I love conspiracy theories. I wrote a novella centered on the conspiracy theories and political machinations. (Not to spoil it, but it involves a takeover of the United States government by an insane dictator. But that’s another story.) The point is, I’ve spent a lot of time reading popular conspiracy theories.
Lately, a lot of attention has been paid to so-called “fake news” on social media, and the role they played in the recent U.S. Election.
People who listen to the radio frequently are familiar with these things. A lot of strange ideas have been floated over the air on shows like Coast to Coast AMfor decades now. It’s not new.
I think what is new is the politicization of conspiracy theories. In the old days, conspiracies were about the Illuminati or Extraterrestrial life, and those are never on the ballot. But now, the conspiracy theories are deliberately meant to certain political factions.
It may have started with the 9/11 conspiracy theories, which were inevitably explicitly political in nature. Or it might have just been that political strategists realized they could take advantage of people’s love for conspiracies in order to advance their aims. (Good strategists are always looking for any edge they can get.)
But I’m curious about is why the term “fake news” (which evokes something more like satirical sites on the order ofThe Onion) seems to have supplanted the term “conspiracy theory”. What reasons could there be for this?
“This instrument can teach, it can illuminate; yes, and even it can inspire. But it can do so only to the extent that humans are determined to use it to those ends. Otherwise it’s nothing but wires and lights in a box.”–Edward R. Murrow. 1958
[Note: it might be useful to read this post before you proceed. It addresses some of the same points.]
Barb Knowles of the saneteachers blog suggested that I do a post on print media political campaigns vs. televised/video ones.
It made such an impression on Nixon that he did not debate in his later winning campaigns. He believed, and he was probably right, that an extended televised appearance that wasn’t carefully stage-managed would hurt his image with the voters.
Indeed, in every campaign in which there have been televised debates, the more charismatic candidate has won.
Back in the days of print-only campaign coverage, it was much harder for a charismatic candidate to win. In the 1896 Presidential election, the famously charismatic populist speaker William Jennings Bryan lost to the un-charismatic William McKinley.
Both Bryan and McKinley played to their strengths during the campaign. Bryan traveled the country at an incredible pace, giving more than 500 speeches. McKinley used his massive financial advantage to send other speakers on his behalf, and to control the coverage that appeared in print.
There can be no doubt that if television had existed in 1896, Bryan would have won. For one thing–and this is something political strategists still don’t understand–even negative television coverage of charismatic candidates is a win for them. Even if some pundit comes on afterward to denounce the candidate, as long as video of him delivering his message is getting out, he is winning.
There was of course no television, or even radio, in 1896. However, Bryan was so popular that decades later, he would record parts of his legendary “Cross of Gold” speech for posterity. No doubt he was less brilliant an orator in his old age, but it is still powerful:
Print media is inherently less emotional than television and video. It’s a more intellectual, less visceral activity, to read an article in the paper than to watch someone on television.
If you just read transcripts of Trump’s speeches or debate answers, you will see they are incoherent nonsense. He rarely speaks in complete sentences, he repeats himself, he interrupts himself. It only works if you can see him delivering it. That visceral reaction is the nature of charismatic authority.
This, more than anything else, is the key difference between televised and print campaigning. Print is intellectual, television is emotional.
Back in April of 2011, I was upset when President Obama released his long-form birth certificate in response to demands from one Donald Trump. I thought it was a mistake by Obama, and I said so at the time.
My thinking at the time was that it elevated Trump to Obama’s level–it made it seem like the President had to take what Trump said seriously.
This bothered me because it reminded me of something I read in the book Nixonland, by Rick Perlstein. Perlstein documents how Richard Nixon continually badgered then-President Lyndon Johnson about Vietnam, until Johnson finally responded to Nixon’s criticisms. By doing so, Johnson unwittingly elevated Nixon to appear as the “leader of the opposition”. He made Nixon seem as though he was on a par with the office of the President.
This was part of Nixon’s plan. It was part of how he made his famous political comeback from humiliated has-been in 1962 to President in 1968. It’s always stuck with me, and so whenever I see some would-be Presidential candidate angling to get the President to react to criticism, I automatically think of it.
