How Oliver Stone Destroyed America
JFK blown away, what else do i have to say?
I spend a lot of my time these days arguing with strangers online over COVID-19. Among the “theories” hurled in my direction are that coronavirus was created in a Chinese bioweapons lab, that 5G is helping to spread the disease, and that the pandemic doesn’t even exist at all, but is instead a false flag operation, distracting from something nefarious. One QAnonist tweeted at me with confidence that COVID-19 was designed to target pedophiles.
According to studies going back to 2014 more than half of Americans believe in at least one conspiracy theory, and according to a recent Pew poll a full third of Americans believe a conspiracy theory about coronavirus specifically. Misinformation has been exacerbated by Trump and the bobble heads on Fox, who’ve decided that the only way to ensure reelection in November is by claiming that the global pandemic is an elaborate political hoax. But this is hardly new, the Right has been heavily engaged in conspiracy mongering for years as a matter of political strategy.
Killary. Chemtrails. Death panels. Paid protesters. Gun confiscation. Staged mass shootings. No one is to be trusted. Nothing is as it seems. The government is out to get you.
That’s not to say that conspiracy theory is solely the realm of conservatives. I have quite a few liberal friends who think vaccines will turn their children into floor mats. But conspiracy theory certainly seems loudest on the Right, epitomized by the rise of King Trump on the wings of Birtherism.
At least two recent studies (Galliford and Furnham, in 2017 for Scandinavian Journal of Psychology; and Miller et al., in 2016 for American Journal of Political Science) found a clear correlation between right-wing political views and a greater tendency to believe in conspiracy theory. Maybe this wouldn’t be a problem if conservatives didn’t dominate the leadership in government.
Today conspiracy mongering has leapt out of the fringe to become governing ideology. Conspiracy thinking drives policy. Conspiracy thinking is, on a national strategic and planning level, a central system of belief.
Climate Change is a Chinese hoax designed to hamstring the American economy, therefore the threat should not be taken seriously. Mexico is emptying its prisons and sending rapists and murderers to the United States, therefore we must spend billions of tax dollars on a border wall. Coronavirus panic has been drummed up by Democrats to hurt 45’s reelection prospects, therefore let’s open the economy back up.
Conspiracy theory might seem harmless when it comes dribbling out from the broken brain of some crank on twitter, but it becomes dangerous awful quick when that crank is elected president of the United States. Not only because conspiracy thinking shapes political decision making, but also because it is then disseminated to the general population by the largest megaphone on Earth. It gets soaked up and reapplied to new situations and new patterns. And when it touches disturbed minds, it has the potential of setting off a firestorm.
In 2012 a young, angry South Carolinian doing research into the Trayvon Martin case was led from Wikipedia onto a white supremacist website. Lured by conspiracy theory he got hooked by tall tales of white genocide and decided that the only right and sensible thing to do was to murder black people in the hopes of starting a race war. And so it was that on the evening of June 17, 2015, Dylan Roof walked into the Emanuel African Methodist Episcopal Church in downtown Charleston and murdered nine members of a bible study.
On August 5, 2017 Michael McWhorter and Joe Morris detonated an improvised explosive device at Dar Al-Farooq Islamic Center, a mosque in Bloomington, Minnesota. They did it in the hopes of scaring Muslims “out of the United States'...because they push their beliefs on everyone else." When asked to comment, then Trump advisor Sebastian Gorka suggested it may have been a hoax orchestrated "by the left."
Between October 22 and November 1, 2018, sixteen pipe bombs were sent via post office to leading Democrats, including Barack Obama, Joe Biden, and Hillary Clinton. Eventually, Cesar Altieri Sayoc Jr., a registered Republican, frequent Trump rally goer, and conspiracy theory adherent, was arrested and confessed to the crime. In reaction, many on the Right countered with their own conspiracy theories, including Rush Limbaugh who said that the bomber was likely a “Democratic operative.”
And then of course there was the Tree of Life – Or L'Simcha Congregation in Pittsburgh, where on October 27, 2018, Robert Gregory Bowers murdered eleven people and wounded another six because he feared that Jews were secretly bringing in refugees to hasten the destruction of the white race. And while Bowers was critical of 45 for “surrounding himself with globalists,” his conspiracy thinking was fueled by right-wing radio and alt-right blogs.
