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Encountering Political Unreality at the Jersey Shore

In the Thomas Edsall column I shared yesterday, there’s a long section dealing with the warped psychology of our worst politicians and fellow citizens. I was going to share some of it, but a more interesting and more entertaining example appeared in my email.

Thomas Zimmer, a German historian, moved to the US two years ago. This summer, he was on vacation at the Jersey Shore and got into a heated conversation with an apparently nice old lady.

While chasing seagulls on the beach with my two little boys, we ran into two elderly ladies …I expected some pleasant small talk, and that’s indeed how it started. But within maybe four minutes, one of the ladies had launched into a tirade about the impending doom of the Republic and rattled off one rightwing conspiracy theory after another. She was particularly alarmed about encroaching government tyranny: Outraged about the FBI having “raided” Mar-a-Lago just a few days earlier, and utterly convinced that the IRS was about to unleash 87,000 new agents – which she seemed to imagine as a heavily armed special ops force – on her and her fellow supporters of “President T____”…

87,000 IRS agents, out to destroy the lives and livelihoods of real Americans.

That number has been everywhere lately. In his first speech as Speaker of the House, the night he was finally elected, Kevin McCarthy proudly announced “when we come back,
our very first bill will repeal the funding for 87,000 new IRS agents” – thunderous applause from his caucus, the camera then focused on Marjorie Taylor Greene, and she was so, so happy.

McCarthy kept his word. The first legislation Republicans passed in the House would repeal funding, over $70 billion, for the IRS, basically cutting all the resources Biden provided in the Inflation Reduction Act from the summer. To make sure those 87,000 new IRS agents would never haunt and harass American patriots.

Show me your first piece of legislation and I’ll tell you who you are – in this case: a party that’s almost completely untethered from empirical reality. Because no one was planning to hire those 87,000 new agents in the first place. The idea that the IRS was about to more than double its current personnel has been widely debunked, over, and over, and over again. The additional funding in the Inflation Reduction Act was intended to strengthen the IRS’s enforcement capabilities, especially the capability to audit wealthy people, which simply is more difficult, takes longer, is therefore more expensive. It would mostly replace funding Republicans had previously cut, allow the IRS to revert some of the dramatic decline in the number of full-time employees over the past decade, and compensate for staff retiring over the next ten years. This was also, according to the Congressional Budget Office, going to raise revenue significantly.

The Right, however, told an entirely different story. Back in August, McCarthy railed
against “the Democrats’ new army of 87,000 IRS agents” – which rightwingers often took quite literally: Armed agents, a proper tax army, will come after American patriots! As the IRA was passing the Senate, slightly different versions of this paranoid story were shared across the Right, Tucker Carlson and the rest of the rightwing propaganda machine went all in, and white power militants and fascistic groups were putting out recruitment videos: Heavily armed IRS agents are coming to raid our homes – gotta get ready to defend yourselves and all you hold dear in this world!

Which brings us back to my beach encounter with the rightwing base version of this bizarre conspiracy theory….Like I said, the encounter started with some unsuspicious small talk. About life in general and vacationing with two little kids in particular. “Where are you from? … She was ecstatic to hear [I’m German] and told me about her many trips to Germany with her husband, how they had actually lived over there… “We are both academics,” she emphasized….

At that point, the conversation could have gone in many different directions. [But] the next thing she said was: “I hope you’re teaching your students the Fourth amendment!” –“The Fourth amendment?” I must have replied, while already thinking: Oh no… It was too late. The elderly lady who had been delighted at the sight of my kids chasing seagulls just minutes earlier was now going off: about the “illegal raid” (on Mar-a-Lago), what an outrage it was, how shameful, how the country was doomed.

