The NAFTA Superhighway: Anatomy of a Conspiracy Theory

Conspiracy theories don't brew overnight.

It was a little more than a year ago that Human Events journalist and right wing whisperer Jerome Corsi began slinging a series of accusations at President Bush in an article about an alleged "NAFTA Superhighway." Corsi said the president was secretly planning to build a giant twelve-lane highway using millions of acres of private land between the Mexican border and the Canadian; he said it was part of a broader plan to merge the three nations into a North American Union; he also said a certain planned highway -- the Tran Texas Corridor -- was only the beginning.

Human Events isn't a terrific place to turn for news, and Corsi isn't the sort of writer on which to rely, but the topic was seductive. No one in mainstream or left wing media took much interest in these stories, but over the next months articles began piling up on the web's most conservative sites: Human Events, World Net Daily, The John Birch Society.

Several months later, in September of 2006, Representative Virgil Goode authored a bill opposing the highway, among other things. Representative Ron Paul, Internet darling and current candidate for the Republican presidential nomination, signed on as a cosponsor and issued a statement to his constituents expressing his concern over the highway.

The bill earned a mention on Wonkette, but all the other media attention was rants and raves from the aforementioned websites and bloggers with names like patriotsteve and joeblogusa. They were bilious over the erosion of U.S. sovereignty, terrified of this new conduit for illegal immigrants, and indignant over the proposed government land grab. Over the course of the winter and spring, the NAFTA Superhighway was making noise only in one very small corner of the Internet.

Two things have happened during this frenetic campaign summer. One, everyone seems to have suddenly noticed the NAFTA Superhighway. And two, it has become very clear that it doesn't exist.

This new wave began back in May, when McClatchy became the first mainstream media outlet to address the topic, eliciting at least one official denial in an the article that failed to take a position on whether the entire endeavor was a rumor or not.

Between then and now, Google Alerts for "nafta superhighway" went from one or two a day to more like six or eight: more editorials in local papers opposing the highway, more blogs from more or less anonymous bloggers. This month, the dam burst. Corsi reported an official denial from Dick Cheney. A piece on The New York Times' Caucus blog reported that constituents in Iowa were posing questions about the highway to Republican candidates. A segment on the Colbert Report poked fun at an author convinced not only that the highway will be built, but that it will destroy the American way. Finally, just as I sat down to write this blog, the final word. Christopher Hayes' article for The Nation appeared online last week, putting to rest the rumors, the whispers, and the doubts. The left-leaning media agrees that the highway doesn't exist, which is not entirely a surprise since the right has long taken ownership over this particular conspiracy theory. Townhall.com, a conservative website whose contributors have repeatedly declared opposition to the NAFTA Superhighway, this week published an editorial that outed the Superhighway as a conspiracy -- one that right wingers were orating about but failing to address as a decoy.
For most of us, this is over. But discussion about the NAFTA Superhighway isn't going to disappear.

It won't go away, partly, of course, because it's self-perpetuating in a media world where every blog post means three circular blog posts about the first post. It's also pre-elections jitters, and there are perhaps more political questions being asked than during the average vacation month.

Most significantly, it isn't going away, and it won't go away, because the highway has never been the point. For every journalist, blogger, politician, constituent and lonely heart that has raged about this highway, the anger has never been about the highway itself as much as about fear for the future of America and anger at what has happened to the country under this administration. It's no great mystery that many conservatives feel betrayed by Bush -- on immigration, on spending, on the economy. Many Americans on the right thought the Christian Texan might make their nation feel more like their own again, but he's failed them. Which might also explain why the right has been so seduced by this particular conspiracy. The left are no happier with Bush, but they had fewer stairs to fall down.

The left won't let it go either. This is the inverse of the 9/11 truth movement: it's the evidence for the non-conspiracy-prone left that the other side has a fringe they would rather disown. It is with unbridled glee that the left leaning media outlets are starting to pick up on just how deep the NAFTA highway conspiracy river runs.

During these blurry dogs days of August the "highway" has been a method for getting into madness of American politics: how fractious we have become, how uncertain the future is, and the degree to which we can be forgiven for failing to trust our current government.