Consider the apparently widespread notion that George W. Bush knew about 9/11 in advance. If true, it would suggest that Bush was not merely a bad man or a bad president, but an evil genius on a shocking scale. But as Sanchez notes, “you did not really see a lot of behavior consistent with millions upon millions of people being seriously convinced that their president was a treasonous mass murderer.” Nobody planned an insurrection; few people fled to Canada. Instead, liberals organized for Democratic candidates, as though Bush were an ordinary opponent rather than a stone-cold killer.

The same is true of conservative conspiracy theorists today. Tuning in to Glenn Beck or joining your local Tea Party seems like a woefully insufficient response to the possibility that Barack Obama is a Manchurian candidate groomed from birth to undermine democracy and impose Shariah law. But if we understand those paranoias to be symbolic beliefs, rather than real convictions — an attention-grabbing way of saying, “I consider Obama phony, dishonest and un-American” — then conservative behavior makes a lot more sense.