A Lonely, Bewildering, Radicalizing Culture
Conspiracy theories are the result of alienating, confounding cultures that hide the machinations of power from their people and have tragic, murderous results
I get…a lot of mail. Some of it is very kind and thoughtful. A card from a stranger. A drawing in charcoal. Handmade masks at the beginning of a pandemic. But some of it, much of it, is strange and ominous.
Massive self-published books. Envelopes full of printer paper glistening with bright highlighter strokes, webs of lines and circles in ballpoint pen. Cut out pictures from magazines and newspapers alongside explanations of how hidden organizations control the halls of government.
Some of it has been so unnerving that I’ve had to contact authorities and, in one case, actually considered whether someone who had mailed me might have been the so-called “MAGA Bomber” who sent pipe bombs to the critics and rivals of President Donald Trump. As a public figure, I’ve been linked to Deep State operations, thrust into the fever-dream swamp of QAnon narratives, and had people show up at my house believing I’d played a role in some large, clandestine, complicated conspiracy.
My life is a lot more boring than all of that, but this is a side-effect of a political system and society where the actual machinations of power are often hidden, where reality is intentionally manipulated, and the populace is both neglected, in terms of their wellbeing and needs, and consistently lied to.
And, unfortunately, that brings us to the case of Anthony Warner, the Nashville Bomber.
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On Christmas Day, 2020, Anthony Warner drove his RV to downtown Nashville, Tennessee, played a warning, the song “Downtown” by Petula Clark, and then detonated the explosives he had rigged, killing himself, damaging nearby buildings and structures, and knocking out cellular service. Almost immediately it was obvious this situation must have something to do with paranoid, conspiracy theories. The only question was what brand and universe the perpetrator called his home. In this case, Warner believed in shape-shifting reptilians, ala David Icke, who secretly run human civilization
America is rich with conspiracy theorists. Our founding, the course of our history, the origin of so much of our strife and mistakes, is riddled through with misunderstandings, both intentional and otherwise, about the very nature of reality. Regardless of the era or setting, shadowy figures are always lurking in our darknesses, hiding right around the corner, conspiring to overthrow the government or control us through our media.
Distrust of power is not only natural, but needed. In the United States, the government has continually misled the public, hid its secrets and failures, engaged in secret plans to undermine its own people, experimented in truly horrific ways without the consent or knowledge of its citizens, and carried out anti-democratic operations around the world to overthrow democratically-elected officials and governments. To say that our government has a trust problem is a very, very kind understatement.
And it’s not just our elected officials either. Our corporations engage in “public relations” strategies that hide their malfeasance, and when their products are revealed to cause cancer, endanger infants, poison our air and water and food supply, destroy our environment, or just simply steal from the less powerful and impoverished, the answer isn’t to address the problem but to control the damage and weather the storm.
Our country is fertile for conspiracy theories because it is awash with lies and misdirection. And it is especially dangerous, in the United States, because our culture is aggressively alienating and cruel while continually selling its people on the idea that they, alone, can change the world.
The modern conspiracy theory is obsessed with deeper explanations of globalism, or the system of economics that has come to dominate our time. The roots of this system are in the neoliberal turn of the 1980’s that found purchase with the political efforts fronted by Ronald Reagan in the United States and Margaret Thatcher in Britain. The term “neoliberal” is confusing, often, as it denotes some sort of leftward leaning ideology, but it is, at its roots, a market-based approach that prioritizes laissez-faire economics that, over time, have drifted toward hypercapitalism, or a system of domination by the elite few who have come to override politics in totality.
It is no coincidence that the New World Order conspiracy theory, followed by the Deep State, and QAnon are all stories about how nations and people have been undermined, their cultures turned against them as “traitors” work with shadowy international “cabals” that don’t care whether the people live or die. These are fairytales, oversimplifications of reality steeped in white supremacist, xenophobic, antisemetic, anti-liberal fears. It doesn’t hurt, either, that the stories actually take justified anger at the wealthy and powerful and redirects and capitalizes on it.
