On Thursday morning, the government released statistics showing GDP had plunged at a 32.9 percent annual rate in the April–June quarter, representing the worst decline on record. Shortly thereafter, President Donald Trump tweeted that maybe it’s time to think about delaying the November election, which is 96 days away: “With Universal Mail-In Voting (not Absentee Voting, which is good), 2020 will be the most INACCURATE & FRAUDULENT Election in history. It will be a great embarrassment to the USA,” he wrote. “Delay the Election until people can properly, securely and safely vote???” And just as night follows day, this tweet unleashed the predictable hurricane of reactions, all of which clump into one of three buckets: “He can’t do that, right? The Constitution gives Congress the power to set elections,” “This is just a shiny object! He’s doing this to distract from the GDP numbers! Ignore,” and, of course, “Don’t ignore! This is part of a tactical plan to undermine confidence in mail-in-ballots, so he can contest the results of the election.”
I reside in perfect, permanent equipoise between all three buckets. Yes, Trump’s inane election belches are terrifying as presidential statements about presidential power, even if he cannot legally do what he claims. Yes, it is impossible to hold in our heads every serious presidential failure that demands our attention. (The U.S. death count from COVID passed 150,000 yesterday.) And yes, Trump is, whether strategically, malevolently or haplessly, fomenting massive distrust in the possibility of a free, fair, and safe November election, which will make it easier for him to claim, by any number of arguments, that the election results were fraudulent. Efforts to make sense of the president’s tweets inevitably result in arguments about what is real and what is a distraction from what is real. It’s a perfectly natural response to chaos, but it doesn’t actually help beat back the chaos.
The singular beauty of weaponized chaos muppetry is that one can do all of those bad things at the same time. And the singular purpose of weaponized chaos muppetry is to immediately foment discord among anyone who actually cares about, say, the cratering economy, and the COVID death count, and the Republican failure to protect unemployment benefits, and the integrity of the election, and the continued functioning of imperiled institutions, and about which of those things is the real thing and which is the shiny object. When Steve Bannon reportedly talked in 2018 about how the enemy was the media and how you deal with the media by “flood[ing] the zone with shit,” this is what he was tilting at: If you can just kick up infinite dust storms comprised of infinite particles, each of which may or may not be true or salient or important, you can rapidly get to the point at which everything simultaneously matters too much and nothing seems to matter at all. As Sean Illing at Vox wrote after the impeachment, while the traditional role of propaganda was to flood the airwaves with a coherent narrative, Russian President Vladimir Putin’s contribution to the propaganda field was to use the media to “engineer a fog of disinformation, producing just enough distrust to ensure that the public can never mobilize around a coherent narrative.” The purpose is to sow precisely the kind of dissent that fully paralyzes efforts to organize around any of these crises. And if the sheer exhaustion that comes from fighting all the side battles and screaming about distractions within a fragmented and polarized (and very profitable) media ecosystem brings about a numbness and inability to consume any more of it, well, that too is scored a win.
So while it is indisputably the case that Donald Trump and William Barr intend to undermine trust in elections systems and Mike Pompeo plans to falsely say that they have the power to do so, the real question is not whether that, or the economy, or Trump’s twitter feed, is the shiny object to be disregarded and downplayed. The real question is what to do with a polity that—faced with intolerable anxiety about jobs, schools, health, democracy and the future of the post office—finds it justifiably difficult to live, awake and afraid, inside that anxiety without sniping about which of all these worries is the realest. They are all very real.
The brain wants what it wants. And what the brain wants now is a coherent metric of what is real and what is false as well as a ranking of what matters most and what matters least. The brain also could use a handy laminated green-orange-red warning chart that would let us know how to organize around each issue and when it’s time to break the glass each day. (Pro tip? It’s time.) It also wants a media that will do that sorting for us. But it’s possible that while the brain cannot process the enormity of what is occurring every morning, the country is nevertheless on the brink of a catastrophic economic crisis, constitutional crisis, public health crisis, and rule of law crisis, and these are all unfurling at once. We are racing around in circles in a zone flooded in shit. The best use of our time lies not in sorting and ranking the shit, or berating others for their sorting of it, but in trying to process it, track it, ingest it without becoming sick from it, and organizing to do something about all of it, any of it, some of it, before we drown.
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