Paul Thomas writes that there's a widespread assumption of American ignorance, particularly in the heartland.

Who would have guessed? The Antichrist is an Ivy League-educated lawyer, a president of the Harvard Law Review, no less, whom many of his fellow Americans found so compelling they put him in the White House.

But that's the considered view of 22 per cent of the Republican voters who took part in a Harris poll last month.

And while they're on the subject, 51 per cent of them believe Barack Obama wants to turn the sovereignty of the USA over to a global government, 45 per cent think he's the "domestic enemy" referred to in the US constitution, 38 per cent are convinced he's doing many of the things Hitler did, and 22 per cent reckon he wants the terrorists to win.

What should we make of this? Bruce Bartlett, who worked for two Republican Presidents, draws the conclusion that between 20 and 50 per cent of the party "are either insane or mind-numbingly stupid".

John Avlon, author of Wingnuts: How the Lunatic Fringe is Hijacking America, thinks it demonstrates that "Obama Derangement Syndrome - pathological hatred of the President posing as patriotism - has infected the Republican Party".

Casting his net a little wider, writer Neal Gabler puts the rabid right's rise down to "the transformation of conservatism from a political movement, with all the limitations, hedges and forbearances of politics, into a kind of fundamentalist religious movement with the absolute certainty of religious belief.

What we have in America today is political fundamentalism."

It's a far cry from the days when movie star, American icon, and rock-ribbed conservative John Wayne could say of John F. Kennedy, "I didn't vote for him but he's my President and I hope he does a good job."

A decade and a half later, Wayne attended Jimmy Carter's inauguration ball as "a member of the loyal opposition".

Yet Wayne bought into the conservative narrative of frontier individualism and self-reliance to such an extent that he denounced the classic western High Noon as "un-American" because the beleaguered marshal (Gary Cooper) asks the townspeople for help in confronting an outlaw gang. (He doesn't get any.)

Wayne's and director Howard Hawks' response was the also classic Rio Bravo, in which a marshal rejects offers of help from unqualified civilians when faced with a similar threat.

Wayne was also a member of the far-right John Birch Society. (They parted company over the society's conviction that fluoridation was a communist plot. Some things are too hard to swallow.)

In their heyday in the 1950s and 60s the Birchers were a force to be reckoned with. Among other strange things, they believed that the US and Soviet governments were controlled by a conspiracy of the usual suspects - Jews, bankers, Freemasons - whose ultimate goal was "a collectivist New World Order managed by a one-world socialist government".