To be clear, I’m not arguing that Donald Trump is responsible for the crimes of deranged mass shooters nor even that he is responsible for the conspiracy mongering epidemic that grips American society and conservative politics today. However, what I am arguing is that Donald Trump is very much the product of conspiracy thinking and now that he is president he is its greatest evangelist. It’s the way he thinks, it’s the way he speaks, it’s how he deflects responsibility and criticism. Nothing can be your fault when everyone is out to get you.
So how did we get here? How did the nation that split the atom, invented the microprocessor, and landed on the moon, become the nation that conceived of Flat Earth, lizard people, and Q-Anon? How did we get to a place where one of our institutional political parties became a petri dish for paranoia and conspiracy theory? How did we become primed to elect a conspiracy mongerer commander-in-chief?
Conspiracy theory is not new. Throughout history conspiracy mongering has fueled coups, riots, even genocide. The most infamous example being anti-semitism, which led to hundreds of years of murder and repression culminating in the Holocaust. The irony being that the conspiracy-obsessed Nazis conspired at the Wannsee Conference of 1942 in order to murder those they deemed subhuman and guilty of plotting against Aryan identity (read: “white genocide").
And here I should add a caveat—conspiracies do in fact occur. Hitler and Stalin conspired to carve up Eastern Europe. The Klan conspired to murder and terrorize African Americans across the South for decades. Nixon conspired to derail Vietnamese peace talks and later to undermine his political opponents. The list of known and verifiable conspiracies is long, but therein lies the rub, real conspiracies are provable. They’re not just theories, crazy ideas born of the ether. There are witnesses, and documents, and often confessions from those involved. There exists a clear documented record. And why? Because conspiracies almost always fail. It’s inevitable that someone talks.
On the other hand, conspiracy theories like Pizzagate—the supposition that John Podesta’s hacked emails contained a secret code revealing the existence of a child sex ring operated out of the basement of DC’s Comet Ping Pong pizzeria—simply lack any verifiable evidence. For one thing Comet Ping Pong doesn't have a basement. This small fact, however, did not prevent concerned patriot Edgar Maddison Welch from firing several rounds from his AR-15 into the ceiling and walls of the restaurant on December 4, 2016, demanding of terrified staff that he be shown the nonexistent basement. Welch later expressed regret over his actions, but it wasn’t long before other Pizzagaters began questioning whether or not Welch was in fact a Deep State actor who staged the incident to throw investigators off the trail.
The academic theories on conspiracy belief have been fairly consistent on why people fall into conspiracy belief. Joseph E. Uscinski and Joseph M. Parent in their 2014 book, American Conspiracy Theories (Oxford University Press), describe conspiracy thinking as the realm of losers. Beliefs held by those without power, or those fearful of losing power. Conspiracy theory therefore is a reaction to changes that one feels they have no control over. As we’re pattern seeking animals, conspiracy can then appear comforting, as a way to find neat and simple, albeit often batshit crazy, solutions to otherwise complex, perhaps unknowable problems.
Is wide-scale economic inequality the result of decades of systematic corruption and greed coupled with the gradual deconstruction of fiscal regulations and an explosion in corporate consolidation led by an army of faceless technocrats and lobbyists, or does it exist because George Soros is using his considerable and apparently inexhaustible wealth to flood America with caravans of brown people? The former may be true but the latter is simpler, builds on preexisting biases, and gets more likes on Facebook.
Trump should have never been elected president. Demographically the Republican party is dying. America is getting younger, more urban, and less white. Meanwhile, the Grand Old Party is getting older, more rural, and more white. Trump’s entire rise, from Birtherism through the 2016 election, was a backlash to a fast changing America exemplified by a dynamic, smart, if relatively disappointing, African American president.
Trump should have been an outlier but he got lucky. He ran against a crowded and largely divided Republican establishment. Had help from foreign agents, if only indirectly. And faced off against the perfect conspiracy opponent, Hillary Rodham Clinton, who whether by her own ineptitude or the bungling of others, seemed to stoke the fires of conspiracy theory with every turn of the news cycle. Trump didn’t win the election as much as Clinton lost it.
