By Michael E. Norris
“Fear is the main source of superstition.”
- Bertand Russell/Unpopular Essays (1950)
In the spring of 1844, almost 17 years to the day before the opening shots of the Civil War would be fired upon U.S. troops stationed in South Carolina, the New York Sun reported on page one the “astounding news” that aeronaut Monck Mason had crossed the Atlantic Ocean from Europe to America in his “flying machine” in just three days – about one-fifth of the time then required by a wooden steamship.
“The great problem is at length solved!” declared the reporter who wrote the story – Edgar Allan Poe. “The air, as well as the earth and the ocean, has been subdued by science, and will become a common and convenient highway for mankind.”
Crowds gathered at the newspaper’s building near City Hall at sunrise to hear the exciting news, blocking the building’s entrances until early afternoon. Paperboys cried out “Read all about it!” and became profiteers as single-copy prices shot through the roof.
The problem was that none of it was true.
“With this hoax, Poe was once again reflecting on the gullibility of people as well as the hunger for progress that prevailed at the time,” literary historian Charlotte Montague wrote.
And, of course, there is plenty more, large and small:
- For nearly 200 years, Americans commonly believed erroneously that bald eagles routinely swooped down and snatched human babies.
- In our own time, a large majority of Republicans believe the 2020 was “stolen” by Democrats – thus, they fell victim to one of the greatest con artists of all time.
- In our love of capitalism, we allow marketing strategies to sell us products we neither need or want – everything from infant pillows and underpants for your hands to men’s bras and DVD rewinders.
- Opposition to proven coronavirus vaccines continues despite the persistence of the virus three years after the onset. “Falsehoods about the injections – that they contain microchips or that they alter recipients’ DNA – march on,” Jeffrey Kluger wrote in TIME.
“Hunger for progress,” as the American master of horror put it in his 1844 marketing stunt, combines with “the gullibility of people” to produce a willingness among people to make fools of themselves as the world looks on, wondering how we ever achieved this much tangible, beneficial progress in the first place.
Yale University students were once asked in a study to explain the workings of such everyday devices, such as zippers, cylinder locks, and toilets. Their efforts to do so largely failed, as those of most even educated people’s likely would, thus revealing their own ignorance.
Contrary to popular belief, most drivers today probably do not understand very well the operations of their mostly computer-driven vehicles – so much so that some of them even drive themselves.
“People believe that they know way more than they actually do,” Elizabeth Kolbert wrote in her explanation of the Yale study, drawing a distinction between the perceived ability to operate commonly used devices and the understanding of how they actually work.
Applying this distinction to politics and governance, a crucial problem occurs: “It’s one thing for me to flush a toilet without knowing how it operates, and another thing for me to favor (or oppose) an immigration ban without knowing what I’m talking about,” Kolbert writes.
A series of surveys have revealed similar disturbing findings. The scholars who cited the Yale studies, Steven Sloman and Philip Fernbach, concluded that “strong feelings about issues do not emerge from deep understanding,” Kolbert said. “And here our dependence on other minds reinforces the problem. If your position on, say, the Affordable Care Act (of 2010, also known as Obamacare) is baseless and I rely on it, then my opinion is also baseless.”
This kind of negative inference, Kolbert writes, demonstrates “how a community of knowledge can become dangerous.” The basis of what we think of as progress, therefore, becomes untenable.
The Sloman-Fernbach work, along with similar studies cited by Kolbert, preceded the election of Trump in November 2016, even though “they anticipate (Trump counselor) Kellyanne Conway and the rise of (what she called) ‘alternative facts’.” Conway used this term on Jan. 22, 2017, two days after Trump took office, to defend press secretary Sean Spicer’s demonstrably and provably false Orwellian statement about how many people actually attended Trump’s inauguration. (Actual photographs of the events showed the disparity between attendance at Trump’s and Barack Obama’s inaugurations.)
When rationality is replaced by “alternative facts,” people will cast about uncertainly for a basis of belief. As stated by Bertrand Russell, the great Welsh logician, philosopher and mathematician, “Man is a credulous animal, and must believe something; in the absence of good grounds for belief, he will be satisfied with bad ones.”
We see this trend occurring not just in politics but also in religion, science, education and an array of other fields.
Why did Sen. Susan Collins, R-Maine, for example, fall for the lies of not just one but of two of Trump’s Supreme Court nominees – Neil Gorsuch and Brent Cavanagh – when they claimed in their confirmation hearings that Roe v Wade, which established abortion as a privacy right, was “settled law” – and, by implication, did not intend to overturn it. Commentator and comedian Stephen Colbert, in his influential nightly monologue, called Collins, who has served in the Senate since 1997, a “gullible grandma.”
