PORTLAND – Greetings from Oregon.

Republicans have pulled off a neat trick with respect to Jared Loughner. They have worked very hard to characterize him as a “whacko” and a “nutjob” (inadvertently hurting the prospect of a successful prosecution, by the way), going so far as to use the shooting as an opportunity to revamp the nation’s mental health system. I’m all for that, but the ulterior motive from the right is to absolve themselves of blame and marginalize the voices talking about overheated political rhetoric.

Now, you don’t have to believe that Sarah Palin purchased the gun for Loughner and whispered in his ear about targets to believe that the rhetoric on the far, far right played a role in amping up the paranoia of a mentally unbalanced man. In fact, one of the shooter’s friends focused on a movie that echoes many of the themes on the fringe right as extremely important to shaping Loughner’s worldview.

According to a friend of his interviewed on Good Morning America on Wednesday, the conspiracy documentary Zeitgeist “poured gasoline on his fire” and had “a profound impact on Jared Loughner’s mindset and how he views the world that he lives in.” He was also, according to his friend’s father, influenced by the documentary Loose Change, a classic of the 9/11 Truth movement. This does not mean that either of these movies is responsible for making Loughner do what he did, but it does show how his madness was shaped by a broader climate of paranoia, and offers a clue as to why he targeted Gabrielle Giffords.

According to his friend, Zach Osler, Loughner “didn’t listen to political radio, he didn’t take sides, he wasn’t on the left, he wasn’t on the right.” Naturally, conservatives have seized upon this to exonerate themselves of charges of incitement. But it’s not that simple. It’s hard to place Zeitgeist and Loose Change on the conventional partisan spectrum—both come from a shadowy conspiracy-mad subculture where the far right and the far left meet. Yet it’s the contemporary right, the right of Glenn Beck and the Tea Party, that has mainstreamed ideas from this demimonde in an unprecedented way […]

Both Zeitgeist and Alex Jones promote the idea that world events are controlled by a secretive banking cabal that is using debt to enslave us all. Zeitgeist echoes Alex Jones in warning that the United States is about to be merged with Canada and Mexico into a “North American Union” that will use a new currency, the “Amero.” “When the time is right,” Zeitgeist informs us, “the North American Union, The European Union, the African Union and the Asian Union will be merged together, forming the final stages of the plan these men have been working on for over 60 years: a one world government.” This government will implant microchips in all of our arms. “In the end, everybody will be locked into a monitored control grid, where every single action you perform is documented,” it says.

Zeitgeist and Loose Change feed a theme of paranoia over anything else. They posit a global government, the use of mind control and multiple other conspiracy theories. Zeitgeist in particular has echoes of anti-Federal Reserve theories popular with the John Birch Society.

The more you read by Loughner, or the more videos you see from him, they reflect these beliefs very strongly. He mentions the Constitution, illegal laws, manipulated currency, government control through grammar, and on and on. It’s quite hard to follow, and it’s not organized coherently, but it comes from a fairly precise place.

It’s not necessary for Loughner to even understand the derivations of these conspiracy theories, or to be of sound mind, to be influenced by them. But they come from a very toxic, militia-friendly, anti-government place, and over the past couple decades the distance between that perspective and the mainstream right has absolutely narrowed; see Glenn Beck. The Birchers, militia groups and Alex Jones conspiracy ranters will always be with us; an isolated few scientists argued in favor of a flat earth well into the 19th century. The point that many who study this make is that mainstreaming some of these conspiracies, like when Lou Dobbs puts the North American Union on television, or when Beck hosts a Bircher on his radio show or concocts some bizarre blackboard theory, it hypes up and leads to greater attention to the real nutters on the fringe. And in the hands of a troubled mind, these conspiracies can do real damage.

Jared Loughner is ill. There’s no question about that. But to quote Michelle Goldberg:

The point, again, is not that Alex Jones, Zeitgeist or The Tea Party are responsible for Loughner’s crimes. The point is that he targeted Giffords for a reason, one rooted in his unhinged interpretation of recognizable conspiracy theories. Right-wing activists and politicians have traded on such theories, giving them far more mainstream exposure and credibility than they ever had before. Experts on political violence have been arguing for months that this is extremely dangerous. People like Loughner are the reason why.


David Dayen

David Dayen