Americans today believe a remarkable number of unlikely, even impossible things. Millions are certain that Donald Trump won the 2020 election in a landslide, though he was certified as the loser by more than 7 million votes. Millions more refuse to receive the Covid-19 vaccines for reasons often rooted in fear of conspiracy, despite the evident decline of infection rates for the disease in intensively vaccinated areas. An indeterminate mass of our friends and neighbors maintains, with some fervor, that the federal government is run by a pedophile ring.
So what’s going on? The answer, I think, points in two directions at once: specifically, to the relationship between the top and the rest of our society.
The reason many Americans disbelieve official descriptions of reality—for example, on vaccine effectiveness—is not a mystery. They see partisan propaganda where others might perceive scientific truth. According to one poll, 80 percent of the public thinks that the vaccine-development process was driven by politics: a supermajority of opinion united in repudiation. While Trump was president, his opponents refused to accept anything he had to say on the subject of Covid-19. Today, the skeptics tend to be conservatives and Republicans.
Trust in the institutions and their organs of information stood at a low point before the pandemic. The events surrounding the health crisis, which included repeated instances of elite hypocrisy and a presidential election contested under opaque new rules, proved for many to be a tipping point in the disintegration of reality. Truth has turned into a war zone. Much of the public, gathered in digital gangs of varying political persuasions, now rushes into the information sphere as into a battleground in which to smash at accepted wisdom.
The public, however, is a fractured body. Some wish for nothing higher than glory in viral attention. Others retreat to the ragged edges of the cognitive system that frames modern life—and many seem to have tumbled out of that system entirely. These lost souls inhabit a desperately impoverished information landscape, a place full of sound and fury but parched of conviction and meaning. Their actions are driven, in large part, by the blind urge to escape. Together they form something like the cognitive equivalent of the economic underclass.
The concept of the underclass was first proposed by economist Gunnar Myrdal in his 1962 book, Challenge to Affluence. Myrdal described this group as “a class of unemployed, unemployables, and underemployed, who are more and more hopelessly set apart from the nation at large and do not share in its life, its ambitions, and its achievements.” In practice, the underclass is both a condition and an attitude. The condition is one of utter marginalization and permanent exile from the economic mainstream. The attitude, born of hopelessness, involves a revaluation of mainstream values: an inverted social contract in which bad means good.
The pivot from radical skepticism to belief in preposterous things is only a seeming paradox: the void of faith must be filled somehow. Lacking immunity to strange ideas, the information-deficient offer the most fertile recruiting grounds for this type of conversion. Like their economic counterpart, they feel forsaken by the system and pushed under the shadow of invisibility and worthlessness. They have nothing to lose but their shame.
I find it useful to accept this judgment at face value, because it redirects our attention from people on the margins to those who control the national conversation: the elites and the institutions they manage. And once we turn that way, the question that immediately presents itself is how those in charge could have allowed such an immense breach to open in the fabric of our shared reality.
Truth comes to life only in a social context: it can’t survive in Platonic detachment from humanity. The elites’ highest calling has been to serve as interpreters of our shared stories and keepers of our shared truths. Lincoln was at his best invoking the “proposition” of the Declaration of Independence before the fallen at Gettysburg. FDR did well to call Pearl Harbor “a day of infamy” rather than a disastrous defeat for the U.S. Navy. In both cases, the moral of the story unified the public for the struggle ahead.
The digital age has been a near-extinction event for such narratives, with every standing institution, from politics to religion, battered in consequence. The old stories linger posthumously as objects of controversy. I might proclaim the United States the land of the free and home of the brave, but someone will shout back that the country is a nightmare of racism and oppression. The process to settle the argument has fallen to pieces under the pressure of the digital tsunami, and the truth, deprived of context, is up for grabs.
This crisis of authority has left the elites disoriented and demoralized. We might have expected them to adapt the narratives and reconfigure the institutions to the new environment. They have chosen the opposite path: pulling up anchor from both and allowing themselves to drift ever farther from the public. As Yuval Levin explains in A Time to Build, the elites who once found the institutions “formative”—that is, character-molding—have now made them into mere “performative” platforms for self-expression and posturing. If this magnifies the pervasive distrust from below, that feeling is returned in kind. Elites today deeply fear and despise the public.
The defection of millions from shared objective truth was preceded by the desertion from their posts by the people charged with producing and reproducing shared truth. Anthony Fauci, voice of the science bureaucracy, has admitted to lying at the height of the pandemic about the preventive value of surgical masks. The New York Times published hundreds of articles on the purported conspiracy between Trump and Russian agents—the progressive equivalent of the pedophile ring. The elite obsession with race and sex has given rise to an etiquette and a jargon incomprehensible to ordinary people.
Criticism invites open contempt. A top French legislator shrugged off the Yellow Vest protests, stating that government policies were “probably too intelligent, too subtle, too technical” for the masses the grasp. From the heights of the social pyramid, Hillary Clinton peered at the Trumpist hordes and claimed to discern a “basket of deplorables . . . racist, sexist, homophobic, xenophobic, Islamophobic—you name it.” Both politicians said in the open what many elites only murmur to one another. Their blunder was the honesty with which they expressed revulsion of the meddlesome mob.