On June 24, 2022, the Supreme Court voted 5-4 in Dobbs v Jackson Women’s Health Organization, with Gorsuch and Cavanagh joining the majority, to throw out a privacy right that had stood for 50 years. At the same time, the court voted 6-3 to uphold a Mississippi law that bans most abortions after the 15th week of pregnancy. These two rulings ignited a wave of anti-abortion laws passed by states mainly in the Midwest and South.
The ruling also set off widespread concern and controversy. Scholars at Virginia Commonwealth University summarized all sorts of potentially catastrophic, negative impacts, including elevating the rights of fetuses over those of pregnant women, forcing women with unwanted pregnancies to give birth, increasing health risks to pregnant women experience miscarriage or ectopic pregnancy, and generally adding to mental-health issues for those with unwanted pregnancies.
Fun versus tragedy
Most Americans like to think of themselves as pretty tough cookies, mentally speaking. Nothing offends them more than being called “suckers” – or, as Anand Giridharadas put it, “the desire not to be anyone’s fool,” or, more broadly speaking, “the desire to have the world make sense.”
Of course, people fall for lies, tricks, fraud, deceit, and duplicity all the time; that is to be expected. But sometimes this gullibility has deadly consequences.
In the mid-1950s, for example, a pair of Kansas convicts murdered a farming family of four – the parents and their two adolescent children – after finding that the cache of money another inmate had told them was hidden in a safe in their Holcomb home did not exist. The pair, who were eventually hanged, accepted the lie as truth without question – despite the source.
On the other hand, a certain amount of “cluelessness,” under less tragic circumstances, may even be considered a virtue, not a vice, as Russell Blackford noted. Sometimes it pays to be naïve. “It’s not a virtue just for children,” Edith M. Humphrey wrote in Christianity Today.
But today our nation faces a very complex situation in which individuals and groups, many with sizable political influence, simply refuse to accept unvarnished truth even when it is staring them in the face. They reject facts in favor of baseless claims and set aside truth in favor of lies – willingly. In some cases, such as election deniers, they go so far as to try to convert their gullibility into policy. More than five dozen lawsuits challenging the results of 2020 presidential election were filed – also to naught; even Trump-appointed judges rejected them.
One of the most common explanations of this phenomenon is the preponderance of a massive right-wing media network based primarily in radio and social media, with support from Fox News on television and several well-known wealthy families who are active in Republican circles and whose activities are coordinated by the Council for National Policy.
This goes well beyond simply falling for a stupid balloon hoax or an April Fool’s Day trick. The question is: Why?
Why, for example, did Qanon followers gather in Dealy Plaza in downtown Dallas in late 2021 to await the arrival of President John F. Kennedy, who had been assassinated there nearly six decades years earlier, and the second coming of his son, John Jr., who had died in a plane crash in 1999? Why do Trump’s followers still insist he actually won the 2020 presidential election and are proceeding to take steps on that false basis?
The political theorist Niccolo Machiavelli gave us at least a partial answer to this quandary more than seven centuries ago in his signature work, The Prince. To achieve success, wrote the man probably best known for also saying “the ends justify the means,” political leaders must be, in part at least “a great pretender and dissembler.” They must understand that “men are so simple, and so subject to present necessities” that “he who seeks to deceive will always find someone who will allow himself to be deceived.”
Why did Neville Chamberlain, the British prime minister, allow himself to be deceived by Adolph Hitler’s claim that if he could only have a piece of Czechoslovakia in 1938 – Sudentenland – to achieve German living space (lebensraum), it would end his geopolitical ambitions – when, in fact, the German dictator had laid out contrary strategic plans quite clearly in a book, Mein Kampf, written in prison more than a decade earlier? Hitler had already annexed Austria by force and was building a huge military, partially in violation of the Treaty of Versailles.
Was Chamberlain, like the QAnon followers who assembled in Dealy Plaza, so desperate for an answer to a difficult problem that he would grasp at straws, or make any concession that would seem to alleviate the situation, no matter what the consequences?
Trump, of course, understands and practices this concept perfectly, however gratuitously (it is safe to say that he doesn’t know its source). Thus do his cult followers permit themselves to be deceived over and over by him, even after a significant majority of voters rejected his bid in 2020 for a second term in the White House, gave the opposing party majorities in both houses of Congress, and the election results were sustained in more than 60 court cases and the findings of election officials in every state.
This is gullibility personified – an active, persistent, and dangerous resistance to truth in favor of lies of all kinds, including baseless conspiracy theories. Some QAnon followers who waited for JFK and his son to return to Dealy Plaza, within sight of the excellent Sixth Floor Museum that recounts the facts of the assassination, had, in some cases, “sacrificed their business properties – and, in many cases, family ties – to make the journey” to Dallas, Michael Murney reported by the Dallas Observer, a weekly newspaper.
That is to say they were quite serious. One middle-aged couple standing watch had flown to Dallas from Mexico City.
