It's time to make reason – not fear, cynicism, or rage – the loudest voice in our democracy.

Martians and Witches and Clinton, oh my! Mass Delusion in the age of Trump is Dragging us to Hell.

Many people are asking this question… That sounds like a Trumpism but — with varying degrees of alarm, disbelief, and horror in their voices — many people are asking: How. Did. We. Get. Here.

How, as a nation, have we sunk to the level where we have a sociopathic, ignorant conspiracy-monger who is also a delusional, egomaniacal demagogue this terrifyingly close to the Presidency of the United States of America? HOW!?

That question hung heavy in the atmosphere here in Ambridge, PA on Oct 10th when Trump brought his unhinged sideshow to our town’s high school. There was a feeling, also, of palpable malevolence, like venom crackling, in the air. Hours before the event, the line of supporters, three and four deep, stretched around the block. The line extended past numerous vendors hocking their pro-Trump and anti-Hillary paraphernalia, with an extreme emphasis on the anti-Hillary.

Anti-Hillary Fever

Eric Hoffer, author and student of the malleable mind, wrote:

Mass movements can rise and spread without belief in a god, but never without a belief in a devil.”

The supporters there loved Trump, with a vengeance, but that Trump-love seemed to be primarily motivated by the feeding of a blind hatred for Hillary Clinton.

The yard sign and tee-shirt vendors were moving plenty of product and the messages they were peddling told the story: “Hillary for Prison,” “Trump That Bitch,” “Life’s A Bitch So Don’t Vote For One,” and so on. The caricatures on signs, shirts, and pins were of Hillary Clinton behind bars and as a grotesque harpy. In the “staying classy” department one shirt read, “Hillary sucks but not like Monica.”

Trump that Bitch Yard Sign at Trump Rally

What’s the source of this white hot hatred? Hatred so intense and all-consuming that critical thinking and judgement go out the window so an obvious conman, with way less than zero qualifications to be President of the United States, can be gleefully held up as some sort of heroic avenger; a tinfoil savior.

And here I am with my hand in the air, going, “Oo, Oo! I know! Call on me!”

To riff on James Carville: it’s the media, stupid.

More to the point, this hate is the result of an extremely influential right-wing media propaganda campaign waged on radio, television, in print, and on the internet over the past decades.

Thanks to the efforts of the likes of Roger Ailes, Glenn Beck, Rush Limbaugh, and Alex Jones, mass delusion affecting millions of citizens is a thing in America today. A big dangerous thing that may be driving us to the brink of a societal crack up.

Let’s not fail to hold firmly in mind that Trump’s traction with the GOP/Tea Party base was never about economic populism or trade or immigration or anything else to do with reality. His rabid supporters rallied to him because he embraced and amplified that most heady hallucination symptomatic of Obama Derangement Syndrome: the Birther conspiracy. The closely held, absurd insistence that Barack Obama’s presidency is illegitimate because he is secretly a foreign “other,” birthed in the jungles of deepest, darkest Africa and not anywhere near the sepia-tinged, mythic country of their “Morning in Murica,” Reagan ad reminiscences. Show me the birth certificate! Ok, now show me the REAL birth certificate!  

So the question isn’t so much how we got to Trump himself, specifically, but rather how millions of Americans have become so wantonly susceptible to mass delusion, making their minds putty for the molding by sociopathic media manipulators and dangerous political demagogues.

I hold that an examination of two infamous cases of American mass delusion will provide important insights to this critical question —  and we need answers right quick if we hope to put the brakes on this madness that is threatening to engulf our democracy.

We’ll be reaching far back in our history, back before the founding of the nation, to Salem 1692, but first we’ll make a stop at a more recent time when our current mass media age was just getting started.

On Halloween Eve in 1938, Orson Welles and the CBS Mercury Radio Theater frightened a whole lot of  listeners with a science fiction radio play, based on a novel by H.G. Wells, that imagined a hostile invasion of Earth by technologically advanced monsters from the Planet Mars.

As a result of its airing, phone lines were jammed by panicked callers, families fled their homes in terror, and church services became end of the world prayer vigils.

It’s true that the extent of the panic became exaggerated; it was far from a blanket event from coast to coast.  But even so there was a significant freakout with thousands of people at least (definite numbers are hard to come by) taking the radio play as reality. Why did this happen? The show was advertised beforehand and introduced as fiction, and the subject matter was so, well, out of this world, it seems hard to grasp how so many people were fooled.

Three years ago, when I was researching this subject I happened to talk to a young woman who ran a tattoo parlor in Pittsburgh. She talked about her grandparents who often told the story at family dinners of how they fell, hook line and sinker, for the War of the Worlds radio panic. After initial terror, they resigned themselves to wait calmly for their fate, there in their rural Pennsylvania home. By what they were hearing on the radio, the Martians seemed to be moving across the country at great speed. The end might come soon.

