The Virus Idea That is Eating America

It is difficult and exhausting to try and keep track of the myriad ways in which the current President and his enablers are shredding the fabric of our nation. Conspiracy theories, anti-science, closet and overt racism, calls for imprisoning journalists, election-rigging, and on…and on…and on…

We are certainly experiencing the birth pangs of full-throated American fascism. I don’t say this lightly, especially in the current climate, where Trump himself casually accuses Democrats and liberals of also being fascists (he does this, of course, not because he actually knows what it means, but because a classic Trump tactic is to just call his opponents the same thing that they call him — the bulked up version of the playground, ‘no, YOU are!’).

But all the signs of fascism are there, as Umair Haque has laid out over and over: a downwardly-mobile middle class punching down on scapegoated minorities, concentration camps, secret police, kleptocratic cronies at the top, installation of close family members as heirs, open flirting with lifelong tenure, etc. Mix in the unreconciled twin tragedies of the founding of the United States — genocide of the indigenous population and enslavement of Africans — and you have a substantial, ripe constituency that is predisposed to seeing internal enemies everywhere, enemies who can only be defeated by the strong leadership of a brutal tyrant.

How did we get to this point? What could possibly bring the third largest country in the world, and history’s largest economy, to the brink of implosive self-destruction?

Against the odds, and somewhat surprisingly, it is a single idea — one core concept that has metastasized, under ideal conditions, to consume our society and body politic. In keeping with the times, we could call this the perfect virus of an idea, something exquisitely matched to the vulnerabilities of the United States, and thus….fatal.

That single, simple, elegantly-annihilating idea is this: “Anyone telling you something different than what I’m telling you is lying.”

Wait, what? How could that basic notion bring mighty America to its knees? It is an old idea, crucial to marketing, self-promotion, self-defense, courtroom testimony, and plausible deniability of all kinds. In fact, it seems like it might be one of the oldest social strategies of our linguistic tenure here on planet Earth. It says, “Trust me, follow me, choose me — because all of the others are leading you astray.” Indeed, it could even be maintained that this idea is the fundamental kernel of all religion and all ideology. After all, what else are those grand mental schemes except massive imaginary structures of belief in the concept that there is only one set of people telling us the truth, while everyone else is lying?

However, the current incarnation of this idea is different, because it emerged from a single secular source, and then spread out to infect a larger segment of our population than any religion could ever hope to, at least in the poliltical sphere. And then it captured one half of our creaking, antiquated, two-party duopoly government, turning the GOP into its host agent of destruction.

That single secular source of this virus idea is, of course, Fox News.

The Fox News gambit of accusing everyone else of lying to the American people was basically a branding/marketing strategy of Roger Ailes. A veteran of political campaigning, Ailes was trying to carve out a space for a new cable news channel, so he adopted the adversarial approach with which he was familiar. Instead of just saying, “our network has better coverage than those other guys,” Ailes went for a different script. “We are not only better here at Fox, we are the only ones telling you the truth, and all of those other networks are lying.”

Again, this sounds so simple and benign. But in practice, Ailes and Fox weaponized this idea, finding an unbelievably vast and receptive audience for the new tactic. Why was there such an appetite for this kind of “news?” After all, it’s hard to imagine Walter Cronkite signing off his broadcasts with, “Good evening, and remember, those other guys are lying to your face.”

The American embrace of Fox’s claim to exclusivity on the truth has its source in a few confluent events. First, Fox came of age in the mid-to-late 90s, the exact moment when Newt Gingrich was laying down a scorched-earth approach to two-party politics. While never a sea of tranquility, prior generations of Congresspeople had built a disagree-but-work-together-for-the-common-good style of government. But by the mid-90s, technology had enabled a huge leap in professional expertise around campaigning, media, money-raising, and PR. Gingrich seized on these new capabilities, and crafted a hyper-partisan approach to governing, one that maximized citizen and corporate donations by demonizing the adversary and massively inflating fear of the opposition.

Fox News meshed perfectly with this new Gingrich universe, and the ground was laid for a permanent Fox-GOP marriage, where they together battled the dark forces of liberalism and their handmaiden Democrats.

From that single idea (“I’m the only one telling you the truth”) — steeped in the nourishing spices of Gingrich-style politics, culture war claptrap (war on Christmas), and lingering national racism — a societal malignancy emerged. It is, after all, a very short leap from “All of those people are lying to you,” to “All of those people are enemies of America.”

And that is where we are now. Donald Trump is the literal embodiment of this horribly damaging idea. He has been marinating in the corrosive Fox sauce for so long that there is little doubt that he suffers from some major and significant mental illnesses, of the paranoid and delusional types. While he is clearly a charlatan and a con-man, I am fairly confident that Trump truly believes that he is some kind of talisman of authenticity, and that anyone who disagrees with him (or doesn’t look quite right) is his cosmic and metaphysical enemy, a traitor to country and truth itself.

Needless to say, an insane leader with paranoid delusions, combined with an acquiescent major party that enables his law-breaking, is the textbook recipe for fascism. This recent quote from Trump should immediately disqualify him for every American voter, and should, in an ideal world, result in his immediate removal:

“The only way we’re going to lose this election is if the election is rigged.”

Just think about that. A sitting president is maintaining that in an upcoming election, where even Fox News polls have him well behind, any result that has him losing the election is not valid. There is no reasoning offered, no evidence of anything to support his point. It’s just a pure “fuck you” to the United States and its democratic institutions. It is a dictatorial, fascist loyalty test, pushing the original Fox News idea of exclusivity of access to truth to its insane limits.

Is this the idea that finally kills America? We’ll see.

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