Most people living in the modern age of social media are probably a little gullible from time to time; that is understandable. After all, the technology is relatively new. And it might even be fun – as Poe demonstrated in 1844.
Moreover, there is nothing wrong with being a bit naïve about this complex world in which we live, especially when searching for solutions to a myriad of seemingly intractable, irresolvable problems.
These include personal issues, such as chronic or terminal illness in a relative or friend; being forced to keep paying for a stupid mistake you made as a misguided youth 20 years before; and, of course, our own simple inability to make sense of things.
Then there are the far-away problems one can never seem to grasp: never-ending wars, environmental destruction, corrupt corporate behavior, and why your vote seems to lack effect.
This is to be expected.
But the current phenomenon differs significantly. 1984, George Orwell’s novel of dystopia, warned against “bellyfeel” – an unquestioning acceptance of an idea despite one’s actual lack of knowledge of it – one of the book’s many upside-down structures and reversed meanings (war is peace, etc.). Analyzing the trend, writer Lauren Reiff said, “In our historical moment Orwell’s “bellyfeel” reigns supreme: a blind, enthusiastic acceptance uncannily maintained throughout a rotating carousel of crises. It has coarsened our politics and alienated truth-seeking while replacing it with orthodoxy-conforming. It is ultimately a testament to a culture slowly brined in unthinking, of individuals instead pushed to hurl themselves headfirst into the panic du jour.”
Yale psychologist Irving L. Janis coined a term for this phenomenon 50 years earlier in his seminal book, Groupthink: Psychological Studies of Policy Decisions and Fiascoes. It occurs, he said, “when a group makes faulty decisions because group pressures lead to a deterioration of ‘mental efficiency, reality testing, and moral judgment’.” Vietnam, Watergate, and just about any decision made during the Trump presidency are obvious examples, as demonstrated by voluminous studies, testimony, and analyses.
Groupthink isn’t the same as gullibility, but it is a significant contributor to it. Janis listed the following symptoms, which even someone who pays only moderate attention to the news can understand: illusion of vulnerability (Vietnam), collective rationalization (Watergate, Trump), belief in inherent morality (Vietnam), stereotyped views of out-groups (racial discrimination), direct pressure on dissenters (Vietnam, Watergate, Trump), self-censorship (Trump and Fox News), illusion of unanimity (Trump) and culling information deemed “problematic or contradictory” to group unity (Vietnam, Watergate, Trump).
The inability of groupthink actors to consider reasonable alternatives in their policy discussions means that, ultimately, as demonstrated by Vietnam, Watergate, and Trump, their ultimate decisions “have low probability of achieving successful outcomes.” Groupthink is gullibility in action.
Religion – alternative facts
Organized religion remains a central repository for the gullible. For centuries, it has been home to endless speculation about the whys and wherefores of ultimately unknowable phenomena, with various sects claiming to know the answers: is there a god or gods; if so, what is the nature of this god or gods; how do these entities communicate with people; where did people originate?
Areas where science cannot offer a reasonable explanation, such as the origin of life on Earth or its current complex manifestation in the various species, are vulnerable to religious theorizing.
Despite its broad acceptance in the scientific community, Charles Darwin’s evolutionary theory remains a battleground where the forces of “the old-time religion” advocating the idea of a creative designer oppose repeatedly proven evidence of scientific advancement.
Among the better known sites of this never-ending war is Dayton, a small town in Tennessee, where in a 1925 case two of the nation’s best-known lawyers – William Jennings Bryan and Clarence Darrow – argued evolutionary theory: Bryan in opposition and Darrow in favor. A jury eventually convicted the defendant, John Scopes, and fined him a small sum to for violating a state law against teaching the subject in public schools.
The Butler Act remained the law in Tennessee until 1967, when it was repealed. Anti-evolution statutes were ruled unconstitutional in 1968 by the Supreme Court in Epperson v Arkansas. But the fight continues.
Eighty years after the famous Monkey trial, a statue of Bryan was raised in the courthouse square; two years later, it was joined by one of Darrow. In 2023, Republican lawmakers in West Virginia introduced legislation, Senate Bill 619, to allow instruction in intelligent design, a variant of creationism. In Florida, the Republican-controlled House was considering a bill that would say the legislature disapproves of college courses that cover “theoretical or exploratory” topics being used to fulfill general education requirements. “That would seemingly rule out most science classes,” John Timmer of Ars Technica reported.
Francis S. Collins, a devout Catholic and the physician-geneticist who discovered the genes associated with a number of diseases as leader of the Human Genome Project, believes science and faith can be reconciled. He described the problem facing this intellectual rapprochement this way: “A word of caution is needed when inserting specific divine action by God in this or any other area where scientific understanding is currently lacking.”
The “fundamentals of so-called scientific creationism are hopelessly flawed,” he wrote. “No serious biologist today doubts the theory of evolution to explain the marvelous complexity and diversity of life. In fact, the relatedness of all specifies through the mechanism of evolution is such a profound foundation for the understanding of all biology that it is difficult to imagine how one would study life without it.”
