The Eternal Return of the Paranoid Style
Why can't Americans—no matter their politics—stop inventing conspiracy theories?
My Monday Notes here on Wisdom of Crowds are often just accounts of rabbit holes I find myself falling into. Thus far I have managed to keep myself from falling down rabbit holes that devolve into outright conspiracy theories. That, dear reader, changed this week. I fell in deep with one of the biggest conspiracy theories of American politics. But that’s OK, I suppose: rabbit holes and conspiracy theories go together—almost like peanut butter and jelly, some might say. It’s a very tasty American combination.
Here's how it went down. Surfing around Twitter around a week ago, I stumbled across a truly remarkable Tucker Carlson rant about how the "deep state" supposedly took down Richard Nixon for daring to stand up to it.
Do watch the whole thing. I won’t be going into all the overheated details that make up the whole of the epic narrative, but it’s worth taking in fully. For what it is, it's a virtuoso performance.
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One part of the story that did catch my eye was the claim that President Richard Nixon confronted Richard Helms, then the head of the CIA, with a veiled threat, saying he wanted to know the backstory of “who shot John”—supposedly a reference to the assassination of John F. Kennedy. I had never heard of this encounter, and thought at first it was fever swamp stuff. But Tucker assures us that everything in his story can be backed up in Wikipedia.
Sure enough, there was an exchange between Nixon and Helms in 1971, captured on Nixon’s always operational tape recorder. And it is even weirder than Tucker lets on. Here’s a Politico article on the episode from last year that’s also worth your time, if only for the vintage Nixon quotes. (“I know what happened in Iran [a CIA-sponsored coup in 1953]. I also know what happened in Guatemala [a CIA-sponsored coup in 1954], and I totally approve both. I also know what happened with the planning of the Bay of Pigs under Eisenhower and totally approved of it.”)
Hopefully needless to say, the Politico story doesn’t corroborate Tucker’s broader theories. But it did get me wondering why all this CIA and JFK stuff was in the air. It turns out, late last year President Biden had ordered yet another tranche of classified CIA documents pertaining to the assassination released. I had not only missed that story, but had missed the backstory too.
Like many people my age, I had watched Oliver Stone’s film JFK in theaters, and had thrilled to all the things he had outlined in the assassination investigation that simply don’t add up. I remember not fully understanding all the details that went into the plot at the time, but nevertheless breathlessly repeating the questions that the film raised with my friends: Did the CIA kill Kennedy? Did the Cubans? Did the Soviets? Did the mob? In my youthful giddiness, I didn’t realize that the film had stirred up enough public controversy in its time that Congress had felt compelled to act. Less than a year after the film was released, it passed the President John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection Act of 1992, demanding that “all Government records relating to the assassination” be declassified in 25 years.
Do the math. Everything should have been out in the open by 2017. Nevertheless, the CIA has been reluctant to release everything it has on file, directly flaunting the law of the land on unspecified “national security” grounds. Lost in all the much more important drama of the Trump years was the fact that the Great Orange One had himself tried to get the full trove unclassified. Trump confidant Roger Stone, the author of the 2013 New York Times bestseller The Man Who Killed Kennedy: The Case Against LBJ, had apparently boasted to Alex Jones that he had managed to convince the President to get all the goods. Trump did not deliver, only putting a fraction of the documents out there in October of his first term in office, eliciting a bunch of bored harrumphs from the media and more breathless conspiracy-mongering from those so inclined.
By now waist-deep in the rabbit hole, I had no choice but to go all-in. I soon discovered that Oliver Stone had released a new documentary (coincidentally?) at the same time as the Biden tranche of declassifications was being made public. JFK Revisited: Through the Looking Glass is no less an achievement than his 1991 effort. It’s Stone’s attempt to tally up everything that has been learned since the JFK Record Collections Act became law. And just like the Kevin Costner feature from thirty years ago, it studiously layers remaining inconsistency upon inconsistency—at such a pace, it should be noted, that it’s virtually impossible to take independent stock of all the allegations as they are piling up. As the end of the film was approaching, dear reader, I was all but ready to go give Tucker’s rant another careful listen. It’s heady, powerful stuff, put together by a masterful director and storyteller.
