01 February 2024

Paranoia, passivity, and keeping reality at bay

[This post is about psychology, not politics.  It may not look that way at first, but bear with me.]

Many on the left feel a persistent anxiety about the danger of large-scale right-wing political violence.  Much of the right-wing population is heavily armed (though lately many urban liberals have been buying guns too, due to the ongoing menace of violent crime in the big cities), and for years there has been an undercurrent of rhetoric about "Second Amendment solutions" and so forth in response to future election outcomes or other events they don't like.  Then, too, there was the January 6 insurrection.  Many fear that any major legal move against Trump, or his defeat in November, or some other trigger, could set off large-scale violence.

There's certainly a lot of scary rhetoric in the right-wing blogosphere.  I recently linked to a typical example here (see comments thread).  Such discussions -- I've read quite a few -- start from the premise that the current general situation is so intolerable (though specific grievances are almost never cited) that in the long run a violent uprising by "real Americans" is inevitable.  They then indulge at great length in rather masturbatory-sounding fantasies about various guerilla tactics to be used against urban areas or government authority, and about how gloriously "owned" the libs will be when it all happens.  No expected triggering event is specified -- it's just "when the SHTF" or "when things get sporty" or similar expressions.  Should we be worried?

Well, there have been plenty of potential triggering events over the last few years, and with the glaring exception of January 6, nothing has happened.  The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, the various indictments of Trump, his removal from the Colorado ballot, the several referendum wins for abortion rights, the disappointing (to right-wingers) 2022 election results, the bipartisan deals to keep the government funded despite the efforts of fringe-right House Republicans to burn it all down -- several of these things produced an upsurge of outraged and violent rhetoric on various parts of the right-wing internet, but none was followed by any substantial actual violence.

Why not?  An important clue comes from the recent "God's Army" plan to send a huge convoy of trucks to the Mexican border to join the fight against illegal immigration.  The "organizers" of this fiasco claimed they would get seven hundred thousand trucks to participate, but in fact rallied only a few dozen vehicles.  The main reason for the failure was that from the start, very rapidly, the suspicion took hold across the right-wing internet that the whole thing was an FBI sting designed to lure out and entrap militants.  This sudden flight of paranoia was not an exceptional case.  As described above, enthusiastic discussion of violence at some vague time in the future is common -- but I've noticed that anyone calling for specific acts of violence in the present is very likely to be denounced as an FBI provocateur.  Memes about FBI agents infiltrating right-wing groups to incite self-defeating violence are fairly common.  Even the January 6 insurrection is sometimes attributed to FBI agents among the MAGA crowd setting things off so that "patriots" could be arrested.

For the vast majority of participants, all this online talk about a future violent uprising or second civil war is just talk.  It offers an emotional catharsis for people who feel mostly helpless to change the course of real-world events on a national scale.  (Such fantasies date back at least to The Turner Diaries in 1978, but have become much more widespread in the last ten years or so.)  It has more in common with masturbation or computer-game fandom than with serious revolutionary plotting.  Every time someone tries to organize a real mass event, even a mostly non-violent one like "God's Army" or the various failed marches on Washington, the "FBI paranoia" flares up and derails it.

(The paranoia isn't entirely unjustified.  I've long believed that a right-wing violent uprising on a substantial scale is impossible because these people just don't have the brains or skills to organize serious numbers of people over a large geographical area without being detected and stopped by the authorities early in the planning stage.  There may occasionally be individual acts of violence or even terrorism like the Oklahoma City bombing, but nothing that rises from the criminal level to the political level.  The FBI probably does monitor extremist rhetoric and groups to some extent.  But the important point here is the self-canceling effect of the mere fear of provocateur infiltration.)

So why did January 6 happen?  The circumstances were exceptional in two ways.  First, those people were not sitting at home getting mad about things they read on the internet.  They were all together in a group, in Trump's physical presence, within walking distance of the Capitol, while he was urging them to "fight".  Hanging back, when the aroused mob started to move, would have been psychologically harder than going along.  Second, they were an atypical, self-selected group, the most militant of the militant, the people who had chosen to come there from all over the country in Trump's name.  Out of the tens of millions on the Trumpist right, statistically one would expect there to be a small minority, perhaps a few thousand people, so extremist and unhinged that they really would resort to murderous violence.  I would argue that the crowd which assembled to hear Trump on January 6 essentially was that small minority, or a good chunk of it.  And they're now mostly out of action, in prison or being hunted down, their fate demonstrating to any like-minded others out there that the authorities do impose severe punishments for violent attacks on the system.

This was a freak event; the combination of circumstances that made it possible is unlikely to recur.

There's one more aspect to this "FBI paranoia" which is speculative but, I think, interesting to consider.