When I mentioned this in 2011, my friends said I was paranoid, and laughed at the idea that Trump would ever be taken seriously. He was a joke, as shown when President Obama roasted him at the White House Correspondents’ Dinner:
My friends thought this was the ultimate humiliation for Trump. He’d become a laughingstock.
Well, my friends aren’t laughing any more.
I derive no pleasure from this, but it does appear that Trump was using the birth-certificate issue as a proof of concept for his future campaign: say outrageous stuff so the press covers it, then keep harping on it to draw more followers to your “cause”, and then before you know it, some pretty big people start responding to you. And now, the headlines all say “President responds to Trump”.
Once his demands for the birth certificate were met, Trump realized that the press was ripe to be used for his unorthodox quest for political power. But I think he also knew he would stand no chance against a popular and charismatic sitting President in 2012. Hence his decision to delay until now.
The birth-certificate thing was silly and stupid and frivolous and ultimately the conspiracy theorists were proven wrong. But that wasn’t the main takeaway from it. The main takeaway was that Donald Trump asked for something, and the President gave it to him. This emboldened Trump to start trying to see just what else he could get out of the political system.
From the time this blog began, back in the doe-eyed innocent days of 2009, there is one idea I’ve hammered on more than any other. I’ve written so many posts about it that I’ve lost track of when I wrote what. It’s not even my idea, it’s Paul Graham’s; but I have kept discussing it, debating it, and analyzing it more than even he has.
Policies, facts, scandals, money… all of these things are secondary. Modern elections are determined by which candidate has more charisma.
I thought I had a pretty nice test in 2012: Mitt Romney had tons of money, and many pundits confidently predicted he would win. But he was stiff and boring next to the charismatic and likeable President Obama. I didn’t think Romney had a chance.
I was right. Obama won re-election.
But there was one moment when I felt a little less confident of Obama’s chances: the first debate in 2012, which was a disaster for him. Romney owned the stage and seemed more vigorous and energetic than Obama. Some people said Romney was outright bullying both Obama and the debate moderator, Jim Lehrer; but the bottom line was it worked. Most people felt Romney won that debate.
Obama and his campaign learned their lesson, however; and after that, Romney lost the next two debates, and his running mate, Paul Ryan, was similarly overpowered by Vice-President Biden.
Romney had one successful moment where he was able to position himself as an energetic businessman and cast Obama as a stodgy career politician, but he couldn’t keep it up. Probably because Romney was a stodgy career politician himself.
Most people, including myself, saw this first debate, figured it was an aberration, and moved on.
But somewhere, I think someone must have seen it and thought “what if you had someone who didn’t just adopt the ‘bullying energetic businessman’ persona for one debate? What if you found someone who had dedicated his entire life to playing the character of an bullying energetic businessman?”
You would need more than that, though. Another problem with Romney was that he was so unlikable. He was not just anti-charismatic; he seemed profoundly out of touch with the common people. He was “old money”; the kind of blue-blood elitist that Republicans always complain about.
To appeal to the average voter, you want someone who behaved like stereotypical “new money”–someone who made big, gaudy purchases, and spoke the language of the typical “man on the street”.
I think you see where I’m going with this, but let me drive the point home a bit more.
Trump is not boring. Trump constantly commands the press’s attention. He does this mainly by saying stuff that is so outrageous they are compelled to cover him. And he almost never backs down from it, either.
Trump is also a big believer in the idea that negative publicity is better than no publicity. Most political candidates are terrified of negative publicity, but Trump seems to take the view that when you get it, the best follow-up action is not to apologize, but to double down on whatever caused it.
And as far as “optics” go, he is right. Pure, baseless confidence plays better on TV than nuanced reason or thoughtful consideration. When you are debating on TV, it’s better to be wrong and “full of passionate intensity” than to be right and “lack all conviction.”
The moment that truly sunk Romney in 2012 was this one, from the second debate. He looked weak and hesitant, especially contrasted with the President’s tone of calm command:
In Romney’s place, Trump would have probably just kept going and shouted down everyone, insisting that the transcript was wrong. I’m not saying it’s a good or honest way to live one’s life, but the sad fact is that it’s how you win televised debates.
