Updated: Sep 9, 2022
"America The Mistrustful"
(Paranoid Planet Podcast: Season 2, Episode 6.1, Chapter 1)
Are Americans paranoid? Certainly, the last couple decades have witnessed a sharp increase in polarized politics, lone wolf maniacs, terrorist attacks, social panics, angry crowds led by rabid racists, wide-eyed anti-racists, disgruntled truckers, and apocalypse-preaching teenage gurus. Such events are front and center in the media, and it is true that Donald Trump and his followers share a good deal of blame for making this period in time look and sound like the verge of some point of no return, but other world leaders have little to learn from the man: Vladimir Putin, Kim Jong-Un, Nicolas Maduro, Jair Bolsonaro, Recep Erdogan, and many others have also engaged in paranoid fearmongering to win elections, intimidate opponents, and stay in power.
But should all this be that much of a surprise? It’s not as if suddenly everybody has suddenly gone mad. Much of the world has always struggled with the fear of strangers, of the unknown, and of some real or imagined doomsday scenario. And it’s not as if the United States invented paranoia. It’s been around ever since our ancestors looked at the forest and thought they saw something demonic lurking around. However, there may be something to be said about the way that paranoia has been a fundamental ingredient of American political culture ever since the country’s very beginnings.
According to Joe Uscinski and Joe Parent, the authors of the book American Conspiracy Theories, the United States is a country built on the distrust and fear of the old world by millions of migrants who crossed the ocean to be free from the controls of monarchs, of centralized economics, of powerful religious institutions, and of foreign invaders and landed aristocracies. Indeed, the very document that gave birth to the United State, The Declaration of Independence, makes the case that taxation is only a small step away from absolutism, and that King George III harboured a secret plan to subject all of his oversees colonies to tyranny, death, and slavery. Ironically, Uscinski and Parent point out, the British ruled over a massive empire with very little manpower. As far as empires go, this was one of the least tyrannical ones that history witnessed. And unlike many other revolutions that were born out of real violent repression, they write,
…Americans anticipated their grievances and complained before they suffered. This has remained standard practice for Americans, who historically have been quick to anticipate tyranny, despotism, and a full spectrum of apocalyptic scenarios, from red coats to black helicopters. […]
Where the Founders have led, Americans have followed in droves. A steady stream of conspiracy theories has flowed in the years since the founding, imputing anti-American conspiracies to the British, French, Spanish, Bavarian Illuminati, Freemasons, Slave Power, Abolitionists, Catholics, Jews, Mormons, Muslims, communists, capitalists, and many, many more. […] Conspiracy theories consistently crop up to warn of secret machinations and impending doom. […And] it is hard to fight rogue states and terrorist groups if one believes these actors are merely scapegoats for an unmoored, insatiably invasive U.S. government. 
In other words, American political culture is deeply affected not so much by a fear of actual tyranny, but by a fear of the possibility of tyranny, without a clear understanding or broad consensus of what real tyranny actually looks like. Hence, false alerts, moral panics, conspiracy chatter, and the demonization of various “enemies”—both real and imagined—are part of a deeply ingrained national fear of losing freedom, power, money, rights, or other forms of well-being.
Jesse Walker, the author of The United States of Paranoia, argues that “the paranoid style is American politics.” Throughout the country’s history, conspiracism has played a central role in American political rhetoric: "In America," he writes, "it is always a paranoid time."
Pundits tend to write off political paranoia as a feature of the fringe, a disorder that occasionally flares up until the sober center can put out the flames. They’re wrong. The fear of conspiracies has been a potent force across the political spectrum, from the colonial era to the present, in the establishment as well as the extremes. […] They have flourished not just in times of great division but in eras of relative comity. […] They are not simply a colorful historical byway. They are at the country’s core.
If these authors are right, then what is it that so easily triggers American fears of secret plots and machinations? Are they as paranoid as individuals as they become when gathered in large, homogeneous groups? This is what I’ve been wanting to explore by packing my suitcase and microphone, and heading down the yellow brick road—or in this case, the I-81 interstate highway—to see if there is a great wizard hidden behind that star-spangled curtain, or if someone put chemicals in the water that make Americans go a little loopy…
Michel J. Gagné, 2022.
My Road Trip Musings, Part 1:
"The District of Paranoia"
I love road trips, especially solo road trips. They allow me to travel at my own pace, eat and sleep when I bloody well feel like it, visit places I’d never have seen on a field trip with family or students, and talk with all sorts of interesting—and really weird—people. It’s like doing a deep dive into a whole different world that, on the quantum level, operates in accordance to totally different rules than my known universe.