Yet a significant portion of the population seems more than willing to believe widely disproven theories such as creationism and intelligent design, conjuring up all sorts of explanations with little or no factual basis – and then insisting on their truth.
“This battle shows no signs of ending,” said Collins, who, among his many leadership positions, was placed in charge of the Pontifical Academy of Sciences by the pope. Collins, once an atheist, describes DNA as “God’s instruction book.”
He believes that there too many inexplicable “physical constraints” in the universe.
“Our universe is wildly improbable,” he wrote.
Thus, some would argue, a divine being fills the gaps. But Collins warns against this “default assumption.”
“There are good reasons to believe in God, including the existence of mathematical principles and order in creation,” Collins wrote. “They are positive reasons, based on knowledge, rather than default assumptions based on (a temporary) lack of knowledge.”
Gullibility here implies a simple lack of interest in scientific explanations or even the possibility of their validity. Knowledge, in this view, is dead.
Collins, as leader of the Human Genome Project, helped launched one of the world’s greatest scientific discoveries.
“How can otherwise intelligent people, like, wall off a part of their minds and believe stuff that they must know in the other part of the minds is nonsense?”
- Bill Maher
Three factors – selective exposure to media, personal calculus, and recognition heuristics – are key to understanding this issue, as tech analyst Farhad Majnoo explains in his book, True Enough.
Selective exposure to information sources necessarily biases one’s views. This problem gained preeminence during the Trump administration as millions of Americans limited their information gathering to, for example, one source such as Fox News – a practice that continues today.
Manjoo, writing almost a decade before the Trump administration’s attempts to hijack the truth, explained it this way: “Selective exposure, selective perception, the cult of fake experts, and then end of objectivity in the news: these are merely pistons in what has become, today, a powerful engine of propaganda, one that drives nearly all the recent examples of our society’s departure from ‘the reality-based world’. ”
Jefferson and many others understood the threat to democracy posed by a lack of an accurate public understanding of issues. More recently, Walter Lippman, one of the most prominent U.S. journalists of the 20th century, warned that since “news is the chief source of the opinion by which government proceeds,” objective standards of reportage are critical.
Lippman, writing one year after the end of the first world war, said: “So long as there is interposed between the ordinary citizen and the facts a news organization is determining by entirely private and unexamined standards, no matter how lofty, what he shall believe, no one will be able to say that the substance of democratic government is secure.”
A prominent example of this, cited by Manjoo, is the way in which people and some leading government officials fell for false information advanced by the George Bush administration to justify a military attack on Saddam Hussein in Iraq. This was “a propagandistic effort so thoroughly effective” that it persisted in the public’s mind well past its use-by date.
“Begin with the idea that Saddam Hussein was involved in the September 11, 2001, attacks,” Manjoo explains. “Then, that he harbored terrorists; that Iraq posed a threat to the nation with weapons of mass destruction; that the threat was imminent; that war would be easy; that war would be cheap; that Iraqis would greet our soldiers as liberators; that Western-style democracy represented the likely postwar path of that country; that war commanders had a plan for instituting such a government; that the fight there had been quickly won; that the ongoing fight there was effective; that any insurgents were ‘foreign fighters;’ ‘dead-enders’ in their ‘last throes,’ and on and on and on, all of the lies folding into one another and forming, for many people, new truths, new realities in which to invest one’s soul.”
Of course, not everyone makes the same observations or experiences the same perceptions in a given situation – think “Rashomon” or the parable of the three blind men and the elephant. Individual inclinations, experiences, or tendencies – the personal calculus – may also influence particular choices: “Not everyone finds the same things significant,” Manjoo explains. “What each of us notices is a function of a personalized calculus – an idiosyncratic, unconscious filter built up over a lifetime.”
Heuristics also affect these choices. These are handy guides that people use to make sense of the world around them. For example, children of divorced parents are more likely to be pessimistic about marriage when they become adults.
Recognition heuristics basically reverses a common strategy of teaching students new concepts by way of what one longtime public school educator, Dale Weldon Spaulding, called “prior knowledge” – that is, what students already know. The online toolkit of deceivers, hackers, and other tricksters, as Manjoo explains, “tells us to assume that something we’ve heard of is more valuable (in this case, more populous) than something that’s new to us.” This trick, of course, would appeal more to conservatives based on their support of past practices and thinking over bold, new initiatives. In the pre-web age, this tactic was used quite commonly for political purposes that have been continued in the present age by individuals and organizations seeking power simply for the sake of having it, rather than for useful, beneficial purposes.
