August 13th — another nothingburger

Yesterday was supposed to be a big day.  “The morning of August 13 it’ll be the talk of the world,” according to Mike Lindell, the MyPillow Guy and Trumpian conspiracy-theorist-in-chief.  Speaking to Brannon Howse on the WVW podcast about the “stolen" 2020 presidential election, he added, "Hurry up!  Let's get this election pulled down, let's right the right, let's get these communists out, you know, that have taken over.”  I mean — wow!  Not just the “talk of the town,” but “the talk of the world.”  Lindell also suggested that election results for "down-ticket senators" would change on August 13th as well.  I mean, and I’m just spitballing here, but probably Mitt Romney and Liz Cheney.  Of course, Mitt wasn’t on the ballot in 2020, and Liz isn’t a senator, but they don’t luv them some Donald so they’ve got to go!

August 13 was Trump Reinstatement Day, a day of reckoning, when the “Communists” and “baby-eating pedophiles” would be kicked out of office and Donald Trump would rightly reassume his place at the White House.  Aside from there being no legal mechanism in US law or an interpretation of the constitution whereby anyone can be “reinstated” to the presidency, this batshit crazy idea circulated amongst the MAGA faithful.  Trump himself was reportedly a believer, telling underlings that he would somehow be reinstated as president in August.  The idea, as ridiculous on its face as a unicorn pooping rainbow Skittles, has been thoroughly debunked as just another conspiracy fantasy put forward by his die-hard supporters like Mike Lindell.  It shouldn’t have to be discredited, but it does and it has.  Not to mention today is August 14th, and it didn’t happen.

nothingburger

So the whole thing is a big nothingburger.  What exactly is a nothingburger?  A nothingburger is a hamburger bun filled with nothing — no meat, no veggies, no condiments, and certainly no cheese; it does not even have sesame seeds, because that would probably make it a somethingburger.  And am I spelling it correctly?  Yes.  Yes I am.  I have seen “nothing burger” and “nothing-burger,” but a quick check with McDonaldland reveals that Hamburglar (technically, Hamilton B. Urglar) is officially condensed to one word, and we know this because he is not referred to as “Ham Burglar” or “Ham-Burglar” in print.  So I’d say that’s settled.

But it’s a mistake to just sneer at these conspiracy theories, and make no mistake thoughtful reader that’s what they are, as just unhinged beliefs held by a small number of idiots.  Belief in conspiracy theories is widespread, a product of normal human psychology, and extremely influential and dangerous.  After an eight year study, New Scientist magazine found three things:

  1. The “theories" are widely endorsed — at any given time, at least half of Americans agree with one or more of the common ones.
  2. Adherence is common across the population — although racial minorities and the less-educated embrace them more readily, educated whites also subscribe to them.
  3. Conspiracy theories are embraced across the ideological spectrum — more conservatives than liberals believe that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and fabricated his birth certificate, but plenty of liberals believe 9/11 was an inside job executed by the Bush administration as a pretext for invading Iraq; some conspiracies appeal equally to the Left and the Right.

Think of any major world event and there is almost certainly at least one conspiracy theory to “explain" it.  Some of the biggest hits in this hit parade are:  the Apollo moon landings were faked, climate change is a hoax, JFK was assassinated by the CIA, the earth is flat, Princess Diana was murdered by the royal family, and the world is ruled by lizards.

Why do so many people believe these nonsensical ideas?  According to psychologists, one reason is that it is perfectly reasonable, because conspiracies sometimes do happen.  The Iran-Contra affair in the 1980's, when the Reagan administration conspired to sell weapons to Iran and channel the proceeds to rebels trying to oust Nicaragua’s socialist government, actually happened, and that reinforces the idea that shadowy forces are at work in the world just out of the public eye.

Another explanation is evolutionary.  The human brain did not evolve to process complex information about global politics, economics, or science, it evolved to survive on the African savannah where hostile circumstances were a more immediate reality.  Under these conditions it pays to assume that unseen threats are lurking everywhere, that others (such as other tribes competing for scarce resources) are trying to gain the upper hand over you, or that coincidental events are causally related.  There was no downside to holding these assumptions, but the cost of not holding them was often death.  In short, natural selection favored the conspiratorial mind.

And our brains developed a very identifiable set of cognitive biases that make us particularly susceptible to conspiracy theories:

  • proportionality bias:  a belief that major events must have major causes
  • intentionality bias:  the assumption that events are planned by somebody or something
  • confirmation bias:  we seek out evidence that supports our beliefs and ignore evidence that doesn’t and/or refutes them
  • illusion-of-understanding bias:  we routinely overestimate our knowledge of how things work

Conspiracy theories are often utterly ludicrous.  Take Alex Jones of Infowars' rant about the undeniable fact that the US government is putting chemicals in our drinking water that is "turning the frigging frogs gay.”  The blatant absurdity of this conspiracy theory makes it one of the most widely mocked on the Internet.  Even though one 2010 study showed that pesticides can turn male frogs into females, this is very different from an active operational government plan to make frogs homosexual.  And yet despite the ridiculousness of the assertion, Jones has a large and vocal fan base that even includes Donald Trump himself.  Conspiracy theories lack any credible evidence, but they are almost impossible to disprove, at least in the minds of believers — no amount of counter-evidence can refute them, and in fact such evidence often reinforces them because it can be dismissed as part of the conspiracy.

The conspiratorial mindset may have been an asset in our evolutionary past, but is now a liability.  When it comes to dealing with important issues such as mitigating the spread of COVID-19, conspiracy theories are a major obstacle to reasoned debate and evidence-based action.  And in that regard, those surrounding the former president are a deadly distraction from the pressing issue of ensuring public health and safety.  We must call this nonsense out whenever, wherever, and however we encounter it.  Dangerous news hosts on the Right like Tucker Carlson, and his fellow travelers on the road to Mar-a-Lago or Bedminster or wherever the orange buffoon is holed-up these days, have managed to finger-paint their own world in which a series of ever-shifting prophecies will one fine day lead to Trump’s restoration to power and the vanquishing of his enemies (like Romney and Cheney).

Bad on them, but more concerning is the credulity of millions of Americans who have succumbed to delusions about satellite controlled thermostats that change votes from one candidate to another, Jewish space lasers starting wildfires, microchip-laden vaccines, and a government cabal of baby-eating pedophiles.  Sure, some of it can be blamed on the proliferation of misinformation via social media, but in the absence of a well-funded and prioritized education system, universal health care for all our citizens, measures to reduce bigotry and inequality, or even just a general respect for and sense of trust in government, these kinds of beliefs can easily fester.  Conspiratorial thinking thrives in times of social and economic upheaval, and we’ve just lived through four years of a cruel, incompetent reality TV presidency capped by a once-in-a-generation public health crisis and its associated economic meltdown.  The United States is a perfect environment today for people to believe just about anything.

Lindell and many others, like Rudy Giuliani, have managed to ride an ever changing wave of viral misinformation to survive repeated humiliations and promise followers that their grievances will somehow be avenged.  In the process, they’ve helped thousands, perhaps millions, of people to leave reality behind and construct their own private cesspools of alienation and betrayal which only their fallen idol, Donald Trump, can save them from drowning in, despite ample evidence the only one Donald Trump is interested in saving is himself.

Maybe, if times weren’t so dire, the utter falsity and absurdity of Lindell’s Trump nothingburger would be more readily apparent.  But for now the best we can hope to do is shame those caught in the former president's thrall by shouting at them:  “WHERE’S THE BEEF?"

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