One of the things that has always frustrated me about both political parties is the way that they tolerate vast, fetid swamps of misinformation in the hopes of tapping the energy inherent in conspiracy-theory or fear-driven groups. And don’t misunderstand me: almost all misinformation is spread through fear. (With the possible exception of misinformation spread by irrational optimism, like when an e-mail informs you that Bill Gates will donate $1 billion to cancer research if you forward it to 45 people.)
This particular election cycle, though, much of the activity in the conspiracy theory camp is taking place on the right. It may be a bit much to believe, as some who listen to Harry Reid might, that Mitt Romney has paid no income taxes for the last ten years. But even Reid’s wild guess puts its finger on the fact that Romney is being weirdly secretive about his wealth.
On the other hand, CNN reports that white supremacist groups and so-called “Patriot” militias are experiencing a “resurgence” characterized by the proliferation of new groups and chapters. Membership is driven in no small part by rumors fueled by posters in the comments section on right-wing blogs and conspiracy theory websites, starting with the President’s alleged foreign birth (he has released his Hawaiian birth certificate) and Muslim faith (he is Christian).
While these rumors have gained some credence through several high-profile adherents, Like Donald Trump, mainly they are merely tolerated. Almost no Republicans have openly repudiated these stories, and some have actively fostered anti-Muslim hysteria. Other conspiracy theories, which enjoy less widespread notoriety, include beliefs that Democrats want to confiscate guns to pave the way for a Soviet-style police state and that anti-climate change policies are a vehicle for nationwide repression.
The fruits of Republicans’ tacit acknowledgment (and encouragement) of these misinformation campaigns are coming to bear: not only have psychos like Anders Behring Breivik (whose crimes in Norway were predicated on a fear of ‘multiculturalism’) and Wade Michael Page taken to violence in order to spread conspiracy-theorist messages, but the training mechanisms for more terrorists like them remain in place. Furthermore, efforts to respond to tragedies such as these through legislation or activism are shouted down, and conspiratorial beliefs are leaking into national discourse.
Let me be clear: I do not think that conservatism is inherently violent, or racist, or anything like that. What I am suggesting is that in trying to defeat the President and his party in the next election, Republicans have made a deal with the devil in tolerating the diffusion of white supremacist, nativist, and violent rhetoric through their voter base. They might be able to count on the xenophobic vote in the next election – but at what cost?