Back to the Funhouse

Having spent a couple days setting up the theory of Hypernormalisation, it’s time to witness it in action, not only at the Republican Convention, but also via the unrest in Wisconsin and the continued influence of conspiracy theorists in the U.S., such as Qanon.

I pointed out on Facebook yesterday that we should distrust our own eyes somewhat — and disbelieve the partisan echo chamber entirely — when judging an event like the Republican Convention. This show is not being put on for us. It is, to a certain extent, meant to trigger us. But it’s main purpose is to do as Surkov wrote about last year, to place Donald Trump in the center of a chaotic universe, making it seem like he alone had the power to do something about it. That too seems like cognitive dissonance, because Trump has proven far more adept at creating chaos than solving it — or more accurately, more skilled at refocusing chaos than easing it.

Regarding that dissonance, there’s a flip-side to the smug overconfidence on the left that rears up whenever Republicans seize the stage like this and talk to themselves. There’s also an equally misinformed pundit class that rises up and declares it all a success without really knowing if it is or why it would be so.

I’m most disappointed in David Axelrod on CNN declaring it all an effective pageant, because I remember David as the voice of reason when I worked in City Hall. He would be called in to meetings to render his opinion on a big project or communications campaign, and instead of acting like Yoda, David would simply state, consistently, that he’d need to see some research before having an informed opinion pro or con. Put together a poll, conduct some focus groups, then he could tell you what he thought in an informed manner.

But that kind of logical political analysis isn’t allowed on the 28 person panel of experts CNN gives seconds to render lightning opinions. The pundit is expected to know in the moment whether something succeeds or fails, based mostly on comparing the event to past events and their outcomes. That seems like a really dicey proposition in 2020 about anything. What environment comes close to this one?

Charlie Sykes, a former conservative talk show host who has become one of the most articulate and interesting Never Trump voices, had this to say in his email newsletter today about whether the GOP convention is working its magic:

The practice of rank punditry chronically inflates the importance of events that are forgotten within days, if not hours. It is the nature of 24/7 opinionating to pump up the significance of moments that will (be) forgotten by the end of the week. That’s how we get puffery about “pivots” and “new tones,” when there is never a pivot and never a new tone.

The thing to remember is the context: the convention is not taking place in a vacuum. Voters have had four years to watch Donald Trump. They have been inundated with Trump, overwhelmed, and saturated. They are about to get a whole lot more. His campaign has already spent hundreds of millions of dollars pushing many of the tropes we saw last night.

It may be new to you, but it’s not necessarily new to the voters who are being targeted.

But having dismissed the convention as something probably a lot less important than it appears, Sykes then turns to the ongoing unrest in Wisconsin, where he lives and which has him deeply concerned.

Kenosha is burning and, as I said yesterday, this could be a pivotal moment in the campaign.

I got a call yesterday from a savvy Democratic consultant [note: this is almost always code for Joe Trippi, but consider that a wild guess in this case] who worried that the images of violence could be a “disaster” for Democrats if Biden did not speak out forcefully. His campaign issued a statement condemning the violence, but we have yet to hear from Biden himself.

I want to take a step back from the politics for a moment — which I fear is spot on and goes back to issues I raised during my “Taxi Driver” discussion earlier this month — to point out the depressing reality of this analysis. A African American man gets shot seven times as he tries to re-enter his car in a small American city, three children in the back seat, and is paralyzed. The event is taped. People are understandably outraged. Violence erupts in reaction. And no one places blame on the President of the United States, but wonders why the Democratic nominee for President hasn’t condemned the violent reaction to the police shooting?

As a matter of principle, wouldn’t it be concerning that police deadly force has become so accepted as a way of life in America that we care far more about the reaction to this use of force? Aren’t we actively encouraging police officers to use deadly force to create this kind of chaos if public opinion judges the reaction more harshly than the act?

What’s more, I don’t see a great deal of pressure being put on the right for the vigilantes that were seen on tape murdering people in Kenosha last night. We just get headlines about the number dead, as if the protesters were responsible for it all, the vigilante who fired shots and then walked through a police cordon with his arms in the air and wasn’t even questioned by an officer about why he was surrendering and for what — he was just allowed to leave the scene unimpeded. This is completely overlooked in the political analysis. It’s the looting and arson that draw all the attention, with all the hemming and hawing about how this reflects badly on Biden.

If you want to know why policies like “stop and frisk” can come into effect and remain in effect for a generation, it’s exactly this mentality that perpetuates it. This is an important moment for Biden, because maybe he can find a way to turn the focus back to the police violence that started this unrest and not take another seat on the merry-go-round that tacitly washes its hands of such acts.

I don’t write this to castigate Sykes, it’s important that Democrats be aware that these issues are out there — our decision in 1988 to completely ignore the Willie Horton attacks on Mike Dukakis went horribly wrong and we should never repeat that error. But it’s also a mistake to assume that 2020 is just like any other year, because it is not. It’s time for Biden to be bold and authentic on issues like this. Some level of “damn the consequences” is the only way to approach politics in this place and time.

Returning to my piece about Surkov yesterday, that quote from him is ringing in my ears: “Russia interferes with their brains, and they do not know what to do with their own altered consciousness.” And like I said in that piece, it no longer matters if Russian troll farms are inciting both sides of these conflicts like they did in 2016, because we’re doing it to ourselves just fine now.

One of the most astute observers of our current political scene is independent journalist Sarah Kendzior. In her recent book “Hiding in Plain Sight,” she notes how these mentalities tend to flip back and forth between the right and left, both feeding each other and creating similar public pathologies. And the most virulent of these pathologies — the one that leads straight to authoritarianism — is “savior syndrome.” Kendzior writes that the left has been consistently guilty of this thought process during the Trump years, convinced that someone will arise to save us from Trump.

This took the form of “Comey will save us,” which soon turned into “Mueller will save us.” That turned out to be the sickest of all wishful thinking, and the bipartisan Senate Intelligence Committee’s far more comprehensive and damning report on Russian 2016 election interference proved it. But it didn’t stop with Mueller’s failure, it continued into “Pelosi will save us (via impeachment)” and now “Biden will save us (via the election).”

On the right, the counter reaction can be seen in Qanon, which Kendzior calls the funhouse mirror reaction to the left’s savior complex:

The Qanon phenomenon — in which Trump acolytes believe an anonymous high-level official named “Q” leaves them coded tips about secret prosecutions as well as other enticing developments, like the underground revolution they claim is being led by a still-alive JFK Jr. — is a disturbing example of savior syndrome.

Savior syndrome is a mind-set that flourishes during the unstable period of autocratic consolidation, when frightened citizens seek to find meaning in the inexplicable actions of their failed leaders. To those under the sway of savior syndrome, once trusted officials are not incompetent or corrupt, they are merely playing “3-D Chess.”

And here we are, listening to pundits trying to critique the moves of a 3-D game of chess that doesn’t actually exist. We’re all less informed as a result and more confused about the future we face, and whether the power we have in the form of a ballot will even be counted amid the pandemic U.S. mail power play.

Ultimately, American citizens still have the power to end this madness and try to start navigating back to a more comprehensible, if still likely highly chaotic, new world. No one is going to save us from what is happening all around us now. The best we can hope for is to retain some autonomy in our ability to make good choices and restore hope in democracy to speak the will of the people and self correct regularly, as needed.

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