By Dartagnan | 14 September 2019
For many of us, after enduring nearly three years of this Kafkaesque nightmare known as the Trump presidency, the most disturbing thing has not been the seemingly endless outpouring of willful malevolence, deliberate incompetence, and intentional cruelty that Trump and his Republican lackeys have inflicted on the nation. Rather, it’s the fact that so many of our fellow citizens enthusiastically supported, voted, and will continue to support and vote for him. Worse, some of them loudly applaud while our collective, hard-earned institutions slowly fester, turning rank, putrid, and finally rotten under his “leadership.”
We have seen whole segments of the U.S. population leaping at the chance of chaining themselves to the mast of complete moral bankruptcy or nihilism, while gleefully cheering on acts of barbaric cruelty and hideous indifference. The same ordinary Americans who we previously assumed possessed at least some degree of moral character or decency, but who have now, suddenly, shown us how easily those fictions can be abandoned and casually tossed away.
We have to ask: What happened to these people? Was it bad parenting? Was it some undisclosed trauma, some toilet training mishap at a tender age that triggered this wholesale fatalism? It’s hard to believe that even the most partisan among them have absolutely no inkling what they have wrought over the last three years, as this country devolves morally and strategically (now on almost a daily basis) under an onslaught of disrespect from a president who shows nothing but contempt for historical norms of civility, our international alliances, or the rule of law.
What could have caused so many Americans to throw out their moral compasses, to be reduced to taking satisfaction solely in seeing everything they grew up to respect be destroyed? As pointed out by Harry Cheadle at VICE, it’s reminiscent of that quote by Alfred in The Dark Knight, describing the pathological Joker: What could have resulted in a population so embittered, aloof, and indifferent to others that they “just want to watch the world burn?”
A unique study that flew under the radar last year was honored just last week with an award by the American Political Science Association. Conducted by three political scientists in Denmark and the U.S., it goes a long way toward explaining where we now find ourselves as a nation, and what Americans have become.
According to a recent study, wanting to watch the world burn is a frighteningly common feeling—and it might explain a lot about the political instability America and the world are grappling with.
Titled, “A ‘Need for Chaos’ and the Sharing of Hostile Political Rumors in Advanced Democracies,” the study originally set out to simply examine why people spread hostile, often knowingly untrue, political information over the Internet. The study’s researchers suspected one reason was that in a politically polarized environment, it was simply much more attractive and likely for political partisans to share damaging information about their perceived opponents, whether it was true or not. And that would seem to make sense, right? Everyone likes to spread bad news about their political opponents.
But what the study found was more complex, and far more disturbing.
(T)he paper’s authors favor a much more disturbing conclusion: The impulse to share hateful rumors “are associated with ‘chaotic’ motivations to ‘burn down’ the entire established democratic ‘cosmos’… This extreme discontent is associated with motivations to share hostile political rumors, not because such rumors are viewed to be true but because they are believed to mobilize the audience against disliked elites.”
In other words, these people gravitate to and spread propaganda they may know is false, simply because they have an amorphous, probably undefinable, intent to destroy—to “bring everything down.” So dissatisfied are they with their own existences that they latch on to these computer-generated “memes,” these social media-hyped lies, for the most part, because they want to do damage and harm to others they perceive as more powerful, more privileged, more favored—and thus more important—than themselves.
'In the past, chaos-seekers were on outer edges of politics, unable to exercise influence.' https://t.co/ziNuGt5AQp
— Tim Rostan. (@mrtgr) September 18, 2019
As explained by Thomas Edsall, writing for The New York Times:
[The studies’ authors] find that those who meet their definition of having a “need for chaos” express that need by willingly spreading disinformation. Their goal is not to advance their own ideology but to undermine political elites, left and right, and to “mobilize others against politicians in general.” These disrupters do not “share rumors because they believe them to be true. For the core group, hostile political rumors are simply a tool to create havoc.”
In the past, chaos-seekers were on outer edges of politics, unable to exercise influence. Contemporary social media — Facebook, Twitter, Instagram, YouTube and so on — has empowered this constituency, providing a bullhorn to disseminate false news, conspiracy theories and allegations of scandal to a broad audience. Examples include the lunacy of the Comet Pizza story (a.k.a. Pizzagate), the various anti-Obama birther conspiracies and Alex Jones’s claim that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting that left 20 children dead was a “complete fake” staged by the government to promote gun control.
And that is the best explanation for a good chunk of Trump’s unwavering “base” of support, the kind that will support him no matter what acts of degeneracy he inflicts on the American republic. They may even fancy themselves “Evangelical Christians” or claim some other affiliation, but what they really amount to is a group of piqued, jealous, vindictive, and thoroughly self-absorbed folks who aren’t satisfied with their lot in life and are looking for any way to make someone else suffer for it. It may very well have something to do with the “awesome” lives of other people they see on TV, their smartphones and their desktops, every single day.
