So, yesterday was pretty crazy, huh?

When a mob of pro-Trump extremists broke into the Capitol building yesterday, it was both surreal and strangely unsurprising. It was the logical culmination not just of Trump's presidency, but of the increasingly insular and radical conservative media ecosystem. Trump was the match, but the kindling has been laid ever since Fox News rose to prominence with its slogan "Fair & Balanced" - implying, of course, that other networks were neither.

In the last few years, I and many people I know have lost relationships with family and friends as they descended down an increasingly extreme and bizarre rabbit hole of conspiracy theories and identity politics. Recently I sat quietly as my girlfriend's dad explained, without a hint of irony, that George Soros and the Rockafeller family were funding BLM and Antifa in an attempt to install communists governments in "liberal" cities, and that "Hollywood" is in cahoots with congressional Democrats in a child-kidnapping cult that ritualistically consumes their blood to artificially extend their lives. Or something. I dunno, my eyes started to glaze over pretty quickly.

"Reasonable conservatism" is not an oxymoron. There are plenty of educated, rational people who advocate for libertarian-like ideologies of deregulated markets and small government. I don't generally agree with such people, but I don't think they're nutjobs or callous, hateful weirdos. But how does someone go from dipping their toes into conventionally conservative ideology to, well.... this?

Getty Images
Getty Images

Today, the gaslighting has already begun. Trump supporters are falsely claiming that these people weren't really Trump supporters, despite the fact that pro-Trump groups were literally boasting about the siege of the Capitol as it happened. No, you see, it was actually Antifa! They're just disguised as Trump supporters in an effort to discredit them!

In the last month, as Trump's attempts to reverse the election outcome was roundly rejected by 60+ courts - in many cases by judges Trump himself nominated - and his own Justice Department and AG William Barr disabused any theories of a fraudulent election, Trump's supporters simply doubled down. Unpersuaded by inconvenient truths, they insisted that the next step would be the one that would hand Trump the election that the libs were trying to steal. 

This might seem surprising, but if you've ever studied cults and conspiracy theorists, it's pretty much by the book. It's well known that end-times "prophets," when they are inevitably proved wrong when they try to predict the end of the world, actually gain more devotion from their followers, not less.

How can this be? How does one go from "reasonable conservatism" to batshit insane conspiracy theories and religious adherence to a cult of personality? It's actually not as difficult to get there as it might seem, and in fact it's pretty much exactly like getting sucked into a weird, cult-like evangelical church.

When I was a teenage evangelical, I was told that a number of things were off-limits - you know, for my "spiritual health". Things like secular music, secular movies and television (especially R-rated movies), and reading materials that weren't expressly endorsed by the church. We viewed "the world" - everyone outside of our church, and churches like ours - as fundamentally lost, unhappy, immoral, depraved, and an existential threat. 

When you visit Ben Shapiro's rag The Daily Wire, you're greeted by a pop-up that says "You can't trust legacy media," which then prompts you to subscribe. Just like Fox News' "Fair & Balanced" slogan, the implication is clear: don't trust "mainstream" media. Trust us. The notion that the mainstream media can't be trusted is a fundamental presupposition of the conservative media ecosystem. The goal is not just to garner more followers, but to garner devoted followers who reject out of hand any inconvenient information that doesn't come from a pre-approved source. 

We saw this in full effect on election day. Fox News called Arizona for Biden before any other forecaster, and the response from pro-Trump conservatives was swift: Fox News was no longer conservative; they betrayed Trump and they were not to be trusted. When Chris Wallace gave a stern, uncompromising interview to Trump, I logged into Facebook only to see countless comments accusing Wallace of being a "liberal." Stalwart conservatives like John Kelly, John Bolton, and Jeff Sessions found themselves facing the ire of pro-Trump conservatives after they dared to speak out against him. When William Barr could not produce evidence of an election conspiracy, he resigned from the Trump administration. In August, Trump - displeased with Fox News' election coverage - tweeted, "Fox doesn't work for us anymore."

Back in the Spring, Trump gave a bizarre, meandering speech at the CDC in which he boasted that "all these doctors" were amazing at his knowledge of "this stuff", by which I assume he meant virology or epidemiology. He falsely claimed, during a widespread testing shortage, that "anyone who wants a test can get a test" and went off on a tangent about his late uncle, whom Trump described as "a great super-genius" who "taught at MIT for, like, a record number of years." It was a surreal press conference in which someone who obviously had no idea what he was talking about was trying, quite pathetically, to appear knowledgeable and authoritative. 

