Fox Geezer Syndrome
(Photo by B.A. Van Sise/NurPhoto via Getty Images)
A reader sent me an e-mail about the Rush Limbaugh caller who, near tears, said he was prepared to die for Donald Trump. I wrote about the guy here, and offered a reader’s thesis that the caller was a man who had been disappointed by the church, and looked for a substitute. This reader, a conservative Christian Millennial, has a different thesis:
Man, that guy is exactly like my dad. And he’s like a lot of my friends’ dads, too. We all talk about the “Fox News Dad”: the Baby Boomer who gets sucked into right-wing media the way Millennials get sucked into Minecraft or whatever. They immerse themselves in an alternate reality—part radio, part television, part social media—where their whole world becomes this epic battle between “We the People” against the “Deep State.”These guys get up at 6am and watch Fox and Friends until 8am. They go to work and watch Outnumbered during their lunch break at 12pm. They get home from work at 6pm and watch Tucker, Hannity, Ingraham, etc. until 11pm. All the while, they’re on their phones or their laptops sharing memes with their buddies and arguing with strangers on social media.They probably got hooked after 9/11, like my father. The addiction reached a new height during the whole Tea Party thing in 2010, and now the 2020 election is giving them another massive hit.Right-wing media exists solely to create and exploit these junkies, just as sure as Call of Duty and Valorant do. Force the Rush caller to go two or three days without any media whatsoever, and I believe you’d see signs of withdrawal in his brain activity.Bastards like Giuliani know that. They exploit them, the way terrorists exploit teenagers who are into FPS games. They give them the opportunity to bring their digital fantasies in the real world.It’s hard because there’s obviously quite a fair bit of truth to what they’re saying. But the hysteria you hear in the Rush caller’s voice is the voice of an addict. It’s the voice of 14-year-old me when my parents made me turn off the PlayStation because I’d been playing for three days straight. That guy’s done nothing but suck up conspiracy theories about voter fraud since November 3. He’s in the middle of a serious bender.I don’t find them frightening, or even interesting—just really, really sad. It’s ruining my dad’s life. He’s estranged from one of his brothers because they can’t stop talking about politics. His doctor said Fox was a major contributor to his heart attacks, but he won’t stop! And he’s not the only one.Our parents’ generation, no less than ours, was totally unprepared for the advent of digital technology and mass media. They’ve been sucked into their screens like the rest of us.
Boy, does that sound familiar. Fifteen years ago or so, my conservative friends and I used to laugh about the same thing with our parents. We were all conservatives, but also were bothered by how monomaniacal our parents had become about politics. The one thing that they all had in common: they were retired, and watched Fox News all day long. This was long before social media was a thing, or a thing that older people did. And it was long before our politics became as toxic as they are today.
(I have mentioned here before that a secular liberal friend of mine has become similarly frustrated with his mother-in-law, who retired from her job and, sitting at home idle, became obsessed with MSNBC and left wing social media, and in turn made progressive politics her substitute religion.)
Anyway, it’s interesting to think of these folks as just as cracked by media as young leftists who have given themselves over to politics as a pseudo-religion. I had a conversation earlier this year with a friend I hadn’t seen in ages, who has become a QAnon supporter. It was like talking to a religious cultist, in that nothing they professed was falsifiable. If you questioned it, that just showed in his mind how naive you were to the way the world really is. And hey, maybe I am! But help me understand what you are seeing, and why you believe what you do. One thing I deeply hate about the woke Left is how they believe that you either accept the entire package, or your failure to accept the entire package shows how
sinful racist, sexist, transphobic, etc., are.
The cultists of the Right are like this too, aren’t they? Remember, a totalitarian society is one in which every aspect of life has been politicized. The mentality of people like the reader’s father, who insists on banging away about politics even though it has caused him to have heart attacks, and estranged him from his family, is in this sense totalitarian.
If my reader above is right, then the prospect of Trump’s defeat is a kind of religious crisis for these people. Whether they meant to or not, they have found ultimate meaning in MAGA, and its internal dramas. I think that the woke are ultimately a greater threat, because their delusions are conquering and have conquered the institutional leadership of the country. But the Right wing people who have made a religion of politics are not harmless, heaven knows. Damon Linker wrote a few weeks back that “Trump is a demonic force in American politics.” Here’s how he defines the demonic personality:
What is this something? It’s more precisely a someone — the kind of person who delights in wreaking havoc, who acts entirely from his own interests, and whose interests are incompatible with received norms, standards, restraints, and laws. Someone who actively seeks to inspire anger and animus, who likes nothing more than provoking conflict all around him, both to create advantages for himself and because pulling everyone around him down to his own ignoble level soothes his nagging worry that someone, somewhere might be more widely admired. This is a person who lives for adulation without regard for whether the glory is earned. The louder the cheers, the better. That’s all that counts. And so the only thing that’s a threat is the prospect of the cheers going silent — of someone else rightfully winning the contest for public approval.
Whether or not he’s right about Trump, that demonic spirit is certainly dominant in our culture today, on both sides of the political spectrum. Zealots see nothing more important than politics. We can argue over which side is worse, but if it’s people in your own family or circle of friends who is a political obsessive — of the Left or the Right — then it ceases to be an abstract problem.
I remind you that the reader who wrote me — I know him personally — is a political and religious conservative. But he recognizes addiction when he sees it. Another way to see it is that people who have made politics their idol have invited themselves to be possessed (I speak metaphorically) by a spirit of division and loathing.
It has to be possible to resist the evil we see in others without becoming that which we despise. I’m thinking now of how hard some of the Christians imprisoned and tortured by the Communists had to work to keep themselves from hating those who had done hateful things to them. We live in a culture now that shames as weak and uncommitted those don’t embrace total political war as the ultimate source of meaning and purpose.
If there is no way to disprove your political claims, then you should confront the fact that you have made a religion of your politics.