I should have just walked away right at that moment. Why didn’t I? … Instead of just turning around and fleeing, I reflexively mentioned something about equality before the law, probable cause, a judge signing off on the warrant… In return, I received a crash course in rightwing conspiratorial talking points and how they relate to each other. “It was that Epstein judge, did you know that?” the lady said with that “I’m about to open your eyes to what’s really going on” messianic zeal that conspiratorial thinkers often possess. The Clintons, by the way, “stole furniture worth tens of thousands from the White House, did you know that?” A crime far worse than taking “some documents that belong to him anyway,” apparently. “Why should he have to give back his letters just because some archivist wants them.” And, anyway, they “invaded his private home,” the now very animated lady continued, “even Melania’s chambers, can you imagine?” That actually made me laugh for a second. Which earned me a really nasty look. Melania’s chambers. Hm. I tried to build some sort of bridge, I think, maybe lighten the mood, by saying: “Well, if I was hiding evidence, I would certainly try to make it disappear amidst the chaos in the kids’ bedroom!” But she wasn’t having any of it. More nasty looks.

“Why are they going after him, and not Hunter Biden?” – “Hunter Biden?” I heard myself say, reflexively, “We’re talking about the former president. Has Hunter Biden ever held public office?” She gave me the whole “Joe did his bidding… oh, the corruption!” spiel.

Then it became really personal. “You are from Germany,” she said, in a way that expressed both frustration and disappointment, “you should know about Hitler and Mussolini, you should be outraged!” I foolishly allowed myself to think: Now we’re talking history, I’m on firm ground, I know what to say: “If you are concerned about the rise of fascism, you’re looking at the wrong side.” That remark just made her angry, however. “Ah, you only say that because you’re from Germany, and you don’t know what’s going on here…”

… And that’s when she dropped the IRS bomb: “They are arming IRS agents as we speak – they are coming to our houses, they are going to raid our homes, taking away everything!” Was she talking about wealth? Guns? I couldn’t say. I must admit I had never heard of this specific conspiracy theory. I was baffled. I said: “Come on now…” That set off her final tirade: “Ah, you’re one of those people, you’re just consuming liberal propaganda, reading from the magic laptop all day…” (whatever the magic laptop is?).

She was actually yelling at me by that point. On the beach. I basically froze. Thankfully, her friend, who had been visibly uncomfortable the whole time, chimed in: “I think we should probably go this way, and you should go that way.” Yes. And so, we did.

To recap what I know about her profile: She was an elderly white person, with an academic background, widely traveled, had lived overseas, and, it can be assumed, reasonably affluent. I’ve spent a fair bit of time reflecting on what, if anything, I should take away from this encounter:

1) She obviously didn’t fit the ideal of the economically anxious, left-behind by the evil forces of globalism T____ voter, nor the stereotype of the conspiratorially inclined fringe….

2) What this “conversation” put into stark relief for me was that the idea of “keeping politics out of it,” of deliberately preserving and creating non-political realms in which we can all still come together harmoniously, is simply not plausible – and is becoming less plausible every day. This person was fully politicized. Her interaction with a complete stranger, on the beach, became very political within a few minutes. And it wasn’t the fault of those “woke” activists or those supposedly dangerous trans people aggressively injecting their views, their politics everywhere at all times – it was all on this resentful senior citizen.

3) Similarly, there just is no “meeting in the middle,” no “finding common ground” with such people. For her, I was the enemy – even though it was the least threatening setting imaginable… This person wasn’t interested in debate, or a different perspective, or building bridges, or compromise. She wasn’t even interested in just ignoring politics. The only thing she would have accepted from me was compliance, submission. There was no truce to be had.

4) I am continuously amazed (as in: terrified) by the effectiveness of the rightwing information / propaganda machine. This elderly lady had all her talking points ready; it was like someone had briefed her on what the unified response to the FBI “raid” and the tyrannical Biden legislation was going to be. And she delivered. This wasn’t just some crazy-but-harmless old lady. Republican officials and political commentators … were constantly flooding the discourse with all the same talking points (previous presidents taking furniture!), employing the same strategies of obstruction. Instantaneously, everywhere.

5) Probably the most concerning aspect of all: The depth and extent of the Right’s radicalization. This “Armed IRS is coming for you” message was shared by both fascistic militants and this elderly lady who should have been enjoying her time on the beach. The extremism has fully spread to the “respectable” spheres. That doesn’t mean this lady was herself a member of a violent militia, or that she was about to join the armed revolt. It does mean, however, that she was doing her part to popularize, normalize, legitimize this ideology — the extremism it animates. It also means that we are not dealing with fringe phenomena. This IRS thing appeared more or less simultaneously in far-right circles – and in the well-respected communities of upstanding, educated, affluent senior citizens. No matter where, exactly, such extremist conspiratorial theories originate: They are immediately picked up by the rightwing propaganda machine and transported by leading conservatives and Republican elected officials. While there are different levels and layers of radicalism on the Right, there is no clear line between the T____ian “fringe” and the center of conservative politics and social life. It is, at best, a permeable membrane – as it always has been.