The best-known 20th century example of skilled use of this tactic was by Hitler, who, in the devastated world that was post-World War I Germany, dug deeply into centuries-old Ayran mythologies for scapegoats to win popular support for a “thousand-year Reich” and its basis in cultural resentment and anti-Semitism. As Hett wrote, in his analysis of why the Weimar Republic gave way to autocracy in 1920s Germany: “The key to understanding why any Germans supported him lies in the Nazis rejection of a rational, factual world … Millions of Germans retreated into conspiracy theories: that (for example) a ‘stab in the back’ … not straight-forward military defeat, had ended (World War I); or that they were beset by conspiratorial cliques of communists, capitalists, Jews, and Freemasons.” The Nazis caused people to believe things “that were verifiably untrue.” Hitler “routinely voiced scorn for intellectuals and experts.”
Peter Drucker, an American who would later achieve fame as a business management expert, declared, as Hett noted, that “Nazism had succeeded not because people believed its messages, but in spite of the fact that they did not.”
Fear generates superstition, as Russell told us; the subset of racial fear, specifically, is a well-known source, as portrayed in countless books and films – at least some of which are being banned from public school and municipal libraries by conservative state governments, thus perpetuating the problem.
Americans old enough to remember will recall “All in the Family,” a ground-breaking and vastly popular television program in the 1970s starring the late Carol O’Conner as Archie Bunker, a white, blue-collar New Yorker of deep racial prejudice, often at odds on the subject with his hippie son-in-law played by Rob Reiner and, of course, his black neighbor, George Jefferson, played by Sherman Hemsley.
The program attracted viewers in the tens of millions from both the red and the blue states. Archie became simultaneously “a hero of the working class” yet someone who affirmed the beliefs of what Manjoo called “well-educated cultural commentators” – thus, paralleling today’s divide between deluded Trumpists and fearful Democrats. People derive their own “truths” from the same evidence. A survey of 237 mostly white and male Midwestern high school students found that a majority considered the show “hilarious” but that “bigots and non-bigots harbored vastly different ideas about what was happening in the show,” Manjoo reported. Bigots thought the racist Archie won most of the arguments; non-bigots believed the winner was usually his liberal son-in-law. This red-blue divide continues to characterize public reactions to any number of major events, including the assassination of President Kennedy, 9/11, and elections in 2020 and 2022 in an environment Manjoo characterized as a “twilight of objectivity’ in which “truthiness” is believed over truth itself.
The new difference
In his 2023 State of the Union message, President Biden said that “Americans are tired of being played for suckers.” He might have qualified that by saying “some” Americans because it remains abundantly clear, into the runup to the 2024 presidential election, that a portion of the population is not. In Trump world, supporters continue to believe fallacious statements reported by Fox News blindly and willingly.
An online poll, which attracted nearly 51,000 respondents during the Michael Smerconish news and commentary television program on February 18, 2023, found that a strong majority – nearly 65 percent – believed that Fox News would not lose any credibility with its viewers if those viewers understood that Fox News “hosts and executives knew 2020 conspiracy theories were BS?” As reported by numerous news outlets, leading Fox News personalities, including Tucker Carlson and Sean Hannity, knew that Trump’s 2020 election claims were false but proceeded to report them anyway.
Even if we take into account that Smerconish’s polls are not scientific, the size of the sample still suggests evidence worth considering.
Moreover, this trend isn’t new: Plato’s dialogues, which purported to record conversations between Socrates and other Athens residents, demonstrated a form of cluelessness in which, as a modern-day day philosopher, Russell Blackford, points out, “we tend to believe many things that we can’t really defend.”
Politics today, at least from one sector, is infested with planned and purposeful gullibility, a deliberate denial of truths and facts. For example: “I choose not to believe that a significant majority of Americans support abortion rights, even though polling consistently shows that to be true over the decades.” The takeover of a principal social-media platform, Twitter, by a right-wing ideologue, billionaire Elon Musk, is a clear example of this trend.
The dividing line between fiction and nonfiction “is a fiction,” wrote Benjamin Cain, citing behavioral patterns in various kinds of consumption, religious practices, and politics. Consumers are “the most deluded of all human masses,” even though many – in the United States at least – want to believe they make purchases rationally. The irrationality of much that passes for “shopping” is well-established – and marketers know very well that impulse buying plays a major role in how people actually spend their money. What happens in grocery stores is the best example of this.
Religious dogmas, of course, are “just stories,” Cain wrote – and he’s right. Large parts of the Bible are fiction – Jesus walking on water or the virgin birth, for example – but are accepted as indisputable truths among some Christians. The polymath Thomas Jefferson realized this when he produced his own Bible – kept in the Smithsonian – from which he cut out (literally) these so-called “miracles.”
Taken together, this coagulation of fictive elements is unlike previous manifestations. As Jonathan Haidt, of New York University, pointed out, social media – ground zero for political lies, myths, and false conspiracy theories – poses “a threat to democracy.”
