The JFK Conspiracy Theories Will Never Die, And That Is Why Donald Trump Is President

Yes, of course, it’s good that the National Archives, on Thursday, made public another 2,891 documents in its sprawling John F. Kennedy Assassination Records Collection. The newly released reports, memos, transcripts and recordings offer still more details about the assassination of the 35th president and the government’s extensive but ham-handed investigation of it. We now know more about Lee Harvey Oswald’s September 1963 trip to Mexico City; the FBI’s surveillance of him; and some nutbag named Oren Potito, of the National States Rights Party, who claimed that Oswald and Jack Ruby had secretly conspired to kill Kennedy and who later penned some neo-Nazi screed called Jesus Christ Was Not a Jew. CIA interrogator Peter Deryabin’s grilling of KGB defector Yuri Nosenko is fascinating.

Alas, none of it matters much.

What matters is John F. Kennedy was murdered 54 years ago, and every square nanometer of his assassination has been pored over, x-rayed, dissected, and reassembled, and the conspiracy theories persist. They will, indefinitely. The conspiracy theorists, both the hucksters and those who buy what they’re selling, insist we still don’t know the truth, we will never know it, we cannot know it. It is as if some magical cordon prohibits us from getting too close.

If only these people comprised some narcissistic fringe — a quarter of a percent of the electorate, an asterisk. They don’t. These opponents of fact and reason, the Warren Commission, the Justice Department, the Assassination Records Review Board, this tiny, feverish subset, is not tiny or a subset. According to a recent SurveyMonkey poll, conducted for FiveThirtyEight, it is 61 percent of all voters. That is as of right now. In 2017. It is most of us.

There are, of course, no serious, alternative explanations to the Oswald-qua-lone-gunman theory. The Cubans, the Soviets, the mob, the grassy knoll, LBJ, the anti-communists, the war profiteers — all mythology. Okay, yes, it is true that all of these theories could be true, just as David Hume tells us that tomorrow morning the sun may not rise. But a possibility is just a logical bit of fluff. It is not a probability. It is definitely not a theory.

When we talk about the Kennedy assassination, it is useful to think of it as a vast nighttime sky filled with hundreds of thousands of stars. If we want to, we can string together imaginary constellations; we can connect imaginary dots. But we can just as easily not see them; we can see other animals, shapes, arrows, belts; we can ignore many stars at the expense of others, and we can pretend that doesn’t matter. We can see whatever we want to.

The JFK archive contains more than 5 million documents. We can arrive at whatever conclusion, or theory, we decide to arrive at, and because the theory amounts to an unverifiable statement — There was a second gunman! Oswald was a patsy! — no one can disprove it. It simply is. Forever.

The big question is not: Who did it? It is: Why do so many of us want to believe we don’t already know? Why do we insist on believing in clandestine forces over which we have no control? We insist on these things because we want to. We prefer to imagine ourselves stripped of our agency, small, hunkered down, warding off invisible behemoths that, we tell ourselves, are secretly trying to make us believe something that we know is not the truth.

This is the wordview of the sick soul — scared, insular, rabid, unsure of who it is and who it is meant to be. The sick soul insists on believing that we can never know who killed John F. Kennedy — just like we can’t be sure about the Moon landing, September 11, the provenance of Barack Obama and Pizzagate — because it prefers to imagine itself a prisoner, besieged and misunderstood. It prefers to obsess over heads of state, spymasters, CEOs, the much-maligned Davoisie surreptitiously choreographing our daily regimen. We may think we are free. We may think we know the truth. But we’re deluding ourselves. How do we know this? We don’t. We feel it. Who cares about knowing? Knowing is for rubes; knowing is for people who think anything can be known. We cherish this feeling of weakness and ignorance because it is our identity, and nobody, no commission, document, film or dusty, hitherto unviewed strip of microfiche will ever convince us otherwise. To be convinced would be to surrender ourselves.

There has long been a dotted line connecting the allure of the conspiracy theory and that of the authoritarian, who is really a nihilist, who promises nothing but the destruction of everything else. If you feel alienated from your world — if you believe yourself to be at the mercy of larger forces — you naturally seek out an even greater force to liberate you. The authoritarian intuits that you do not really want to be liberated, that you derive your sense of self from remaining in prison, and that is good. That empowers him.

It is not a coincidence that Donald Trump, with his strong-man pretensions, is the first American president to float his own JFK-assassination conspiracy theory, on the campaign trail. Central to Trump’s rise are anonymous and made up enemies: Mexican rapists, Chinese job-stealers, refugee-jihadists. Such fictions, like the mysterious, all-powerful assassin lurking behind every JFK-assassination conspiracy theory, create the impression that we are helpless and, just as important, that only an authoritarian, boorish and unchecked, can protect us. The authoritarian can say or do anything — he can raze our most honored institutions, insult our heritage, overturn long cherished mores — because his base demands it, because the world is a dangerous place, teeming with faceless nemeses that the old, quaint republic, with its due process, its Constitution, cannot contain. The base, scared and inward-looking, cannot be persuaded to feel differently. It does not care about things other people care about: legislative accomplishments, diplomatic breakthroughs. It cares only that the authoritarian lashes out — tears down. The fever will never break. It is a self-fulfilling prophecy. It leads, inexorably, to the darkness that the zealots imagine have been there all along.

politics @VanityFair et al., ex-NY, -DC, -Moscow, “The Interloper: Lee Harvey Oswald Inside the Soviet Union” (Basic Books). Follow me on Twitter @petersavodnik