Washington: There are two competing theories afoot in America at the moment about how the conservative Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died.
Justice Scalia died of heart attack: report
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Justice Scalia died of heart attack: report
A Texas judge says US Supreme Court Justice Antonin Scalia died of a heart attack, as the political battle over his successor heats up.
There are those, like the doctor who wrote his death certificate, who believe the rotund 79-year-old died in the night of a heart attack suffered during a quail-hunting holiday in Texas.
Then there are those who believe he was murdered, perhaps by a CIA agent using a "heart attack gun", probably working on the orders of President Barack Obama, who is in all likelihood some sort of Muslim sleeper agent born in either Kenya or Indonesia, but certainly not in Hawaii as is stated on his birth certificate.
Within hours of Scalia's death one of America's chief conspiracy theorists, the online radio host Alex Jones, was on the case.
"My friends, it's Saturday night, this is an emergency transmission," he began.
"The question is, was Antonin Scalia murdered? And the answer to that is, has the Bill of Rights and Constitution been murdered? Has it been reported that members of the Supreme Court have been blackmailed? Yes it has.
"And I wish it was natural cause, but man, my gut tells me no. And if this is an assassination, this signifies that they are dropping the hammer."
By morning it was clear to anyone poking around the subject online that many thousands of Americans had either taken Jones at his word, or arrived at a similar conclusion themselves.
In another place, in another time, you could dismiss such theorising as irrelevant noise blown in on the wind from a distant fever swamp. But not in America today.
So brittle and fissured has American politics become that nonsense and conspiracy theories now occupy space on the main stage, or at least on the right of the main stage.
Last year Jones, who has ignored interview requests from Fairfax Media for months, and other far right groups announced that the US government was preparing to invade and occupy Texas under the cover of a long-planned military exercise called Jade Helm.
The theory became so widespread and developed such detail (Texan dissidents would be rounded up and held in Wal-Mart outlets for some reason) that senior officers of the US Army's Special Operations Command were forced to hold public meetings in an effort to placate fearful citizens.
Some of the most senior elected Republicans in the nation pandered to this nonsense. Senator Ted Cruz, currently coming second in the race for the Republican presidential nomination, announced that he was in touch with trusted contacts at the Pentagon for reassurances they were not planning to invade Texas. Texas Governor Greg Abbott ordered the Texas National Guard to monitor the exercises. The former Texas governor and presidential candidate Rick Perry blamed President Obama for inciting distrust of the government.
Similarly senior Republicans have either helped spread the bizarre myths about Obama's birthplace, or pandered to them. Donald Trump, current frontrunner for the Republican nomination, used "birther" claptrap to gain recognition inside the GOP before his presidential run. Hundreds of prominent Republicans have endorsed the theory, including former presidential candidates Mike Huckabee, Rick Perry and Herman Cain and the vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
Anyone attending Republican campaign events can now expect to hear people raise as central political concerns issues that are either wholly imagined or nonsensical.
It is not uncommon to hear that the Obama administration is planning to allow the United Nations to take over the nation using the framework of Agenda 21 (an out-dated and unenforceable set of guidelines agreed to and forgotten by the UN); that the federal government is stockpiling ammunition for use against the people; that Hillary Clinton ordered available forces to "stand down" rather than rescue besieged American personnel in Benghazi; and that swathes of the US are now governed under Sharia law.
Trump believes that climate change was invented by the Chinese to cripple American industry, while his rivals either believe it to be an unproved theory or a conspiracy of the scientific community.
I heard parts of most of these theories in conversation with the occupiers of a wildlife sanctuary in Oregon which ended earlier this month, including from Lavoy Finicum, who was shot dead by state troopers a few days after we spoke.
In his famous 1964 essay The Paranoid Style in American Politics, the historian Richard Hofstadter, traced right-wing paranoia back through the McCarthy period of the early 1950s, the Populist movement of the 1890s and the anti-Catholic movement of the 1850s.
Hofstadter's argument was that the American right is prone to hysteria in times of economic or cultural stress.
"The modern right wing … feels dispossessed: America has been largely taken away from them and their kind, though they are determined to try to repossess it and to prevent the final destructive act of subversion," Hofstadter wrote.
"The old American virtues have already been eaten away by cosmopolitans and intellectuals; the old competitive capitalism has been gradually undermined by socialistic and communistic schemers; the old national security and independence have been destroyed by treasonous plots, having as their most powerful agents not merely outsiders and foreigners as of old but major statesmen who are at the very centres of American power."
Hoffstadter could have been reporting from the current Republican primary campaign, or on the content of right wing discussion boards in the hours after the death of Antonin Scalia.
And if Scalia himself was watching on he might have called the theories prompted by his death "pure applesauce".