So the losers rose to power and brought with them all their perceived victimhood and all of their imagined grievances. Illegal immigrants are taking American jobs. Universal healthcare is a communist plot. Immigrants are destroying the “real America.” The Republican party may control most of the levers of power, but they know that unless they take drastic action now—halting immigration, mass deportation, voting restriction—they face political extinction.
Conspiracy theory for the Right is a means by which to justify the inherent cruelties and intolerances built into the very foundation of their core policies. Isolationism, xenophobia, racism can all be excused away. Barack Obama isn’t illegitimate because he’s black, he’s illegitimate because he was born in Kenya. Hillary Clinton isn’t unqualified because she’s a woman, she’s unqualified because she’s the mastermind behind an elaborate child sex ring. Donald Trump didn’t try to extort a foreign leader into giving him dirt on a political opponent, the Deep State is trying to stage a coup.
American history is full of moments when conspiracy theories seemed to dominate. Flying Saucers, McCarthyism, the Satanic Panic, to name three. But there never seemed to be a time before now when they were so plentiful and so widely believed.
In American Conspiracy Theories, Uscinski and Parent took a look at whether conspiracy theories were on the rise. The researchers examined over 120 years of letters to the editor for the New York Times and Chicago Tribune and saw no change in the amount of conspiracy theory belief over time. Yes, half of Americans believe in some kind of conspiracy theory, the authors concluded, but the perceived uptick was likely the result of technology use by conspiracy theorists. The medium is the message.
The problem with this argument is that most people don’t write letters to newspapers. To say nothing of the desire of discerning newspaper editors to prevent their letters sections from becoming little more than conspiracy theory message boards. And then there’s the problem of the math. 120 years ago the entire population of the country was 76 million. Today we’re at some 330 million. Half of all Americans giving into conspiracy thinking is a big fucking deal even if the curve of crazy letters has remained relatively flat. And then there’s the added factor of having a president who not only believes in conspiracy theories, but is an active agent in their popularization.
Digging back I think it was Oliver Stone’s 1991 film classic JFK, that more than any other event in recent history, brought conspiracy thinking into the mainstream. There had been conspiracy films before 1991, The Manchurian Candidate, Marathon Man, They Live, to name three, but no other film so changed the public psyche when it came to the idea of truth.
Maybe it was so impactful because JFK was one of the very few conspiracy films about a real event. Or maybe because conspiracy theories about Kennedy’s assassination had already been circulating for decades. Or maybe because the generation that grew up witness to the murders of JFK, MLK, and RFK, had finally inherited the Earth. It was the perfect film at just the right time. A mix of well acted drama and documentary footage, or scenes made to look like documentary footage, presenting to audiences the assertion that Lyndon Johnson, in conspiracy with elements of the US military and intelligence services, organized and executed the assassination of John F Kennedy.
The real Lee Harvey Oswald was a loser. An underachiever his entire life, Oswald craved fame as a means by which to fill the emptiness he felt in his heart. He defected to the Soviet Union after washing out of the marines and when the KGB realized he wasn’t worth their attention and tried to ship him back, he attempted to commit suicide. When no one noticed that he’d returned to America with a Soviet wife he got involved with a pro-Castro group. When that failed he tried at his first assassination attempt—retired US Major General Edwin Walker. He missed. His wife left him because he wouldn’t stop beating her. He took a dead end job at a book depository. And then one day, when things looked their darkest, he read in the newspaper that President Kennedy was going to be passing by car, directly in front of his place of work.
For a lot of people it’s hard to reconcile the fact that someone as small as Oswald could murder someone as large as Kennedy. Such a conceit allows for too much chaos. It introduces stress. If Oswald can kill Kennedy, anyone can kill anyone at any time. It makes more sense that Kennedy was killed as the result of a complex conspiracy, because it makes us feel safer.
In real life, Lee Harvey Oswald reveled in the spotlight. You can see it on his face as he talks to reporters following his arrest. Finally, he’s the big man. Finally, he’s in control. Finally, everyone has to listen to him. Oliver Stone painted a different picture. Oswald as played by Gary Oldman is a heroic figure. A good man caught up in a monstrous conspiracy that if given the chance he would have stopped.
