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'American Madness' Explores The Impact Of Conspiracy Theories And The People Who Believe Them


Conspiracy theorists were once relegated to the fringes of society. But now, the popularity of these theories is rising and the impact could be devastating.

A conspiracy theory generally refers to any theory of an event in which a clandestine organization is responsible for creating disinformation or a major world event. Things like the earth being flat or that the moon landing was faked by the U.S. government, despite evidence to the contrary. While these theories are contradicted by most objective facts, they hold power over people who want to believe in them, like Richard McCaslin.

McCaslin, also known as the Phantom Patriot, was a conspiracy theorist whose dedication to these theories led him to stage an armed attack at the Bohemian Grove in California. McCaslin’s life and the conspiracy theories that defined it are the subject of a new book by Milwaukee-based author Tea Krulos.

American Madness: The Story of the Phantom Patriot and How Conspiracy Theories Hijacked American Consciousness explores the allure of conspiracy and how they've come to dominate parts of American culture. 

"Conspiracy theories kind of give [people who believe in them] a plot: That the world isn’t messed up because of some random things — that there’s this secret plot and plan. And that helps them kind of cope with their fear and anger about the state of the world," says Krulos. 

Credit Wikimedia
Richard McCaslin posing as his Phantom Patriot alter ego.

He first met McCaslin while writing another book about masked superheroes and vigilantes who patrolled U.S. cities. Although McCaslin's ideas and interests may have made him seem crazy or idiotic, Krulos says that he was surprised by how normal McCaslin was in many ways. Their relationship led him to the realization that while conspiracy theorists may seem bizarre and abnormal at first glance, they're people who most of us can identify with. 

"Almost everybody I talk to [about the book], says, 'you know what? This sounds like my ex-boyfriend,' or 'someone I used to work with,' or 'somebody who lives down the street.' So, conspiracy theorists are everyday people," says Krulos. 

Joy Powers hosts and produces Lake Effect. She joined WUWM January 2016 as a producer for Lake Effect.