6) Here is the rightwing permission structure on full display. Why do people who may find Marjorie Taylor Greene crass still consider her a valuable ally? Why is it not a dealbreaker for more conservatives that the Proud Boys increasingly act as the GOP’s paramilitary arm? Well, if the other side really were preparing to send out armed IRS hit squads, would there be anything -very much including the use of political violence – *not* justified in the struggle against such despotic forces? Once you have convinced yourself and/or your supporters that the other side is scheming to deprive you of what is rightfully yours, any measure you take, regardless of how radical, is justified as an inevitable act of (preemptive) self-defense.

In the days after the encounter, I kept replaying the conversation in my mind, and I was constantly catching myself trying to figure out what I could have /should have said: better arguments, more evidence, different tone… But that wasn’t just pointless, it was also misleading. The problem is not just that this particular person obviously wasn’t going to be moved by empirical evidence or by pointing out flaws and inconsistencies in what she was claiming – the very idea that the political conflict is ultimately about better arguments is flawed. It’s one of the fallacies of which many liberals / lefties – like me! – apparently can’t fully let go. But a fallacy it remains: There was no persuading that person, not by saying the right thing or in the right tone. Because it’s not a contest of ideas. People like me would love it to be a competition of who has the better arguments. Because that’s the kind of struggle with which we are comfortable, that we believe we can win. But it’s not the kind of conflict in which we find ourselves. Better to accept and grapple with that.

From the Jersey Shore to Congress, from the conspiratorial fringes to the center of Republican power, from MAGA paranoia to the GOP’s legislative priorities. Show me your first piece of legislation and I’ll tell you who you are. McCarthy’s IRS bill is perfect. Combine the hostility to the state and governing institutions (unless they are completely under Republican control) with the conspiratorial chimera of 87,000 agents out to get American patriots – all of it ultimately, and not coincidentally, helping those who are wealthy and have, to put it mildly, no interest in tax enforcement. There it is, today’s Republican Party: Performative populism, white reactionary grievance politics with some conspiratorial rightwing extremism mixed in, hierarchy maintenance at all costs.

Unquote.

You can receive Prof. Zimmer’s periodic emails or see his posts at no cost by subscribing at Democracy Americana.

Would an Assassination Help?

According to news reports, someone violently assaulted Paul Pelosi, the 82-year old husband of Nancy Pelosi, the Democratic Speaker of the House (who is second in line for the presidency). Mr. Pelosi survived, but got a fractured skull and other injuries. The person arrested for the assault appears to have been seriously delusional:

The San Francisco Bay area man arrested in the attack on … Nancy Pelosi’s husband filled a blog a week before the incident with delusional thoughts, including that an invisible fairy attacked an acquaintance and sometimes appeared to him in the form of a bird, according to online writings under his name.

[He] also published hundreds of blog posts in recent months sharing memes in support of fringe commentators and far-right personalities. Many of the posts were filled with screeds against Jews, Black people, Democrats, the media and transgender people [Washington Post].

We can assume the attacker was intending to injure or assassinate Nancy Pelosi, since he apparently asked her husband “Where’s Nancy?” She wasn’t there, she was in Washington. But that’s probably why her husband was allowed to go to the bathroom, where he happened to be charging his phone. That allowed him to call 911. The 911 operator then heard conversation between Pelosi and the other man. That led the operator to alert police, who responded within a couple minutes and witnessed the assault [Politico]. I suppose, understanding that Nancy Pelosi wasn’t there, and seeing that he was about to be arrested, it seemed like a good idea to eliminate Pelosi’s husband instead.