The FBI has limited resources.  How plausible is it, really, to believe that it is constantly setting up false-flag events to tempt a few innocent right-wingers into illegal activity so it can arrest them?  To believe that it devotes so much manpower to infiltrating right-wing online forums and blog comment threads that anyone who suggests an immediate violent act is probably an agent?  To believe that it would deliberately incite the storming of the most important government building on Earth, threatening the lives of Congress and the functioning of the government itself, just to entrap and arrest a few hundred Trump supporters?  Yes, there are probably some who literally believe these things out of stupidity or lack of critical thinking, but I don't think that's the whole story.

For years now much of the far right has lived in an alternate-reality bubble dominated by baroque, nebulous, and thoroughly implausible conspiracy theories.  The 2020 election was somehow stolen or rigged.  Covid was part of an elaborate US government plot, or was mostly harmless, or never existed at all.  The vaccines were ineffective or dangerous or even deliberately designed to kill (another government plot).  Global warming is a hoax (almost all of the world's climate scientists and governments collaborating in another vast conspiracy) to trick the world into switching to non-fossil-fuel energy for..... some nefarious reason.  Then there was all the QAnon stuff, for a while.  Every news story that contradicts the alternate reality, every court ruling that goes against Trump, every poll that gives results they don't want to hear, is just more proof of how pervasive the influence of the vague but evil "they" behind all these conspiracies really is.

Again, there are likely some who are dumb enough to literally and straightforwardly believe all this stuff, but I can't believe it's very many.  What I think is going on here, on some level, is an elaborate shared fantasy world in which a lot of rather dull and powerless people can imagine themselves to be brave embattled fighters for truth and justice, the enlightened ones who can see all the evil conspiracies to which the gullible masses are blind.  But as with any fantasy world, except for those individuals who are literally delusional, deep deep down they know it isn't real.

Fantasies become dangerous when you act on them in the real world as if they were true.  A world in which almost everything is part of a network of evil plots by Jews or alien humanoid reptiles or whatever would be a more exciting and drama-filled place than the real world, but actually engaging in the kind of active "resistance" that a sincere belief in that world would demand from you, would quickly get you into serious trouble.  The fantasy must incorporate an element which serves as a pretext to avoid engaging in such action.  This is the function of the "FBI paranoia".  It enables the believer to stay safely in the fantasy world, eschewing dangerous conflict in the real world, free to engage in those endless fantasy discussions of the glorious violence he and his friends will be able to commit when the time comes -- in the future, always in the future, the future that will never actually arrive.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Have you read Fred Brown's Slacktivist? He goes right to that issue from the POV of a smart, lefty Christian with a deep background in and understanding of fundamentalist culture. I recommend him, and thanks for this post.

01 February, 2024 08:30  
Blogger Mary Kirkland said...

I try not to worry about everything that people are talking about because I've been around long enough to know that most of it never happens.

01 February, 2024 11:34  
Blogger nick said...

A good analysis of what's going on. "An elaborate shared fantasy world in which a lot of rather dull and powerless people can imagine themselves to be brave embattled fighters for truth and justice" - that about sums it up. And as Mary says, most of the scare stories turn out to be baseless. In the UK of course our right-wing government will carry on punishing the poor and vulnerable until (hopefully) they're replaced by a more humane government.

01 February, 2024 13:43  
Blogger Green Eagle said...

A very fair treatment of this issue, I think. From my long watching of wingnut attempts to march on Washington, or the border, or drive all their trucks somewhere, it has been pretty clear to me that in the aggregate, they are mostly too stupid and lazy to really come through on any of their grandiose plans. Of course, in a country of over 300 million people, it would only take a vanishingly small percent of them to get up to some truly horrifying behavior-imagine a few hundred of them going out and cutting someone's head off, instead of one MAGA lunatic- so I remain afraid that we may well face a few events that would have been unimaginably horrible a couple of decades ago, before we are through with this.

01 February, 2024 13:46  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Anon: No, I hadn't heard of that at all. Thanks for the recommendation. I'll look it up.

Mary K: That's the best approach. It's easy to get into a state of panic about everything that might happen. A lot of talk is just talk.

Nick: Thanks. There's no harm in fantasy so long as it stays fantasy. I'm sure the people I'm talking about here "believe that they believe" this stuff is all real, and in some cases (rejecting vaccines, for example), they even act on it. But it's noticeable that they almost always avoid serious conflict with the authorities.

Green: Thanks. It has been striking how almost every mass demonstration by these people has fizzled out at a tiny fraction of the pre-declared numbers. Whatever one thinks of their sincerity, I'm not worried about an armed revolt (or "second Civil War", as they prefer to say). If they can't get a million guys to march on Washington, they certainly can't get a million guys to launch an armed revolt or even take potshots at power stations.

We don't need hundreds of wingnuts running around cutting people's heads off. That's what jihadists are for.

02 February, 2024 03:59  
Anonymous Reaganite Independent said...

Truly excellent piece, astute observations throughout. Thanks + linking.