The political implications of the elimination of a clear distinction between fiction and nonfiction have been made obvious by Trump, his supporters, and some current elements of the Republican Party. This leaves unanswered the following question: If we assume most Americans are reasonably well-educated, why do so many fall for lies? What happens when people cannot seem to distinguish competently between the two?
“It seems to me as a college professor – I had been a professor since 1995. I love being a professor … but it seemed around 2014, 2015 something changed in the fabric of the world,” said Haidt. “Things got weird. … We thought it was just on campus, but it turned out in 2016 this madness spread to our policies on the left and the right.”
The idea that the January 6, 2021, assault on the Capitol, carried out while members of Congress met inside to perform their obligations under the Constitution and the Electoral Count Act of 1887, was an ordinary, allowable protest protected by the First Amendment persists today – nearly two years later. Max Boot, in a televised interview on the MSNBC program “Deadline: White House,” said, “We’ve had January 6, and we’re still in denial. And there was a sense something changed. … Social media allows people to intimidate others, make them afraid of public consequence for any word they say and that makes groups and institutions stupid because people stop dissenting, questioning, challenging.”
A well-documented but mostly unchecked psychological development – confirmation bias – helps explain the current divide over what constitutes “truth.” Why do some people embrace only “information that supports their beliefs and reject information that contradicts them?” asks Elizabeth Kolbert, a visiting fellow at Williams College and author of The Sixth Extinction: An Unnatural History, which won the Pulitzer Prize. Confirmation bias is among the best catalogued examples of “faulty” thinking – “the subject of entire textbooks’ worth of experiments.”
Thomas Frank explained how this sort of bias works on a state-sized scale in his 2004 book What’s the Matter with Kansas? How Conservatives Won the Heart of America. Once upon a time, Kansas was home to a strong socialist movement, favoring government ownership of industry, especially in the southeastern part of the state from Wichita to the Oklahoma line. Buttressed by economically stressed immigrant miners in coal and zinc, the area became a “major hub” of socialist thought and activity, though it was eventually superseded by the general prosperity created by the New Deal in the 1930s, according to records of the Kansas State Historical Society.
A sizable portion of the American population continues to believe the capability of, or inclination to commit, mass murder is not related to the ability to possess weapons. In Texas, where Republican Gov. Greg Abbott, a former state attorney general, signed executive orders actually increasing the availability of assault-style weapons, 167 people have been murdered in more than a dozen mass shootings since 1966. On June 16, 2021, Abbott signed into law seven bills expanding gun rights in that state. Those laws took effect Sept. 1, 2021. Eight months later, a teenage gunman, who had purchased an assault-style weapon allowed under one of the laws that Abbott had signed, shot and killed 19 students and two teachers in an El Paso elementary school as nearly 400 police officers waited outside. Even this great tragedy did not deter gun-rights advocates in any serious way, and serious reform is still waiting.
The political right, in fact, has established a well-financed organizational structure predicated on denialism, led by a Washington, D.C.-based Christian group, the Council for National Policy, which was founded nearly a half-century ago, during the first Reagan administration (1981-85), ostensibly to advance “conservative” causes, a kind of Council of Foreign Relations for the right. It opposes Muslim groups, abortion rights, and gay marriage.
It has also been active in efforts to promote the “big lie” that Trump actually won the 2020 election and that coronavirus was a God-given gift to force Americans to return to Christianity. House Majority Leader Kevin McCarthy and Trump are among those who have spoken at its meetings. Though organized as a non-profit group under IRS rule, the council has been subjected to questions as to whether it has complied with those rules prohibiting political activities. A 2019 book described it as a part of the “secret hub of the radical right.”
The contemporary version of this willingness to deny truth and facts makes Trump-induced gullibility different from ordinary naivete in its depth and persistence in the face of clear, established facts – facts that are undeniable. The greater the truth, in this case, the greater the gullibility, or its cousin, denialism.
Luis Alberto Urrea predicted that Trump had been so successful in this respect that, after four years in office, he was “slowly making the U.S. into a likeness of the countries Latino refugees have been fleeing.” Fortunately, voters in Brazil rejected the 2022 re-election bid of South America’s most prominent Trumpist, Jair Bolsonaro.
Coronavirus, for example, is not a lie, conspiracy, or fake news. It is a potentially fatal pandemic, like the flu epidemic of 1918 or the bubonic plague epidemic of 14th century Europe or 19th century India. By May 2022, coronavirus had killed more than one million people in the United States – more victims than all 20th century wars combined. And yet some individuals and groups, empowered via social media, insist on the opposite, leading people to forego masks, vaccinations, and other commonsense precautions for preventing infections.
Why does this willful ignorance (or blind stupidity or “bellyfeel” or whatever you want to call it) run so deep? “How do you reason with someone like that? How can you ever hope to change their mind?” the FBI agent (played by Daniel Radcliffe) working undercover among the far right asks in the 2016 film “Imperium.” And what can be done when this intransigence is based almost solely on a false sense of fear about where the country is headed? The KKK and Nazis have dished it out generously. Trump and his supporters across the country discovered that people are “easily motivated by fear,” as a Norwegian filmmaker told the American documentarian Michael Moore.