Debates aren’t won on the basis of facts and policies. They certainly ought to be, and it would be a better world if they were, but the truth is they are won on the basis of who connects with the audience on a visceral level.
That is where charisma comes in. Actually, that is what charisma is: the ability to make people irrationally feel a connection with the candidate, irrespective or even in spite of what the candidate says.
Donald Trump can do that, at least with some people. Mitt Romney could not do it with anyone.
My Democratic friends usually get upset when I say that, like I’m criticizing Clinton or saying it is some kind of character flaw. It’s not that at all. Most people in the world, including many successful politicians, cannot do that. It’s a very rare ability.
Most people are afraid of public speaking. This is because they are worried about remembering what they have to say, getting the facts right, etc. But charismatic people don’t care about that–they are connecting with their audience on another level entirely.
That’s the bad news for the Democrats. The good news is that Trump’s “say outrageous stuff to get free coverage” strategy has alienated not only huge numbers of independent voters, but also many members of his own party. When a party can’t unite, it typically dooms them in a general election.
Add to this that due to a combination of demographic and political factors the Democrats start off at an advantage in terms of Electoral College votes, and it seems like this could be the election that shows the charisma theory does not always hold true.
And that is indeed how most people expect it to play out. Most polls favor Clinton. So the Democrats have every reason to feel good about their chances.
But there is one thing that should give them pause. And to see it, we have to go back again to that first debate in 2012.
The odd thing that happened in that debate was that Romney became shockingly moderate. So moderate that it caught President Obama off guard. He was surprised by Romney’s sudden change of positions, and thus unprepared for it. (You can read my original take on that debate here.)
Romney threw out a lot of the stuff he had said during the primaries, and became almost a copy of Obama. And it worked–for one debate.
And this was Mitt Romney, career Republican politician, who was throwing out his own Party’s platform. Do you think that Donald Trump, a political newbie who is currently at war with half his own party; a man who wrote a book advocating saying whatever it takes to close a deal, will have any compunction about making even more extreme changes in order to win?
I expect Trump to have adopted many of Bernie Sanders’s plans by September. He is counting on the fact that people will forget what he said earlier in the year. He is counting on the fact that breathless media coverage will want to discuss what he said that day, not what he said six months ago.
Trump will attempt to surprise Clinton by taking positions more liberal than hers on many issues, and he’ll do it in his usual over-the-top, name-calling style. He’ll try to court the liberal vote by saying he is more liberal than she is.
Will he succeed?
Hard to say. But the power of charisma is that it makes people believe things that they really have no logical reason to believe.
For Christmas I received a book called “How to Read Literature Like a Professor”, by Thomas Foster. The title is self-explanatory I suppose, but it serves as an introduction to literary analysis. The main point he makes is that it’s all about pattern recognition–an analysis of a given “text” (“text” being used in the academic sense of “anything”) is done by recognizing that this character is like this myth, or legend, or that this weather symbolizes that state of mind.
It is not a bad book, although I think I might already be doing what Foster describes. Feel free to read through any of my posts critiquing books, movies or video games and see if you agree–I tend to remark when a given story or character reminds me of another one.
It’s probably true of any field, not just literature, that pattern recognition is they key to being good at it. That’s why I love studying history; you start to see recurring behavior patterns and possibly even can learn something from them. Being able to notice when thing x is like thing y is a highly important skill. It’s also a relatively easy one to develop–all you need to do is see a lot of stuff and remember it.
One claim Foster makes is that “there is only one story” in the world, and it’s about “everything”. This is the sort of statement that’s so generic and unfalsifiable it seems useless. And yes, I know about Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, and the “monomyth”. I don’t doubt that the vast majority of stories share the same fundamental theme (I’ve even blogged about it), but I think saying there is only one oversimplifies, and saying it’s about “everything” is just a cop-out. The Masque of the Red Death and Watership Down are totally not the same story.
That’s not to say it’s a bad book; Foster’s writing is light and witty, and he seems like he would be a fun guy with whom to chat about books. As you can doubtless tell, I enjoy that sort of thing.
