immigrants voted illegally — and that Sen. Ted Cruz’s (R-Tex.) father helped kill Kennedy. (Wait. I thought Lansdale did it.) Ironically, the one conspiracy that Trump denies — the Russian plot to influence the 2016 election — actually happened.  

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It’s bad enough that the president believes this balderdash. What’s worse is that much of the GOP is following him into cuckoo-land. Only recently Republicans were suggesting that a “secret society” of FBI agents is intent on framing Trump — possibly because special counsel Robert S. Mueller III once had a fee dispute with a Trump-owned country club. Turns out the “secret society” so breathlessly trumpeted by the Republican senator from Wisconsin (Ron Johnson, not Joe McCarthy) was a joke.

Then, Rep. Devin Nunes (R-Calif.), the Inspector Clouseau of Kremlingate, tried to posit the existence of a “deep state” plot with a preposterous memo questioning a single source in a single surveillance warrant. His failure to make the case did not, of course, lead Republicans to retract their scurrilous allegations. Last week, Trump tweeted, “NEW FBI TEXTS ARE BOMBSHELLS!” Not quite: The texts apparently show that Obama wanted information on Russian election interference — not, as was being suggested, on the already-concluded Hillary Clinton email investigation. 

Like the JFK assassination devotees, Trump’s toadies seamlessly shift their arguments but never waver in their devotion to an all-encompassing conspiracy theory. Once you have embraced irrationality, alas, it may be impossible to find your way back to the land of logic.

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