And why does it have more powerful impacts on certain parts of the country?
The 2016 Democrat presidential nominee, former U.S. senator and Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, was ridiculed for claiming that she was the target of a “vast, right-wing conspiracy.” In fact, she was right. A vast right-wing network continues even today under the guidance of such wealthy extremists as Paul Weyrich, heavy industry investor Charles Koch, mutual fund investor Foster Friess, hedge fund manager Paul Singer, and the Uihlein (packing) and Mercer (tech) families. They use web sites, television advertising, political candidates, authors, and documentary filmmakers to create and reinforce support of counterfactual conspiracy theories.
Southerners seem particularly gullible. James Lee Burke, probably our greatest contemporary novelist of the region’s disjointed culture, offered northerners’ misunderstanding of country music as an example. “Rural southern music,” he wrote, “is an attitude, a withdrawal into myths and an early agrarian dream about the promise of the new republic. And regardless of its vague quality, its false sense of romance, its restructuring of the reality of our history, it is nevertheless as true to a young boy in southern Louisiana listening to the Grand Ole Opry or the Louisiana Hayride on Saturday night as his grandfather’s story, which the grandfather had heard from his father, about the Federals burning the courthouse in New Iberia (Louisiana) and pulling the bonnets off white women and carrying them on their bayonets.”
Another difference today is the structure of media. Three developments – the advent of cable television in the 1970s, the invention of the World Wide Web in the 1990s, and the creation of social media in the first decade of the 21st century – have combined to change journalism markedly.
This market of ideas militates against the emergence of a generally agreed-upon consensus in issues. Today, for example, there is difficulty in getting all Americans even to agree that helping Ukrainians in their fight for survival against Russia is in our nation’s best interests, paralleling the debate that preceded our entrance into World War II. In this particular media environment, Dustin Arand, for example, argues against a “marketplace of ideas”: “Truth is not like other consumer products. We cannot expect the market to produce more accurate truth claims more quickly and cheaply, in the same way that we expect the market to produce better cars, couches, and can openers.”
Instead, Arand argues, “what we really need is a structured, adversarial forum centered around forming accurate conclusions, rather than popular ones. In short, what we need is a ‘courtroom of ideas’.” Whether this sort of structure is possible in today’s mixed-media environment is, of course, questionable.
Texas deserves special consideration in the debate over gullibility because there, despite the demographic diversity of the nation’s second most populace state, the victory of delusion over reality in politics is virtually complete.
Novelist John Steinbeck, winner of the Nobel Prize in literature, said the culture of Texas approximated a “religion-like mystique,” an assertion that may have been partially true when he wrote it in 1962. And even today, his assertion still appeals to the minority of individuals who think Texas is defined primarily by ranching and farming, an illusion that marketers of everything from BBQ restaurants to Chevy pickups still rely on. But the fact is, according to U.S. Census Bureau data, 70 percent of its population lives in 44 counties (out of 254) in and around the four major cities: Houston, Dallas, San Antonio, and Austin. Republicans, well aware of this urban concentration, have divided up the cities through gerrymandering, so as to maintain rural control of the legislature and state policy. That is to say that the politics of Texas are based on an unreality that persists across many other states.
Scholars have made a number of attempts in recent years to bring truth to Texas, even though several major factors continue to militate against it: The aforementioned control of state politics and policy, through gerrymandering, by a party obsessed with perpetuating “the big lie”; Trump’s contention that the 2020 presidential election was “stolen” from him; the even greater cultural force that the often erroneous mythology of the widely misunderstood Old West and the supposed story of the Alamo – still a subject of curricular debate in public schools today – continues to assert over public understanding of this vast and varied place; and the widely misconstrued story of how and why the state came into existence in the first place.
Three scholars – Bryan Burrough, Chris Tomlinson, and Jason Stanford – have produced a markedly successful effort at truth-telling in this respect in their book, Forget the Alamo: The Rise and Fall of an American Myth. This is a useful work since the legend of the Alamo – not the actual history – is at the center of how Texas is misunderstood and how Texans misunderstand their own history. The trio explain how the actual events leading up to the famous 1836 battle and what happened in the months following it have been consistently misinterpreted and used to construct a misleading mythology.
True enough, white settlers, most of whom came from southern states, sought independence from Mexico, but the question of why got buried in pro-Southern historiography like that which formed the basis of the Lost Cause; the widespread erection of statues honoring Confederate heroes, being removed just today; and the resulting misunderstanding of the Civil War and the Jim Crow era that followed for the next century until the passage of the Civil Rights Act of 1964 and the Voting Rights Act of 1965. The broad acceptance of the Lost Cause was proof positive of the gullibility of Americans who otherwise thought of themselves as being pretty smart cookies.
