Paranoia, passivity, and keeping reality at bay

Paranoia, passivity, and keeping reality at bay, INFIDEL753 Blog, Infidel753

This post is about psychology, not politics.  It may not look that way at first, but bear with me.]

Many on the left feel a persistent anxiety about the danger of large-scale right-wing political violence.  Much of the right-wing population is heavily armed (though lately many urban liberals have been buying guns too, due to the ongoing menace of violent crime in the big cities), and for years there has been an undercurrent of rhetoric about “Second Amendment solutions” and so forth in response to future election outcomes or other events they don’t like.  Then, too, there was the January 6 insurrection.  Many fear that any major legal move against Trump, or his defeat in November, or some other trigger, could set off large-scale violence.

There’s certainly a lot of scary rhetoric in the right-wing blogosphere.  I recently linked to a typical example here (see comments thread).  Such discussions — I’ve read quite a few — start from the premise that the current general situation is so intolerable (though specific grievances are almost never cited) that in the long run a violent uprising by “real Americans” is inevitable.  They then indulge at great length in rather masturbatory-sounding fantasies about various guerilla tactics to be used against urban areas or government authority, and about how gloriously “owned” the libs will be when it all happens.  No expected triggering event is specified — it’s just “when the SHTF” or “when things get sporty” or similar expressions.  Should we be worried?

Well, there have been plenty of potential triggering events over the last few years, and with the glaring exception of January 6, nothing has happened.  The FBI raid on Mar-a-Lago, the various indictments of Trump, his removal from the Colorado ballot, the several referendum wins for abortion rights, the disappointing (to right-wingers) 2022 election results, the bipartisan deals to keep the government funded despite the efforts of fringe-right House Republicans to burn it all down — several of these things produced an upsurge of outraged and violent rhetoric on various parts of the right-wing internet, but none was followed by any substantial actual violence.

Why not?  An important clue comes from the recent “God’s Army” plan to send a huge convoy of trucks to the Mexican border to join the fight against illegal immigration.  The “organizers” of this fiasco claimed they would get seven hundred thousand trucks to participate, but in fact rallied only a few dozen vehicles.  The main reason for the failure was that from the start, very rapidly, the suspicion took hold across the right-wing internet that the whole thing was an FBI sting designed to lure out and entrap militants.  This sudden flight of paranoia was not an exceptional case.  As described above, enthusiastic discussion of violence at some vague time in the future is common — but I’ve noticed that anyone calling for specific acts of violence in the present is very likely to be denounced as an FBI provocateur.  Memes about FBI agents infiltrating right-wing groups to incite self-defeating violence are fairly common.  Even the January 6 insurrection is sometimes attributed to FBI agents among the MAGA crowd setting things off so that “patriots” could be arrested.

For the vast majority of participants, all this online talk about a future violent uprising or second civil war is just talk.  It offers an emotional catharsis for people who feel mostly helpless to change the course of real-world events on a national scale.  (Such fantasies date back at least to The Turner Diaries in 1978, but have become much more widespread in the last ten years or so.)  It has more in common with masturbation or computer-game fandom than with serious revolutionary plotting.  Every time someone tries to organize a real mass event, even a mostly non-violent one like “God’s Army” or the various failed marches on Washington, the “FBI paranoia” flares up and derails it.

(The paranoia isn’t entirely unjustified.  I’ve long believed that a right-wing violent uprising on a substantial scale is impossible because these people just don’t have the brains or skills to organize serious numbers of people over a large geographical area without being detected and stopped by the authorities early in the planning stage.  There may occasionally be individual acts of violence or even terrorism like the Oklahoma City bombing, but nothing that rises from the criminal level to the political level.  The FBI probably does monitor extremist rhetoric and groups to some extent.  But the important point here is the self-canceling effect of the mere fear of provocateur infiltration.)

So why did January 6 happen?  The circumstances were exceptional in two ways.  First, those people were not sitting at home getting mad about things they read on the internet.  They were all together in a group, in Trump’s physical presence, within walking distance of the Capitol, while he was urging them to “fight”.  Hanging back, when the aroused mob started to move, would have been psychologically harder than going along.  Second, they were an atypical, self-selected group, the most militant of the militant, the people who had chosen to come there from all over the country in Trump’s name.  Out of the tens of millions on the Trumpist right, statistically one would expect there to be a small minority, perhaps a few thousand people, so extremist and unhinged that they really would resort to murderous violence.  I would argue that the crowd which assembled to hear Trump on January 6 essentially was that small minority, or a good chunk of it.  And they’re now mostly out of action, in prison or being hunted down, their fate demonstrating to any like-minded others out there that the authorities do impose severe punishments for violent attacks on the system.

This was a freak event; the combination of circumstances that made it possible is unlikely to recur.

There’s one more aspect to this “FBI paranoia” which is speculative but, I think, interesting to consider.

The FBI has limited resources.  How plausible is it, really, to believe that it is constantly setting up false-flag events to tempt a few innocent right-wingers into illegal activity so it can arrest them?  To believe that it devotes so much manpower to infiltrating right-wing online forums and blog comment threads that anyone who suggests an immediate violent act is probably an agent?  To believe that it would deliberately incite the storming of the most important government building on Earth, threatening the lives of Congress and the functioning of the government itself, just to entrap and arrest a few hundred Trump supporters?  Yes, there are probably some who literally believe these things out of stupidity or lack of critical thinking, but I don’t think that’s the whole story.

For years now much of the far right has lived in an alternate-reality bubble dominated by baroque, nebulous, and thoroughly implausible conspiracy theories.  The 2020 election was somehow stolen or rigged.  Covid was part of an elaborate US government plot, or was mostly harmless, or never existed at all.  The vaccines were ineffective or dangerous or even deliberately designed to kill (another government plot).  Global warming is a hoax (almost all of the world’s climate scientists and governments collaborating in another vast conspiracy) to trick the world into switching to non-fossil-fuel energy for….. some nefarious reason.  Then there was all the QAnon stuff, for a while.  Every news story that contradicts the alternate reality, every court ruling that goes against Trump, every poll that gives results they don’t want to hear, is just more proof of how pervasive the influence of the vague but evil “they” behind all these conspiracies really is.

Again, there are likely some who are dumb enough to literally and straightforwardly believe all this stuff, but I can’t believe it’s very many.  What I think is going on here, on some level, is an elaborate shared fantasy world in which a lot of rather dull and powerless people can imagine themselves to be brave embattled fighters for truth and justice, the enlightened ones who can see all the evil conspiracies to which the gullible masses are blind.  But as with any fantasy world, except for those individuals who are literally delusional, deep deep down they know it isn’t real.

Fantasies become dangerous when you act on them in the real world as if they were true.  A world in which almost everything is part of a network of evil plots by Jews or alien humanoid reptiles or whatever would be a more exciting and drama-filled place than the real world, but actually engaging in the kind of active “resistance” that a sincere belief in that world would demand from you, would quickly get you into serious trouble.  The fantasy must incorporate an element which serves as a pretext to avoid engaging in such action.  This is the function of the “FBI paranoia”.  It enables the believer to stay safely in the fantasy world, eschewing dangerous conflict in the real world, free to engage in those endless fantasy discussions of the glorious violence he and his friends will be able to commit when the time comes — in the future, always in the future, the future that will never actually arrive.