Conspiracy Theories

Glenn Beck, David Frum, and the Eternal FEMA Conspiracy

The United States of Paranoia in The Week.


I have an article in the new issue of The Week about the history of American conspiracy theories. Here is an excerpt:

Did you miss me?

When scholars and pundits aren't claiming that paranoia is limited to the political extremes, they sometimes claim that it's a product of particularly harsh times. In 2009, the conservative writer David Frum offered that explanation for the popularity of Glenn Beck, a right-wing broadcaster with a fondness for conspiracy stories. "Conspiracy theories," Frum wrote, "always flourish during economic downturns."

He's right: They do flourish during economic downturns. But they also flourish during economic upturns. Frum was attacking Beck for his interest in the idea that the Federal Emergency Management Agency was building secret concentration camps, so it's worth noting that the very same fear was popular on the left during the booming '80s and on the right during the booming '90s. For the last few decades, elements of whatever party is out of power have worried that the party in power would turn fascist. (Beck eventually rejected the FEMA story.)

The article is adapted from my book The United States of Paranoia, and it has some overlap with the excerpt we ran recently in Reason.

In related news:

• Rob Hardy has reviewed the book for The Commercial Dispatch.

• A blog called Tiny Cat Pants has also reviewed it. Quote: "if you were just going to read two books on where we are as a nation at this moment, you could do no better than this and Balko's book. Somewhere, in the space between them, there's just a lot of good truth about where we are and why."

• "Dr. Conspiracy" has a review-in-progress at a site called Obama Conspiracies.

• The book has inspired a series of posts at a site called Our Values.

• Doug Henwood has interviewed me about the book on Pacifica. I'm in the second half of the show, starting at 32:21.

• The Portuguese magazine Sabado has interviewed me too. Apparently I told them "A 'paranóia das elites' existe e é a mais perigosa." I must've had a touch of glossolalia.