We have one year, plus a week and a half, before Barack Obama and his family pack their bags and move out of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue. During the past seven years, we've had to endure an endless barrage of paranoid right-wing conspiracy theories about how his presidency would induce everything from economic catastrophe to the apocalypse itself, none of which has happened.
One would hope, after seven straight years of being thunderously wrong, the paranoid right would take a hint and dial things back a little for the last year of Obama's presidency. But of course, that's not how these things work. Early indications suggest that the nuts are going to go balls out this year with the lurid fantasies of an imminent Obama takeover in the next few months, using Obama's eminently reasonable executive actions on guns as an excuse. To make it all worse, the mainstream media is seeding their paranoia with irresponsible coverage of the guns issue.
Obama's executive actions on guns aren't really that big a deal — mostly tightening up enforcement of existing laws — but that's an artifact of the inherently limited powers of the executive office. But to the conspiracy theory right, this is clear evidence that he's about to declare himself dictator-for-life and round up conservatives into concentration camps. And no, I'm not exaggerating for comic effect. That's a straightforward description.
Alex Jones of Infowars went on a total meltdown, claiming that this step shows Obama is fixing to declare himself a dictator and will soon be rounding up gun owners. He argued that Obama is working from a playbook "directly out of Nazi Germany."
"This is the takeover of the republic," he intoned. "This is the fall of the republic."
This sort of thing is to be expected, of course. Fish gonna swim, bug-eyed conspiracy theorists gonna crazy. The real problem is that many figures in both the above-ground conservative media, that is supposed to be smarter than this, and even the regular mainstream media, are feeding the conspiracy theories. They do this by taking the same ideas and themes, cleaning them up a bit to make them sound less crazy, and then presenting them as legitimate ideas, instead of the lipstick-smothered conspiracy theory pigs that they are.
Anderson Cooper, of all people, created the biggest opportunity for conservatives to legitimatize conspiracy theories during Thursday's CNN town hall on gun control. After Obama referenced the conspiracy theories that fly around about him — see above — Cooper played dumb.
"Is it fair to call it a conspiracy?" he asked. "There are a lot of people who really believe this deeply."
Needless to say, a lot of people also "believe" deeply that Obama isn't a natural born citizen, but that doesn't mean it's not a conspiracy theory. Obama responded:
Yes. It is fair to call it a conspiracy. What are you saying? Are you suggesting the notion that we are creating a plot to take everybody's guns away so we can impose martial law is a conspiracy? Yes, it is a conspiracy. I would hope you would agree with that. Is that controversial?
But Cooper was not deterred from validating this conspiracy theory, saying that many believe Obama plans to go "further and further" with this, to which Obama noted he only has a year in office to execute his supposedly secret plans.
This is how the conspiracy theory gets mainstreamed: The loons scream about concentration camps, and when liberals point out that's a conspiracy theory, mainstream pundits, mostly conservative ones, use it as an opportunity to collapse the difference between extremely mild regulations on guns and jackboots kicking in doors to round up your guns and probably you while they're at it.
S.E. Cupp, on CNN, was ham-fisted about taking this approach. After Jay Carney said, "nothing that the conspiracy theorists believe" was ever pondered by Obama, and that he's never gotten close to proposing a gun round-up like happened in Australia, Cupp pounced.
"But he did call for an assault weapons ban in 2013," she complained, conflating minor regulations on certain kinds of weapons with the wholesale ban — or worse — that conspiracy theorists claim is coming.
"Why is it a conspiracy that I think he wants to ban some guns?" she added.
It's a clever trick. By pretending that they are calling her a "conspiracy theorist" for noting Obama's previous support for an assault weapons ban, Cupp portrays that term as nothing but an unfair slur used to shut down people who are just speaking the truth. This, in term, allows the people who think the concentration camps for conservatives are coming to gloat about how unfair it is that liberals are always using that meanie term. They, like Cupp, are just stating the obvious, right?
A similar thing is going on with David Harsanyi's piece at National Review, where he falsely claims that Obama's actions are "executive overreach" meant to work "around the lawmaking branch of government because it had refused to do what he desired." (In reality, Obama is well within the normal powers of the executive to interpret and enforce existing law, which already requires gun sellers to run background checks---he just plans to make sure they do it.) Harsanyi doesn't come right out and say that Obama is a "fascist", but he does compare him to the character Leslie Knope on "Parks and Recreation," who he deems "fascistic."
It's a cute little dance: Call Obama a fascist by proxy while hyperbolically claiming "Obama has attempted to govern without Congress since Democrats rammed the Affordable Care Act through." (Funny how Congress is the only legitimate authority, except when they pass progressive legislation.) He's not coming right out and saying that Obama is declaring himself a dictator and coming for your guns, but this kind of rhetoric is winking at that conspiracy theory. More to the point, it's taking the basic premise — that minor gun control is the first step towards a fascist dictatorship — prettying it up with formal-sounding rhetoric and trying to pass it off as a legitimate argument.
Quietly stroking the conspiracy theorists while pretending to be a sober and sane pundit may seem like all fun and games and vote-gathering for Republicans, but this kind of behavior is really irresponsible. I know this comes as shocking information, but not all of the conspiracy theorists whose delusions are being stoked are mentally stable.
On Tuesday night, after Obama gave his speech and right-wing media started the process of playing footsie with the wackaloons, a man was shot and killed by police in California. The police tried to subdue him at first, but when he came out waving a handgun at him, they shot him. "Witnesses on scene later advised detectives that the suspect was upset about the recent legislation regarding gun laws issued by President Obama," the police report explained, and one witness said he was yelling about Obama as he was shot.
Under the circumstances, it would be nice if journalists and pundits would think twice before they wink at conspiracy theorists, and validate their paranoias.