An Old West newspaper editor, interviewing a U.S. senator played by Jimmy Stewart in “The Man Who Shot Liberty Valance” (1962), uncovers indisputable proof that a widely accepted legend about that senator is not true – that voters have been misled about him for decades. The senator admits it himself. Nevertheless, the editor rises from his chair after the long interview, rips up his notes, and says: “When the legend becomes fact, print the legend.” A man had been elected to the U.S. Senate largely on the basis of an act of heroism that he never did, a kind of George Santos of his time. Similarly, as Burrough, Tomlinson, and Stanford found, “As so often happens with all matters Alamo, the legend won out.”
The fundamental basis of the Texas independence movement was the drive to expand slavery; that was the fundamental event of the conflict between the United States and Mexico, which had outlawed the practice in 1829, and a key event in the run-up to the Civil War. “At its roots, the Texas Revolt was about money … and (how to) make it in a specific way: planting and selling cotton,” primarily for sale to British textile manufacturers who liked the relatively low prices. Those bargain prices, of course, were based on the fact that what is typically the highest expenditure of a business is labor – making slave labor a key requirement. As a result, the trio informs us, “Texas as we know it exists only because of slave labor.”
Political tensions between the Americans and the Mexican government, simmering since the 1820s, were compounded when President Antonio Lopez de Santa Anna abolished federalism – a constitutional concept and provision near and dear to the hearts of Americans, especially in the South, where it was used to justify the right to own other people.
This fight is not over. As the authors point out, “The Texas Constitution remains the only one in world history to guarantee slavery and actually outlaw any and all emancipation. … Texas was the most slavocracy anywhere.”
Just as some southern historians sought to quash slavery as a legitimate cause of the Civil War, the Alamo became until relatively recently a source of misunderstanding for generations of American students, especially in Texas.
Initially overlooked, the 1836 battle emerged, upon rediscovery, as “the great creation myth of Texas,” and “for 150 years (like the Lost Cause), the world pretty much agreed on what the Alamo symbolized, what it meant” – giving way to “other voices, long ignored” only in recent years.
Currently, the Republican majority in the Texas Legislature would rather the public not understand the full story of its own history; hence, bills, like those passed in Florida to restrict public school curricula on slavery, racism, and related topics are being considered.
This chosen inability to face reality and deliberate rejection of truth is possibly nowhere more evident than in Texas’ failure to address violent crime and its relationship to a gun culture that is almost never questioned.
No matter how many people are shot to death in each massacre, subsequent conversation among the general public and in government policy-making entities never mentions gun-law reforms. Usually, the conversation is quite the opposite – that expanding handgun possession in K-12 classrooms, churches, and elsewhere is the preferred response.
A year before the murder of 19 children and two teachers on May 24, 2022, at an elementary school in Uvalde, a small town about 80 miles west of San Antonio, the Texas Legislature had approved and Abbott had signed seven bills that actually relaxed gun laws in a state where handguns were already quite accessible. Nearly 100 people had been killed in mass shootings since 2009.
The new laws – similar to others in about a half-dozen states – allow Texans 21 and over to carry handguns in public without obtaining licenses or undergoing training. This is despite the fact that Texas has one of the nation’s highest gun-homicide rates, just behind that of No. 1 California, even though the population of Texas, as of 2021, is about 10 million fewer people than that of California. Only the most gullible individuals believe, as the National Rifle Association asserts, that increasing handgun ownership will reduce handgun crime. Decades worth of state law-enforcement statistics show a direct relationship between tighter gun control and reduced gun homicides.
Similarly, Trump promoted explicit falsehoods as coronavirus “cures” during his presidency; those falsehoods, combined with his failure to put federal force behind the recommended advice from Dr. Anthony Fauci, the government’s leading disease specialist, helped perpetuate a misunderstanding among the public – one that proved fatal for some of the more than 1 million covid victims.
Poe’s balloon hoax lasted only a few hours a century-and-a-half ago; everyone understood it was all in good fun. “The excitement did not last long, however, people having been duped once too often by the Sun,” Charlotte Montague recounts in her popular biography of America’s master of mystery and horror. “Paid only his regular fee by the newspaper, Poe once again failed to profit from a good idea.”
By contrast, Trump’s hoaxes – beginning with over-pricing properties in New York City for sale but under-valuing those same properties for tax purposes, and continuing with his assertions nearly half-a-century later that he was qualified to serve as president of the United States – persist to this day as being true in the minds of some Americans, as attendees at the March 2023 Conservative Political Action Conference (CPAC) in Washington, D.C., attested.
And Poe, with his shrewd understanding of the unhinged mind, could have told us why.
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Michael E. Norris, PhD, is the founder and editor of Between the Coasts (betweenthecoasts.org).