I’ve been watching, with a certain morbid fascination, the ongoing saga of the “Michelle Obama tapes” hoax. For those just tuning in, this began two weeks ago, when an obscure WordPress blog calling itself “African Press International” claimed that the would-be first lady had called them up to deliver a daffy self-destructive rant—in rather conspicuously stilted English—about white racists and Obama’s purported adoption by his Indonesian stepfather, a topic of keen concern to precisely nobody outside the fever swamps. To top it all off, she purportedly attempted to bribe the star reporters of API with inauguration tickets if they’d only start covering Obama favorably. Which would be a rare case of actual reporting if it had panned out, since the blog’s two year archives consist almost entirely of articles copied from real publications that report on Africa, notwithstanding API’s claim to have 19 journalists on staff.
The story was plainly, hilariously bogus on its face, but a handful of the medium-sized conservative blogs—including a few that you’d expect to know better—tentatively linked to it. Finally, someone at National Review actually checked with the Obama campaign, which of course dismissed the whole thing as a fabrication. The professional conservative press—and soon even most of the fringier sites—displayed the uniform good sense to stay away.
But a small community nevertheless emerged at the API blog, so eager to believe that something, somehow could change the dynamic of the presidential race that they were willing to overlook all the myriad glaring problems with the account. When the site announced that it had an audio tape of this purported interview, they were ecstatic and howled for its release. Which would be forthcoming! But first… Well, there were vague “legal barriers” to be cleared up, as if a news organization could somehow be sued for publishing a recording of an interview. But they weren’t going to simply upload the “tapes” to their own site or, hell, YouTube, and let the media feeding frenzy begin. No, there then began a protracted search for the “right” news organization to transmit the tapes to. “Fox!” came the near-unanimous cry from the remaining believers. No other network could be trusted to actually air these bombshell recordings, so committed were they to promoting Obama.
Delay followed delay, and even more wildly implausible claims about the contents of this earthshattering tape were offered up. Of course, throughout the process, at each new delay, many who’d initially been gulled came to their senses, saw they’d been conned, and dropped out. But the dwindling remnant began to form a kind of spontaneous community in the comment threads—and almost immediately began behaving like characters in some social psychology textbook.
Perversely, but in line with a well-established pattern familiar to sociologists, the more implausible the story became, the more the remnant seemed to take a sort of defiant pride in believing without evidence—or rather, despite all the evidence. Expressions of doubt were treated as a kind of moral failing. Convoluted rationales were invented to explain away all the obvious problems with the story. Skeptics were dismissed as “Obots,” and indeed, routinely accused of being paid shills of the Obama campaign sent to sow dissent.
Perhaps most bizarrely, these folks who routinely mocked the messianic pretensions of “The One” began developing something resembling a cult of personality around the shadowy “Chief Editor Korir” who provided their daily dose of hope. They gushed with love and support and gratitude. They expressed fear for his safety from the murderous Obama legions. They hailed him as shining example of the sort of intrepid journalism no longer practiced by the American “MSM.”
When API finally announced a deal had been struck for the tape to be aired on Fox News, there were cries of jubilation. When the site announced that Obama’s unnamed “Campaign Manager” had called to offer a $3 million bribe if the tape was squelched, the crowd was aghast, if not surprised. They offered their prayers for the Chief Editor’s safety when physical threats against API were added to the bill of indictment. There was a flurry of confusion after Fox itself confirmed that the story was a hoax, but faith returned with the announcement that naturally, the network was obfuscating in order to throw off nefarious forces determined to suppress the tape, and that it would air on Hannity’s show within 24 hours.
OK, so, why have I devoted all this space to the case of a handful of naive people who, desperate for something that might revive McCain’s chances, took leave of their common sense and bought into a spectacularly amateurish con that should have raised more red flags than the Kremlin? Well, because in a lot of ways this seems like a rather extreme case, in miniature, of what a lot of the right seems to be going through right now. Consider this not-sure-whether-to-laugh-or-cry post from one commenter at API:
Imagine a blogless world during this election?
My gosh, every single one of us would have chugged the kool-aid by now, with the coverage that the msm has shoved own our throats.
Thank God for the internet.
That really does, intentionally, say it all, doesn’t it? Many of us—myself and a lot of my old colleagues at Reason—have spent years celebrating the way the Internet has spelled doom for the old media gatekeepers. But we’re also seeing all the ways this sort of fragmentation, especially when bolstered by a narrative about the unreliability of the “MSM” or traditional “elites,” can create a closed epistemic universe. Not just an “echo chamber,” but an echo planet: a full-blown, self-reinforcing worldview that systematically blocks dissonant information or, more ingeniously, judo-flips it and reparses it as verification.
Thus, if there’s a spate of news stories that reflect poorly on Republicans, that’s not a reason to reconsider whether they deserve your allegiance, but another data point confirming the bias of the MSM—and the worse it looks, the more egregious the bias. If a conservative as thoughtful and eminent as Charles Fried decides McCain has gone off the rails and Palin is an insult to the office she aspires to occupy, it just goes to show that you can’t trust “elites,” even when they purport to be conservatives. They’re exiled from a “real America” that contains an ever tinier fraction of the population. All the old signifiers of credibility and expertise are inverted and made markers of suspicion. In the new media context, it’s not just that like-minded groups exhibit confirmation bias and groupthink, but that the tethers to reality are cut entirely because the very criteria for what counts as a confirmation or a disconfirmation are jettisoned. And these strategies of isolation proliferate over time precisely because they’re so successful at preserving the social groups that adopt them… at least in the near term.
None of this is an intrinsic pathology of the right—substitute “bourgeois” for “elite” or “mainstream” and you’ve got the closed theory par excellence: Marxism. Hell, Rush Limbaugh actually slipped and said bourgeois in one of his recent jeremiads. But right now that’s the group where this is most evident. Recall Jane’s Law: “The devotees of the party in power are smug and arrogant. The devotees of the party out of power are insane.” We can amend that to “out of power, or clearly on the verge of being.”
I’ve never classed myself as a proper conservative of any sort, and indeed, over the last eight years my tendency has been to increasingly see allies on the left, if only as a counterweight to the monstrous excesses of the Bush administration. But unlike my friends who march under the progressive banner, I have no desire to see the Republican party relegated to permanent—or even persistent—irrelevance.
I’m going to cheer their coming defeat at the polls precisely because it’s clear that a corrective is in order: They need a time-out to think about what they’ve done. But I’m terrified they’ll spend the next two-to-four years concluding that they erred only in not indulging resentment and celebrating ignorance enough, in not being intransigent enough, in not demonizing their opponents enough. Because if they do, we’re looking at eight years of Democratic supermajorities in Congress under a Democratic executive.
I’m not going to pretend that the political answer is to tack hard libertarian—I have no illusions that the right policy agenda is, by some sort of wonderous Leibnizinan coincidence, also a big electoral winner. But if the shrinking conservative remnant believes that it’s only libertarians and latte-sippers who’ve been turned off by the trifecta of crude populism, fundamentalism, and militarism that has recently been ascendant, they’re in for a still ruder awakening in 2012.