Fearing Social Progress, Trump And His Base Cling To Fake News And Nostalgia
The last time I saw my stepfather, he was ranting about buying gold and stocking up for the apocalypse. Trapped in the confines of a car with him for half an hour, I smiled wanly and nodded. This is the same man whose rage and disdain for “liberal elitism” made his college educated children the target of vitriolic barbs. When we’d come home for break he’d spend hours sneaking in snide remarks about our professors and the hedonistic college campus, ground zero for the campaign to poison our minds and this country against him. I’d take a breath, bite my tongue, and refuse to take the bait. My stepfather’s political lean has always been pronounced, steady right and staunchly conservative.
But after decades as his daughter, I have watched him slip further and further into an anxiety-induced depression that borders on paranoia. In the last decade, facts and rational conversation are increasingly ineffective anecdotes against the convoluted maze of his mind. Fed a steady diet of Fox News for the better part of twenty years, he’s now a walking mouthpiece for Hillary Clinton conspiracy theories. Like many older, white men in this country, my stepfather is a Trump supporter with “economic anxiety” that seems much less about economics and much more about demonizing diversity and feeling threatened by a changing world.
And like many Trump supporters, my stepfather waxes nostalgic about the bygone era of his childhood, an orderly world of traditional gender roles, American innovation and prosperity, and the quiet suburban landscape of picket-fenced manicured lawns. Except you and I both know that factually and historically, that past is a white-washed myth conjured up by conservatives.
MAGA Nostalgia: The Great White Myth
When we look back on the 50s and 60s, we see a repressive society where women were confined to the household by cultural expectations like chattel. Historically and politically, this era was defined by the civil rights movement and anti-war activism, by the beginnings of the cold war and school children huddled under their desks in ridiculously ineffective nuclear fallout drills.
In the MAGA narrative of the past, all of these details are conveniently cut from the script and we’re left with a dazzlingly bright, comforting vision of the past, scrubbed clean of conflict.
From a very basic perspective, this is part of how the right and the left live up to their monikers as conservatives and progressives. The right yearns to conserve a bygone, mythical era of past prosperity, while the left focuses forward on progressive policies that can transform the American landscape. The left thrives on a diet of hope, motivated by the possibility of change and a world that embraces being a global citizen rather than clinging to increasingly outdated models of nationalism.
In contrast, conservatives, and the far right especially seem to be motivated by what science refers to as “historical nostalgia” or the yearning for a particular era from the past. For many, this sort of nostalgia is puzzling because it seems entirely based on a romanticized experience that fails to take into account the actual challenges of the era. Conservatives brush all this aside nonchalantly. They’ll take their Mad Men suits and misogyny, thank you very much.
But a closer examination into the roots of nostalgia can provide insight into why romanticizing the past has become a coping mechanism for conservatives. And how it is a direct response to decades of race-baiting and fear tactics from far-right conspiracy peddlers like Fox News and Breitbart, who have been profiting off stoking fear for decades.
Nostalgia Does A Body Good. Mostly.
In 1688, Swiss doctor Johannes Hofer observed a phenomena among soldiers that was defined by an obsession or fixation on the “idea of the Fatherland.” He characterized this as a disorder of extreme homesickness with symptoms of anxiety and depression. Hofer profiled various cases in which soldiers avoided social situations and were prone to outbursts of anger. This disorder was coined as nostalgia, named after the Greek nostas (return home) and algos (pain).
Hofer had some pretty hare-brained ideas that this disorder was induced by demonic animal spirits causing brain vibrations, which is about what you might expect from a 17th-century doctor. Modern-day neuroscience, however, has evolved from considering nostalgia a mental disorder to recognizing it as a neurological coping mechanism with demonstrable positive side effects.
Nostalgia appears to be a natural response that occurs when the connection between our emotions and stored memories are triggered. We most often engage in personal nostalgia, typically tied to childhood events or particular places. The average person indulges in it once a week or more, perhaps going through lengthier episodes during times of difficulty. In the wake of a death, we throw nostalgia out like a lifeline to the grieving. Hold onto your memories of the past for comfort, we encourage. Better times are coming.
