The lack of capacity for critical thinking among some of the American electorate is nothing new. The French traveler Alexis de Tocqueville famously noted it in the late 1830s in the two volumes of his book, Democracy in America. Almost 130 years later, the American historian Richard Hofstadter remarked upon it in two of his works from the early 1960s, Anti-intellectualism in American Life, and The Paranoid Style in American Politics. Both of Hofstadter’s works still apply today in complementary fashion as the 2020 election nears and Clueless Leader and his cult followers on the far right drop in greater and greater numbers off the edge of reality into the realm of psychotic fever dreams.
Mike Caulfield’s “Four Moves and a Habit” method for the detection of Fake News online. Infographic created by Shonnmharen.
The great difference between now and the early 1960s, when Hofstadter wrote about the propensity of some people for ignoring facts that didn’t fit their world view, is that those people now have access to the internet and to social media, where they can spread their diseased notions like a contagion. Rumors that once took days or weeks to spread, and in the process may have fizzled out when confronted by facts, now spread in minutes and hours in a continuous onslaught that drowns outs facts. For those too intellectually lazy to engage in critical thinking, there has never been a better time for finding spurious rumors to prop up their dangerously bonkers ideas.
Most of the rumor mongering conspiracy theorists with dangerously bonkers ideas are now, and have always been, on the far right of the American political spectrum. It’s an ongoing feature of American life that the ruling class demonizes the far left because they rightly suspect the far left would overturn the cushy lifestyle of the ruling class if they could, and to help them turn the focus of hatred and suspicion upon the far left the ruling class has always had willing allies, or rather dupes, among the far right. Useful idiots.
These are the kind of people who adhere to QAnon conspiracy theories about the evil character of Democrats and Antifa partly out of credulity since they want to believe the stories, and partly because it titillates them that most reasonable adults, and particularly liberals, are outraged and appalled by the stories. For a third of the American electorate, an incapacity for critical thinking is displayed as a badge of honor, not of shame.
Too many right wing delusionists are willing, even eager, to use violence when they don’t get their way. In this they are aided and abetted by the ruling class, who use them as a cudgel against the far left and anyone else who questions the established capitalist order. Terrorism in this country has almost always come from the far right, not the far left, and for nearly four years now the current president has winked and nodded at right wing terrorists in this country. He has filled a powder keg with dangerous fantasies and then recently lit the fuse with his call out to right wing terrorists ahead of the election.
A sketch from a January 1979 episode of Second City Television, starring Andrea Martin, Catherine O’Hara, and Dave Thomas. In 2016, 52% of white women voted for the Republican presidential candidate, someone who would be incapable of understanding this SCTV sketch as satire.
For Richard Hofstadter in his examination of American history there have been breakdowns in what may be considered the consensus of political views reconciling economic and cultural differences (though he himself chafed at being lumped with the post World War II era “consensus” historians), but only one failure of consensus, and that led to the Civil War. Perhaps hope can be found in the realization that the truly dangerous right wing terrorists in this country are fewer in number than they would have everyone else believe. If the current president somehow gains four more years in power, however, that glimmer of hope may go dark because more violent reactionaries will become ever more emboldened, growing their numbers to become a visceral threat, sinister and close.
The recent controversy over Sarah Palin, Ted Nugent, and Kid Rock goofing in front of a portrait of Hillary Clinton at the White House tells us nothing new really about who these people are. Their immature actions were about what we would expect from a tour group of seventh-graders left unsupervised for a time, and were mild compared to the antics of two gay activists at a White House event in 2012 who flipped the bird at Ronald Reagan’s portrait. Joy Behar on The View accurately characterized the Palin trio as “sore winners”.
Behar’s phrase reveals the authoritarian character of many Trump supporters, and it tells us something about why they would goof in front of the portrait of a defeated political rival rather than merely tell us that they are childishly vindictive. The term “authoritarian” as used here refers to a personality type instead of only a political inclination. More authoritarian personalities are typically drawn to right-wing politics than to the left, but nonetheless there are authoritarians of the left. The Canadian psychologist Bob Altemeyer has studied and written about the authoritarian personality type, and developed a short test for the type, though he humorously suggests in his notes on the test that you not take the result too much to heart. His book on the subject, The Authoritarians, is available as a free download, and is well worth reading.
We are accustomed to hearing about sore losers, and certainly the Clinton camp has come across as such with their eagerness to cast blame for their election loss on everything and everyone but their own miscalculations and hubris, but Behar’s clever turn of phrase shines an unusual light on the election winners. What do they have to be sore about? Because an examination of the authoritarian character shows they are perpetually aggrieved people who feel put upon by the larger society no matter how powerful and numerous they are within it. An authoritarian always needs a scapegoat, The Other, a straw man (or in the case of the Hillary Clinton portrait, a straw woman), to push against and to externalize their hostility and anger. Anger makes up a large part of the authoritarian character, and for their own well-being they need to turn it outward.
Hitler in Paris, 23 June 1940; photo from the Heinrich Hoffman Collection. Albert Speer, architect, on the left, and Arno Breker, sculptor, on the right.
So we have a trio of winners who take time from their White House tour to gloat over the portrait of a loser; we have a president who continually dredges up his victory over that loser in a childish attempt to validate himself; we have the Republican chairman of the House Oversight and Government Reform Committee, who had been licking his chops in anticipation of a Clinton presidency because of the joy and headlines it would have given him in continuously investigating her, and who now appears to have been so deflated by her loss and the no-win prospect for him of investigating the new president that it could have affected his decision to not run for re-election in 2018.
Why then with all this winning are they not happy? True winners, after all, can be happy and generous in their victory. Because as authoritarians they cannot be happy for themselves with winning, but they can be happy with beating someone they have made into The Other. They will prop up a straw man or woman again and again in order to beat that straw person down again and again; they will repeatedly, with hollow enjoyment, revive the memory of The Other’s loss; and they will be disappointed and without purpose when they are deprived of the opportunity to badger a scapegoat and to build up their own esteem at the scapegoat’s expense.
Cheering crowds greet British troops in Paris on Liberation Day, 26 August 1944; photo from the British Imperial War Museum.
Such are the actions of the authoritarians on the right in Washington, D.C., while over on the Left Coast, in Berkeley, California, the authoritarians on the left are not helping the cause of an open society, but are instead hurting it when they make martyrs of right-wing opportunists Milo Yiannopoulos and Ann Coulter. The old saying “sunshine is the best disinfectant” is beyond their ken. They don’t trust others to make their own adult decisions about what to hear and believe. What is within their ken is that they fervently believe they know what’s best for everybody. That they enlist the words and ideas of Martin Luther King, Jr., to validate their tactics is perverse. That the By Any Means Necessary (BAMN) and Antifa groups are authoritarian in nature is without doubt. They are certainly not sore winners, and don’t fit the profile of sore losers. They are nothing other than soreheads.