It's a sign of our times that this story isn't generating more attention than it is. Florida Atlantic University assistant professor James Tracy has been given 10 days to appeal a recommendation to fire him from his job teaching in the Communication & Multimedia Studies department. While the school won't say why, odds are high that this is a reaction to the embarrassment caused by an op-ed written by parents of a Sandy Hook shooting victim who say that Tracy has been harassing them by demanding proof that their son, Noah Pozner, is actually dead.
Yes, Tracy appears to be a special kind of of monster, but his behavior shouldn't be written off as the actions of one man who has gone off his rocker. Tracy is an active participant and indeed a leader in a robust movement of gun enthusiasts, dubbed the "Sandy Hook truthers," who believe the entire attack was staged, likely by the Obama administration, in an effort to justify rounding up everyone's guns.
What makes the Tracy story interesting, and why it's surprising that it hasn't gotten much more than cursory coverage for curiosity seekers, is that this guy doesn't fit the stereotypical image most of us have of a conspiracy theorist. This guy isn't a basement-dweller who refuses to bathe and only gets exercise when cleaning his guns. He a university professor, someone who was able to hoodwink at least one employer into thinking he was sharp and rational enough to educate the next generation.
And yet, you read his blog and it's a dizzying experience. Tracy hasn't met a conspiracy theory he doesn't immediately glom on to, it appears. Like many people caught up in the Infowars-style hyper-paranoia, Tracy's ideology seems a mishmash of right wing and left wing conspiracy theories. His passion is denying mass shootings, but he also dabbles in some leftist bits of paranoia, such as believing that the journalist Michael Hastings was murdered in a cover-up. (Hastings died in a car crash and foul play was quickly ruled out.) True conspiracy theorists tend to think everyone — right, left, center---is out to get them, but most, like Tracy, still tend to lean right at the end of the day.
Conspiracy theories have always been with us, of course, but the idea that a college professor could have gotten away with this kind of odious behavior for so long should still give pause. There's been a real mainstreaming of the conspiratorial mindset in recent years. Part of that is no doubt the result of the internet, which has allowed people like Alex Jones, with his Infowars website, to get the word out to more people. But TV has played a role, too, with shows like "Conspiracy Theory With Jesse Ventura" getting ratings for the misleadingly named truTV.
But perhaps the biggest factor has been the increasing embrace of conspiracy theories by the Republican Party. While Sandy Hook trutherism and some other right-wing conspiracy theories can still be reasonably classified as "fringe", other wild conspiracy theories have made the jump into the mainstream of the party, believed by nearly everyone in leadership and treated by politicians as facts instead of the nutty conspiracy theories that they are.
The big one, of course, is climate change denialism, a conspiracy theory so widespread on the right that even admitting that the temperatures might be changing (while maintaining it's not our fault or nothing could be done anyway) is considered some kind of triumphant breakthrough for any Republican willing to go there. The mainstream media frequently treats this as if it's just a controversy or difference of opinion, but closer examination makes it clear that you can't believe that climate change is a hoax without also believing there's a worldwide conspiracy, involving most of the world's scientists and political leaders, to conceal the truth from the public.
Or consider the ubiquitous nonsense about Planned Parenthood and "baby parts" that has been flying around since this summer. The hoax videos that kicked this off are clearly alleging what is quite obviously a batshit conspiracy theory, that Planned Parenthood is involved in some secretive conspiracy to profit off getting women to abort so they can sell the fetuses. That it even needed to be disproved is ridiculous, as it's self-evidently a paranoid fiction, starting with the fact that Planned Parenthood is a non-profit and the sums discussed in the videos are so small that they clearly aren't profitable by any measure of the term. And yet, Republican politicians on every level have been eagerly promoting this clearly indefensible accusation, behavior which should be seen as no different than what Alex Jones is doing on a daily basis.
Tuesday night's Republican debate had a couple of whoppers come out of candidates that clearly have an air of the conspiracy theory about them. Donald Trump claimed that "tens of thousands" of Syrian refugees have "cell phones with ISIS flags on them." It's a story that's being pushed heavily by, you guessed it, the Infowars site run by Alex Jones, who Trump has also favored with an interview. While it's technically true that these photos exist, there's still no reason to think that taking a picture of something means you support it. If that was true, then the whole explosion of cell phone videos exposing police brutality wouldn't be happening.
In a similar vein was Carly Fiorina's bald-faced lie about Obama expunging what she called the "warrior class" — generals "Petraeus, McChrystal, Mattis, Keane, Flynn."
“Every one was retired early because they told President Obama things that he didn’t want to hear,” she announced.
It was a lie — Petraeus was nominated to be CIA director by Obama and Keane retired during the Bush administration — but it was really more than a lie. It's also a conspiracy theory, in that it's creating a pattern where none exists and declaring that it is the result of nefarious, shadowy actions when it's quite clearly not.
The conspiratorial mindset has been gaining strength in Republican circles for a couple of decades now. Fringe conspiracy theories about the Clintons started on the fringes but grew in power until the Republican Party got it into their head that they had to find something to impeach the president over. The same thing happened to Obama, who was plagued by the "birther" conspiracy theory for so long he finally released his long form birth certificate. Now you see the same game being played with Hillary Clinton, this swirl of paranoia and half-baked accusations, all meant to create the impression that something dirty is going on, even if they can't quite figure out the exact details.
All this behavior is indistinguishable from the conspiracy theory-mongering going on in the fringe circles that James Tracy hangs out in. The only difference is that the mainstream conspiracy theories have the imprimatur of authority on them, being repeated, as they are, on national television and coming out of the mouths of people who are distinguished politicians and even presidential candidates. Conspiracy theories are normal and mainstream, thanks to the Republican Party. So it's no wonder that so many people feel emboldened to take up some of the stranger theories that are out there.