In his column this morning, Juan Cole noted that a raging pandemic has separated Americans into the cautiously masked and the defiantly maskless, further undermining what remains of the country’s cohesion. He blames the rise of fascism in America-- Trump voters, the Proud Boys, Boogaloo Bois on... zombies. "Something," he wrote, "must have eaten their brains... The QAnon notion that all the world’s a Satanic child-trafficking ring-- Pizzagate raised to the nth degree-- is so absurd on the face of it that no reasonable person could possibly entertain it. But plenty of people have embraced equally wacky theories. L. Ron Hubbard’s Dianetics has been a bestseller for decades, and all too many Americans were willing to believe that Barack Obama was a foreign-born Muslim despite mountains of evidence to the contrary.
Misinformation about COVID-19-- that masks are not necessary, vaccines should be avoided, or herd immunity is a viable strategy-- has been lethal. That denialism should have disappeared as COVID-19 infection rates began to spread to every corner of the United States before the election. The increasing proximity of the threat should have motivated Americans to come together as one to fight the virus.
At the very least, fear should have kept people at home instead of venturing out to the potential super-spreader events that President Trump was sponsoring as campaign rallies before the election.
But no. Thousands still showed up to what Democrats should have called Trump’s “death rallies.” Even more unbelievably, Trump went on to defeat Biden in those parts of the country hardest hit by the virus. According to the Associated Press, “in 376 counties with the highest number of new cases per capita, the overwhelming majority-- 93 percent of those counties-- went for Trump, a rate above other less severely hit areas.”
...Zombies don’t know that they’re zombies. One day they’re ordering BLTs and the next they’re eating their next-door neighbor. They’re completely unaware of how the abnormal has become normal.
Poor David Brooks, hired long ago to be the NY Times token conservative Republican. His column today? The Rotting Of The Republican Mind-- When One Party Becomes Detached From Reality, unexpected only because he doesn't do a lot of "both sidesism" in his explanation-- some of course, but not a lot. He began by moaning that "in a recent Monmouth poll, 77% of Trump backers said Biden won the election because of fraud. He added that "Many of these same people think climate change is not real [and] they don’t need to listen to scientific experts on how to prevent the spread of the coronavirus." He recognizes where the fault lies that "we live in a country in epistemological crisis"-- a GOP that is "detached from reality."
He noted that right-wing populism around the globe is rising on this wave of idiocy and asks why, rejects faulting the internet itself and instead points to an essay Jonathan Rauch wrote for National Affairs in 2018 called "The Constitution of Knowledge." Rauch, as much an elitist as Brooks, pointed out that "every society has an epistemic regime, a marketplace of ideas where people collectively hammer out what’s real. In democratic, non-theocratic societies, this regime is a decentralized ecosystem of academics, clergy members, teachers, journalists and others who disagree about a lot but agree on a shared system of rules for weighing evidence and building knowledge. This ecosystem, Rauch wrote, operates as a funnel. It allows a wide volume of ideas to get floated, but only a narrow group of ideas survive collective scrutiny. 'We let alt-truth talk,' Rauch said, 'but we don’t let it write textbooks, receive tenure, bypass peer review, set the research agenda, dominate the front pages, give expert testimony or dictate the flow of public dollars.'"
Brooks' perspective, an elitist analysis, is important and worth reading and thinking through. If you know any Trumpists personally, the ugly truth of Brooks' arguments can't be rejected out of hand. Trumpism has always been cultist in nature and based on ignorance, paranoia, desperation and on a baseful of people with lower-than-average IQs. The rest of this is unadulterated and unedited Brooks:
Over the past decades the information age has created a lot more people who make their living working with ideas, who are professional members of this epistemic process. The information economy has increasingly rewarded them with money and status. It has increasingly concentrated them in ever more prosperous metro areas.
While these cities have been prospering, places where fewer people have college degrees have been spiraling down: flatter incomes, decimated families, dissolved communities. In 1972, people without college degrees were nearly as happy as those with college degrees. Now those without a degree are far more unhappy about their lives.
People need a secure order to feel safe. Deprived of that, people legitimately feel cynicism and distrust, alienation and anomie. This precarity has created, in nation after nation, intense populist backlashes against the highly educated folks who have migrated to the cities and accrued significant economic, cultural and political power. Will Wilkinson of the Niskanen Center calls this the “Density Divide.” It is a bitter cultural and political cold war.
In the fervor of this enmity, millions of people have come to detest those who populate the epistemic regime, who are so distant, who appear to have it so easy, who have such different values, who can be so condescending. Millions not only distrust everything the “fake news” people say, but also the so-called rules they use to say them.
People in this precarious state are going to demand stories that will both explain their distrust back to them and also enclose them within a safe community of believers. The evangelists of distrust, from Donald Trump to Alex Jones to the followers of QAnon, rose up to give them those stories and provide that community. Paradoxically, conspiracy theories have become the most effective community bonding mechanisms of the 21st century.
For those awash in anxiety and alienation, who feel that everything is spinning out of control, conspiracy theories are extremely effective emotional tools. For those in low status groups, they provide a sense of superiority: I possess important information most people do not have. For those who feel powerless, they provide agency: I have the power to reject “experts” and expose hidden cabals. As Cass Sunstein of Harvard Law School points out, they provide liberation: If I imagine my foes are completely malevolent, then I can use any tactic I want.
Under Trump, the Republican identity is defined not by a set of policy beliefs but by a paranoid mind-set. He and his media allies simply ignore the rules of the epistemic regime and have set up a rival trolling regime. The internet is an ideal medium for untested information to get around traditional gatekeepers, but it is an accelerant of the paranoia, not its source. Distrust and precarity, caused by economic, cultural and spiritual threat, are the source.
What to do? You can’t argue people out of paranoia. If you try to point out factual errors, you only entrench false belief. The only solution is to reduce the distrust and anxiety that is the seedbed of this thinking. That can only be done first by contact, reducing the social chasm between the members of the epistemic regime and those who feel so alienated from it. And second, it can be done by policy, by making life more secure for those without a college degree.
Rebuilding trust is, obviously, the work of a generation.
Not Brooks: Damn, we should have elected Bernie!