Weaponised unreality

Apr 28, 2023
Tucker_Carlson_2018 Image: Wikimedia Commons / Gage Skidmore

Having spent decades inculcating their base in poisonous nonsense, there is now no external authority to which right wing media can send their audience when the lies become troublesome.

Australia’s Liberal politicians – and their media friends – need to be very careful. Rupert Murdoch’s Fox News has helped created such a crisis of trust in America that there is no way to contest the unreality in which its audience so stubbornly believes.

Weaponised unreality is a term devised to capture the idea that conspiracies aren’t just spreading organically but that they are used, often by the rich and powerful, to entrench their interests. Trickle Down economics can be seen as one unreality promoted so widely that it gained unmerited credibility. Instead we have, unsurprisingly, a crisis of inequality and a substantial minority across the west who have lost faith in the democratic project. Support for strong man leaders is one growing solution to governments driven by donor interests.

Brexit was a propaganda campaign deploying lies and bigotry. It allowed corporations to push for deregulation to America’s lax standards on food safety to make a trade deal possible. The Tories, who created this atomic weapon imploding their own nation, have been fighting for limited tax and regulation ever since: the most dramatic moment was captured in the Truss-Kwarteng debacle. The fact that the rich and their “think” tanks have been fighting so hard to create consensus reality on these matters makes other conspiracies about the elite more plausible: hard Brexit did not fend off EU tax evasion controls for Britain’s wealthy despite this powerful rumour.

The facts are that Britain has faced the “worst fall in living standards on record,” only Russia is performing worse in the G20, and the UK has lost on trade and foreign investment. Life expectancy is falling for the poor. Simon Kuper’s report in the Financial Times (20/4/23) makes grim reading. To distract the base from its misery, the Tories are firing up bigotry and transphobia while enacting anti-democratic measures to counter the electoral threat.

This account suggests there was more coordination amongst notorious figures in the creation and fostering of the QAnon conspiracy that pervades Trump’s MAGA base. The outcome of Trump’s election was tax cuts for the top and metastasising catastrophes for the dying middle class and poor. The timing of the Covid19 pandemic turned out to be a gift for those who either made or seized on the QAnon game: the result has been a chasm driven between those who pursue the facts to understand their world and those who believe they are resisting a black and white apocalyptic struggle between a demonic centre/left and their heroes on the far right. The perverted Christianity of the Pentecostal churches threading through the movement means there is no negotiation possible with the fantastical narratives on the other side.

Media commentator Chris Hayes recently focused on a 2009 video clip: talk radio megastar Rush Limbaugh was expounding his influential message that the right wing media-sphere was the only source of information Americans should trust. The Universe of Reality (where Rush and now Trump live) is reliable. The Universe of Lies is made of the Four Corners of Deceit: government, academia, science and the media. As Hayes points out, having spent decades inculcating the base in this poisonous nonsense, there is now no external authority to which right wing media can send their audience when the lies become troublesome.

In 2023, Republican politicians and media bodies alike are trapped by this audience’s parallel universe. There Donald Trump is the bravest of honourable men, saving America’s democracy from the corrupt, and children from pedophile elites. For many, his status is religious. His virtuous battle against evil was brought to a halt by the demonic left which stole the 2020 election for the Democrats.

In the reality-based world, Donald Trump is a loser and a corrupt businessman who made much of his status laundering money for American and international criminals, and whose claims to heroism are a fairytale as laughable as the bone spurs that prevented his military service. His reputation as a successful businessman was manufactured on “reality” TV.

This radicalisation of a base into monomaniacal supporters of a conspiracy-laden narrative is problematic for its own side as much as the rest of us. As illustrated in 2022, Trump and his followers are popular in the primaries stage where the most radical right candidate is often selected, but they were not electable in 2022 in the midterms. While donors and Republican mainstays might wish for a more palatable candidate, voters at the primary stage will not cooperate.

Murdoch’s Fox has committed to its first huge payment for amplifying the lies that have done so much to undermine America’s fragile democratic project. More are expected to follow. Fox’s support for Trump’s election Big Lie came in the face of its twin efforts to reject Trump, but their audience abandoned them when they tried it.

The fact that Fox has now sacked Tucker Carlson, the network’s most successful and powerful talking head, sends an ambiguous message. It could be that the network is preparing to fall into line behind Trump as the likely Republican candidate in the 2024 election; the court case’s documents reveal many examples of Carlson’s true loathing for Trump, and it is possible the Murdochs think that will become a liability in the next 2 years. There are also rumours that Carlson’s disdain for Fox management played a role in the decision, as well as abusive relationships with staff on the show.

There is an outside chance that Fox acted to end the reign of its king of disinformation, chastened by the Dominion settlement, but that doesn’t fit with the corporate trajectory.

Whatever the reason, the departure of Carlson may cost Fox more than the settlements. It lost more than $690 million in value in the hours after the announcement. It remains to be seen how the MAGA base will respond.

It is obvious that the nation is harmed by weaponised unreality. Evidence in the US and UK suggests that the damage also hits the forces that aim to ride the wave. Australia has time to halt this damage. We must act more firmly to challenge lies if the right will not reform itself.

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