One thing I’ve been thinking about lately is how much better the world might be if armchair analysts of literature–myself included–would redirect their powers of analysis towards things like politics or current affairs. Imagine what could happen if people could only look at society with the same detached, logical and rigorous search for patterns that they apply to fictional narratives and characters.
I know people–heck, I think I’m one of them–who love morally interesting and complex stories, who is fascinated by exploring possible motivations of the characters in a story–and then turns around and makes simplistic judgments or assertions about real world events and people. I sometimes think if I were as good at applying my critical faculties to real-life as at literature, I’d be better off.
Anyway, rant over–it’s still an enjoyable book, and despite what I’ve said here, I’m sure I won’t be giving up my fondness for the parlor game that is literary analysis anytime soon.
I have friends who don’t get blogging at all. “What’s the point?” they ask. “Most blogs are not even reporting; they are just people pontificating about things.”
Which is more or less what I do. And I have to admit, they have a point. After all, when you are not reporting new information, all you can do is give your take on it. And let’s face it: when you are giving your take, the three major reactions are:
I don’t care.
If they agree, there was no reason to read it, since they already thought so. If they disagree–well, this is the internet, so they will probably just insult you and leave. (I have been fortunate to have intelligent readers who can disagree civilly and with reasoned arguments.) Or they don’t care, in which case… they don’t care. That’s probably worst of all, since it means the least traffic.
So, given all that, what’s the point of blogging if you are not going to be a shoe-leather reporter bringing the latest news?
One of my favorite quotes from literature is Lovecraft’s “The most merciful thing in the world, I think, is the inability of the human mind to correlate all its contents.” This, as longtime readers will remember, was on the footer of my old blog.
But despite the pessimistic tone, I actually like correlating contents. In my opinion, the best post I have done so far is this one, because it involves correlating a lot of disparate ideas and information. It’s not like I did any original work, but I like to think it led people to information they might not have been aware of otherwise.
The other thing I like about blogging–and I realize many bloggers do not take advantage of this–is that it can be collaborative. This poem, which I started and then Thingy and P.M. Prescott completed is a good example, and I’m sure I could find more.
I guess that’s really what I like about it more than anything else: the opportunity to exchange ideas with interesting people.
There’s been a lot of talk this week about how horribly wrong the conservative press got their election predictions, picking Romney to win in a landslide despite no polls supporting this idea. They have been roundly criticized for attacking Nate Silver, who had the idea to go look at the polls and predict how people would vote based on them. (Personally, I think my method is even better: I predicted who would win just by looking at the candidates. But that’s an aside.)
The conservative press–Fox News, Limbaugh, and that crowd–are, of course, a bunch of liars. I have no doubt about it, and I didn’t even before this election. It’s so obvious as to be hardly worth dwelling on. So I won’t. No, what I want to talk about is the non-Fox mainstream news media’s coverage of the election, especially election night itself. It was not quite as bad as Fox, but it wasn’t good. It covered everything as a neck-and-neck horse race, and really only reported states as they came in. (I will admit up front that I did not watch all of it; I went to bed at 10:00 pm Eastern Time, with total confidence of Obama’s victory.)
On my PBS station, I get something called “BBC World News America“. As you may have guessed, it’s BBC news for Americans. The difference between this and the regular American news is very striking. On election night, the BBC did a good job pointing out that if you counted in the electoral votes of the solidly Democratic and Republican states, the President had a sizeable advantage. Romney was, in short, playing with a handicap. He was trailing before the competition actually started.
On all the other networks, all they really talk about is the “swing states”. Obviously, these are the most important, but to watch the coverage you would think that the whole affair rested entirely on who won these states. They didn’t seem to focus so much on the fact that Obama had more margin for error. It was just a “ooooo, who will win the next state?” sort of show, like a “reality” show of sorts.
Then there were people like David Gregory, who seemed to think he was covering a football game. He kept talking about Obama’s “defense” and Romney’s “offense”. That means nothing. It’s not really that kind of competition. People vote for and against candidates for lots of reasons. I mean, the weather can determine the outcome of elections.
All in all, the television political press is pretty lousy, in my opinion. Fox News is just a Republican P.R. office and the rest of them just like a close race so they can have something exciting to talk about.
