My friend Helen, who died last year at the age of 90, went through a serious conspiracy theory phase 20-some years ago. She had retired from a nursing career that had provided purpose, satisfaction and friendship for more than 40 years. She was grieving the recent death of her husband, adrift and feeling vulnerable. 

She wanted to find an external explanation for her loneliness, helplessness and sense of isolation, and so she was the precise target for the self-aggrandizing cynics who engage in psychic manipulation to achieve their own ends.

This was before the social media explosion. Her medium of choice was AM radio and, in no time, she was sucked into the vortex of the dystopian talk-radio universe. 

Diane Carman

The fringe talk-radio goons back then said the dust trail of Comet Hale-Bopp was concealing a spaceship that would deliver aliens to take over the Earth, and she listened. When she repeated the ridiculous claim and her sons gave her that look, she admitted that, well, it did seem a little far-fetched.

There were other fantasies about invaders from the New World Order and about demons who own the Fed. She repeated them, but never got amped up about them.

Then, when they told her society would collapse at the stroke of midnight on Jan. 1, 2000, in something they ominously referred to as Y2K, she believed.

Oh, boy, did she.

With her two brothers, she invested in a gas generator for her house since she had become convinced the electric grid would collapse. They also stockpiled a basement full of freeze-dried food and bottled water, gassed up their cars, and dusted off the guns and ammo from storage, believing that society was on the brink of collapse. 

She warned us to prepare for martial law. 

She was genuinely frightened.

On Dec. 31, 1999, after years of roiling anxiety, she watched the New Year’s celebrations in Australia and New Zealand on TV waiting for all hell to break loose. Nothing happened.

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Then, when she woke up on New Year’s Day after a fitful night’s sleep and nothing had changed at her home in St. Joseph, Mo., the creeping sense that she had been played started to sink in.

She realized she’d willingly suspended disbelief. She had allowed liars, fearmongers and crooks to take advantage of her. She let herself be victimized.

Embarrassed and angry, she quit talk-radio cold turkey and took her life back. She knew she’d been a sucker. She never wanted to feel that way again.

Helen’s story is a cautionary tale.

In 2020, when hurricanes, wildfires, police shootings, a pandemic, civil unrest, a derecho (say, what?) and a plummeting economy have provided all of us with plenty of legitimate sources of anxiety, the arsonists of fear and loathing have mobilized to pour accelerants onto our emotions and diabolically exploit them.

The faceless QAnon manipulators would have us believe that people who challenge Donald Trump are pedophiles who worship Satan and coordinate a child sex-trafficking operation, and that we’re being deceived because, they say, only 9,000 Americans have died of COVID-19 instead of the 180,000-plus deaths reported by hospitals, physicians, nurses, medical centers, coroners, Johns Hopkins University and the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.

Twitter mavens post unfounded rumors of black-clad “thugs” arriving in cities by the planeload to wreak havoc. Then, sinister politicians repeat the stories until their gullible followers believe that since they’ve heard it so often – despite a complete lack of evidence – it must be true.

And then there are the political henchmen who simply make stuff up and rely on highly placed enablers and apologists to provide cover so they can spread seeds of discontent across an already freaked-out populace.

We’re talking about University of Colorado Boulder’s Visiting Scholar in Conservative Thought and Policy John Eastman, who speculated in a recent opinion piece in Newsweek that vice presidential candidate and U.S. Sen. Kamala Harris might not be a full-fledged U.S. citizen because her parents were immigrants. 

It was a reprise of the despicable racist birther fabrication propagated for years by Trump and his fan club against President Obama.

You don’t have to have a Ph.D. or to have been a clerk to Justice Clarence Thomas to understand the 14th Amendment, which states that “All persons born … in the United States are citizens….” Eastman apparently thinks we’re too stupid to look it up.

And while Newsweek backpedaled after publishing Eastman’s thinly veiled attack on the legitimacy of Harris’ candidacy and apologized for publishing something that fanned the flames of racism and xenophobia, CU doubled down.

Chancellor Phil DiStefano said in a memo that although “Professor Eastman’s op-ed has marginalized members of our CU Boulder community” and undermined the university’s efforts to achieve racial equity, he will not rescind his appointment or silence him from publishing any further specious claptrap.  

Apparently academic freedom in Boulder is a license to publish utter BS.

All this should be a warning to people who are trying, against great odds, to weigh actual facts and make good decisions in the coming elections. 

A host of crooks and charlatans are out there – like the identity thieves constantly bombarding our phones with lies about the IRS coming after us – strafing our consciousness with sinister disinformation.

Honestly, we’re all exhausted by the real dangers of 2020. It’s cruel and disgusting that we’re being targeted with sick fantasies.

So, as a tribute to Helen, let’s just remember New Year’s Day 2000 and think about how angry she was when she realized she’d been duped.

Don’t let it happen to you.

Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.

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Special to The Colorado Sun Twitter: @dccarman