Americans have always thought themselves a practical, commonsensical people, a nation of Thomas Edisons and Henry Fords. (Never mind that industrial genius Ford was also a political crank whose treatise "The International Jew," influenced Nazi race theory.) In reality, we've always been a nation of easy marks. As Mencken wrote: "Nobody ever went broke underestimating the taste of the American public."
Anybody glib and shameless enough can sell Americans damn near anything. Very few faith healers, astrologers, crackpot diet enthusiasts, peddlers of love potions, self-anointed prophets and messiahs — not to mention political mountebanks and conspiracy theorists — have ever lacked for a large and credulous audience.
I once had a neighbor with an artificially deep, booming voice I suspected he practiced in the shower. Although a businessman, his great passion was casting horoscopes. Upon hearing my wife complain about my disorderly home office, he chortled knowingly and said, "It's a sure thing he's not a Virgo."
Of the 12 signs in the Zodiac, a Virgo happens to be exactly what I am. On the cusp of Libra no less, which supposedly indicates what adepts of the rival Freudian superstition would call an "anal-retentive" passion for order.
With odds of 11 to 1 in his favor, he'd flubbed the dub. If you think he was embarrassed, you've never met a serious astrologer. There's always a deeper, more subtle way in which something laughably wrong is actually right.
I couldn't help but think of my former neighbor when I heard Donald Trump explain that losing the popular presidential vote by almost 3 million votes constituted the greatest landslide win in history.
But I digress. To me, the two most astonishing events during my lifetime have been Jonestown and Heaven's Gate. The 1978 suicide/mass murder of 909 members of Jim Jones' religious and political cult in the jungles of Guyana constituted the most appalling episode of group psychosis in U.S. history. For sheer nuttiness, the 1997 Heaven's Gate episode struck me as equally bizarre — involving, as it did, not merely crackpot religion but UFOs. Thirty-nine cult members died together in the rapt expectation that a spaceship hidden behind an approaching comet would soon transport them to planet Nutball and eternal glory.
But seriously, is that any crazier than the invasion of a Washington pizza joint by an armed zealot from North Carolina last week? Thankfully, nobody died. But the ingredients for tragedy were all there: a preposterous conspiracy theory peddled by a talk show guru (and endorsed by White House appointee Gen. Michael Flynn) that supposedly involved Satanism, child sex slaves and infanticide, and even the imagined participation of head witch Hillary Clinton and President Obama.
How crazy do you have to be to believe such rubbish?
This crazy: "When I think about all the children Hillary Clinton has personally murdered and chopped up and raped, I have zero fear standing up against her," Infowars talk show host Alex Jones said in a YouTube video posted on Nov. 4. "Yeah, you heard me right. Hillary Clinton has personally murdered children. I just can't hold back the truth anymore."
Jones, whose website champions his new best friend Donald Trump and the president-elect's boon companion Vladimir Putin, later alibied that he'd spoken metaphorically about Syria. But I don't think that's what "personally" means.
Jones' Infowars.com site also markets bottled potions promising "Super Male Vitality," and "Brain Force Plus," along with survivalist gear and "The Unholy See," a book concerning the Vatican and "forthcoming events of the prophetic future."
In short, one-stop shopping for every impotent Froot Loop on your Christmas list.
Just last summer, Jones provoked a panic in rural Texas with fevered allegations that the real purpose of U.S. Army maneuvers there was to install secret armies of ISIS fighters in underground tunnels connecting empty Walmart stores.
He's also persuaded thousands that the Sandy Hook elementary school massacre in Connecticut was a "false flag" hoax aimed at confiscating their guns. Anybody believing that shouldn't be allowed to walk off-leash in a city park, much less to buy an AR-15.
So, Alex Jones: absolutely psycho, or psycho like a fox?
We report, you decide.
However, I'd argue that "fake news" is a wholly inadequate term. Fake news is what Fox News and the New York Times too often do. The Comet Ping Pong pizza episode is more on the order of an organized psychiatric delusion — a collective mental illness. Alas, the internet has driven a scary number of our fellow citizens back to medieval levels of superstition and credulousness.
But they can't be reasoned out of it, only lampooned.