Ever since Kellyanne Conway introduced “alternative facts” into the political lexicon, I’ve been bemused–and concerned–about the numerous Americans who choose to live in alternate realities. And I do think that residing in Cuckoo Land is usually a choice.
Trump’s victory in 2016 was due to a variety of social and political dysfunctions–most obviously, the Electoral College–but also the influence of QAnon. Psychiatrists and other mental health professionals continue to analyze the reasons some people are susceptible to conspiracy theories that strike most of us as bizarre and ridiculous (Jewish space lasers??), but I’ve been focusing on a somewhat different question.
How have modern communication technologies and the Internet fostered the embrace of these “alternate” and often internally-inconsistent world-views?
A recent opinion piece in the New York Times considered that question through the lens of Dominion’s settlement with Fox “News.” The essay noted the voluminous revelations from discovery in the case, and reminded readers that those revelations not only disclosed a great deal about Fox and its relationship with the Republican Party, but also about its relationship with “a political tradition on the right that goes back decades.”
What may not be so obvious following the revelations in the Dominion suit is that many people at Fox are often engaged with a set of deeper forces at play — and these forces most likely helped trigger the case in the first place.
Fox has both promulgated and become subsumed by an alternative political tradition — perhaps most notoriously embodied by the John Birch Society in the 1960s — in which the far right, over decades, has challenged mainstream conservatism on core issues like isolationism, racism, the value of experts and expertise, violent rhetoric and conspiracism.
The Republican Party and the American right’s ability to police extremists was never particularly robust, but whatever guardrails they provided have become diminished through the years. Fox helped break the American right.
As a number of pundits have noted, Fox and its viewers currently have a symbiotic relationship. The views of Fox’s audience are “rooted in the nation’s traditions and culture, and in the far right’s in particular.” What is different today is that those views “have been modernized and mainstreamed by a variety of factors like technology, social media and economic incentives.”
In other words–as a number of observers have noted–Fox no longer controls the beliefs of its audience. The audience controls Fox.
After the 2020 election, fed a diet of lies by Mr. Trump and his lawyers, Fox’s viewers found a community of the like-minded in the notion that liberal enemies had stolen the election and destroyed America. They shared a code that adds fuel to far-right conspiracy theories: The nation’s chief enemies come from within, and the plots are hatched by powerful elites.
This strain of paranoia has deep roots on the American right. It was true of McCarthyism, which blamed State Department traitors for the “loss of China” to Communism. And it resonated with many members of the John Birch Society, a group that flourished in the 1960s, devoted to weeding out Communism from American life. Birchers, too, championed ideas that today’s Fox viewers find persuasive: The plot against America was orchestrated by liberals, State Department types, journalists and other elites out to destroy the country.
Another pattern that surfaced in the Fox revelations: Just as Mr. Carlson, Ms. Ingraham and Sean Hannity dismissed the Big Lie in private while giving airtime to Mr. Trump’s conspiracism in public, some Birchers questioned or played down the conspiracy theories of Robert Welch, a retired candy manufacturer and founder of the group, while remaining true to the Bircher mission and sticking by it.
The essay reminds us that Birchers also attained considerable power in their day, but the transformation of the GOP and the influence of cable television have empowered the distributors of delusion far beyond that exercised by the Birchers.
A critical difference between the experience of the Birchers and Fox and its audience today is that the Republican Party, at times, was willing and able to push Birchers and their ideas to the margins, where they remained for years. Today, the party seems neither willing nor able to police the extremes: It cannot control a national megaphone for Bircher-esque views and, as important, the way companies like Fox monetize them.
Fox began by selling a product that met a perceived demand–but its survival is now tethered to its viewers’ delusional beliefs. The concluding paragraphs of the opinion piece remind us that when the Birch Society became even more extreme, it fizzled out–but the Birchers didn’t have Fox, Elon Musk’s Twitter, social media and a zillion wack-a-doodle Internet sites– and even apps— to sustain it.
As that saying goes, history doesn’t always repeat: sometimes it just rhymes.