I generally hate conspiracy theories. And it has little to do with whether or not they're true. Instead, it has everything to do with the obstacles they create and political progress they prevent.
The murky notion that President Barack Obama is a raging anti-colonial, secret Kenyan-Muslim communist has been a consistent conspiracy theory with some on the Right, from the Birther movement promoted by attention-whore Donald Trump to Dinesh D'Souza's movie Obama 2016.
Before the election, Michael Tracey of the conservative magazine The American Conservative had few kind words to say about D'Souza's sleeper hit. "The central theme of D'Souza's film is that deep-down, Obama harbors seething hatred for America, and thus his presidency has been designed to bring about its downfall by a host of surreptitious means," Tracey writes. "It's a revolting hour-and-a-half of cinema, targeted at the most angst-ridden and pliable Americans looking for answers..."
When I was boarding a plane after the Republican convention in Tampa, I sat near two men probably in their mid-to-late 50s. One man turned to the other and said, and I'm paraphrasing, "You know what you need to see? That Obama 2016 movie." The other man replied, "Oh yeah, I heard that was really good. Gives us a good idea of what we're really up against."
It's no secret what conservatives are actually "up against" when it comes to Barack Obama. Obama is bad. In fact, he's the worst president of my lifetime. I know few conservatives who think otherwise. But there's no mystery here as to why. From a high unemployment to staggering debt and Obamacare, the president's record is as public as it is repugnant.
Advancing conspiracy theories to explain Obama's record undermines the actual awfulness of his record. Think about it like this: What if Obama's big-government agenda is really part of some contrived, anti-American agenda? Would these policies be more preferable if they came from someone who was all-American in origin? Is the problem that the policies themselves are bad — and, let's face it, no different than what Mitt Romney would've done — or must conservatives also prove there is some underlying, unpatriotic plot?
Conservatives are on solid ground when they argue against Obama's policies. They are on even better ground when they can offer attractive policies of their own. But they are on counterproductive ground when they insist that Obama is a raging anti-colonial, secret Kenyan-Muslim communist. These arguments not only sound stupid, they aren't even arguments. As The American Conservative's James Antle explains: "Is there anything less interesting than the theorizing about why Obama governs as he does? Obama is a liberal, and a fairly banal one at that ... Yet there remains a cottage industry of explanations for why a liberal president has compiled a record of generally liberal policy positions, something akin to a discovery process as to why a quarterback is so taken with throwing touchdown passes."
It's no surprise Romney lost the election given that his entire campaign was that he was not Obama. It should also be no surprise that a GOP without a positive agenda would begin to double down on the negative. When conservatives could no longer articulate what they stood for, this negativity veered deeper into paranoia and conspiracy. By refusing to look at themselves, conservatives instead began hyper-examining their enemies, often to an absurd degree.
Conspiracy theories are not ideas. They are an absence of ideas. The subtext to these kinds of conspiracy theories is that there is no point in arguing over political philosophies because those who govern are already beholden to secret agendas beyond the control of participatory politics. Why vote? We're all doomed.
While such theories are not entirely implausible and to varying degrees can be true, they are also generally more fun than fact. There will always be a large audience for this stuff for the same reason more Americans are more interested in Tom Cruise's divorce or Kate Middleton's baby than foreign or monetary policy. It's titillating and easily digestible. It's also a major distraction.
As the conservative movement tries to recover, are voters more likely to listen to Republican conspiracy theorists demanding to see the president's birth certificate and ranting about Obama's "anti-colonial rage?" Or will they be more apt to listen to liberal Democrats who believe federal stimulus and government-run healthcare is a godsend? Who sounds crazy? Who sounds reasonable?
Like many conservatives in this election, the two men I heard on the plane speaking about D'Souza's movie didn't have anything particularly praiseworthy to say about Romney or the GOP, so of course they were attracted to the idea that Obama was literally the bogeyman of their worst nightmares. It was all they had left.