The irreconcilable alienation of the elites from the public they are supposed to serve must be considered a cause, not an effect, of the widespread break with reality. The people running our institutions would rather perform than persuade, would rather impersonate esoteric virtues than communicate with the deplorables; and truth is a prop incidental to the performance.
Americans aren’t wrong to suppose that facts are often politicized. The Wuhan laboratory leak origin story for Covid-19, “debunked” by our media and scientific elites when Donald Trump suggested it, became a respectable hypothesis after Trump’s defeat. The expert class, which in a healthy society would be our guide across a mysterious universe, is instead a model for delusions.
Attempts to explain the breakdown of objective reality by gesturing to some combination of social media “misinformation,” Donald Trump, and what Jonathan Rauch, in The Constitution of Knowledge, terms “tribal bias,” strike me as insufficient. Lies and tribal bias have always been with us, and social media (in its nascent forms) is going on 20 years old, yet the large-scale flight into impossibilities is a recent development. Something has changed.
Though Trump persistently evaded a committed relationship with the truth, no political figure has been subjected to a greater volume of investigations, refutations, and “fact-checking”: for a time, news organizations like CNN and the Washington Post kept a running tally of Trumpian untruths. Those who embrace Trump’s version of reality choose to do so in conscious defiance of received opinion.
The world of the cognitive underclass is difficult to parse because it reflects an upside-down image of the mainstream. My guess is that its decisive feature isn’t misinformation but noise. Individuals plunge through a hole in reality into an infernal landscape of abandoned hopes, and there they must make sense of a deafening din of rage and doubt and condemnation forever shifting in its targets but constant in its hostility to the established order. Strange, misshapen characters appear out of the darkness and offer themselves as guides. We should not be surprised when they are accepted, or when the path they take ends in total negation of elite norms and facts.
The psychological preconditions for this moral disaster can be found in great abundance today, particularly among persons 25 and under. The Internet, after all, is a playground of impossible fantasies. The digital self, as L.M. Sacassas has noted, is a featureless and colorless reproduction of an actual human being, intrinsically devoid of identity, so that, in principle, it is capable of becoming anyone or anything. The will to believe in a hidden prophet called “Q” is no more bizarre than the will to believe in a proliferating variety of “genders.” For those born with a smartphone in hand, the whole concept of reality, to the degree it exists, appears in the guise of a soft and pliable substance to be molded according to one’s dreams.
Certain background assumptions typically apply. The world is always about to end in catastrophe. The people at the top of society are always monsters of oppression and perversion. Human life has no greater purpose than to express individuality—but the right to self-expression is denied by the system. Revolt is therefore a pleasingly heroic posture but also a therapeutic boost to self-esteem. “Nothing will stop us,” proclaimed Ashli Babbitt as she joined a pro-Trump mob in Washington, adding a phrase from the QAnon apocalypse: “The storm is here.”
Given the decline of religion and community, and the disgraceful abdication of the elites, the quest for meaning in politics must necessarily extend far beyond the political to the existential, almost to the spiritual. Nihilism, among millions, is the way to personal redemption—and also, more prosaically, the escape plan from a society controlled by the Hillary Clintons of the world.
Babbitt, the only person to die as a direct result of the January 6 assault on the Capitol building, embodied many of these contradictions. She had served honorably as an Air Force airman in Afghanistan and Iraq. She claimed to be CEO of a family pool-service business in the pool paradise of San Diego. She wasn’t a crank or an “insurgent”—so far as I can tell, she didn’t belong to any organized group. But the meaningful portion of her life was spent in a frenzy of self-expression on digital media, and she clearly valued the amount of media attention it garnered. “We are now walking down the inaugural path to the Capitol,” she exulted on Facebook. “Three million-plus people.” The actual number was a few thousand.
At some point, Babbit was drawn into the virtual orbit of Q, high priest of QAnon and source of right-wing conspiracy theories that involve devil worship and child kidnapping by the progressive elites. She had once voted for Barack Obama. How are we to understand her trajectory? As Renée DiResta has shown, the person or persons calling themselves Q have been clever in associating—by means of hashtags, for example—their lurid and unlikely tales with the political anxieties of conservatives. But Q, let us recall, is what remains when the elites withdraw. The stories that should connect the cognitive underclass to a higher purpose and shared ideals had been surrendered to swindlers from the lunatic fringe.
Ashli Babbitt loved her country yet despised its institutions. She enlisted in the military though she resented authority. She labelled herself a “Christian deplorable” but engaged in a three-way relationship not exactly sanctioned by the gospels. In sum, she was, even more than most of us, misaligned with a social existence that offered boundless freedom and delivered an endless game of blind man’s bluff.
In another era, she might have wanted less and been given more. That happy time is not ours.
Photo: Black Lollipop/iStock