That these conspiracy theories are simplified explanations is, in part, because the wealthy and powerful, in an attempt to maintain and protect class boundaries while also producing compliant, exploitable cultures, ensure that education rarely dives into the economic realities or honest, truthful histories. What is left is a reality based in American Exceptionalism and worship of capitalistic systems. A reality that, when a nation and its people experience loss and trauma, is primed for conspiracy theories.
The question at the heart of this moment is how it is possible that America, a nation supposedly chosen by God, the universe, and fate itself, the pinnacle of the “Shining City on the Hill,” the paragon of Western Civilization, could come to be such a miserable country. Economic advancement, the bootstraps mentality of the American Dream that was sold to us by Reagan and the think-tanks and market forces he represented, has stalled, leaving Americans to make less, live shorter lives, and standby to watch inequality grow and grow and grow as their dreams of getting ahead fade.
In addition, the redistribution of wealth achieved by Reagan hollowed out government as a public good, ensuring that the “strongest and wealthiest country in the world” would never actually support human projects, including education, infrastructure, and healthcare, including, it should be mentioned, mental healthcare. Its people were left on their own as Reagan told them government didn’t help them, that it couldn’t help them, that they were strong enough to make it on their own and to even falter for a moment was to be weak and undesering of help anyway.
That focus on the individual, both in terms of “can-do attitude” and self-reliance, created in our culture a myriad of crises. As material conditions worsened, people felt more and more despair. As communities collapsed into individualism, they felt more and more alienated. As the nation fell in disrepair, they felt more and more frustrated and confused. The only solution, unfortunately, was to look for truth where it wasn’t obvious. To read between the lines, discover the clues, piece together the hidden workings of conspiracies, and take action.
The clash of market principles and the scourge of powerless, conspiracy theorying produced a new generation of grifters and capitalists who recognized an opportunity to make unbelievable amounts of money fanning the flames. An actor like Alex Jones, who cut his teeth as a conspiracy theorist in the 1990’s as the New World Order narrative took shape, has become so lost in his stories that he has trouble drawing the line between what he believes and what he’s made up.
Of course, Jones isn’t alone in that struggle. Donald Trump, the 45th President of the United States, vaccilated between grifting and living within his grift, and an entire universe of enablers and affiliated grifters followed him into that confusion.
Like snake-oil salesmen of old, Jones, Trump, and Icke, who played a role in inspiring the Nashville Bombing, have used their alternative narratives and grifting stories to become celebrities, gain political purchase and power, and earn handsome profits. The capitalist system which helped create this current cesspool also rewards those who continually fill it up and stir the muck. And, as we’ve all seen, with their followers, subscribers, and true-believers, they’re more than willing to shell out their hard-earned money and even take matters into their own hands.
We’ve seen mass shootings, bombings, even a coup attempt this past January 6th, all inspired by conspiracy theories and marked by a particular incoherence of purpose and reality. The soup is getting murkier by the day as society becomes more and more inscrutable, inhuman, and cruel. It is almost impossible to understand the economic principles at play as the corporations who have overwhelmed our political systems combine, buy one another, change names, all to move the money from one account to another, and make the picture grayer and grayer. At this point, even those versed in these transactions are overwhelmed and have to spend the better part of their lives and careers trying to decipher what has happened, and by the time they get close, or even something resembling close, the reality shifts and moves beyond them.
The only constant is that the wealthy get wealthier, the powerful become more powerful, and the explanation being fed to the people they exploit grows in size, scope, adding new villains and new storylines, promising the believer there is no means by which change could be realized besides the barrel of a gun or the fuse of a bomb.
And, what’s more, the more sinister the story, the more dangerous the threat, the more the use of violence is not only legitimized, but necessary and virtuous, meaning, the worse this problem becomes, the bloodier and more murderous its “solution.”