The following is excerpted from the new book “How America Lost Its Mind: The Assault on Reason That’s Crippling Our Democracy” by Thomas E. Patterson. He is the Bradlee Professor of Government & the Press at Harvard University’s Kennedy School.
It was a bright Sunday afternoon in the nation’s capital when Edgar Maddison Welch walked into Comet Ping Pong and, after telling customers to flee, searched the pizzeria and opened fire with an assault rifle. Why? Welch had driven his truck from North Carolina to “self-investigate” a story he had seen online. The fake story claimed that coded emails on Hillary Clinton’s private server revealed the shop was a front for a child sex ring in which she and other top Democrats were involved. The victims were supposedly imprisoned below the restaurant. Whatever fool Welch might have been, he was not alone in his thinking. A poll taken after Welch’s arrest indicated that a third of American adults thought the sex ring allegation was “definitely” or “probably” true.
Absurd ideas are nothing new. When fluoride was added to the nation’s water supply six decades ago, some Americans said it was a communist plot to poison the nation’s youth. Fear of communism soon led to other bizarre ideas, including the claim that President Eisenhower and Martin Luther King were Soviet agents. In a seminal 1964 Harper’s Magazine article, the historian Richard Hofstadter described such thinking as “the paranoid style.” “No other word,” Hofstadter wrote, “adequately evokes the sense of heated exaggeration, suspiciousness, and conspiratorial fantasy that I have in mind.”
The crazed anti-communists of the Cold War era have met their match in recent years. Nearly every major political development has sparked fanciful claims, even when the facts are right before our eyes. On Sept. 11, 2001, Americans saw airliners plow into the World Trade Center towers and the Pentagon. Within days, they saw footage of the terrorists going through security lines at Boston’s Logan Airport and heard that they had flight training in Florida and Arizona. Nevertheless, conspiracy theorists claim it was an inside job orchestrated by the U.S. government, with the airliners said to be on autopilot. And rather than collapsing from intense heat, the towers were brought to earth by explosive devices triggered by government agents.
If 9/11 sparked some of the more farfetched conspiracy theories, one doesn’t have to search hard to find others. They number in the scores and have one thing in common — the belief that powerful actors secretly plotted a foul deed and are getting away with it. And it is nearly impossible to convince theorists that they are wrong. The logic of a conspiracy theory is its own defense. Powerful actors who are clever enough to pull off an evil deed are clever enough to cover their tracks with a plausible lie.
Some conspiracy theories are harmful. A few are downright dangerous. Most are merely bizarre. More harmful to our democracy is a cousin of conspiracy theories — misinformation. It also involves fanciful ideas about the actual state of the world, but it is far more widespread and a far greater threat. At times, it describes the thinking of a majority, as it did during the lead-up to the 2003 Iraq invasion. Polls showed that most Americans falsely believed that Iraq was aligned with al-Qaeda, the terrorist group behind the 9/11 attacks — many even falsely believed Iraqis were actually flying the planes. Those with false beliefs were four times more likely than better-informed Americans to favor an invasion of Iraq.