But in a funny turn of events, it was Stone's documentary that broke the spell. The last fifteen minutes or so bravely try to marshall all the evidence into something approaching an argument. And the argument is that Kennedy represented such a stunning rebuke to the status quo that he simply had to be stopped. Unlike my teenage self spellbound by Costner's performance, I knew a little bit more history this time around, and this part rang very false. Here's a recent Jonathan Chait column making the case against Kennedy more pithily than I can:
Kennedy’s retrospective luster resulted directly from the peace movement’s rage against Johnson. And while fury with the Vietnam catastrophe was utterly rational, that rage spilled over into myopia and outright delusion. Liberals suspected Johnson had conspired to kill Kennedy and take his job. They overlooked his extraordinary list of accomplishments, a list exceeded only by Franklin Roosevelt: the Civil Rights and Voting Rights Acts, Medicare, Medicaid, federal aid for housing, education, poverty, and more.
Much of Johnson’s Great Society was passed with the benefit of liberal congressional majorities he won in 1964, arising from circumstances (primarily the residual sympathy from Kennedy’s murder and the extremism of Barry Goldwater) that Kennedy did not enjoy. On the other hand, Johnson wrangled the 1964 Civil Rights Act out of the very same Congress that Kennedy couldn’t budge. Johnson’s success implies that Kennedy’s domestic stalemate was not entirely intractable, and that better legislative maneuvering might have produced a better result.
Chait's rant against Boomer hagiography sent me looking for a palate cleanser. I found it in the 2007 PBS documentary titled Oswald's Ghost. It's a much more somber and understated affair when compared to anything Oliver Stone has done, but it packs no less a punch. Apart from delivering as good a case as any I've seen for Oswald having acted alone (while duly noting how irresponsibly sloppy the Kennedy investigations had been), it also shows just how traumatic the whole episode was for the generation that lived through it.
It tells its story in part through interviews with such notables as Dan Rather, Norman Mailer, Edward Jay Epstein, and Tod Gitlin. Gitlin and Mailer's interviews towards the end of the film stand out in their profound resignation to the fact that the bewildering events of the 1960s, starting with the JFK assassination, followed by the murders of Martin Luther King, Jr. and Bobby Kennedy, really were just one damned thing after another, rather than a grand conspiracy to stop the forces of progress. There is real regret that there was no deeper meaning, no powerful struggle of the forces of light against the forces of darkness. The trauma of the events was real, but as Chait notes above, the furious attempt to make sense of it all led to outright delusion.
Oswald's ghost, Mailer intones, haunts us to this day. Having been cut down before he could be properly tried, Oswald's paradoxical legacy is to imbue those turbulent, spastic years with an almost-plausible narrative arc, even if upon closer examination reality keeps proving itself to be far more banal. What an unexpected twist it is to see, through the looking glass, these sordid events inform the politics of Tucker Carlson. For the Boomers, the promise of Kennedy was cut short by a nefarious old guard, by entrenched power afraid of change. For Tucker and his acolytes, Nixon was laid low by similar forces, somehow afraid of the President's popular legitimacy (Nixon won by a landslide in 1972).
But maybe more poignant for me is how this inability to accept the utter prosaicness of history still affects us today. I couldn't help but think that the Russiagate conspiracy of the Trump years represented a weak echo of the fever dreams of the 1960s. How could it be that the same country that twice elected a black man to the Presidency had coughed up such a specimen as Trump to replace him? It's simply not possible to imagine that democracy, an unalloyed force for good, was producing such evil outcomes. There had to be a conspiracy to explain it all, to give some higher meaning to what had happened. The more plain explanation—that a charismatic huckster had managed to rile up half the country against a self-satisfied and complacent ruling class—just didn't satisfy in the same way.
Richard Hofstadter famously traced the "paranoid style" of McCarthyism to the earliest roots of the American republic. It's fun to see, with a little distance, that the phenomenon he was describing is alive and well today, and is indeed much more pervasive than he ever would have dared to suppose. Maybe there is less that divides us than we imagine...
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