I can believe it. I occasionally watch my local news, and the two main takeaways are:
There are people all over the place committing heinous crimes
Crime and sports seem to be the big-ticket items on local news. The National news, on the other hand, is focused mostly on politics, health issues and foreign relations. The major points here are:
Republicans and Democrats hate one another.
There are many diseases and/or foods that will kill you.
People in other countries hate one another and, usually, us.
I have been taught from a young age to view everything with a critical eye, so I like to believe that I’m capable of realizing this isn’t an accurate picture of the whole world; just the serious bits of it. But still, if you had a steady diet of this, you’d think we were living in the world of A Clockwork Orange. How telling is it that the least angry and life-threatening stories in all are about sport, which is basically a proxy for war?
That’s just the news, which is supposedly what the really well-informed people watch. Then there are tons of both real and fictional cop shows where people commit bizarre and horrible crimes, just to really drive home the point. And that’s just the over-the-air television. I don’t get cable, but I don’t get the impression most of the programming on there is geared more towards thoughtful, civilized thinkers. I could be wrong.
People always ask: “why don’t they report good news”? Well, there are a few reasons:
It’s almost never urgent I don’t need to hear about the people who had a nice day, I need to hear if a gang war is breaking out.
It’s boring. A part of us is entranced by lurid and violent stuff.
When you factor in the first two reasons, what do you think gets more viewership?
Finally: sometimes, good news does get reported. The end of wars, for example, tends to get lots of attention, though you could argue that’s not good news, merely the cessation of bad news.
But what about the effect TV has on people? Does it do what it did to Faye Dunaway’s character in Network? (Yes, I am aware of the irony in using an analogy from a movie to talk about this.) But how could you avoid concluding from TV that the world is a horrible place you should minimize contact with? It seems to me that the only options are (a) assume most of what they say on TV is a lie, which is dangerous because you might become a 9/11 truther or something if you do that, OR (b) not watch it, and run the risk of not being “up” on current events.
Lastly, of course, there is the internet; which should allow you to customize your news. The only problem with that is TV news problem 2, above, which leads us back to where we started.
As a senator and presidential candidate, [Obama] had criticized George W. Bush for flouting the role of Congress. And during his first two years in the White House, when Democrats controlled Congress, Mr. Obama largely worked through the legislative process to achieve his domestic policy goals.
But increasingly in recent months, the administration has been seeking ways to act without Congress.
The first several paragraphs of the article all portray Obama as making something of a reversal; of now doing what he accused Bush of doing. Eventually, in the ninth paragraph, we get the details:
[F]or the most part, Mr. Obama’s increased unilateralism in domestic policy has relied on a different form of executive power than the sort that had led to heated debates during his predecessor’s administration: Mr. Bush’s frequent assertion of a right to override statutes on matters like surveillance and torture.
“Obama’s not saying he has the right to defy a Congressional statute,” said Richard H. Pildes, a New York University law professor. “But if the legislative path is blocked and he otherwise has the legal authority to issue an executive order on an issue, they are clearly much more willing to do that now than two years ago.”
That’s sort of a major difference. It’s one thing to use the Executive’s legally-granted powers aggressively, it’s another to go around the laws of the Legislative branch–“through the dark side”, as the fellow once said. But that’s not really the impression the casual reader, or the reader of headlines, is likely to get.
However, this has now been proven untrue by scientists. According to the Washington Post:
“The researchers — three statisticians and one health economist — devised a study to determine whether musicians who had achieved success (as defined by their having had a number-one album on the British charts between 1956 and 2007) were more likely than the average person in that country to die at that particular age. Their sample included 1,046 musicians of all ilks and genres (among them, the authors note, several Muppets), 522 of whom were designated as being “at risk” for having achieved their success before turning 27.”
Okay, as you may have guessed, this is a joke. For some reason, this particular journal, the BMJ, always does some sort of joke issue in December.
On the other hand, they actually did write a whole article about it. I mean, they did it in jest, but apparently someone actually did spend time putting it together. And, as you may see by the Washington Post article and this CNN article, the press seems to treat it almost like an actual science story.