The Paranoid Style: Xenophobic Conspiracy Theories Explored
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Conspiracy theories are everywhere in America. From the assassination of President Kennedy to whether Neil Armstrong actually landed on the moon to concerns about adding fluoride to drinking water, wild-eyed and unsubstantiated theories have been part and parcel of the American political experience. Historian Richard Hofstadter, writing in a 1965 essay, famously described this phenomenon as "the paranoid style in American politics."
The paranoid style came dramatically back to public attention in the 1990s, when the then-swelling militia movement seized upon a speech by the first President Bush about a post-Cold War "new world order" to suggest that Bush really was describing a takeover of America by nefarious "one-world government" forces. So-called "Patriots" also theorized that they were being spied on by "black helicopters," that a secret weather machine in Brussels was ruining American farms, that the United Nations was planning to kill four-fifths of Americans, and so on.
Since the dawning of the contemporary anti-immigration movement around the turn of the millennium, a new set of conspiracy theories has emerged. Stoked by paranoid far-right groups like the John Birch Society, which once accused President Eisenhower of being a secret Communist, these theories revive militia fears about the United States losing its sovereignty to various foreign powers. But like the many plots alleged by militia ideologues, the allegations are fantasies.
The 'North American Union'
Since 2005, the dominant conspiracy theory animating the anti-immigration movement has been the so-called "North American Union," described as a plot to surrender American sovereignty in a planned merger with Canada and Mexico. The plotters are typically said to be various foreign leaders, President George W. Bush and his "neo-conservative" allies, and an array of leading American liberals.
If the John Birch Society (JBS) and others pushing this theory are to be believed, President Bush began ceding American sovereignty on March 23, 2005, at a meeting in Waco, Texas, with Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Mexican President Vicente Fox. The meeting ended with the signing of what was called the Security and Prosperity Partnership (SPP), which set up a series of working groups to study cooperation in transportation, energy, aviation, the environment and more.
Most people familiar with the SPP understand that it is a benign and slow-moving attempt to coordinate trade and security policies in a bid to improve the lives of citizens in all three countries. But to the conspiracy theorists, it is a plot that will end with Mexico sending millions more of its citizens to the United States, international courts that overrule American justice, hate crime laws that will send anti-gay Christian preachers to prison, and more. The plotters are said to include the militia bogeyman of the Council of Foreign Relations and are supposedly directed by American University Professor Robert Pastor.
Lately, the paranoia about the SPP process has become so intense that a proposed highway linking Canada, Mexico and the United States is seen as part of evil machinations that will end with the Mexican government seizing control of the key Missouri River port in Kansas City. Other conspiracy theorists fear that a new currency, the "Amero," will displace good, old-fashioned American dollars.
The leader in "educating" the public about the North American Union (NAU) plot has been the JBS, which says "politicians and internationalists" in America are "effectively destroying the United States." In fact, the long dormant group has been reanimated by the theory, assigning writer Mary Benoit to cover it relentlessly in the JBS magazine The New American . JBS has allied itself on this issue with Howard Phillips, leader of the anti-immigrant Constitution Party, and added nativist leader Chris Simcox of the Minuteman Civil Defense Corps to its speakers bureau.
But the JBS is far from alone. A website run by Daneen Peterson called stopthenorthamericanunion.com shrieks that the NAU is a plot by "a government cabal bent on destroying our sovereignty" and hurls accusations of "treason." Jerome Corsi, author of the notorious book attacking 2004 presidential candidate John Kerry's Vietnam service, says President Bush has a "secret agenda," adding that "an executive branch coup d'etat may be under way." Minuteman Project co-founder Jim Gilchrist, who recently co-authored a book with Corsi, says the NAU is "a dagger pointed at the heart of America." Christian Right activist Phyllis Schlafly, head of the Eagle Forum, has joined an alliance with Phillips, Corsi and others in calling for a congressional investigation and disclosure of secret documents.
The theory has made its way into the mainstream. U.S. Rep. Tom Tancredo (R-Colo.) has demanded an end to the SPP and insisted that the NAU theory is not limited to "right-wing kooks." Other congressional conservatives have joined a "Coalition to Block the NAU" headed by U.S. Rep. Virgil Goode (R-Va.). CNN anchor Lou Dobbs has devoted several segments to the issue, telling listeners that the NAU is a "shadow government" that should concern all Americans. Most remarkably, the theory has enjoyed widespread legislative endorsement. At press time, the houses of representatives of 18 states had passed resolutions opposing the alleged NAU plan. In Idaho and Montana, the state senates have added their voice, resulting in official legislative resolutions.
The Bush Administration has mounted a tepid effort to fight back, putting up a web page last year on "SPP Myths vs. Facts" that points out that nothing in the SPP affects U.S. sovereignty or the Constitution. For his part, conservative commentator Michael Medved decried the "mounting hysteria" caused by "a shameless collection of lunatics and losers, crooks, cranks, demagogues and opportunists."
The Plan de Aztlan
Until the NAU conspiracy theory largely pushed it aside, the so-called Aztlan conspiracy was the dominant fear in the minds of paranoid nativists. Hawked most heavily by two hate groups -- the California Coalition for Immigration Reform, led by Barbara Coe, and American Patrol, headed by Glenn Spencer -- this theory has been so widely circulated that CNN's Dobbs reported on it with a straight face.
The theory is based on the "Plan Espiritual de Aztlan," a real document adopted in 1969 at the First National Chicano Liberation Youth Conference that originated in the student group MEChA (Movimiento Estudiantil Chicano de Aztlan). A radical document that reflected the spirit of the times, the plan called on Chicanos (Mexican Americans) to "reclaim the land of their birth" and unite to fight "oppression, exploitation and racism." It is still occasionally cited by a handful of left-wing Chicano activists in California as a valid document and plan of action. But nativist forces, including a probable majority of the 250 new anti-immigration groups that have sprung up in the last two years, do not see the Plan Espiritual as a relic of the counterculture of the 1960s. To them, it is the founding document of a bona fide conspiracy endorsed and backed by Mexico and, in some versions, by most Mexican Americans. They have described it as an explicit plan to "reconquer" the seven Southwestern states and merge them with Mexico.