The other day while traveling through Tennessee, I had to take my vehicle to a shop for repairs, and I got into a chat with the shop supervisor about the places I’d lived — including San Francisco. After I finished enumerating my past cities of residence, he said, “Well, at least you got out of California”. At the risk of jumping to conclusions, my impression was that he was one of those deep-red staters who are convinced that California is a messy, decadent Gomorrah that is about to slip off into the sea at any minute. Nothing could be farther from the truth, of course. California is a great place to live, just as it’s always been. Sure, it has its share of problems: wildfires, homelessness, COVID spikes, and traffic jams to name a few. That’s unavoidable with any state that covers such a large area, is home to so many people, has such large cities, and has such diversity of climate, geography, population and industry. But the positives still outweigh the negatives — including economic opportunity, fabulous weather, a wealth of natural features, and unparalleled cultural richness. Among many other things.
Yet the story goes — and indeed is all over the place — that massive hordes of Californians are abandoning their state like a burning yacht. The rumor isn’t true; people are moving out of California, as they always have, and people are moving in; and while there has been in recent years a net loss of population, it isn’t nearly as drastic as the rumors would have you believe. But the narrative hangs on like a bat. For the simple reason that right-wingers keep pushing it and pushing it and pushing it. It’s one of those false narratives that they made up (many of them out of whole, or even partial, cloth) and keep hammering away at, hoping that repetition will make it true. I’ve been hearing virtually my whole life that California is going to hell in a hand basket, but I haven’t seen it happen yet.
These narratives are slipped through the gates of American media inside the Trojan horse of such popular phrases as “cancel culture”, “critical race theory” and “virtue signaling”. An especially interesting use of the latter silly expression came from Charlie Kirk (the answer to a question no one is asking) who suggested that urging people to get vaccines is “virtue signaling”. After all, what other reason could anyone possibly have for trying to save lives except to put a star in their own crown? Can you imagine anyone being dumb enough to put their lives and other lives at risk by taking Charlie Kirk seriously?
One of the most persistent fake narratives is the claim that “liberals hate America”. It’s been repeated so long in the right-wing alternate universe that its veracity is inviolably enshrined. If you have right-wing relatives, chances are you’d find it a real challenge to have an actual discussion with them about any current issue, because for them, it inevitably and immediately leads back to their go-to axiom that “you liberals just hate America”.
I recently overheard a phone conversation my wife was having (or attempting to have) with her mother, who rattled on and on about how “illegal” immigrants are destroying the country and bringing all kinds of crime and disease (though she reckons maybe it’s okay if she uses them as cheap labor when her house needs work) and they’re spreading COVID because Biden has decided to stop testing them at the border (a claim she knows is true because somebody told her on Facebook) and it’s not fair because she has to be tested when she goes anywhere but the CDC can’t be trusted anyway and she knows that the two Hispanics she just saw in the casino were illegals who just got off the bus and she wishes we had athletic games in America like they have in the Olympics because it brings the whole world together and wouldn’t it be nice if Americans all got along instead of attacking each other the way both sides do. And I’m pretty sure I heard her mention something about Benghazi and someone stealing our fluids or something.
One of the most disturbing and heartbreaking stories is the report from a survivor of the Parkland shooting who says that his own father has become convinced, via Q-Anon, that the whole incident was a hoax. That’s right: his own father believes that his son is part of some nefarious Deep State fake news plot, and that his son’s schoolmates somehow staged their deaths. Sadly, this is not a lone case. Millions of people believe that pretty much all mass shootings are “false flags”. And quite a few of them have made death threats against the victims, who are already scarred for life, for insisting otherwise. In fact, the son had to publish his story anonymously for that very reason (his identity was confirmed).
When President Obama was in office, you repeatedly heard that he had taken/ was taking/ was planning to take an “apology tour” abroad. Never mind that he never once apologized for America in his travels. The apology tour was just one of the unshakeable right-wing core convictions, like the tenet that more guns make you safer.
Another example is the constantly repeated claim that President Biden has dementia. Never mind that he and has been quite sharp and effective in office, and shows none of the symptoms of dementia, except that he stammers, struggles with words and sometimes makes verbal gaffes. But those are not convincing symptoms of dementia or senility; and in fact, he’s always exhibited such behavior. Furthermore, his gaffes pale in comparison to those of Former Guy and even those of George W. Bush; and few people would suggest that either of them suffered from dementia. Stupidity and insanity, yes, but not dementia. (Reagan was suspected of having Alzheimer’s while in office, as he definitely did after leaving office, but there was more evidence than just his fumbling with words.)
Biden’s speech struggles are often related to his lifelong battle with stuttering. But the thing is, the same people who are convinced beyond a doubt that Biden has dementia will also insist that he doesn’t have a stuttering problem — even though it’s been a matter of record his entire life. And there you have the essence of MAGA insanity: being absolutely certain of things that have zero evidence to support them, and absolutely reject facts that are irrefutably true. Or, as someone put it, they believe that if vaccines are only 99 percent effective, that means they don’t work; and at the same time, they believe that Former Guy, who won zero percent of his election lawsuits, is still president.
Alternate reality is the default mode of right-wing extremism, and right-wing extremism is the default mode of public discourse. Don’t expect it to get any better anytime soon.