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The Long Road to Our Post-Truth Moment
This week really feels like one of those boiled frog moments, when people realize that something fundamental has changed without them realizing it. The fact that Paul Pelosi’s attack has been treated as a hoax or gay lovers’ spat or “false flag” by many on the Right, and not just the Alex Jones types, has taken a lot of people by surprise.
In the last month, we have also seen a level of publicly expressed anti-Semitism by politicians and prominent figures more pronounced than anything since 1941 in this country. Even Lindbergh cloaked the threats in his infamous Des Moines speech in fake words of concern. Nowadays public figures like Kanye West, Kyrie Irving, and any number of Republican Party staffers and politicians just spout the pure uncut, uncloaked version of history’s most resilient and deadly conspiracy theory.
Something seems to have seriously changed. Bigoted opinions and outrageous lies that were once off limits in polite society and politics are dominating our public discourse. Those in the know understand that this did not just happen yesterday, or even in 2016.
My entire life I have been aware of the fever swamps of conspiracy theories and right-wing extremism. The Reagan-era Satanic Panic lead to horrors like the McMartin case, where innocent people were prosecuted for child abuse. In my 80s youth, my home state of Nebraska had multiple violent incidents related to the survivalist movement. The 90s brought the New World Order conspiracy and talks of black helicopters. No less a figure than Pat Robertson used the former theory as the title of one of his books. I remember being at a Wendy’s on the road in Iowa circa 1994 and a trucker trying to proselytize me with Lyndon LaRouche propaganda. It all lead up the Oklahoma City Bombing in 1995, after which respectable people could not be seen flirting with such extremism. Nevertheless, I would occasionally hear talk radio or see Limbaugh’s TV show and catch wind of the Clinton Kill Count Conspiracy.
While one terror attack closed off the public sphere to the conspiracists, the attack on 9/11 opened the door. The difference was this time our own government ginned up a conspiracy theory involving Saddam Hussein and most of the country bought it. Polling before the Iraq War found that a majority thought that Hussein was somehow involved in the attacks. (Dubya never claimed a direct link, of course, but connections were constantly implied.) Without this belief, I doubt that the disastrous invasion of Iraq would have happened.
More respectable figures on the Right got a thrill from telling such big lies and getting away with it. In an infamous moment, a Bush advisor (perhaps Karl Rove) chastised a reporter for being in the “reality based community.” He boasted that “we are an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you're studying that reality -- judiciously, as you will -- we'll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that's how things will sort out. We're history's actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.” At the time it felt like something had changed, that the people running the government and starting wars had open contempt for the truth. If a lie could bring power, the ends justified the means to them.
Of course, the 9/11 attacks also unleashed a tidal wave of latent Islamophobia. Dubya, in one of the few things he can be credited for, tried not to fan those flames. Despite his reticence, red states passed anti-shariah laws. Apparently, lots of people thought that there was some kind of conspiracy to force Islamic law on the entire country. I personally witnessed the protest against the so-called “Ground Zero Mosque” in Lower Manhattan and came away deeply shocked by what I saw. Gazing at signs held by children with the word “Shariah” dripping with blood I realized that there was a deep reservoir of noxious hatred just waiting to be politically mobilized. Some conservatives, like Newt Gingrich, openly courted the anti-Shariah conspiracists.
Barack Obama’s election gave the anti-Muslim conspiracies more force. Aggrieved “real Americans” in Sarah Palin’s parlance imagined a usurper “secret Muslim” who was not born in the United States. The most prominent public figure espousing this idea was sought out by Mitt Romney for an endorsement in 2012. He was elected president in 2016. Trump was not an outlier among conservatives, he was their id. Anyone with conservative relatives can certainly remember getting an anti-Obama chain email making these claims in the Stone Age before Boomers discovered Facebook.
Speaking of Facebook, it is far too easy to blame all of this on social media and the decline of local radio, TV and newspapers. These things are certainly important to the story, but the real change is that conservative politicians decided they had more to gain by giving in to the conspiratorial mindset of their base than trying to counteract it. Just think about John McCain on the campaign trail in 2008, trying to dispute the conspiracy theories about Obama coming from one of his own supporters. Can you imagine such a thing happening in today’s GOP? McCain for all his faults did not want to succumb to the fever swamps, but his running mate was the true barometer of where things were going.
The media has abetted this, but not how you think. They have held fast to their both sides” faux objectivity narrative, even in the face of the post-truth onslaught. They are constitutionally incapable of coming out and saying that one side of the political spectrum is almost solely responsible for the proliferation of misinformation and outright lies. This means that Republicans can engage in this behavior and pay almost zero political price for it. Most centrist normies still see the Republican Party as one of two interchangeable options to cycle between, not the vehicle for extremism.
Without social media, this stuff might not be as easy to weaponize, but the true X factor is that Republican politicians have decided to just give in to it. They are rewarded with more support from their base without alienating other voters. Trump illustrated the success of this dynamic. The last seven years have revealed how much our democracy depends on the good faith of political figures, not just our Constitution or laws.
If over 40% of the country just doesn’t care about maintaining an interest in the truth as long as it allows them to “make our own reality” then democracy does not have much of a future. I’d like to think we haven’t passed the point of no return yet, but this frog is feeling pretty boiled right now.