Films have real power. DW Griffith's The Birth of a Nation inspired the rebirth of the Ku Klux Klan. Star Wars, for better or worse, reinvented American culture and defined the next half century of artistic output. An Inconvenient Truth brought the climate crisis to the forefront of political discourse. And JFK gave legitimacy to conspiracy theory.
After JFK the floodgates opened. Books, documentaries, video games, and not just about the Kennedy assassination. Conspiracy became an industry. Cable put out a nonstop stream of Nazis, Ancient Aliens, and other conspiracy bait. Entertainment capitalism, unwitting though it was, trained Americans to be more receptive to fringe ideas. And Stone? He kept right on going, peddling conspiracy theory in movies, books, and documentaries.
On April 2, 2020, a forty-four-year-old train engineer named Eduardo Moreno, deliberately ran his train off the tracks near the Port of Los Angeles in an attempt to crash into the USNS Mercy hospital ship, sent there to aid in the coronavirus crisis. When asked why he tried to crash his train into the hospital ship, the logistics of which are completely lost on me, Moreno told authorities he thought it was "suspicious" and did not believe "the ship is what they say it's for."
Moreno would have been around fifteen when Oliver Stone’s JFK premiered in theaters. Right at the age when most of us begin to formulate our ideas about the world. It’s the age when we begin to really discover who we are. And somewhere in the space between then and now, Moreno became the kind of person who would willingly derail a train on the hunch of conspiracy.
I have no way of knowing if Moreno, Welch, or any of the conspiracy wackos I’ve named ever watched JFK, and one could argue that Oliver Stone's film was emblematic of a trend in Hollywood in the early 1990s, inspired by Iran-Contra and the fall of Communism, wherein the spotlight of suspicion shifted from the Soviet Union to the United States. But there is no doubt that Oliver Stone’s film changed people’s perceptions of both the Kennedy assassination and the United States government, and made them more open to conspiracy thinking.
At least two studies conducted in the 1990s (Lisa D. Butler, Cheryl Koopman, and Philip G. Zimbardo, “The Psychological Impact of Viewing the Film "JFK": Emotions, Beliefs, and Political Behavioral Intentions,” in International Society of Political Psychology; and William R. Elliot, et al., “Synthetic History and Subjective Reality: The Impact of Oliver Stone's "JFK.") show clear links between the film JFK and an increased mistrust of government. And few other films in history have had the same power to spur government to action, at least when it comes to opening government archives.
Before JFK a majority of Americans were already suspicious of the assassination. A Newsweek poll conducted on the twentieth anniversary of Kennedy’s death found that 74 percent of Americans believed that “others were involved.” But what the film did was give Americans a narrative around which to structure their beliefs and a target for their ire: the government. A hatred and suspicion only bolstered by events such as Ruby Ridge and the siege at Waco.
To put it another way, Oliver Stone didn't invent conspiracy theories about the Kennedy assassination, but he did seize on them, and used them to craft a film that trained viewers in conspiracy thinking. Specifically, conspiracy thinking aimed at government.
No longer was the United States only a bloated, inept, bureaucracy. In Oliver Stone’s America the government was the enemy, actively working to hurt or murder its citizenry. Politicians, mainly on the Right, seized on this paranoia to oppose large-scale government programs, most notably universal healthcare, and conspiracy thinking became ever more dominant in the political discourse, until an ignorant, racist, conspiracy obsessed, game show host found his popularity climbing when he started pushing the baseless claim that the first African American president was not a natural born citizen.
And so here we are, suffering through a global pandemic made worse by a suspicion of science and a proliferation of conspiracy theories about coronavirus’ origins and true impact. It is why some Red states have yet to fully enact lockdown despite infection rates soaring across the nation and it is why protesters wearing MAGA hats are demanding the government restart the economy despite a death rate of 31,000 and climbing. And it is why in the end the coronavirus crisis will be far worse here than it will be anywhere else. Not only because of the ineptitude of Donald Trump, but because of the conspiracy thinking that brought him to power in the first place.