The Power of Many: How the Living Web Is Transforming Politics, Business, and Everyday Life

Lesson 1 the politics of the 1920s
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Belief in gigantic secret conspiracies thrived, ranging from the highly improbable to the impossible, and moved from the crackpot periphery to the mainstream. Parts of the establishment—psychology and psychiatry, academia, religion, law enforcement—encouraged people to believe that all sorts of imaginary traumas were real.

We had defined every sort of deviancy down. And as the cultural critic Neil Postman put it in his jeremiad about how TV was replacing meaningful public discourse with entertainment, we were in the process of amusing ourselves to death.


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The Reagan presidency was famously a triumph of truthiness and entertainment, and in the s, as problematically batty beliefs kept going mainstream, presidential politics continued merging with the fantasy-industrial complex. In , as soon as we learned that President Bill Clinton had been fellated by an intern in the West Wing, his popularity spiked.

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Which was baffling only to those who still thought of politics as an autonomous realm, existing apart from entertainment. American politics happened on television; it was a TV series, a reality show just before TV became glutted with reality shows. A titillating new story line that goosed the ratings of an existing series was an established scripted-TV gimmick. The audience had started getting bored with The Clinton Administration , but the Monica Lewinsky subplot got people interested again. Just before the Clintons arrived in Washington, the right had managed to do away with the federal Fairness Doctrine, which had been enacted to keep radio and TV shows from being ideologically one-sided.

Until then, big-time conservative opinion media had consisted of two magazines, William F. Buckley Jr. For most of the 20th century, national news media had felt obliged to pursue and present some rough approximation of the truth rather than to promote a truth, let alone fictions. With the elimination of the Fairness Doctrine, a new American laissez-faire had been officially declared. If lots more incorrect and preposterous assertions circulated in our mass media, that was a price of freedom. If splenetic commentators could now, as never before, keep believers perpetually riled up and feeling the excitement of being in a mob, so be it.

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Instead of relying on an occasional magazine or newsletter to confirm your gnarly view of the world, now you had talk radio drilling it into your head for hours every day. Fox News brought the Limbaughvian talk-radio version of the world to national TV, offering viewers an unending and immersive propaganda experience of a kind that had never existed before. For Americans, this was a new condition. Over the course of the century, electronic mass media had come to serve an important democratic function: presenting Americans with a single shared set of facts.

And there was also the internet, which eventually would have mooted the Fairness Doctrine anyhow. In , the first modern spam message was sent, visible to everyone on Usenet: global alert for all: jesus is coming soon. Over the next year or two, the masses learned of the World Wide Web. Before the web, cockamamy ideas and outright falsehoods could not spread nearly as fast or as widely, so it was much easier for reason and reasonableness to prevail. Before the web, institutionalizing any one alternate reality required the long, hard work of hundreds of full-time militants. In the digital age, however, every tribe and fiefdom and principality and region of Fantasyland—every screwball with a computer and an internet connection—suddenly had an unprecedented way to instruct and rile up and mobilize believers, and to recruit more. False beliefs were rendered both more real-seeming and more contagious, creating a kind of fantasy cascade in which millions of bedoozled Americans surfed and swam. Because until then, that had not been necessary to say. Reason remains free to combat unreason, but the internet entitles and equips all the proponents of unreason and error to a previously unimaginable degree.

Particularly for a people with our history and propensities, the downside of the internet seems at least as profound as the upside. On the internet, the prominence granted to any factual assertion or belief or theory depends on the preferences of billions of individual searchers. Each click on a link is effectively a vote pushing that version of the truth toward the top of the pile of results.

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Exciting falsehoods tend to do well in the perpetual referenda, and become self-validating. When I Googled chemtrails proof , the first seven results offered so-called evidence of the nonexistent conspiracy. Academic research shows that religious and supernatural thinking leads people to believe that almost no big life events are accidental or random.

