America has a rich tradition of paranoid conspiracy theories, which has been studied in works from Richard Hoftstadter's The Paranoid Style in American Politics to Jesse Walker's The United States of Paranoia. It is our happy fortune that the tradition shows no sign of waning with the passage of time.
At present, for example, we have the theory that a Muslim-hating questioner at a Donald Trump event was a plant — "plant" in this case referring to someone from The Opposition who infiltrates an event or group in order to undermine it, rather than an individual with the neural activity of knotweed (although that also seems fitting).
The questioner began by saying America has "a problem… It's called Muslims. We know our current president is one. You know he's not even an American." He then asked "when can we get rid of them?" With the specificity that has become a hallmark of his campaign, Trump replied "We're going to be looking at a lot of different things."
Why suggest the guy was a plant? Because his comments strike even conservatives worried about radical Islam as stupid bigotry of the first order, and they were embarrassing. The trouble is that this theory does not do the work it is supposed to do — which is absolve Trump and Trump supporters of similar stupidity.
Trump did not correct the gent, but that is only a small part of the problem. The bigger problem is that Trump himself purveys the conspiracy theory that Obama is not a U.S. citizen — a theory he won't let go many moons after the president released his long-form birth certificate.
Even for a conspiracy theory, the birther claim is loopy given the appearance at the time of Obama's birth announcement in a Honolulu newspaper. This requires believing that someone knew, back in 1961, that four decades later foreign-baby Obama might run for president and need a good cover story, and that this someone therefore planted a fake birth announcement — just in case Obama claimed to be born in Hawaii.
Getting back to Trump: Even if his questioner were a plant, it does not absolve Trump's supporters — the Trumpenproletariat, as National Review's Jonah Goldberg has called them — of sharing his views. A poll earlier this month showed 66 percent of Trump fans think Obama is Muslim and 61 percent think he was born abroad.
This brings us to the Occam's Razor test. Why bother infiltrating a Trump rally to embarrass his supporters by ascribing to them views they already admit to? Doesn't it make more sense that one of Trump's supporters simply voiced the sort of sentiment that would make you a Trump fan to begin with?
Then there's the great Clock Controversy. For a brief hopeful moment, it seemed as if the country could unite in agreement that it was indescribably asinine to handcuff Ahmed Mohamed, a 14-year-old science geek, and suspend him from school for three days for building a clock. After all, the nation has grown pretty well fed up with zero-tolerance policies that, inter much alia, call a pointed finger a "level 2 look-alike firearm" and lead to expulsion threats against students who take razors away from troubled classmates. Consensus, it seemed, was near.
But President Obama invited the kid to the White House — and suddenly it was time for the Two Minutes Hate. If Muslim Furriner Obama said something nice about Mohamed, then obviously the punk must be history's greatest monster, or at least among the top 10. Was he trying to provoke an incident? Did he mean to perpetrate a hoax?
Perhaps the funniest concern was raised by the supposedly intelligent folks at the Center for Security Policy. The group's Jim Hanson said Ahmed's clock was "half a bomb," which it was — the clock half. By this logic there is half a bomb on just about every classroom wall in America. Quick, evacuate the buildings!
Laughable conspiracy theories are not the sole province of the right, of course. We saw a host of them emanate from the left after 9/11, and they continue to be pushed by such noted experts on national security and materials science as Russell Brand and Rosie O'Donnell.
Another common conspiracy theory cropped up again the other day. New York Times columnist Gail Collins, rushing to the defense of Planned Parenthood, wondered whether "the people who want to put it out of business (are) just opposed to the abortions… or are they against family planning, period?"
For an answer to that riddle, she turned to a scrupulously impartial observer: Nancy Pelosi. "I'm telling you, it's family planning," Pelosi said. "They decided that was their target long ago."
Of course they did! The Center for Medical Progress spent years making hidden-cam videos about abortion to distract people from its real agenda: outlawing diaphragms. Countless pro-life demonstrators wave posters reading "Pray to End Abortion" — but we all know they go home and pray to end vasectomies. Area 51 is just a decoy; the aliens are really kept at Area 52. It all makes perfect sense, when you think about it.
Hmmm. Maybe Pelosi is a plant to make those who agree with her look foolish. Or maybe she just has the neural activity of knotweed.
This column originally appeared at the Richmond Times-Dispatch.