How the media makes nice people believe insane things

Why does my mom think there is a civil war coming?

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Yesterday I was sitting in my kitchen and I could overhear my mom watching MSNBC in another room. I couldn’t really make out what they were talking about but I did catch someone talking about how Trump reportedly has a book of Hitler speeches. This is an anecdote about Trump everyone including me wrote about years ago. I thought, why are they still in 2021 talking about this? He isn’t president anymore!

My mother came out of her room enraged and started to tell me about how Trump is the worst and driving her crazy. I asked her the context of the Hitler book thing. Is MSNBC just randomly filling dead air with Trump's greatest hits?

“Mike Flynn gave a speech about how he loves HItler.” [Ed note: I found the transcript and it seems like it was Marjorie Taylor Greene who brought up Hitler? Idk. Same difference.—BD]

“I don’t know what you’re talking about but who cares?”

She looked at me with profound disappointment.

“Who cares?”

“Mike Flynn is like a QAnon lunatic. Who cares what he says?”

“Ben, you need to pay attention.”

“Why?”

“Because I don’t want you to be surprised when they start a civil war.”

“Even if I accept the premise that Mike Flynn and company are plotting a civil war, what would the action item for me be? How would I, Ben Dreyfuss, prepare for that?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Nothing. Buy some guns and barricade the door.”

“Is that your answer? It’s an answer.”

“No. Guns are bad. No guns in this house.”

“OK, so…nothing?”

“Yeah.”

“So what is the utility of be being prepared for this civil war if there is no way for me to actually prepare?”

“Knowing what’s going on in the world!”

“So I can tell people in the death camp ‘I told ya so’?”

And we went back and forth like this for a while 

I want to tease this out a bit because it is a really good example of how the political media ecosystem has driven us all insane.

Let’s start by agreeing on a few things:

  1. There is an increasing number of Republicans who have no loyalty to democratic norms and would be happy as clams to use the electoral count act and various ridiculous facts about the American electoral system to insert Trump as president despite him losing the election. There is ample reason to believe that this outcome though unlikely is possible and that should spur reforms to mitigate that possibility, as even the National Review has said.

  2. There is a much smaller group of hard right-wingers who would be comfortable with a straight-out military junta. There is exactly zero reason to believe that this band of lunatics will ever be successful in putting that wish into action.

  3. My mom is a lovely person who genuinely believes this is a very possible outcome and that she has to guard against it by obsessively following everything that these people say and do. She believes this because of a media that propagates a notion that the United States is engaged in a titanic domestic struggle that implies every election has permanent consequences.

  4. It is very easy to go from “Mike Flynn and QAnon want a military coup” to “the Republicans who would be happy as clams to exploit legal loopholes in the archaic American electoral system to grab power also support a military coup” to “anyone who voted for Donald Trump has no respect for democracy and would also support a military coup.” Once that has happened you find yourself believing that half the people in this country are plotting a civil war.

The thing is, once you believe that you are a crazy person. That is crazy and you are crazy. My mom doesn’t know a lot of Republicans and she defines them less by who they are as much as by what she is not. She globs them together with the loudest and looniest ones she hears about on MSNBC. 

The right does this as well obviously but I don’t have a parent listening to Hannity in the other room. One word for this is nutpicking. You find the nuttiest example of an out-group and talk about it endlessly and you create an impression that everyone is like that nut. 

It is certainly true that Mike Flynn is crazy. MSNBC isn’t lying! But the aggregate impression that half the country is out to get you is very much not true. My mom does not need to live in fear of Conservative Kristallnacht just as Tucker Carlson acolytes don’t need to live in fear of liberals coming and forcing them to get gay married. 

There is exactly zero chance that will happen and you do not need to prepare for it, but let’s say that there was a .00001% that it was possible. How would you prepare for it? What is the action item? There is none. What are you buying with your psychic stress and frustration and worry? Nothing! When a plane crashes, people in first-class die too. If this insane thing were to happen, someone who has followed Michael Flynn’s speeches is not going to be more prepared than someone who hasn’t. The main difference is that the former wasted their precious time Before The War pulling out their hair. 

This is the thing that I find most vexing about this phenomenon. There is no utility in it! Believing the most hysterical conspiracy theories doesn’t actually get you anything. It just drives you crazy and makes you believe that half the people you see on the street when you go to the market are evil incarnate. What a sad view of the world! What an unfortunate way of going through life! The media does this. It takes from you your psychic wellbeing and gives you in return nothing. 

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Here are four more things that are true: 

  1. The existence of a less crazy and more real version of “civil war is coming” does not justify the belief that a civil war is coming. Congress needs to reform the electoral count act, but that is a rather small thing all things considered. Half the country coming in the night to chop you up is a very large thing! The space between the two is a universe.

  2. There are crazy people in the world. There will always be. There is evil too. Once in a while, the twain shall meet and crazy people will commit evil deeds. That is a matter for law enforcement. It is not an existential threat unless we treat it as one.

  3. All of these paranoid things are exacerbated by ideological sorting. If my mother knew some people who voted for Trump she wouldn’t think that everyone who voted for Trump is Michael Flynn.

I was teasing her a few days ago. I asked “mom, if I came home and said, ‘good news. I’m getting married. You’re going to love her. She sweet and funny and she makes me happy and she loves me. But she did vote for Trump. She’s not very political but she does think that from what she’s heard second hand there were some voting irregularities in Arizona. She doesn’t work in politics and that belief has absolutely no effect on the real world.’” And she said, “no! She’s not allowed in this house!” And I don’t believe confronted with this real scenario that would be her response. If this were real and she met this person and she saw that she loved her son and her son loved her then my mother would let this Trump voter into her heart. 

The fourth true thing is this: the media does this. It might not mean to, but it does. I am sure that the MSNBC host who keeps my mom in terror does not think that a right-wing military junta is going to seize power in the United States. But it is a choice to escalate everything to a potential extinction-level event. It keeps people hooked. It keeps them watching and consuming. If my mom doesn’t follow all of this and care about it so deeply then she is a bad person who is inviting disaster, or so the insane logic goes. And you can’t blame the victims of the news ecosystem—my mom, your family, our friends, us—for falling for this absolute lie. 

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There is a rhyme about film productions: “It’s not the time it takes to take the takes that takes the time, it’s the time it takes between the takes that takes the time.” It’s not the moments where my mother can actually participate in politics—election days and donating and volunteering for campaigns—that are the problem. It’s the moments between those moments that drive you mad. 

My mom’s addiction to political news and the culture wars fights that it both fuels and is fueled by is advanced. Not as advanced as the January 6th rioters, but it’s advanced. And millions upon millions of people are in some stage of this addiction. 

I chatted with Graham Vyse of The Signal a few days ago about the current state of the political media post-Trump. The hook was that ratings and traffic for political news sites and networks are down in the Biden era. That is a very good thing! But it also means the media is totally unsure yet how to act. It desperately wants to keep its audiences, which spurred by Facebook and Trump have never been higher. But it doesn’t know how to do that because Biden is boring and politics is boring and the pandemic is ending and many people are going to the park and living their lives. And so six months after Trump stopped being president I sit in our kitchen and listen to MSNBC go on and on about a Trump anecdote from 6 years ago. Why? We don’t need to do this! We’re free now!

But you, me, and the bourgeoisie being free of political hysteria and all-encompassing total war is not great for a political media ecosystem that has come to feed on scale. We should let politics be boring. But as I said to Graham, “To eschew all these bad things we’re talking about, political media would have to accept a smaller readership—a different size and scale. But has there ever, in the history of the world, been an institution that can give up power like that? I don’t know.”

P.S. I love you, mom!