And as you’ve probably noticed when you’ve engaged in nostalgia, the brain has a remarkable way of editing out the unpleasantries and leaving you with a shiny, positive picture that makes you yearn for a simpler past. That feeling drives neuroreceptors in the brain to grow plump with endorphins and creates a feel-good glow that literally warms us. Studies show that subjects engaging in nostalgic feelings or thoughts can experience a rise in body temperature of several degrees. That’s right. Nostalgia is such a powerful driver than it can produce measurable physiological effects.
Our brains are remarkable machines with an assortment of survival instincts that are hard-wired into our psyche. Scientists began to suspect nostalgia was one of our mental tricks in a toolbox full of coping mechanisms during a study in 2006. Contrary to expectations at the time, research showed that subjects were most often triggered into nostalgic states of mind not by sensory input that recalled specific memories but by feelings of threat or negative events.
Isolation or loneliness seemed to trip our brain’s reaction to anxiety like a reflex, activating nostalgia in an instinctual response to cope with a more threatening world.
Except our world isn’t a more threatening place. Not really and certainly not in terms of everyday existence for the majority of Trump supporters. America is still one of the wealthiest countries in the world and we enjoy lower crime rates, higher employment rates, and better education and healthcare than our parents.
So if this economic threat and fear for the future isn’t real, what’s driving the sudden rise of nostalgia among the far-right? For the answer to that, we’ll need to inspect conservative consumption of Fox News propaganda and the pundits who have made Conspiracy Theory 101 their bread and butter.
In 2016, journalists and political analysts across the country gawked at the grotesque wave of Trumpism sweeping America. Where on earth had it come from and how had the campaign managed to align value voters under the banner of a twice-divorced billionaire celebrity whose sexual proclivities were well documented? The answer. They turned value voters into nostalgia voters.
The base that elected Trump is an unlikely mix of the Southern strategy voter, so-called Tea Party patriots, and the Christian right. And while you might assume Evangelical voters would abandon such a hedonistic candidate despite his purported conservatism, that’s simply not the case. Seven in ten Evangelicals voted for Trump, stoked by rising anxiety about same-sex marriage, women’s reproductive rights, and a sense of their own shrinking population among an increasingly diverse and less religious country.
In fact, Trump voters claim they were motivated primarily by economic anxiety and cultural shifts away from their values. Subsequent events like Charlottesville have called this into question, implying these phrases are just MAGA code for unfettered xenophobia and racism.
No matter the source of the anxiety, it’s likely this vision of a more fearful world, filled with the threat of unemployment and shadowy immigrants stealing jobs and going on unfettered crime sprees, is a manufactured one crafted by right-wing media outlets like Fox News and Breitbart.
Fox News, primarily shaped by the vision of Roger Ailes, who cut his teeth crafting emotional narratives supporting Nixon and Big Tobacco, has been churning out a steady stream of tabloid TV since 1996. Ailes knew the secret to success was not in the factual but in the anecdotal and he set about crafting a political narrative based on eliciting emotion.
To be fair (and balanced), Fox News (and Roger Ailes) aren’t the creators of fear-based journalism. That would be giving them entirely too much credit. Father Coughlin pioneered the genre on the radio after the Great Depression, first as a supporter of FDR and the New Deal and then later as a critic who filled the airwaves with anti-Semitic rhetoric. And of course there is Rush Limbaugh, the King of Talk radio himself, also a thrice divorced draft dodging drug addict who has been spewing venom since the late 1980s.
As the rise of social media drove increased consumption of news, Fox’s base grew. Their average viewer was white, male, and over 60 and utterly devoted to Fox News coverage. They became an army of addicts, ready for the next hit of that sweet, sweet liberal conspiracy theory. They were also, it turns out, the population most likely to vote and to control the political process. Seth Rich, Uranium One, Birtherism, Death Panels, Benghazi. It didn’t seem to matter how outrageous or convoluted the theory, as long as the hits kept coming.
In order to understand why Fox viewers feel so much economic anxiety, you need only look at the coverage they consume. In the Fox News world, despite returning economic growth and a steady rise in employment, the country was going to hell in a fiscal handbasket. After the recession, an Obama presidency brought more than 70 consecutive months of job growth and revived a devastated real estate market back to boom times in large sections of the country. Instead of fair and balanced stories of how the economy was rebounding, Fox provided more than twice as much coverage about stunted economic growth and nearly ten times as much discussion of deficit reduction than other networks.