Out of curiosity, I scoured conservative media outlets for coverage of this fiasco. It was widely covered in mainstream media, and I figured conservative media would simply be trying to spin it. I was wrong. I found nothing. The only coverage I could find was an unedited video of the event on the Fox Business YouTube channel. There was no analysis, no op-eds, no fact-checking, nothing. It became clear to me that conservative media does not simply discourage its followers from seeking outside sources - it shields its audience from information that might undermine the central us-vs-them narrative. 

Research from the Pew a few years back found that liberals tend to get their news from a considerably more diverse array of sources than conservatives. That shouldn't be surprising - the entire purpose of conservative media is to limit its audience's exposure to contrarian views, just like culty churches tell their followers not to consume secular media or have close relationships with people outside of the church. If you can sell people an us-vs-them narrative, frame "liberals" or "black lives matter" or "antifa" as the enemy, your audience becomes fearful and distrustful of the outside world. This leads them deeper into the rabbit hole, and it becomes a cycle. 

It might be counterintuitive to think that the concept of the "liberal media" is a conspiracy theory, but that's precisely what it is. It's "conspiracy lite." It's repeated so casually and so often that even many moderates credulously repeat the falsehood. Consider that what is generally meant by the term is not simply that journalists, as a demographic, tend to lean left in their personal politics; after all, whether a journalist leans left or right in their personal politics does not mean their reporting is false or unreliable, and since college-educated people tend to lean left anyway it shouldn't be surprising that journalists tend to do so.

But the "liberal media" conspiracy is much deeper than that, although it's almost never explicitly stated exactly what is meant by it, which helps it to remain both pliable enough that it can be molded to fit varying degrees of extremism and opaque enough that it's hard to pin down exactly what the factual claims are. The concept is more insidious - that Democratic politicians and Hollywood "elites" are in cahoots with major news organizations, controlling the information in a ruse to undermine conservatism and promote liberal points of view. It was especially easy for conservatives to get on board with this idea in the last four years, because the mainstream media relentlessly fact-checked Trump, frequently called him out for his lies and falsehoods, and described his erratic, bizarre behavior as.... well, erratic and bizarre. With so much "negative coverage," it was easy for many to believe the lie that, as Trump himself so often stated, the media just wasn't being "fair."

Start grilling conservatives on what precisely is meant by a liberally biased media, and you'll be hard-pressed to find substantive answers. What journalists are being bought off or manipulated, and by whom? Where is the money trail? Which politicians or Hollywood elites are involved in manipulating editorial content in mainstream media outlets? What exactly is happening? A True Believer might be able to find some anecdotes here and there, but remember - this is the allegation of a widespread conspiracy of false and manipulated information. 

What we saw yesterday was the death knell of Trumpism. Trump is a one-termer. Biden has been certified as president-elect. Democrats won control of the Senate by flipping Georgia, a traditionally red state. This follows on the heels of Republicans' loss of the House in 2018. Many prominent Republicans are now distancing themselves from Trump, whose tenure has largely proved to be a boon to Democrats. Soon, Trump will be gone and the country will move on, his cult of personality shriveled into irrelevance.

Yet Trump was never a cause so much as a symptom. His ascendancy to the Presidency was the result of two decades worth of increasingly insular and extreme conservative in-groups, bolstered by social media algorithms that amplified the voices of conspiracy theorists and vacuous right-wing provocateurs. That his supporters now deny the very reality they created, claiming - without evidence, obviously - that Trump supporters weren't really the ones responsible for yesterday's riots, it should not come as a surprise to any of us who have been entrenched in similar ecosystems. Conservative media sowed distrust of outsiders and encouraged hostility toward out-groups, with crude slanders like "SJW," "snowflake," and "libtard." They unapologetically discourage the kind of independent thought that would undermine their narrative, and as the aforementioned researched from the Pew shows.... it's worked. 

I strongly support the deplatforming of those who spread false information, hate speech, and incitements of violence. As Sasha Baron Cohen said, "Freedom of speech is not freedom of reach." Nobody is guaranteed a Constitutional right to use Facebook, Twitter, YouTube, or any other social media platform to spread their views. Facebook banned Trump indefinitely today, after Twitter temporarily suspended his account. It's too little too late, but it's a step in the right direction. Ironically, after the internet played a key role in the exodus of millions from organized religion, social media algorithms played a key role in recreating exactly the same kinds of noxious, insular environments from which it is extremely difficult to escape. We can do better. 


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