Campaigning in Iowa earlier this year, Rick Perry endorsed the right’s new “doctored jobs numbers” conspiracy theory—feeding the conservative paranoia machine that has made it harder to have reality-based debates about economic policy, climate change, the Iraq War, and so much else. Now Perry’s successor, Greg Abbott, has jumped into the game, which has moved onto an even loonier round: the military, so the rumors go, is on the verge of invading Texas.
At issue is Operation Jade Helm 15, a large training exercise taking place across the Southwest this summer. Conspiracy theorists in Texas are convinced that the operation is secretly a cover for instituting martial law in the Lone Star state, and their demand for proof to the contrary has inspired the governor to issue an artfully worded statement promising to monitor the exercise so that “Texans know their safety, constitutional rights, private property rights and civil liberties will not be infringed.” The dog-whistle quality of Abbott’s letter acknowledges, and even dignifies, the wild fantasies of conspiracy theorists without addressing them directly—allowing him to feign distance from the fringe constituents who motivated the letter.
Speaking earlier this week with the Austin American-Statesman, I speculated that the politics of paranoia are, at the moment, better suited for the right. A governor more responsible than Abbott would have responded to his constituents by telling them that their concerns were groundless, and that they shouldn’t be listening to sites like InfoWars (which is, of course, behind this latest rumor). But in general, conservative leaders have little incentive to counter skepticism of mainstream information sources (whether in the media, government, or academia). Their political agenda collides with them at too many points: climate scientists oppose their energy and environmental agenda; economists oppose their tax agenda; journalists counter their foreign policy narrative. If his base is generally mistrustful of government figures, university professors, and journalists, that probably suits Greg Abbott just fine. And when their paranoia veers into directions that are little odd (even for an arch-conservative red-state governor), the awkwardness can be papered over with a carefully-worded wink of the eye.
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