When pressed on how they could have been so gullible, gramps replied, “CBS News had never lied to us before.”

That was the dramatic innovation that Welles brought to his scary radio show. It unfolded as an ongoing newscast complete with “urgent bulletins” breaking into “regular programming of dance music” and “on-scene dispatches” from “reporters” who  interviewed “government officials” and “scientists” who gave credible-sounding details about “the crisis.”

Orson Welles during the 1938 War of the Worlds Broadcast

It was fear and fiction, dressed up for Halloween, as news. All the better to scare you with. Boo.

The Martian Radio Panic should be an important warning about the power of mass media to induce dangerous delusions in the general public when the lines between reality and fantasy are blurred.

It should be a warning. But for the previously listed cohort of media misanthropes, it serves more as a blueprint for getting your disinformation and propaganda swallowed by a mass audience. Dress up enraging false narratives and fear-mongering to look like legitimate news — Fair and Balanced! We Report You Decide! We’re giving you the facts the “mainstream Liberal media” won’t! — and, not everyone, but lots of people will buy it.

What has been the overarching goal of all that reactionary propaganda disguised as news? To promote ever more intense ideological division in the country and to demonize political opponents.  

Which (witch?) compels us, continuing our investigation, to hop a broom and travel back to another, more lethal, moment of American mass delusion: the Salem Witch Trials of 1692.

Fourteen women and five men were hanged for the high crime of witchcraft in Massachusetts Bay Colony over several months while one man was crushed under stone for refusing to confess.

An engraving depicts the arrest of a witch by Salem townsfolk. Credit: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images as printed in the New York Times
An engraving depicts the arrest of a witch by Salem townsfolk. Credit: Time Life Pictures/Mansell/The Life Picture Collection/Getty Images as printed in the New York Times

 

It began at the home of the Salem minister when his young niece (11) and daughter (9) began exhibiting bizarre behavior and hysterical fits. Eventually their condition was diagnosed by the village physician as “the evil hand,” a not uncommon conclusion of that time, meaning that they were under the influence of some outside diabolical/supernatural force. Not long after, the girls, perhaps prompted by interrogating adults, began accusing fellow villagers of afflicting them by witchcraft.

Over the next months, as paranoia, suspicion, and fear swept Mass Bay Colony, between 144 and 185 people were accused of witchcraft in 25 villages. Detailed testimony from the accused described meetings where witches hatched a conspiracy to overthrow the church and the state. Confessors testified under oath that they’d flown with the Devil, attended diabolical services, travelled with specters, participated in Satanic baptisms, conferred with demonic animals, and a host of other occult exploits.

The definitive history of the Salem Witch Trials, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Stacy Schiff. Photo Credit: New England Today Travel
The definitive history of the Salem Witch Trials, written by Pulitzer Prize-winning biographer, Stacy Schiff. Photo Credit: New England Today Travel

 

To make people believe his mass delusion, Orson Welles had to go out of his way to convince listeners that they were hearing his otherworldly story from a credible, objective, and trusted source;  from “the news.”

The people of Salem needed no convincing that witches were real. They were religious fundamentalists who came equipped with a deep belief in witchcraft. They knew the appropriate Biblical punishment: “Suffer not a witch to live” from Exodus.

There were, as of yet, no newspapers. The only media the villagers of Salem knew was the pulpit, word-of-mouth rumor and gossip, and what they eventually heard and saw, or believed that they heard and  saw, at the trials.  

Fundamentalism provides a simple, powerful, and stark narrative to guide your life: good vs. evil, cleanly defined. It provides meaning by giving the individual a plain understanding of their place and role.

Even if it’s a harsh system, it puts one firmly on the side of God and righteousness.

The fits of the girls, diagnosed as diabolical in nature by those in authority, and their accusations and the testimony and confessions of the accused, confirmed the worst fear inherent in the belief system of the Puritan villagers: the Devil was alive in Salem and running rampant amongst them.  

What result could there be other than what their fundamentalist worldview dictated? The accused, who refused to confess and repent, would be put to death.

How does this explain how we got to the brink of Trump?

The right-wing media machine has worked to establish an ideological fundamentalism on the American Right; a political absolutism that has even swallowed up and incorporated Evangelical Christianity under its order. This campaign, over years, has indoctrinated millions to a belief system dictating that Democrats and the Left represent evil and treason while the Right stands for all that is righteous and patriotic.

Things intensified with the election of the first African American President, Barack Obama. The right-wing noise machine went into overdrive to demonize him and construct an even more alternate alternate reality for its adherents. This begat “Obama Derangement Syndrome” and ever more rigid ideological fundamentalism.

The more fundamentalist/absolutist a system, the more vulnerable it is to being exploited and disrupted by a rogue element or one that inflames a particularly volatile element of the belief system.

The volatile element in Salem was witch hysteria, ignited when the accusations and detailed accounts of the afflicted girls confirmed to the town that they were ground zero for an outbreak of Satan.