How did the researchers from Denmark’s Aarhus University as well as Philadelphia’s Temple University, determine this? They took a survey sample of 6,000 people through six surveys, from both Denmark (a fairly nonpolarized nation) and the U.S., based on their responses to the following (example) questions.
I fantasize about a natural disaster wiping out most of humanity such that a small group of people can start all over.
I think society should be burned to the ground.
When I think about our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking “just let them all burn.”
We cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.
Sometimes I just feel like destroying beautiful things.
Here is what they found.
What the researchers found is that after controlling for gender, age, education level, and ideology, NFC [Need for Chaos] was strongly correlated with a willingness to spread hostile rumors online. Younger, less educated men were more likely to have a strong [Need for Chaos], as were people who were lonely and perceived themselves as lacking social status. NFC is associated with support for Donald Trump and, more weakly, with support for Bernie Sanders…[.]
Which makes sense. Both Trump and to a lesser, and in a qualitatively different way, Sanders offered the 2016 electorate—including all the susceptible, alienated and disenchanted folks who comprise it—a radical departure from the norm, giving voice to sentiments that had probably been bubbling in their followers’ heads for quite a long time.
The responses to three of the statements in particular were “staggering,” the paper says: 24 percent agreed that society should be burned to the ground; 40 percent concurred with the thought that “When it comes to our political and social institutions, I cannot help thinking ‘just let them all burn’ ”; and 40 percent also agreed that “we cannot fix the problems in our social institutions, we need to tear them down and start over.”
Sharing fake news is not just, or even primarily, a partisan tactic: it's a bipartisan desire among those with a “Need for Chaos” (often status-obsessed but low-status) to watch things burn. Preprint from evol. poli scientist Michael Bang Petersen et al. https://t.co/6hbB3LjuSa
— Steven Pinker (@sapinker) September 1, 2019
Got that? All told, 40% of their cross-section of respondents expressed agreement with positions in support of the total destruction of American society. And a large number of those people likely voted for Donald Trump, according to the researcher himself, Michael Bang Petersen, as Edsall reports.
In an email, Petersen wrote that preliminary examination of the data shows “that the ‘need for chaos’ correlates positively with sympathy for Trump but also — although less strongly — with sympathy for Sanders. It correlates negatively with sympathy for Hillary Clinton.” (After publication of this column, Petersen asked to clarify his comment. “The information given in the above quote,” he said, “solely reflected an initial interpretation of a preliminary analysis, which is not part of the research on which the column is based.”)
As Edsall notes, this phenomenon of “chaos voters” also helps to explain recent Republican attitudes disfavoring higher education, as well as science, as well as Trump’s deliberate introduction of such chaos-inducing, disruptive attitudes such as white supremacy, authoritarianism, and racism into the American political discourse.
The intense hostility to political establishments of all kinds among what could be called “chaos voters” helps explain what Pew Research and others have found: a growing distrust among Republican voters of higher education as well as empirically based science, both of which are increasingly seen as allied with the liberal establishment.
The researchers do admit that there is some degree of limitation to their findings.
[T]his study provides insights into the kinds of thoughts and behaviors that people are motivated to entertain when they sit alone (and lonely) in front of the computer, answering surveys or surfing social media platforms.
But, as pointed out by Cheadle, that’s really all that matters when it comes to spreading hateful, lie-filled memes. It’s the easiest thing in the world: You don’t have to do much more than click.
“In an age of fake news and hostile political rumors, system-defeating behavior does not take much more than that. A few chaotic thoughts that leads to a few clicks to retweet or share is enough.”
One share or retweet can echo across multiple forums to multiple like-minded individuals, over and over again, exponentially, all while reinforcing these sentiments. That means these attitudes of nihilism and destruction can become widespread, even “viral,” going farther than in any other time in history.
The study still doesn’t address that important question of what actually happened to these people to cause this epidemic of nihilism. It wasn’t “economic anxiety,” or “racism.” Neither of those things in and of themselves would make a person want to go out and destroy the world for the sake of destroying it. Perhaps the best explanation is that they were always around, but they now wield an outsized influence because of the Internet. There is also a sick synergy between nihilism and disruptive populism that began with Trump but is only going to grow worse over time.
Whatever the reason, it’s been a dispiriting experience for anyone who grew up with expectations of living out one’s life in a decent country, with decent neighbors, in decent communities, only to be forced to face the reality that at this point in time, nearly half of the voting American population, statistically, is positively reveling in the destruction being wrought by Trump, having rationalized it, justified it to themselves or otherwise made their peace with it.
And worse, that this toxic, spreading, nihilistic worldview carries all of our fates—and potentially the fate of the world—along with it.
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