The signs are mounting that the GOP is falling deeper into a world of fantasy
In the real world, there are real problems that serious people are worried about: global pandemic, climate change, economic inequality, systematic racism, mass shootings, and gendered violence, just to name a few. The problem for Republicans, of course, is that they are, quite literally, on the wrong side of pretty much each of those issues, and spend their time either actively making problems worse or getting in the way of people who want to fix things. Outside of sociopaths, Fox News hosts, and people with "Pepe" memes in their Twitter profiles, however, few people want to look in the mirror and see a villain gazing back at them. So right-wing media, which has always been addicted to selling its audiences on imaginary threats and preposterous fairy tales of conservative victimhood, has only been escalating such nonsense in recent months as the Republican policy agenda has been increasingly exposed to be nonexistent.
If your "team" is on the side of the Capitol insurrectionists and Derek Chauvin, it's hard to suppress the haunting fear that you're the baddies. So Fox News is on hand to spoon out alluring fantasies that recast liberals as the bad guys and conservatives as the long-suffering heroes. Tucker Carlson — a Fox News host who clearly relishes being a cartoon villain (think: "Dan White Society") — coughed up an almost too-perfect sample of the form Monday night, when he encouraged his audience of millions to harass ordinary people minding their own business under the guise of "helping."
Using as cover the recent reports that much of outdoor masking is unnecessary to prevent the transmission of COVID-19, Carlson told his audience that people wearing masks outside are "the aggressors" and that "the next time you see someone in a mask on the sidewalk or on the bike path, do not hesitate" to get in their face and demand they remove the mask. Carlson claimed this can be done "politely but firmly," but of course, it's categorically impossible to "politely" boss other people around about choices that simply do not affect you. And no, his story about how masks "prevent intimacy and human contact" is not enough. Strangers on the street do not owe you "intimacy," despite what creeps who follow women around and demand smiles might wish to believe.
Carlson then escalated by asking his viewers to call the police when they see children wearing masks because it "should be illegal." Of course, Carlson also knows full well how dangerous such nuisance calls (which are actually illegal) can be if the target is a person of color — and likely, he's counting on it, Derek Chauvin defender that he is.
Skipping a mask outside does, indeed, seem to be mostly harmless, which means that the common-sense response is to simply leave other people alone while you also do what you want. But conservatives want revenge because they've been made to wear masks where it is necessary. Carlson is only too happy to feed them a narrative that allows them to pretend to be heroes while continuing to be jerks for no good reason whatsoever.
Over the weekend, we saw another comically over-the-top example of right-wing fake victimhood narratives when a totally fake — and obviously fake — conspiracy theory about President Joe Biden imposing severe beef rations tore through the right-wing media and exploded on social media.
Jon Skolnik explained here at Salon how right-wing media distorted a study about reducing meat consumption to impact climate change, pretended it somehow was part of Biden's infrastructure plan and ran wild with it. But what was truly remarkable wasn't just that the folks at Fox News and other outlets deliberately misled the public with false claims that Biden planned to "limit" beef consumption to four pounds a year. It was how this lie managed to spread rapidly, infecting every corner of the country, in record time.
"It's tempting to dismiss this attack as too absurd to be believed," Dan Pfeiffer wrote in his Message Box newsletter, but warned that, "But too often, Democrats focus on the absurdity of the specifics and ignore the believability of the general impression."
Indeed, watching the "Biden's banning beef" lie spread out over social media, boosted by supposedly "apolitical" Instagram influencers and other such conduits, it was easy to see how this worked. Many people — possibly most — had wholly emotional reactions when they heard or read the lie, and were too focused on lashing out angrily to think critically about the story. So many reactions online were variations of "how dare you criticize me" and "fake meat tastes bad," instead of the more helpful "is this even true?"
The best right-wing B.S. works in this way, by activating people's pre-existing guilt and making them feel defensive. A lot of Americans, even on the right, already feel bad about how much beef they eat. It's not just because it's bad for the environment, but because they know it's bad for their health, and American discourse around food and health tends to be highly moralistic. The Biden beef lie works first by activating that sense of shame and then giving people a story that makes them feel better about themselves, about how they're actually the good guys here. They get so focused on trying to make their defensive feelings go away that they don't stop to search Snopes or Politifact and find out if it's even true.
Carlson is playing the same game with his mask nonsense.
Conservatives obviously have a lot of sublimated guilt over refusing to take the pandemic seriously and are therefore on a hair-trigger for defensive reactions. So they're ready to hear how someone else wearing a mask is a judgment on them, about how they're the "real" victims, and mask-wearers are the "real" bad guys. Truth and common sense are crowded out by these over-the-top emotional reactions, driven by their own — in many cases, completely earned — sense of shame.
As Pfeiffer notes, the only way to push back on nonsense like this is for ordinary people to confront those who are spreading it on social media. The problem is that these right-wing freakouts are fueled by conservatives feeling angry, ashamed, and judged — frankly often because they deserve to feel bad about their behavior. Unfortunately, that means that the smarter reactions are ones that turn the temperature down, not up. It can help a lot for interlocutors to focus on facts, instead of moral judgments about things like mask-wearing or beef-eating, and save the moral discussion for another time, when folks are in a less defensive mindset.
Either way, the amount of culture war debris that the right-wing media will be churning out is going to be immense over the next few years. Conservatives have a lot of guilt for their terrible behavior and beliefs, and therefore will be easy marks for any and every story that lets them believe they're the victims and not the victimizers. Right-wing media, as these examples show, is incredibly good at kicking up fake controversies that feed off those defensive feelings. Conservatives are addicted to these lies, and like most addicts, they need increasingly stronger stuff to get their fix. Be prepared.