Conspiracy theories are as old as civilization and have been part of our own country’s history from the very beginning. In her book Republic of Lies: American Conspiracy Theorists and Their Surprising Rise to Power, author Anna Merlan takes us on an eye-opening, mind boggling, ride through all manner of conspiracy theories. Her quest into this strange world began as a reporter with an assignment to write a piece on the subject. As part of her research, she went on a Conspira-Sea Cruise, whose other passengers all enthusiastically and earnestly believed in conspiracy theories of every kind. The experience stayed with her long after her story appeared, and a year and a half later, she began delving deeper into this phenomenon, where she encountered a strange, often dangerous world.
It is easy to dismiss, even laugh at, some of these bizarre conspiracy theories: the earth is flat; it is secretly ruled by 12 foot tall human lizard mutants; the moon landing never happened; the United States is hiding aliens at Area 51 or maybe they walk among us disguised as well-known politicians. The chapter on UFOs includes claims of being chased by dinosaurs on Mars, as well as trips to the far reaches of the solar system, sometimes with Barack Obama (before he was president, of course). Who could believe such things? It turns out, many people do, but by and large, these theories are harmless and cause nothing more than eye rolling.
Other more troubling conspiracy theories abound. There are those that deny the Holocaust ever happened, that Sandy Hook and other mass shootings were staged by crisis actors, that 9/11 was an inside job carried out by the government, that climate change is not real, that the Clintons are part of a global pedophile ring, and on and on. Along the way, Merlan devotes a whole chapter to white supremacy conspiracy theories and another to the Deep State and Russiagate. Medical conspiracy theories are not in short supply either, from the ever popular belief that vaccines cause autism to the idea that fluoride is added to the water as a mind controlling drug. Current events would add another medical conspiracy theory to the list – the Covid-19 pandemic is a hoax.
Most disturbing are the many political conspiracy theories that are far from harmless and that have even worked their way into the mainstream. Now fueled by social media and the Internet in general, these theories instantly reach and attract thousands of people, who often become obsessed with them, passing them on as truth to even more people. Recent events at the Capitol bear this out and demonstrate the kind of violence that they can lead to. Though this book was published well before this attack occurred, it perfectly illustrates the power of a conspiracy theory, as thousands of people subscribed to the idea of a conspiracy that rigged the 2020 presidential election, thus stealing it from the rightful winner.
Why do people fall for such unfounded and farfetched theories? Merlan believes that many people feel unheard and shut out of the system, feel they have no power, leaving them effectively disenfranchised. They distrust the media, the government, elected officials, and have lost faith in the American Dream. They blame this unfair society for their misfortunes and look for an explanation and a way to right the wrongs and take back control. The author inserted herself in the middle of much of this craziness through numerous interviews with both conspiracy leaders and followers, even attending many of their gatherings. She supplemented this hands-on research with relevant historical and cultural background, as well as the history and psychology of conspiracy thinking. The result is a well-researched, thoroughly referenced and indexed, fascinating, but scary book. As a bonus, it is very readable, never sensational, and is delivered with a dry wit, keen observation, and a (mostly) straight face. This review gives you just a taste of the dozens of outlandish conspiracy theories and the convoluted reasoning and paranoia which against all logic, lure in thousands of believers. To learn more, be sure to read the book. It is available in the General collection at the Bellevue University Library and can be borrowed for 21 days.
Originally posted in the Freeman/Lozier Library’s quarterly newsletter, More Than Books, V. 24 No. 2, Spring 2021.