In the early Nineties, I spent a year teaching in North Battleford, Saskatchewan, in the Canadian
prairies. This was not only a weird cultural experience on its own (not just because its water tower looks like the motherships from "V"), it also served as a launch pad for multiple car and bus trips across the Western Prairies, the northern hinterland, the Rocky mountains, and the Pacific coast.
A few years later, I signed up for a six-month road trip with a choir across 18 European countries and visited France, Germany, the Low Countries, Scandinavia, Russia, the Baltics, Eastern Europe, and the Alps. I followed that up by becoming a tour guide during my last university years, accompanying students from Quebec on educational trips to New York, Washington, and Toronto. I returned to France a couple years later where I met my future wife, and visited her the next year in her native Northern Ireland. A few years later, Shirley and I worked in Kabwe and Luanshya, Zambia, with a Christian non-profit organization, teaching and organizing community schools in nearby shanti towns. That gave me my first real bout of culture shock. It also allowed us to visit many parts of Zambia and South Africa, including Victoria Falls and the southern Cape (where you can actually see real African penguins, and get mugged by grabby baboons).
But my first real solo road trip led me to visit California, Arizona, and New Mexico in 2006 to do some research for a novel (which I’m embarrassed to say I haven’t managed to complete yet). I loved the thrill of the open road and the unknown city, and the need to depend on maps, luck, tour books, and helpful locals to find my way to various popular landmarks such as the Golden Gate Bridge, UC Berkeley, Monument Valley, The Very Large Array of radio telescopes, the White Sands Missile Range, Roswell, and the Carlsbad Caverns, to name but a few. I particularly enjoyed the way one can get enlightened and inspired by “getting lost”—sometimes accidentally and sometimes on purpose—and stumbling onto something strange and/or magnificent. To gaze in awe at Shiprock, to hear the deafening silence of the White Sands National Park, to mingle with weirdos at the Roswell UFO museum, and to talk with struggling homeless people in the streets of San Francisco, these are all experiences that you can’t fully experience except by travelling alone on a tight budget.
That first solo road trip gave me a longing to visit the U.S. again, not to fly to a single hot tourist destination, but to explore the cities, countryside, and in-between-places of the American heartland, to mingle with locals, eat comfort food, observe mass gatherings like an entomologist studies an ant hill, and just tour more weird stuff. And this time I had an additional purpose: to visit many of the places I’d been writing and teaching about in the context of conspiracy research. The waning of covid restrictions, the end of a long writing and publishing cycle, the fact that I get nearly a month of free time between the end of my college semester and the beginning of my family’s summer vacation, and the excuse that this year marked my 50th birthday (so I deserve to treat myself), this all gave me the excuse to do that which I had been putting off for many years: to visit New Orleans and Dallas, Memphis, Birmingham, Washington, and Chicago, and any other interesting places along the way that can help me better understand the strange world of conspiracy theorising. So I set off in my “new” second-hand KIA Soul (lots of head space, easy on gas), packed with food, camping gear, books, and clothes, determined to visit all the major sites related to my recent book on JFK.
I left Montreal on June 5, 2020, the day after my stepfather’s Jean’s funeral (he died of cancer in December) and followed the south shore of the St-Lawrence River, crossing into the U.S. at the tiny U.S. customs post at Fort Covington, NY. My first stop was a short visit of the waterfront of Alexandria Bay, NY, that overlooks the Thousand Islands and Bolt Castle. There I enjoyed some banter and impromptu hip hop verses with local artist and WBLH Tunes 92.5 radio host Mykel “Quince” Myrick, and tried to locate the exact whereabouts of Deer Island (which I wrongly called Elk Island in the podcast—my apologies to all Deer, Elks, and other antlered island dwellers). This island is the holiday home of the secretive and much maligned Skull and Bones Society of Yale University. Deer island and its connection to Skull and Bones and the founding of the CIA was popularized in the 2006 Matt Damon film The Good Shepherd (though it did not serve as a filming location for the Deer Island portrayed in the film). I spent my first night in a small but beautiful campsite on Oneida Lake, about a half hour north of Syracuse, NY.
My original plan for Day 2 was to visit with retried S.U. Professor Michael Barkun, author of A Culture of Conspiracy (2003, 2013), who unfortunately had to cancel as he was recovering from a medical procedure. Fortunately, Syracuse was on my way back home, so we made plans to meet a few weeks later, and I’m happy to say that we did—that interview will appear in a future episode. I then made my way through New York State and Pennsylvania, counting the ratio of dead to live dear I drove past (the dead ones won). I had two things to accomplish before sundown:
(1) to drive through Scranton and reminisce about The Office, one of my family’s favorite
TV programs, and buy some souvenirs there (my daughter gave me strict orders!).
