Friday, January 24, 2014

Hand me the tinfoil

I need to make a hat for a friend.

She's always been a bit of a conspiracy theorist, but I think she's slipped over the edge. She has fallen victim to one of the more venerable chestnuts among conspiracy theories, the absolutely classic belief that the current occupant of the White House is about to declare martial law and turn the United States into a Pinochet-style dictatorship, one that will no doubt come complete with NFL stadiums being filled with dissenters who have been targeted to "disappear." This particular delusion goes way back. It's so old that not only does it predate the Internet, it predates telephones and telegraphs. In fact, it goes back so far we were listing Presidents using single digits, as in One.

Yep, it goes back to George Washington. As soon as he announced he would accept a second term, there were political opponents and conspiracy-mongers telling anyone who would listen that the venerable George Washington, father of our country, was planning to have himself declared King. Today we have this image of Washington as being universally loved and respected; back in the 1790s it was a different story, especially after Washington authorized the use of the military to stamp out the Whiskey Rebellion. The theory faded a bit when John Adams became president -- it kind of killed the "Washington wants to be King!" rumors when he stepped down gracefully -- but it would re-emerge periodically, usually when the current President was someone who aroused particularly strong opposition from some segment of society. In the 19th century, Andrew Jackson was suspected of having dictatorial designs upon the country, ditto Abraham Lincoln. In the 20th, conservatives feared that Franklin D. Roosevelt would never relinquish his grasp on the White House (and they were right; it took death to get him out of the Oval Office), although World War II was enough of a distraction that most people welcomed a strong presidency rather than fearing it.

More recently, when the Watergate scandal broke in the 1970s, many people sincerely believed that Tricky Dicky would never go quietly. Carter, Reagan, and Bush the Elder escaped conspiracy theorizing, but Clinton and Bush the Younger were both star players in the minds of the tinfoil hat crowd. Clinton was going to seize power and declare Hillary was the next President (which sort of indicates who was perceived as being the scarier half of that particular power couple); Bush was going to declare martial law and void the 2008 election to prevent himself and members of his administration from being prosecuted for war crimes. (An alternate popular theory was that Bush was preparing to flee to a ranch in Paraguay to avoid prosecution for treason when it came out that he and Cheney were responsible for 9/11.) The fact both Bill Clinton and George W. Bush were the subject of conspiracy theories is a rare example where you can say in all honesty that "both sides do it." It doesn't matter who's actually in office; both ends of the political spectrum have people sporting tinfoil hats.

In short, if a President can manage to be elected to a second term and is sufficiently disliked by enough people, he's going to be the star player in a conspiracy theory. The motives may vary along with the "evidence" being trotted out to support the theory, but the supposed ultimate goal is always a dictatorship. If you ask people what the evidence actually is, it falls into the classic urban legend pattern. That used to be "a friend of a friend knows all about this;" now it's "I read it on the Internet so it must be true." Either that, or it's perched upon such a slender reed that one marvels that anyone would pin their hopes on it. One general gets fired for being a drunken sot who caroused with hookers, and through the miracle of exaggeration and wishful thinking suddenly the President is eliminating all the senior military staff who disagree with him.  

The stupid, it burns.

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