It’s hard to explain exactly why we submit ourselves to this. But in our New York City office we spend most of the day listening to Fox News. In moments of tension and incitement such as these it is difficult to capture the sheer scale and measure of the storm of hate, lies, nonsense and febrile fear that constantly flows out of it, minute by minute and hour after hour. I’ve become particularly focused in the last couple days on the almost constant stream of often small but highly significant falsehoods which go together to create a frightening and highly distorted image of the world.
Just now we’re listening to this show “Outnumbered” where a woman named Andrea Tantaros (who manages to combine in her person in a concentrated form everything that is awful about Fox News) went on a tear about how it was that the San Bernardino shooter’s brother was allowed to attend a press conference sponsored by CAIR the day after the attack, ‘spouting CAIR talking points’ as opposed to being in FBI custody. Why wasn’t the whole family in FBI custody, she ranted? Well, as far as I know, the person she’s referring to isn’t Syed Farook’s brother but his brother-in-law. His brother is actually a Navy veteran who lives in a different part of Southern California and, from everything we’ve heard, had absolutely nothing to do with his brother’s crimes.
There are certainly times in the aftermath of catastrophic terrorist attacks when the FBI might almost indiscriminately arrest people proximate to the identified attackers, simply to disrupt other attacks which might be imminent. This can be overreaction, or in certain extreme cases it can be a justified policy of disruption if done in very limited and prescribed ways. The FBI did go into something like that mode in the days just after 9/11. But we don’t just arrest whole families of people. The law doesn’t work like that. The mere statement of the facts and inaccuracies doesn’t capture the mix of florid outrage, angry betrayal and sense of threat.
Yesterday, a House Republican announced that the U.S. now knows that ISIS has tried to have operatives come into the United States through its refugee program. In the report on this, the Fox News reporter went on to say, simply in passing, that this was how the Paris attackers (plural) entered France, falsely as refugees. I don’t want to go into the details here. But that’s not true. Questions were raised about a single attacker. But those didn’t hold up. There were never questions about multiple attackers coming into the country as refugees. Indeed, they were French and Belgian nationals.
These might seem like small or picayune examples. But they are constant. And they build up to a whole tapestry of falsehoods, that combined with incitement and hysteria create a mental world in which Donald Trump’s mounting volume of racist incitement is just not at all surprising. They are the false links that piece together the chain of distortion and lies that would simply collapse without them. You may have noticed that Fox felt compelled to suspend two on-air personalities yesterday because of rants about the President. But they were suspended not because of general tone or extremity but simply because they lapsed into profanity. When I saw this yesterday, it didn’t seem surprising because the tone has become so hyperbolic and the climate of outrage and drama against the President not endorsing a military escalation or a clampdown on American Muslims so extreme that it’s hardly surprising that a couple of regulars would slip into profanity.
As I wrote last night, this is sort of like a national Milgram Experiment. Are there limits on how far you can go as the possible nominee of a major national party? Seemingly not. Yes, most of the other presidential candidates have rejected his plan. Cruz said he doesn’t agree, but went out of his way not to criticize. But the only meaningful kind of rejection of what Trump has said would be to say you would never support him for President, even if he’s the nominee. Clearly, none are willing to do that. This is just another policy disagreement, like being against Obamacare.
I know I’m preaching to the choir when it comes to noting the factual shortcomings of Fox News. But this is why this isn’t really about Trump. Trump’s genius — and I don’t use that word loosely — is that he is an intuitive. He can feel the public mood in ways that none of these others can. I don’t think Trump began his campaign with really any of this. “Mexicans” were his thing. But even that was I think largely shtick. Terrorism and Muslim-hating wasn’t his thing. But like a gifted jazz musician, he can pick up the rhythms of whatever group he’s sitting in with, adapt, improvise and take them further. Yes, he’s almost a Coltrane of hate and incitement. But it’s not about Trump. It’s about his supporters. A big chunk of the Republican base is awash in racism and xenophobic hysteria. And this is the food that they feed on every day. It’s a societal sickness and we can’t ignore it.