5 Conservative Hoaxes, Lies and Absurd Urban Legends That Have Made America Stupider

Lies and hoaxes are a major part of modern-day conservatism.

Earlier this month, a Texan named Scott Lattin told police that Black Lives Matter activists vandalized his truck. It didn’t take long for police to figure out that Lattin had vandalized his own truck and then used social media to raise money off his fraud. He’s been arrested for filing a false police report and other charges are being considered.

A story like this is likely to give the reader pause to wonder why someone would think it’s okay to perperate a hoax like this. But if you look at the conservative movement, it becomes apparent that lying and spreading hoaxes are a major part of modern-day conservatism. It’s no wonder ordinary people might get the idea that blatant hoax-mongering is just a normal part of promoting conservative politics, because it is. Here are some of the uglier hoaxes and other big lies that have widespread appeal on the right.

1. Birtherism.Barack Obama’s presidency is in its twilight, but the bizarre conspiracy theory that he faked his American citizenship is still going strong. If anything, birtherism has only become more ingrained. A recent poll by Public Policy Polling found that when asked about Obama’s religion, only 14 percent of Republican primary voters correctly stated the president is a Christian. A majority — 54 percent — claimed he is Muslim, while another 32 percent say they are unsure, which suggests they find birtherism compelling even if they can’t quite commit. Fewer than a third say he was born in America.

Obama released his birth certificate four years ago, yet the constant drumbeat of cranks claiming to have new arguments and evidence (which they are never able to produce) that he is hiding his true identity has done its magic. Now birtherism, which is based completely on lies and wishful thinking, is a mainstream view in the Republican Party.

2. Planned Parenthood. You have to hand it to the hoaxsters who made a splash over the summer by claiming, with zero evidence, that Planned Parenthood is selling fetal body parts for profit: They clearly know their audience, because that lie quickly became a truism in the Republican Party that every political candidate repeats like scripture, even though it is undeniably false.

What makes the entire thing so amazing is that, from day one, the claims made by the Center for Medical Progress — a front group launched to perpetrate the hoax — had every red flag for a right-wing urban legend. The claim that a secret cabal of organ traffickers was operating behind Planned Parenthood’s sunny exterior was eerily reminiscent of previous conservative Christian accusations that Dungeons and Dragons was a secret plot to lure teenagers into suicide or that Procter and Gamble was trying to convert people to Satanism with the power of their soap products. But conservative voters want to believe, so Republican politicians act like they actually believe this crap (and some might) to hustle for votes.

3. Ahmed Mohamed. To see the right-wing hoax machine working in real time, look at the response to the arrest of 14-year-old Ahmed Mohamed, who brought a homemade clock to school that teachers thought looked like a bomb. But because Islamophobia cannot fail, but only be failed, right-wing media swung into action.

The first move was to claim the clock looked like a bomb, because it had wires and stuff (though lacked anything that looked like an explosive). This quickly evolved into suggestions that Ahmed must have known he was going to be arrested. Now the accusation is being made, via Breitbart, that this is a coordinated campaign organized by CAIR to make conservatives look bad for the vague purpose of “Islamic supremism.” It’s been a week and already conservatives online are accusing Ahmed of conducting a “dry run” for his intended terrorist attack and nicknaming him “Jihad Junior” on Twitter. 

4. Jade Helm. The reaction to Ahmed is no surprise, since the same conservative base that’s attacking him now has been spewing the Jade Helm 15 conspiracy theory for months now. The U.S. military conducted a bunch of training operations over the summer, and right wingers across the nation went nuts, claiming conspiracy. There are many flavor of Jade Helm theorizing, but the general gist of it is this: Jade Helmers believe that Obama, being a secret Muslim, is setting up operations across the country to impose martial law and turn our country into a dictatorship of the sharia law variety.

It’s the same old black helicopter madness that went on during the Clinton administration, sadly leading to some government standoffs and the Oklahoma federal building bombing. But now that paranoia is mainstream in the Republican Party. A lengthy list of Republican politicians have lent credence to the Jade Helm theory by claiming to investigate it, including Gov. Greg Abbott, Sen Ted Cruz and Sen. Rand Paul.

5. Columbine myth.This one started off as a legitimate misunderstanding, but has morphed into a popular right-wing hoax. In 1999, the story got out that Cassie Bernall, one of the victims of the Columbine shooting, refused to deny her belief in God before she was shot to death by Eric Harris. The problem is that it isn't true. Another girl, who lived, told one of the killers — Dylan Klebold — that she believed in God, and her life didn’t hinge on the answer.

Even though the FBI and journalist Dave Cullen debunked this myth in 1999, the legend of a teenage girl who chose death over denying her faith was simply too juicy for conservative Christians to relinquish. Ministers kept promoting it. A book claiming it happened has sold millions of copies. As recently as the CNN Republican debate, Rick Santorum invoked this myth to justify Kentucky clerk Kim Davis refusing to issue marriage licenses to same-sex couples.

This sad story tells us exactly how much conservatives value propaganda over truth, the belief-affirming hoax over the realities that undermine their views. No wonder Scott Lattin thought it was within bounds to fake a crime and blame it on liberal activists. Running hoaxes and lies is just the price of doing business in the conservative propaganda machine.

Amanda Marcotte is a politics writer for Salon. She's on Twitter @AmandaMarcotte. 

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