(2) to head to Gettysburg, where I spent three hours driving and walking around, chatting with other tourists, and just sitting around taking in the historical (and pseudohistorical) atmosphere.
After this, I would have loved to take a detour to Fort Detrick in Maryland, locale of umpteen conspiracy theories about the Deep State, biological warfare, and mind-control, but it was dark and I figured I’d probably not see much of anything anyways (or disappear like Mulder in the X-Files), so I drove on towards the capital.
The first leg of my journey ended in Washington, D.C., where I spent three nights in some sort of plastic space capsule at a charming youth hostel in the northern part of the downtown. I can’t say hanging out with loud partying students was that pleasurable (I felt my age more than ever!) but the mornings were quiet and the coffee bar was sublime. The two full days in D.C. were absolutely filled with driving and walking excursions through the Mall and its monuments, Arlington Cemetery, the 9/11 Memorial at the Pentagon, the Ford Theatre where President Lincoln was shot, the Museum of American History, and various shops and eateries, most of which are discussed in Episode 6.1, a whirlwind tour that led me to sleep like a rock while the “kids” were drinking and watching the NBA playoffs outside my dorm room.
Some noteworthy elements of this part of the trip that were left out of the episode were my evening wandering through Georgetown, where I visited several independent bookstores and enjoyed some excellent drink and food at an uppity whisky bar (I should thank Don Draper of Mad Men here for introducing me to the Old Fashioned), and the large dog that leapt up and bit me on my way to visit the Politics and Prose bookshop and the Comet Ping Pong pizzeria (two famous QAnon conspiracy hot buttons). Fortunately, the beast only managed to get a mouthful of my belt and my shirt. But like a typical Canadian, I found myself apologizing to its owner for having startled the thing by gently asking to pet it. I think there’s a pretty good chance that, had our roles been reversed, that person would have given me and my dog an earful, and maybe also a couple of kicks in something soft.
I also didn’t get to say much about several of the other monuments I visited, namely the new Martin Luther King, Jr. Memorial, which wasn’t there the last time I visited D.C. (in 2005), which showcases an impressively large statue of the man reminiscent of ancient Egyptian temple gods. I wondered what MLK might have thought about the way he has been remembered in this kind of public iconography. My guess is that he would have wished that the focus be put not on him so much as on the things and people that motivated his quest for racial justice: the Constitution, Gandhi, and especially Jesus Christ.
I was thankful and fortunate to meet with Max Holland, who welcomed me to his home even though we had never before met in person. He is one of a small group of aging JFK researchers who have deeply influenced my evolving views on conspiracism in general and on JFK research in particular. After the passing of John McAdams and Vincent Bugliosi, I told myself that I wanted to make sure I was able to connect with one of the members of the “old guard” of JFK conspiracy skeptics. Max is an important one among them. Hopefully, this won’t be our last live exchange.
Finally, I was a bit taken aback with my visit to the Politics and Prose bookshop, where everyone was compelled to wear a mask against the government’s laxer health ordinances, a policy that seemed, quite frankly, more politically motivated than medically warranted. I have never engaged in anti-covid conspiracy theorizing, and I have no problem with the required use of masks and other sanitation measures when it is justified, but in this case it just seemed like a cheap form of virtue signaling. Certainly no one seemed to be getting sicker at the city’s many other bookshops.
I left Washington very early on the morning of June 9 and crossed into Virginia for an 11-hour drive to Nashville, my first stop on the way to the Deep South. But that, as they say, is another story…
Michel Gagné, 2022.
Documents related to this episode:*
1. Saving Lincoln, dir. Salvador Litvak, 2013.
2. Robocop, dir. Paul Verhoeven, 1987.
3. 2012, dir. Roland Emmerich, 2009.
4. The Office, Dunder Mifflin Gift Shop, Scranton, PA.
5. The Office, created by Greg Daniels, Ricky Gervais, & Stephen Merchant, 2005-2013. Theme music by Jay Ferguson.
7. The Six Million Dollar Man, opening credits, Harve Bennett Productions,1973-1978.
8. Washington Decoded, ed. Max Holland, https://www.washingtondecoded.com/.
9. The X-Files, Episode 9.19: "The Truth", Chris Carter (writer), Kim Manners (director), 2002. Theme music by Mark Snow.
11. President Lyndon Baines Johnson Remarks Upon Arrival at Andrews Air Force Base,
November 22, 1963.
12. State Funeral of President Kennedy, November 25, 1963.
13. "Comet Ping Pong shooter sentenced," WUSA9, CBS, Washington, D.C., June 22, 2017.
* All copyrighted video and audio clips are used for educational purposes only under "fair use" regulations.