Nancy Pelosi has been demonized for years by the Republican Party and right-wing propaganda outlets like Fox News (Vox has an historical summary). It’s not surprising that somebody who’s been told over and over that a powerful woman, in league with various dark forces, wants to destroy America decided he had to do something about it. Given the intensity of right-wing attacks on Democratic politicians in recent years, it is surprising that there haven’t been more assaults and assassination attempts.

One question this episode raises is whether the assassination of a high-level official like Nancy Pelosi or President Biden would tone down right-wing rhetoric. Could it even break the hold of the most extreme Republicans on their party? Would it be a sufficient shock to the system that some voters — possibly the so-called “moderates” who have trouble deciding which party to support — would turn away from the Republican Party?

For a time, people thought the January 6th assault on the Capitol was bad enough to make people switch sides. But it doesn’t seem to have had that effect (otherwise the polls wouldn’t be so close). For one thing, the insurrectionists walking the halls calling out to Nancy Pelosi weren’t able to find her and bludgeon her to death. They didn’t find Vice President Pence, one of their other targets, either.

The early indications are that Friday’s attempt to maim or kill the Speaker of the House by someone steeped in right-wing propaganda won’t have much of an effect. An alternate reality is already being created:

An online forum devoted to former White House adviser Stephen K. Bannon’s right-wing radio show alerted its 78,000 subscribers to “very strange new details on Paul Pelosi attack.”

Roger Stone … took to the messaging app Telegram to call the assault on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi’s husband an “alleged attack,” telling his followers that a “stench” surrounded mainstream reporting about the Friday break-in….

The skepticism didn’t stay in right-wing echo chambers but seeped also into the feeds of popular online personalities, including Twitter’s new owner, Elon Musk.

“There is a tiny possibility there might be more to this story than meets the eye,” he wrote Sunday morning, pointing his 112 million followers to a sensationalist account of the episode published by a site known for spreading right-wing misinformation. 

The rush to sow doubt about the assault on Pelosi’s husband illustrates how aggressively influential figures on the right are seeking to dissuade the public from believing facts about the violence, seizing on the event to promote conspiracy theories and provoke distrust….

These merchants of misinformation, said Carl Cameron, a former longtime Fox News political correspondent, deceive their massive audiences using rumors and lies about everything from the integrity of elections to the details of a police report. “They are creating a dystopia wherein lying and physical violence become part of our politics,” he said.

Dinesh D’Souza … aired falsehoods and innuendo in a viral Twitter thread suggesting the attack on Paul Pelosi was a form of intentional misrepresentation sometimes referred to as a “false flag”…. “The Left is going crazy because not only are we not BUYING the wacky, implausible Paul Pelosi story but we are even LAUGHING over how ridiculous it is,” he wrote early Sunday morning. “What this means is that we are no longer intimidated by their fake pieties”….

Musk [Twitter’s new owner] also appeared unconvinced by the official story… In response to a tweet from Hillary Clinton condemning the attack and claiming it resulted from “hate and deranged conspiracy theories” spread by Republican politicians, he pointed instead to a story in the Santa Monica Observer claiming without evidence that Paul Pelosi was drunk at the time of the assault and “in a dispute with a male prostitute.” Musk, who later deleted the tweet, did not respond to an email seeking comment.

The website of the Santa Monica Observer, described by fact-checkers as a low-credibility source favoring the extreme right, was offline Sunday morning. But an archived version of the story promised to explain “what really happened early Friday morning in San Francisco”. It unspooled a lurid tale about nudists and a tryst gone terribly wrong….

Apart from our personal experience, we all learn by paying attention to trusted sources of information. If your sources of information are corrupt, you get a skewed view of reality. That’s why it will take more than an attack on the Capitol or a botched assassination attempt — or something of world-historical importance like the climate crisis — to change some people’s minds.

Russia vs. Ukraine: Sometimes the Truth Leaks Out

The Russian government inadvertently told us the purpose of the invasion. The historian Timothy Snyder, an expert on Eastern Europe, explains:

Russia has a history of aiming for quick and decisive strikes against Ukraine, failing, then revealing the aims of the operation in media prepared on the assumption of success.

Such a sequences of events unfolded in 2014 during a Ukrainian presidential election. Russia tried to hack Ukraine’s central election commission so that it would present a far-right candidate, who in fact got less than 1% of the vote, as the winner.

