How do you reach someone who’s cocooned themselves in a reality of their own making? That’s the dilemma raised by this Washington Post profile of Christopher Blair, a liberal writer from Maine, who runs a clickbait satire site called America’s Last Line of Defense that he dreamed up during the 2016 election:
In the last two years on his page, America’s Last Line of Defense, Blair had made up stories about California instituting sharia, former president Bill Clinton becoming a serial killer, undocumented immigrants defacing Mount Rushmore, and former president Barack Obama dodging the Vietnam draft when he was 9.
When Blair created the site, he intended it as a wakeup call for conservatives. His plan was to publish hoax stories that appealed to the right wing but were obviously false. When uncritical Republicans shared them without fact-checking, he’d reveal how he had deceived them, whereupon they’d be ashamed and learn to exercise critical thinking next time instead of blindly believing whatever they were told.
At least, that was the plan, but it didn’t work that way. Blair found, to his mounting amazement and horror, that he couldn’t invent a story so stupid that Republicans wouldn’t believe it. No matter how over-the-top ridiculous it was, no matter how riddled with basic factual errors (like identifying a photo of Hope Hicks as Hillary Clinton), even if it was covered with disclaimers that everything on the site was satire, they just kept mashing the like and share buttons. If it was in accord with what they wanted to be true, they believed it without question. Even when he posted prominent confessions that these stories were made up, the conservatives who believed them in the first place kept coming back. Often, they dismissed the retractions as liberal hoaxes.
“No matter how racist, how bigoted, how offensive, how obviously fake we get, people keep coming back,” Blair once wrote, on his own personal Facebook page. “Where is the edge? Is there ever a point where people realize they’re being fed garbage and decide to return to reality?”
It’s fair to say that Blair deserves some of the blame for America’s national crisis. He’s feeding the monster he fears! It’s possible that he started the site with noble intentions, but he’s well past the point where he should have realized it wasn’t going to achieve what he set out to achieve.
There doesn’t seem to be any reason to keep it running now, except money. The Post article mentioned that he can make $15,000 from advertising in a good month. As many grifters and con artists have discovered, the American right – rich, angry, and easily led by the nose – is fertile ground for exploitation. Once you’ve got that income streaming in, it’s tough to walk away. (America’s Last Line of Defense was blank when I checked while writing this post, so it’s possible that his conscience has gotten to him and he’s shuttered the site.)
However, for me personally, I find I can’t muster much anger. If he deserves any of the blame, it’s only a very small portion of it. Blair didn’t cause the right’s slide into the intellectual abyss; arguably, he didn’t even accelerate it. All he’s doing is capitalizing on a trend that’s been growing for generations. If someone is going to make money off conservative gullibility, I’d prefer it be liberals.
Besides, America’s Last Line of Defense is indistinguishable from countless right-wing sites that spread the same misinformation and conspiracy theories in all sincerity. Even if it’s closed for good, others will move into the same niche. The real problem isn’t the scam artists who peddle lies and deceit, but the legions of conservatives who are eager to be deceived.
The conspiracies they’ve come up with on their own are far wilder than anything liberals could have invented: like the bizarre far-right fantasy QAnon, which claims that Robert Mueller is secretly working with Trump to reveal an international child-sex-trafficking ring that also stages mass shootings as false-flag attacks, and that all this is revealed to true believers through coded messages in tweets and anonymous posts on 4chan.
There’s also the Iraqi dinar scam, where true believers buy wads of the near-worthless currency in the belief that it will magically “revalue”, so an investment of thousands will become millions overnight. This scam has circulated for years, but it’s gained prominence under Trump as conservatives swap rumors that he’s invested in dinars himself or that he’s about to do something to make the revaluation happen.
Of course, many countries have redenominated their currency in response to high inflation, but that just means the central bank issues new bills that are officially worth several thousand or million of the old bills. It doesn’t change the value of the currency that already exists. The dinar scam isn’t just unsupported by evidence, it flies in the face of economic reality.
The question is what we, who acknowledge the value of reason and evidence, can do about this. As Thomas Paine said, to argue with a person who has renounced reason is like administering medicine to the dead. Is there any hope for America when half the country has abandoned facts and evidence and is hungry for any and all lies that justify their xenophobic rage?
I can think of one answer, admittedly Machiavellian: perhaps we can exploit the inherent unpredictability of conspiracy thinking to turn right-wingers against each other. If we can’t slow down their runaway train, maybe the best option is to stomp on the gas and accelerate until the machine redlines and shakes itself apart.
What if we had more conspiracy sites that accused prominent Republicans of being secret Muslims conspiring to impose sharia law, or secret atheists conspiring to ban Christianity, or secret Democrats conspiring to provide affordable health care? What if we wrote that the NRA had been infiltrated by gun-control advocates plotting mass firearm confiscation, or that the leadership of racist alt-right groups was secretly in cahoots with Black Lives Matter, or that George Soros had bought Fox News and was salting their broadcasts with misinformation? What if we asserted that the deep state had a pod-person duplicate of Donald Trump who was calling the shots in the White House, and the real Trump had been spirited away to a remote bunker where he was directing the resistance through coded random-number strings posted on obscure message boards?
These would all be easily disprovable absurdities with no basis in fact (and if I were writing a site like this, I’d be sure to include some egregious factual errors in every story as a tipoff for anyone who’s paying attention). It would never work on anyone who had even a modest capacity for critical thinking. But for the legions of Republicans who’ve deliberately blinded themselves to every way to tell truth apart from falsehood, it might work to confuse, demoralize and destabilize them. It would channel their rage into a self-consuming whirlpool, instead of a destructive current.