And when it came to triggering events, Fox had a handy culprit waiting in the wings. Immigrants, who had arrived on our shores in droves to steal jobs and cause unprecedented crime in our cities. It didn’t matter that this was factually false. Numbers that reflect lower rates of inner city crime, less immigration, and higher deportation rates are conveniently edited out of the Fox News narrative.
Our mammalian brains are still programmed to respond to threats as our ancestors did. When reminded of our own mortality, the discomfort causes us to seek out safety and reassurance in the face of danger. Triggered by scary emotions, our neurons fire up our cerebral cortex and we begin to look for patterns in the chaos, conspiracy where there is none. As hunters and sometimes as the hunted in ancient times, this instinct served us well. As members of an evolved society trying to govern fairly through nuanced and complicated changes, it wreaks havoc.
Threats of war cause the right to seek out the warmth of a manufactured era, where fear has been safely sanitized from the conservative memory. It’s a human instinct, a neurological reflex the brain uses to trick us past fear. But in this case, exposed to a steady diet of anxiety by propagandists like Bannon and Ailes, conservative viewers teeter constantly on the edge of paranoia. They are trapped in a cycle of neurological reaction, oscillating between the comfort of nostalgia for the past and a manufactured fear of the future.
Driven by racist ideology and extremist religious views, this anxiety becomes a double-edged sword used violently by the far-right. It rears an ugly head not just in the narratives of mass shooters, but in the statistics of gun violence in this country. Nearly half of all gun deaths in America are older men who commit suicide, a demographic that Fox News dominates. A steady diet of fear mongering via Fox News isn’t just unhealthy. In this volatile country with easy access to guns and rampant mental health issues, it can be downright dangerous.
While nostalgia can have many positive benefits that help ease anxiety, in the case of Trump supporters, a fixation on an idealized past is a symptom of distress. And while we can have sympathy for those who have gorged themselves on conservative media and conspiracy theories to the point of sickness, as a nation we can not tolerate the sort of violence, cruelty, and hatred it incites. It’s become a destructive force in our lives, both personally and politically, and we need to face it head-on in order to heal.
But any conversation about Fox News and the manufactured fear it generates would be incomplete without acknowledging that the President, Tweeter-in-Chief, is part of the problem. Evidence of his slide into the kind of paranoid dementia that holds my stepfather in its grip mounts daily. His endorsement of Sean Hannity, Fox News’ primary distributor of Clinton conspiracy theories, is bad enough. But tweets that promote violence against the press, threaten other world leaders, and spread Islamophobic propaganda place this country in a precarious position both at home and abroad.
We should have a contest as to which of the Networks, plus CNN and not including Fox, is the most dishonest, corrupt and/or distorted in its political coverage of your favorite President (me). They are all bad. Winner to receive the FAKE NEWS TROPHY!
FraudNewsCNN #FNN https://t.co/WYUnHjjUjg
Uranium deal to Russia, with Clinton help and Obama Administration knowledge, is the biggest story that Fake Media doesn’t want to follow!
The president is spending his morning retweeting these videos from a leader of Britain’s far-right, ultra nationalist Britain First party (who was recently convicted for harassing a Muslim woman on the street)
We have a man who has obviously been infected with fake news and fear propaganda in the White House, using the power of his office to profile immigrants and spread hate. How can we possibly address the rising anxiety in this country stoked by far-right media outlets when we have a President who uses social media to promote it?
Our brains have created a survival mechanism out of necessity, to help the fragility of our emotions face a chaotic world where we must cede control. But when that same instinct prevents us from facing the truth and seeing our world as it truly is, we must evolve past it and we must hold our loved ones and our leaders accountable.
It’s unacceptable that a major portion of the population spends their time in the upside down world of Fox News and Breitbart conspiracy theories. We can no longer pretend it’s simply a “different opinion” or a normal behavior. This is a manipulative delusion created by media outlets who are preying on the fear of a generation. We need to hold them accountable to standards of journalistic integrity. Our well being and the health of our democracy depends upon it.