The hack failed, but Russian media had been prepared for its success; and Russian television went on air with falsified results and even digital images that matched what the hack was supposed to produce. 

Something similar seems to have happened with the invasion of 2022. Like the hack in 2014, the invasion did not lead to the expected result. This left Russian media with prepared material which, since it assumed success, reveals (or confirms) the goals of the Russian invasion.

No doubt most such material was never published or quickly removed. This article seems to have slipped through. It was written for approved Russian media on the assumption of a quick Russian victory, and so reveals the goals of the invasion. 

The goals of the invasion described here are destruction of the Ukrainian government, control of all Ukrainian territory, the end of Ukrainian sovereignty, and a solution to the “Ukrainian question.”

Further anticipated is the creation of a unified Russian-Ukrainian-Belarusian entity, and the rebalancing of the world order in a “new epoch” of Russian domination over a humiliated and divided West. 

Unquote.

Of course, a divided West and a subjugated Ukraine is exactly what the former president tried to give his “savvy” Russian mentor when T____ criticized our allies, threatened to leave NATO and pressured Zelensky to provide dirt on Biden by freezing military aid (which led to his second impeachment).

The Scandal Is that They’re So Good at Creating “Scandals”

Mehdi Hassan of MSNBC is impressed:

You do have to admire the rightwing media echo chamber’s ability to weaponize even the most hyped-up of stories (John Durham filing!), misrepresent AND distort it, and then push it out with a relentless message discipline on cable and online that liberals could only ever dream of. . . . 

If your coverage and analysis of U.S. politics doesn’t center on or even include the fact that the right has a massive, well-funded, coordinated propaganda machine and its opponents don’t, then you’re really not doing it right.

Paul Waldman of The Washington Post is too:

On an average day, Fox News tells dozens or even hundreds of outright lies. Meanwhile there’s an entire trial happening in New York about A SINGLE WORD in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin, which was quickly corrected. Different worlds. 

Mr. Waldman wrote more about this latest instance of propaganda vs. reality:

When some appalling new story emerges of political actors lying to the public, should [the news media] confront it? Or will the attempt to debunk the story only draw more attention to it, spreading the lies further?

There’s no perfect answer that fits every situation. But at the very least, it’s important to understand how systems of propaganda operate, so we can try to minimize the damage they do. And never in our history has there been a propaganda system that operates with the skill, enthusiasm and outright shamelessness of the one conservatives have working for them right now.

That’s depressingly evident in the latest “blockbuster” story gripping the right, a story built on a grab bag of misleading assertions, misinterpretations and outright lies. It forces us to ask yet again: Is it possible to have a healthy democracy when so much of it is soaking in misinformation?

The current story concerns John Durham, the special counsel who has spent almost three years investigating the investigation into Russia’s attempts to subvert the 2016 election. You can read a comprehensive rundown of the facts here or here.

Durham has indicted Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI, which Sussmann denies [that indictment itself is incredibly weak — it involves whether Sussman said he was representing a client in a private conversation he had with an FBI agent he knew]. In 2016, Sussmann, whose firm was doing legal work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, gave the FBI a tip involving supposedly suspicious internet traffic between servers in Trump buildings and a Russian bank; it turned out to be nothing nefarious.

Sussman got the information through another client of his, Rodney Joffe, a technology executive with government cybersecurity contracts, including one that involved protecting the White House from cyber attacks.

In a court filing last week, Durham alleged that Joffe “exploited” his arrangement with the White House to obtain the data in question “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump.”

Joffe vigorously denies this. His spokesperson says examining such data was par for the course, as he was doing cybersecurity work for the government, and in late 2016, everyone was appropriately concerned about Russian hacking. Durham has not indicted Joffe for anything.

But this is where the propaganda machine goes nuclear.

Fox News is treating this like a stunning revelation (“Worse than Watergate” trumpeted Sean Hannity), dramatically amping up the story with each retelling. After all, it isn’t good enough to say a lawyer with a second-order connection to the Clinton campaign got information from another client with legitimate access to White House internet traffic data; that’s not nearly scandalous enough.

