A Decade of Change
People were dancing to disco music, growing their hair out to scandalous lengths, and eating meat suspended in Jell-O (which is called aspic, and I really don’t recommend it). As the Baby Boomers were coming of age in this so-called “decade of change,” economic upheaval was about the only thing you could count on in the developing world. Wars raged throughout the Middle East and Southeast Asia. Roe v. Wade became a landmark ruling that empowered women while dividing the country on an issue of the utmost importance—human life. Star Wars took audiences to planets they’d never even dreamed of before, all while technology here on Earth was looking more and more space age itself. It certainly was an exciting time.
It was the 1970’s, and the United States was also awash with everyone’s favorite pastime: scandal. The Vietnam War protests were at the center of public attention in 1970, when the Kent State massacre occurred. It seemed like the public’s trust in their government was at an all time low. President Nixon, who had campaigned on a promise of Vietnam withdrawal, instead invaded Cambodia in April 1970, reigniting the Anti-war movement and ensuring a fatigued American public that, once again, a politician had misled them to gain power.
In fact, this was the beginning of the end of trust in the U.S. Government—according to the Pew Research Center, Americans’ trust of their government reached its high water mark at 77% in 1964. Then the 1970s had its way with things, and the number fell to 27% by 1980. This wasn’t just due to the Vietnam War; in the 1970’s, a series of political scandals and their related conspiracy theories shattered the trust the American people had in their government leaders, especially those at the highest level. This led to a cottage industry of conspiracy theories that still, 40 years later, seemingly dominate our public discourse.
The 1970s weren’t where conspiracy theories were born by any means. Every American middle schooler dutifully studies US political scandals from Warren G. Harding’s Teapot Dome to the Petticoat Affair of Andrew Jackson’s presidency. The front pages of newspapers have been filled with controversies since they were founded, and they will continue to be until they end. The 70s affected American psyche in a different way, though—after losing trust in the way the Vietnam War was handled, Americans experienced a sequence of political scandals at the highest level of power—the presidency.
After the fact, we learned that Lyndon B. Johnson misled Congress about the Gulf of Tonkin Incident. But trust was lost long before that; presidents ran on ending the Vietnam War, and then instead escalated it. Richard Nixon resigned in disgrace in response to the Watergate Scandal. The Iran-Contra affair marred the perfect image of the Reagan Administration. The precipitous drop in the confidence of the American people in the U.S. Government during the later half of the 20th century was not a coincidence, and it’s not going away anytime soon. This is the new normal.
The scandals changed the way the American political conversation operates because they were, for lack of a better word, so scandalous. With each passing news report, the Watergate scandal became more and more devastating for the Nixon Administration, completely shattering public trust in the most powerful office in the world. The scandal had an outsized effect on our public psyche—to this day we add “–gate” to the end of just about anything in the news, giving the traditional American scandal the suffix it deserves.
All of these broken promises and illegal actions left the American public with a fundamental distrust in the highest levels of power. For better or for worse, trust comes after skepticism now, not the other way around.
The Conspiratorial States of America
Over the next 40 years, the rate of devastating presidential scandals seemed to slow, but one wouldn’t know that from talking to an average American. In 2015, only 19% of Americans said “they can trust the government in Washington to do what is right,” according to Pew. Even the most innocuous scandals are, at least among some people, believed to be signs of serious corruption or nefarious plans the government has for its citizens. They range from humorous, like bona fide memes “Bush did 9/11” or “Al Gore invented the Internet” to more dangerous, like Hillary Clinton’s supposed link to a pedophile ring, an untrue story that resulted in a dangerous shooting in Washington, D.C. in 2016.
The Internet allows nearly unlimited communication across the globe, which has made connecting with different people easier than ever. Unfortunately, it also makes it easier for people with bad intentions to congregate out of sight, propagating their views. People from all over the world can share information instantaneously, and the dark corners of the Internet are often where conspiracy theories reside. Popular websites like Reddit and 4chan are breeding grounds for conspiracy theories and other misled ideas. A school shooting in Oregon in 2015 that was discussed on 4chan before it happened shows how dangerous these online echo chambers can become.
Politics in the 21st century is primarily contested inside the conservative or liberal echo chambers of Facebook, Twitter, and other social media sites that allow news curating without the inconvenience of having to deal with opposing views. This well-documented phenomenon had huge implications during the 2016 presidential election. It’s entirely possible that someone in a more liberal friend group never saw a link from Fox News, and it’s equally possible that someone in a more conservative “chamber” never saw a link from MSNBC. That phenomenon is how sites like Breitbart, InfoWars, and LifeZette gain traction. And that’s how conspiracy theories peddled by those sites become viable to large swaths of the American public.
This allows Americans to generate conspiracy theories that agree with their view of the world and validate views they have about opposing parties. That’s why the Benghazi scandal languished for five years in the public discussion—it had negative implications for Hillary Clinton.
Using events to gain a political advantage is nothing new, but the imagined credibility of these conspiracy theories has never been as high as it is now. Benghazi consumed congressional Republicans for the better part of the five years between the event and the 2016 election. Over 33 hearings were held, 800 pages of testimony was given, and taxpayers were charged $7 million for an investigation into Hillary Clinton that turned up to be mostly nothing. The degree to which a conspiracy theory was scrutinized shows how conspiracy theorists have power unlike they’ve ever had before.
Another example of this that you may have heard of had to do with Secretary Clinton’s email usage during her time as Secretary of State. Clinton did indeed break State Department rules when she used a private email server to maintain official government communication. However, the ensuing public castigation and investigation into the matter, fueled by conspiracy theories of nefarious plans by the Clintons that have turned up nothing so far, arguably cost Clinton the election.
The Deep State
In this backdrop of American distrust of government that has, for the first time, been adopted by the President himself, an interesting theory has taken hold. The “deep state” is a reference to a supposed shadow government that actually runs the federal government, and it has been discussed extensively for years.
There are simple theories, like the befuddling thought that Jewish people run things or that central banks have their hands on the controls (which isn’t quite as befuddling). There are also some who think there is an extensive deep state that sprawls throughout federal, state, and local government, similar to proven networks in countries like Egypt and Pakistan.
A particularly interesting theory on the location of power within the U.S. Government is based on a 1991 book by Milton William Cooper titled Behold a Pale Horse. Cooper argues that the “deep state” government of the U.S. is in cahoots with extraterrestrial beings, forming the infamous Illuminati that is secretly waging war with American citizens.
The “deep state” conspiracy theory has seemingly been revived by the Donald Trump Administration. Responding to a series of harmful and embarrassing leaks from inside the executive branch, Trump has made accusations as sensational as Barack Obama illegally tapping his phones in Trump Tower, all while “DeepStateGate” is a common headline prefix across conservative media.
In reality, the tension from Trump’s own executive branch is a result of the public strain he’s put on them, like rejecting intelligence findings, firing career bureaucrats that don’t agree with him, and dramatically declaring that any opposition to his actions are a sign of partisan activity.
We live in a political and societal climate in which conspiracy theories run rampant. Jaded from the dishonesty of politicians past, it seems like we’ve adopted a “shoot first, ask questions later” mentality towards ideas of corruption and scandal, a mentality that is escalated by the echo chambers on the Internet. And during a presidency in which one of the biggest consumers of such theories is sitting in the Oval Office, that doesn’t seem like it’s going to change any time soon.