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Eric Oliver and Thomas J. Wood, confirmed this special American connection. As a year-old, I watched William F. Today I disagree about political issues with friends and relatives to my right, but we agree on the essential contours of reality. People on the left are by no means all scrupulously reasonable. Many give themselves over to the appealingly dubious and the untrue. But fantastical politics have become highly asymmetrical. There is no real left-wing equivalent of Sean Hannity, let alone Alex Jones. Moreover, the far right now has unprecedented political power; it controls much of the U.

Why did the grown-ups and designated drivers on the political left manage to remain basically in charge of their followers, while the reality-based right lost out to fantasy-prone true believers? One reason, I think, is religion. The GOP is now quite explicitly Christian. The party is the American coalition of white Christians, papering over doctrinal and class differences—and now led, weirdly, by one of the least religious presidents ever.

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I doubt the GOP elite deliberately engineered the synergies between the economic and religious sides of their contemporary coalition. But as the incomes of middle- and working-class people flatlined, Republicans pooh-poohed rising economic inequality and insecurity. Economic insecurity correlates with greater religiosity, and among white Americans, greater religiosity correlates with voting Republican. Religion aside, America simply has many more fervid conspiracists on the right, as research about belief in particular conspiracies confirms again and again.

Only the American right has had a large and organized faction based on paranoid conspiracism for the past six decades. As the pioneer vehicle, the John Birch Society zoomed along and then sputtered out, but its fantastical paradigm and belligerent temperament has endured in other forms and under other brand names.

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Yes, say 34 percent of Republican voters, according to Public Policy Polling. But then the right wanted its turn to win. It pretty much accepted racial and gender equality and had to live with social welfare and regulation and bigger government, but it insisted on slowing things down. We still seemed to be in the midst of the normal cyclical seesawing of American politics.

After Reagan, his hopped-up true-believer faction began insisting on total victory. But in a democracy, of course, total victory by any faction is a dangerous fantasy. Another way the GOP got loopy was by overdoing libertarianism. Libertarianism, remember, is an ideology whose most widely read and influential texts are explicitly fiction.

For a while, Republican leaders effectively encouraged and exploited the predispositions of their variously fantastical and extreme partisans. Keeping those people angry and frightened won them elections. But over the past few decades, a lot of the rabble they roused came to believe all the untruths.

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But conservatism to them also meant conserving the natural environment and allowing people to make their own choices, including about abortion. Clarence Thomas, who considered Richard Nixon suspiciously leftish. My parents never belonged to a church. Until about , the Christian right was not a phrase in American politics.

In , my widowed mom, having voted for 14 Republican presidential nominees in a row, quit a party that had become too Christian for her. The Christian takeover happened gradually, but then quickly in the end, like a phase change from liquid to gas. In , three-quarters of the major GOP presidential candidates said they believed in evolution, but in it was down to a third, and then in , just one did.

Although constitutionally the U. Only four presidents have lacked a Christian denominational affiliation, the most recent one in the s. They knew what the country preachers were preaching—what degraded nonsense was being rammed and hammered into yokel skulls. But they were afraid to go out against the imposture while it was in the making. I have been paying close attention to Donald Trump for a long time. Spy magazine, which I co-founded in and edited until , published three cover stories about him—and dozens of pages exposing and ridiculing his lies, brutishness, and absurdity.

Now everybody knows what we knew. Donald Trump is a grifter driven by resentment of the establishment. He sees conspiracies everywhere. He exploited the myths of white racial victimhood. His case of what I call Kids R Us syndrome—spoiled, impulsive, moody, a year-old brat—is acute. He is, first and last, a creature of the fantasy-industrial complex. From through , California was governed by former movie actors more than a third of the time, and one of them became president. Unlike Reagan, Trump was always an impresario as well as a performer.

His reality was a reality show before that genre or term existed. He used the new and remade pieces of the fantasy-industrial complex as nobody had before.