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Don't ignore hidden lessons in Obama conspiracy theories

By Clarence Page, Tribune Content Agency on

The former first lady dons full combat gear and fake skin to lead her band of high-ranking government women into battle to force a greedy pharmaceutical kingpin to lower the cost of cancer-fighting drugs for kids.

In "A Different Frame of Reference," best-selling mystery writer Walter Mosley turns birther suspicions on their head through a narrator in a white racist organization that tries to trace Barack Obama's origins -- to another planet.

In "True Skin," by Eric Beetner, even the lizard people make an appearance. Sweet.

Yet, running beneath the book's mockery of conspiracy fanatics, the unspoken question that I raised earlier persists: Why are there so many outlandish conspiracy theories about the Obamas?

The answer, I believe, can best be detected as this book's authors do, through the lens of identity -- and I'm not talking only about race.

My own shocked reaction to Donald Trump's widely unexpected election gave me a glimpse of the shock many future Trump supporters must have felt when Obama was elected -- twice. The feeling of having one's world shook up has to be particularly unsettling to conservatives, whose viewpoint is particularly suspicious of change.

Voters care about values more than issues, one of Ronald Reagan's advisers used to say. The more Obama's opponents have played up his name and background as exotic, mysterious and threatening, the more fuel is added to their most outlandish fears.

There is a lesson here for the future of American politics. You can tell a lot about a voter by the conspiracy theories he or she believes.

As our electorate has become more diverse and polarized, it has become easier for some voters to regard, say, a gun safety advocate as attacking their cultural tribe, even when they don't personally own a gun.

Faced with perceived calamities that defy easy explanation, many people find that conspiracy theories provide explanations. Unfortunately, the explanations are usually way too easy for their own good -- and everybody else's.

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(E-mail Clarence Page at cpage@chicagotribune.com.)

(c) 2017 CLARENCE PAGE DISTRIBUTED BY TRIBUNE MEDIA SERVICES, INC.
 

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