But however unlikely a similar confluence of events (to January 6 ) is, MAGA/conspiracy theory inspired violence in this country is a problem that’s still growing, I’m sure you’d probably agree to that

One lone wolf can do plenty of damage

It’s worrying, most of it inspired by nonsense and committed by those who don’t respond to reason in general

03 February, 2024 02:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Reaganite: Thank you. I put a lot of thought into this one.

In all honesty, I don't see MAGA political violence as a growing problem. I don't deny that it might increase in the future, but there's very little of it now, and I don't see any sign that it's increasing. There's been nothing lately even on the level of the Hutaree thing, never mind another January 6. By far the biggest source of political violence in the US right now is the "progressive" Nazi / pro-Palestinian movement, with its pattern of anti-Semitic murder, vandalism, harassment, and so forth.

Very occasionally mass shootings turn out to have a political motive, but that's pretty rare -- usually they're just about personal grievances or mental problems. And while I acknowledge that terrorist attacks by individuals like the Oklahoma City bombing are always possible, it's striking how rare such things are.

The MAGA/conspiratards' words online certainly imply they believe they're facing an apocalyptic evil, but their (lack of) actions says otherwise.

03 February, 2024 09:07  
Blogger Mary said...

By now youve seen the Taylor Swift and the Super Bowl game craziness nuttery. But on a serious note, a bigger concern is violence and death to judges, jurors, politicians etc. that can change the course of justice and forever change our country’s meaning and standing in the world, not to mention the damage it can do here.

03 February, 2024 09:18  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Mary: I do actually worry about somebody trying to assassinate Taylor Swift, frankly.

But as for the rest of it? Yes, "judges, jurors, politicians etc" are getting a lot of threats, and of course that's a serious crime and the people doing it need to be tracked down and severely punished. But actual political violence? It's remarkable how little of it there is. There was the attack on Paul Pelosi, the Scalise shooting, the Gabby Giffords shooting, a couple of attacks on Rand Paul (and I can't remember whether those were political or a dispute with a neighbor), and..... it just isn't happening very much.

There are tens of millions of MAGA people, and probably the majority of them are heavily armed. For years now they've believed, or claimed to believe, that Democrats and liberals are an evil and enormously dangerous threat to the country. They talk a lot about the "need" to "fight back" with armed force. So why is there so little political violence from these tens of millions of armed people? That's what I'm trying to account for in this post.

03 February, 2024 09:28  
Blogger Bohemian said...

I do agree, most of this is Fantasy based for the vast majority, the stuff of their Wet Dreams and most have no idea what they ask for anyway. Those that actually Believe they'd be better off under a Dictator and Authoritarian Theocracy have never been in any Country that had one. I think we should send them to one for the Real Experience of it and a Reality Check that would scare the shit out of them. But Extremists and Terrorists who do Act are quite dangerous even if a small minority of the collective. Once Sold Out on their extreme views I'm glad those factions are being monitored and being put out of commission. It's difficult to fight Terrorism, since, they don't abide by any Rules of Engagement whatsoever and tend to attract the really twisted violence prone types that are sadistic and ruthless.

03 February, 2024 15:36  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Bohemian: and most have no idea what they ask for anyway

They're surprisingly incoherent. I see little explicit discussion of what exactly they think is so intolerable about the current status quo (other than illegal immigration, probably because it's in the news so much, and of course threats to gun rights). That seems to be common to rage-fueled extremist groups of all stripes. It seems like the anger is the point and the grievances justifying it are a half-baked afterthought.

Some degree of violence has always been part of human society and probably always will be. But I don't see any reason to expect sudden surges of politically-motivated violence from the far right.

04 February, 2024 01:16  
Anonymous Annie said...

This is a very thoughtful essay that deserves wider attention. But the lone wolf threats and occasional attacks are straining the resources of the FBI, and the threats against election officials on the state and local levels are causing resignations that are weakening the system’s capacity to function well. I have heard this concern expressed by state officials who have received such threats in Michigan, Arizona, and Colorado. It should not take personal courage to be a poll worker, but that is currently the case in too many areas. My hope is that this is transitory and the defeat of Trump will dampen it.

04 February, 2024 05:26  
Blogger Infidel753 said...

Annie: Thanks. Threats in and of themselves are certainly a problem, and those making them should be punished much more harshly than they are. My intent here was more to address actual violence.

It will be interesting to see if the threats and violence diminish after Trump dies or is imprisoned. I suspect they will somewhat, but the problem won't just go away, because this Trumpist movement is just the latest face of the militant fundamentalist movement which has been growing more extreme for decades (while shrinking in numbers). Trump is their current figurehead, but if he didn't exist, it would have been somebody else (not necessarily a politician). In any case, as I mentioned in my response to Reaganite Independent, we now have a much more serious political violence problem than the Trumpists.

04 February, 2024 20:44  
Anonymous Reaganite Independent said...

I sure hope you’re right

06 February, 2024 21:55  

Post a Comment

<< Home