So Fox published a headline reading “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” The Washington Examiner claimed Sussmann “spied on Trump’s White House office” — even though the internet data came from 2016, when Barack Obama was president.

“Hillary broke into a presidential candidate’s computer server and a sitting president’s computer server,” ludicrously claimed Fox host Jesse Watters. “There, her hackers planted evidence, fabricated evidence connecting Trump to Russia.”

Tucker Carlson added that Clinton’s campaign stole “presumably text messages,” which not even Durham alleges.

These are all lies. This is not about “hacking,” no evidence was planted and the data on White House traffic came from when Obama was president. You can argue that Durham’s filing was itself misleading and tendentious [which it was], but even if every word of it was true, what they were saying on Fox was outrageously false.

But the propaganda machine doesn’t stop there. Republican politicians — even those who know better — see their constituents being fed this line, so they rush to get in on the act:

The coverage has gone meta; Fox is now angrily asking why other news outlets are not matching their breathless coverage of this nothing burger, feeding their viewers’ paranoid fantasies about cover-ups and conspiracies.

So in no time, we move from questionable claims to obviously false allegations to demands for legal retaliation against political opponents to whining about their own victimhood, with the enthusiastic participation of GOP officeholders, none of whom has the courage to say, “Hey guys, I hate Hillary as much as anyone, but it seems like we’re running out ahead of the facts here.”

That’s because every Republican relies on the propaganda machine. It helps their own campaigns. It keeps the base in a state of perpetual anger. And if you question it, you will become its enemy.

This is happening while there’s an entire trial going on in New York about a single inaccurate word in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin — an editorial that was quickly corrected. The Times is falling all over itself to explain how it got something wrong, and no one on the left is defending the paper. Meanwhile, Fox programming contains extraordinary amounts of factual errors, misleading assertions and outright lies, almost none of which ever get corrected.

So where does that leave us? The unfortunate answer is that when a propaganda apparatus such as this one is so deeply embedded within one of our parties, it becomes almost impossible to puncture. Fantasies are accepted as fact, lies become immune to refutation and anyone who displays even a modicum of honesty is denounced as a traitor.

There may be a solution out there, a strategy to pull our politics back to reality. But if there is, we haven’t found it yet.

Unquote.

The former president issued a statement regarding this “scandal” claiming members of the Clinton campaign would have been executed (for crimes they didn’t actually commit), back when America was stronger. His bullshit was dutifully repeated here, there and everywhere as if it made any sense at all.

As we sink further into the abyss.

As If What’s True Matters to Them

Charles Pierce of Esquire covers one more case in which the truth couldn’t compete with right-wing fantasy and paranoia (as originally reported in more detail by The New York Times). Mr. Pierce’s conclusion regarding who is ultimately responsible for this nonsense is important:

. .. . Some local boosters in the central part of Montana wanted to arrange for the area to be declared a National Heritage Area. This, they believed, would boost the tourist economy in that beautiful, but lonely, place. It also would bring in some much-needed FREE MONEY! from the federal government. This sounded like a plan to many of the people living there, and especially to the local mover-and-shaker communities. But they did not reckon with the power of the Intertoobz, and one citizen’s willingness to believe anything she read there. . . .

For seven years, beginning in 2013, the proposal went along swimmingly behind the work of a retired Forest Service officer. There were town meetings, and the process was largely peaceful. And then D____ T____ ran for re-election and hell followed after him.

Rae Grulkowski [a 56-year old businesswoman who had never been involved in politics] heard a local candidate speak against the proposal, and she thereafter went so far off the diving board that said candidate disowned her and her work. Like that even matters.

At the time, [Grulkowski] was becoming engrossed in the online world of far-right media. From her home on 34 acres in Stockett, a farming community of 157 people south of Great Falls, she watched videos from outlets like His Glory TV, where hosts refer to President Biden as “the so-called president.” She subscribed to the Telegram messaging channel of Seth Keshel, a prolific disinformation spreader. And she came across a vein of conspiratorial accusations that national heritage areas were a kind of Trojan horse that could open the door to future federal land grabs.

