The New York Times recently published what is arguably the most comprehensive examination of the events that took place leading up to the deaths of four Americans in Benghazi. The six-part, multimedia report is not only the most exhaustive account of the tragedy ever published by a major news organization, it is also completely apolitical. In other words, it revealed the truth. Yet right-wing conspiracy theorists refuse to believe it.
While the article hardly paints the administration in a positive light, it makes clear that right-wing, echo chamber-generated conspiracy theories have no basis in reality. Central to the right’s Benghazi narrative was the claim that President Obama, facing a fight for reelection, chose to lie and conceal the truth on Benghazi. In other words, the administration “knew” it was a carefully planned and orchestrated attack carried out by al-Qaeda, but instead chose to spin the story that it was a spontaneous protest carried out by a mob of Islamists, who were reacting to the release of anti-Muslim YouTube documentary.
The truth, however, punches holes in the GOP’s preferred version of what happened that day, and in doing so, yet another right-wing conspiracy unravels before our eyes:
“Months of investigation by The New York Times, centered on extensive interviews with Libyans in Benghazi who had direct knowledge of the attack there and its context, turned up no evidence that Al Qaeda or other international terrorist groups had any role in the assault.
The attack was led, instead, by fighters who had benefited directly from NATO’s extensive air power and logistics support during the uprising against Colonel Qaddafi. And contrary to claims by some members of Congress, it was fueled in large part by anger at an American-made video denigrating Islam.”
Benghazi now joins a laundry list of debunked right-wing conspiracies during the Obama presidency, taking its place alongside such faux-scandals as the IRS, Fast & Furious, and Obama’s birth certificate. But the GOP, having invested so much into Benghazi, Benghazi, Benghazi, has now taken to the airwaves to reassure its faithful that the NYT report is a conspiracy to help elect Hillary in 2016. Yes, a conspiracy wrapped in an enigma, inside another conspiracy.
When a conspiracy theory is debunked, its proponents are faced with one of three options: they can either accept reality and move on to the next fancy; they can look for additional evidence that supports their hypothesis; or they can reevaluate their conspiracy in the light of new information. For the evolution, science, climate-change deniers on the Right, they can, evidently, accept only a fourth option: that the NYT is part of an even grander Benghazi conspiracy theory.
Rep. Lynn Westmoreland (R-GA), a member of the House Intelligence Committee, alluded to a “grander conspiracy” on Fox News when he said, “Of course, Secretary Clinton was in charge at the time, and you know there are just now a lot of rumors going and pushing about her running for president in 2016, so I think they are already laying the groundwork.” Rep Darrell Issa (R-CA), chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, stood by claims that a group affiliated with al-Qaeda was involved in the 2012 attack on the U.S. consulate.
Neither Issa nor Westmoreland has any evidence to support their claims.
Why do those on the Right revel in conspiratorial crap? Because the Republican Party’s base is the Christian Right. The evangelical base has latched onto every urban legend and bizarre Internet-generated memes because their worldview does not allow them to really understand how the world works. It’s healthy to be skeptical. A functioning mind demands evidence before formulating an opinion, which is why belief in religion infers the exact opposite. But evidence is the key word here. Conspiracy theories are not something to become emotionally unhinged and paranoid over, but the far right has become toxic over wild conspiracies, from same-sex marriage is an elaborate scheme to entrap men, to Planned Parenthood is trying to get kids hooked on sex. (Google those if you don’t believe me.)
Barry Beyerstein, a professor of psychology, says people are often unable to distinguish between science and pseudoscience. “People like to enchant themselves and this is classic mystery mongering," he says. "People want there to be grand conspiracies and they want the world to be an ever mysterious place than it is and want more simplistic pat answers as to why they are not happy and why the world isn’t the wonderful place they think it should be. And that’s more satisfactory psychologically than the sort of thing that science and decent scholarship will say.”
Conspiracy theories make the uninformed think they’re in the know; that they know the “truth.” The truth, however, is they’re afraid. They’re afraid of what they don’t know. They’re afraid of dealing with a complex political and economic world they don’t understand. It’s why religion has thrived since the moment we became afraid of the dark, disease, earthquakes, and droughts. Humans have a proclivity for simple answers to complex problems. Religion and conspiracy theories make for a comfortable intellectual shortcut. A crackpot conspiracy theory gives the intellectually lazy not only a simple explanation but also someone to blame.
One article about conspiracy theories explains, “For those people who may be on the ‘losing’ side (politically, socially, economically) of society, believing in conspiracies is therapeutic. It allows them to explain why they are on the losing side (“we were robbed, lied to”), ease their hurt (“our opponents are too powerful and so evil, it’s no surprise we lost”) and then finally, restore their egos (“we know the truth, we are smarter than normal people, we are not sheep, we are special”).”
Public Policy Polling issued a couple of surveys on conspiracy theories earlier this year, which demonstrates how belief pretty much breaks down along partisan lines:
34 percent of Republicans and 35 percent of Independents believe a global power elite is conspiring to create a New World Order—compared to just 15 percent of Democrats.
58 percent of Republicans believe global warming is a hoax; 77 percent of Democrats do not.
62 percent of Republicans and 38 percent of Independents believe the Obama administration is “secretly trying to take everyone’s guns away.” Only 14 percent of Democrats agree.
42 percent of Republicans believe sharia law is making its way into U.S. courts, compared to just 12 percent of Democrats.
More than twice as many Republican voters (21 percent) as Democrats (9 percent) believe the government is using “false flag incidents” to consolidate its power.
44 percent of Republicans and 21 percent of Independents believe that Obama is making plans to stay in office after his second term expires. Only 11 percent of Democrats agree.
Arthur Goldwag, author of The New Hate: A History of Fear and Loathing on the Populist Right, writes, “America is becoming more multicultural, more gay-friendly and more feminist every day. But as every hunter knows, a wounded or cornered quarry is the most dangerous. Even as the white, patriarchal, Christian hegemony declines, its backlash politics become more vicious.”
The right-wing echo chamber becomes an endless positive feedback loop for the conspiracy theorist and the shrinking white Christian majority. It helps put paranoid thinkers in touch with like-minded individuals and groups. In ignoring every piece of evidence that points the other way to their warped sense of reality, these people can become dangerously nihilistic. Their language and beliefs become toxic, and that ultimately corrupts the political conversation in this country.