Sherlock Holmes observed that, “while the individual man is an insoluble puzzle, in the aggregate he becomes a mathematical certainty.” It will come as no surprise to you that people take their behavioral cues and their belief systems from cultural icons, particularly their political leaders. Or, that a massive disservice is done to people in general when those leaders traffic in disinformation. The MAGAts who have refused to observe COVID-19 restrictions and died from it, are Exhibit “A” to this proposition. Therefore, you will find solace that evidence of all that you have been thinking is now available, as Dana Milbank writes about in his column today.
And as Milbank points out, these reports come at a time when Trump has “surpassed 20,000 falsehoods uttered as president while his administration temporarily took coronavirus data offline, his daughter posed with a can of beans and his trade adviser published an error-laden attack on the government’s top infectious-disease scientist.” We are all now residents of Crazytown, as John Kelly characterized the White House, when he said it was a “horrible place to work.” It’s not so great a place to live, either. Washington Post:
The good news: Americans are no “crazier” — that is, no more paranoid or predisposed to conspiracy thinking — than in the past. The bad news: For the first time in our history, a president and a major political party have weaponized paranoia, to destabilizing effect.
Joseph Uscinski, a University of Miami political scientist who studies conspiracy theories, notes that psychological measures of paranoia have been “entirely stable.” Conservatives are inherently no more conspiratorial than liberals; only low education (and, relatedly, income) predict such tendencies. The difference, Uscinski says, is “we have a president who has built a coalition by reaching out to conspiracy-minded people.”
Dartmouth College political scientist Brendan Nyhan finds that “our political elites are amplifying the fringe more than we’ve seen” in modern times, while a president mounts a “grinding attack on factual evidence.” The result, he says, is “conspiracy theories and misinformation become yoked to partisanship in increasingly powerful ways.”
There has always been what the late historian Richard Hofstadter called the “paranoid style” in U.S. politics: witch hunts, Illuminati, Red Scares. William Jennings Bryan promoted conspiracy theories. Richard Nixon believed in them. But Trump is unique in promoting conspiracy thinking from the bully pulpit, and in building a system in which elites — Republican Party leaders — validate the paranoia.
And that is exactly the problem. Trump has the complicity of the entire Republican party. They could have and should have put a muzzle on him, or removed him from their ticket, when he became outrageous. Reince Priebus told Trump that perhaps he should resign after the pussy-gate remarks. Trump, of course, refused and the Republicans didn’t care. And here’s Milbank’s bottom line, which should give you pause.
“Human psychology has not changed,” Nyhan says. What’s changed is we’re discovering that “democratic systems don’t work well when political elites don’t deal in factual information.”
How long can America keep going with two systems of information, one each for the two different Americas? You recall how game show host Chuck Woolery attacked COVID-19 as a hoax designed to destroy Trump and then a few days later announced that his son had the virus and recanted his statement. And then in a truly alarming development, Texas removed 3,500 COVID-19 cases from its data banks because it is quibbling with the CDC over when to move a probable case into the confirmed column. This is a move which, it is speculated, is being done to minimize both the threat of coronavirus at a time when it is spiking in Texas, and more importantly, make Texas’ leaders look less stupid for downplaying the pandemic in the first place. One can only assume that Greg Abbott is taking this step for the same reason as Florida’s Ron DeSantis, who has also tampered with COVID-19 stats. It’s called CYA. How many more sick people or dead bodies do we need to see before America gets the message — as one country, not as two warring families, living under the same roof — that they’ve lied to? Not just about coronavirus, but about a lot of things? This is the question. We have never lived under a more corrupt administration than this one. Trump is making Warren G. Harding look like an amateur.
A few things are certain: Fox News and other purveyors of disinformation have no intention of stopping what they’re doing as long as there’s a buck in it. Plus, and this is the scary part, Trump is pushing the culture war full bore because he has no 2020 platform. He’s just going for drama and the stoking of fear, hoping that if enough people are terrorized, he can convince them to vote for him as the law and order president he ludicrously touts himself to be, while simultaneously breaking lies right and left. So where does that leave us?