When Ms. Grulkowski, who owns a septic cleaning company, tried using Ms. [Jeni] Dodd’s group to push the idea that Montanans’ property rights were at risk, Ms. Dodd kicked her out for promoting lies. “I’m not happy with people saying it will seize your property, because that is disingenuous,” Ms. Dodd said. “I said to her, ‘I think you need to be careful about the message. It isn’t actually the way that it works, what you’re saying.’”

But Ms. Grulkowski plowed ahead.

. . . She collected addresses from a list of voters and spent $1,300 sending a packet denouncing the proposed heritage area to 1,498 farmers and ranchers. She told them the designation would forbid landowners to build sheds, drill wells or use fertilizers and pesticides. It would alter water rights, give tourists access to private property, create a new taxation district and prohibit new septic systems and burials on private land, she said.

None of this was true.

Like that matters anymore.

Grulkowski found powerful allies to support her fantasies. The head of the Montana Farm Bureau, a muscular lobbying group, signed onboard. . . The Farm Bureau guy sounds like a real prize.

In two hours of talking at his farm, Mr. Bandel could offer no evidence to back up that claim. He said he distrusted assurances that there were no such designs. “They say, ‘Don’t worry, we’re going to do it right. Don’t worry, we’ll take care of you. I think Adolf Hitler said that, too, didn’t he?” Mr. Bandel said. “The fear of the unknown is a huge fear.” Mr. Bandel said he trusted Ms. Grulkowski with the details.

And why wouldn’t you? I mean, it’s not like Ms. Grulkowski would believe anything that comes out of the pixelverse, right?

Outside of a poultry coop, as her chickens and ducks squawked, Ms. Grulkowski ticked through the falsehoods she had read online and accepted as truths in the past year: The Covid vaccine is more dangerous than the coronavirus. Global child-trafficking rings control the political system. Black Lives Matter was responsible for the Jan. 6 attack on the Capitol. The United Nations is plotting to control world population and seize private land. Mr. T____ was the rightful winner of last year’s election. Even in Cascade County, where Mr. T____ won 59 percent of the vote, Ms. Grulkowski argued that 3,000 illegal votes were cast.

We didn’t believe in any of that stuff until last July,” Ms. Grulkowski said. “Then we stumbled on something on the internet, and we watched it, and it took us two days to get over that. And it had to do with the child trafficking that leads to everything. It just didn’t seem right, and that was just over the top. And then we started seeing things that are lining up with that everywhere.”

She started seeing things. I have no doubt of that.

Pretty soon, . . . thanks to the cowardice and stupidity of the Montana political establishment—right up to and including Governor Greg (Body Slam) Gianforte and U.S. Senator Steve Daines—there were power players joining the fight against this non-existent threat.

Yet it soon became accepted as truth by enough people to persuade Montana’s leading Republican figures and conservative organizations, including the farm bureau, Gov. Gianforte and Senator Daines, to oppose the proposal and enact a state law forbidding the federal government to create any heritage area in Montana.

It is a ban that the state has no authority to enforce.

Like that even matters any more.

The dispute has split communities, become a wedge issue in this fall’s political campaigns and left proponents of the heritage area flummoxed at their collective inability to refute falsehoods once they have become accepted wisdom. “We’ve run into the uneducable,” Ellen Sievert, a retired historic preservation officer for Great Falls and surrounding Cascade County, said. “I don’t know how we get through that.”

I have a Pro Tip for these folks: you can’t defeat the imaginary with either logic or reason. Delusions have their own physical laws, and you don’t know what they are.

Rae Gulkowski is not the problem. Rae Gulkowskis have been with us always. I wrote a book once that had as one of its central themes that the United States is the best country in the history of the world to be completely out of your mind. It is the powerful interests—political, social, financial; local and national—who are willing to pretend to swallow any fantastical codswallop for their own dark purposes who are the real sources of peril to the republic’s existence. It’s the people who should know better, and who clearly don’t, and worse, who don’t give a damn.

Unquote.

It doesn’t look like taking Fox News and Facebook out of the picture would have made a difference in this case, but unless we do something about the way Facebook and Fox News feed right-wing fantasy and paranoia, it’s fair to conclude that the Republican Party will become even more divorced from reality and Republican politicians will become even worse than they are now.

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