Enter, in our era, Alex Jones, a “fringe” voice that Trump has helped to mainstream, and who, we must remind ourselves, has millions of listeners/followers in this country:

“She (Clinton) is an abject, psychopathic, demon from Hell that as soon as she gets into power is going to try to destroy the planet… people around her say she’s so dark now, and so evil, and so possessed that they are having nightmares, they’re freaking out. Folks let me just tell you something, and if media wants to go with this, that’s fine. There are dozens of videos and photos of Obama having flies land on him, indoors, at all times of year, and he’ll be next to a hundred people and no one has flies on them. Hillary, reportedly, I mean, I was told by people around her that they think she’s demon-possessed, okay? I’m just going to go ahead and say it, okay?… I’m telling you, she is a demon. This is Biblical. She’s going to launch a nuclear war. The Russians are scared of her.

[…]

Imagine how bad she smells, man? I’m told her and Obama, just stink, stink, stink, stink. You can’t wash that evil off, man. Told there’s a rotten smell around Hillary. I’m not kidding, people say, they say — folks, I’ve been told this by high up folks. They say listen, Obama and Hillary both smell like sulfur. I never said this because the media will go crazy with it, but I’ve talked to people that are in protective details, they’re scared of her. And they say listen, she’s a frickin’ demon and she stinks and so does Obama. I go, like what? Sulfur. They smell like Hell.”

Now here’s Trump referring to Bernie Sanders’ backing of Hillary Clinton:

“He would’ve been a hero,” Trump said. “But he made a deal with the devil. She’s the devil. He made a deal with the devil.”

Alex Jones and Trump are playing the role of the afflicted girls of Salem.

Through their fits, contortions, and ravings they’re confirming for the faithful the most feverish ideological intimations of the echo-chamber dogma of the Right.

Obama, HRC, and the Left are not simply misguided, wrong, or crazy. The reason they are so completely on the wrong side is because they are on the dark side with the Devil. Literally. They are evil. They are demonic. They are part of a diabolical world conspiracy to destroy all that is good and righteous.

Ideological Fundamentalism described in our HearYourselfThink training.
Ideological Fundamentalism described in our HearYourselfThink training.

 

Propagandists like Ailes and Limbaugh, and demagogues like Jones and Trump, know what they are doing. Ailes played right from the War of the Worlds playbook by fronting a fake news outfit to emotionally manipulate masses of viewers to drive an extreme political agenda. Along the way, true nihilists came teeming out of the woodwork, going further by taking ideological fervor and pushing it over the edge into batshit conspiracy theories, mind-addling rage and hatred, unhinged hysteria, and dark, grandiose delusions.

I wish I could say this is hyperbole. But I was stunned to find how many Trump supporters at the Ambridge rally were completely bought into Jones, and completely without irony. I’m talking about young people, women — not just aging, angry white men.

Allowing this to persist is how we slide, lost, into the darkness. I get it, this isn’t a feel good message. But this isn’t a feel good moment in America. We must take a hard, unflinching look at what we’re really confronting if we hope to reverse course and restore sanity, reason, and simple human decency to our nation.

Let’s get started with a serious discussion on what we can do.

Oh, and Happy Halloween.

P.S. Over the summer, Erin and I have criss-crossed Pennsylvania, gone also into Ohio, and all the way out to St. Louis with our campaign to fight the right-wing media mind-poison that has brought our nation to the brink of Trump. Perhaps you’ve seen footage of me having productive, bubble-puncturing conversations with Trump supporters or, conversely, being verbally attacked by Alex Jones disciples right here in Ambridge. If we are to keep up our work at this critical time we need your support.

Please donate below to contribute whatever you can to help us expand our mission. (In September, we ran a three day class on media for the Slippery Rock University Learning in Retirement Program) and keep our 2005 Ford Focus on the road.

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Footnotes/Background

On The War of the Worlds:

THE WAR OF THE WORLDS
Radiolab broadcast, Season 4, Episode 3

On the Salem Witch Trials:

THE WITCHES OF SALEM: Diabolical doings in a Puritan village.
By Stacy Schiff (writing in The New Yorker Magazine Annals of Terror, September 7, 2015 Issue)

On Ideological Fundamentalism and Right-Wing Media:

FEAR IS TRUMPING REASON: DETOXING AMERICA FROM “THE FOX EFFECT”
By Dave and Erin Ninehouser of The HearYourselfThink Project; online training held Oct. 15, 2016

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The HearYourselfThink Project is a 501c3 non-profit fighting against the harmful effects that fake news, propaganda and misinformation have on our democracy. We're working to make reason, not rage, the loudest voice in the room.

Our trainings teach citizens how to have conversations that break down walls of polarization and distrust, get people thinking critically about context and media influence, and rebuild the civic connections that are necessary for democracy to flourish.

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