Hypothetically, if I told you rampant voter fraud occurred in November and our election was being stolen, what would I mean?
Would I mean exactly what I said — that I sincerely believe rampant voter fraud occurred in November? Or would I mean that I personally committed rampant voter fraud but sought to draw attention elsewhere so I won’t get caught? Perhaps I don’t really care about rampant voter fraud at all, but simply view the phrase as an expression which encourages you to support a specific action which may or may not address it. Or, worse yet, perhaps I’m just signaling that I belong to the loyal wing of a mutual in-group and know discussing rampant voter fraud places me safely between Mitt Romney and the Camp Auschwitz guy in your mind.
Each of these interpretations are based on the simulacra model of communication, a model which is admittedly simplistic in much the same way the iconic London Underground map is simplistic — what it highlights, it highlights very well, but don’t expect anything to be in scale.
According to this model, there are four layers of communication to consider.
In the first layer, words have direct meaning to what they’re describing (for example, “you are reading my column” means you are, in fact, reading the column I wrote). In the second layer, language is manipulated by the speaker — they lie, in other words — to secure a desired result from the recipient (“you are reading a short column” is almost certainly wrong for any meaningfully useful definition of “short”, but I say the phrase anyway to reassure you and encourage you to finish this parenthetical, this paragraph, and ultimately this article).
In the third layer, neither participant in the conversation is trying to communicate direct truth. Instead, they use language which seems superficially true or superficially provable to make a separate point. For example, imagine a tedious conversation between two groups of Indy readers, each claiming to argue over the published length of Indy columns, with one camp demanding “fewer, shorter columns” (because my columns would no longer get published), while another camp demands “more, longer columns” (because they want me to write more than once a week).
In the fourth and final level, neither side is really trying to communicate much of anything beyond whatever seems necessary in the moment to achieve some ephemeral gain in social status. This roughly describes every argument on the internet, given enough time.
Four years ago, we were told by intelligent, well-meaning people to take Donald Trump seriously, not literally — in other words, assume Trump speaks to his supporters on the third layer of our model. This analysis was based on the assumption that Donald Trump was a politician who, like most politicians professional enough to serve in Washington D.C., primarily lives in the third layer of our model. Following this assumption, Trump’s bizarre claims and utterances — we’ll build a wall and make Mexico pay for it, Ted Cruz’s father killed John F. Kennedy, and so on — were simply Trump finding novel and clever ways to tell potential supporters what they needed to hear to support him over the other presidential candidates.
To understand what I mean by living in the third layer, take the issue of gun control. Gun control is an issue which reliably raises money and volunteer energy from supporters and opponents alike, even though the legislative status quo seldom changes, because that money and energy is easily redirected to politicians who support (or oppose) other, more malleable policies. Consequently, when politicians claim opponents favor “gun control,” they frequently mean opponents favor a basket of policies which opponents of gun control also reliably oppose — whether the opponents would actually pursue meaningful gun control is incidental. Similarly, a politician who claims an opponent is a “gun nut” may mean the opponent favors the basket of policies that overt gun owners frequently approve of, irrespective of whether the opponent actually owns a firearm or not.
If this all sounds like lying to you, well, it is — but it’s a different sort of lying than children lying to their parents about whether they did their homework or not. All parties, at least in theory, are in on the lie. Nobody actually expects anyone else to directly tell the truth. Doing so, in fact, would be both politically unwise and unforgivably uncouth since telling the truth might actually lead to resolution of these wedge issues, thus depriving all sides of money and enthusiastic free labor. Instead, arguments are used as soldiers to encourage each candidate’s supporters to knock doors, cut checks, and fill out their ballots, all while actually advancing any conceivable policy except those which reliably draws donors and volunteers.
If this sounds like fraud to you, well, many donors and volunteers would agree.
Politicians, however, are at least notionally accountable to reality. Their votes are on record. The rest of us in the bleachers — opinion columnists, talk radio hosts, legal hacks and random strangers on the internet yelling at each other — labor under no such restrictions. We can say any damn fool thing we think might increase your willingness to send money our way (donate to The Indy here) or otherwise pay attention to us. The easiest way to do that, however, isn’t to tell you the truth, nor is it to openly lie to you. Instead, it’s to fall into the model’s fourth layer and let confirmation bias guide me into saying what you want to hear. To be really good at this, you have to slip into motive ambiguity and choose destructive signals of loyalty to the listener, even when — no, especially when — it’s entirely unnecessary.
Rush Limbaugh, for example, probably doesn’t actually believe there should still be violence in the streets of Washington D.C. — he just knows his listeners do and wants them to continue listening to his show.
While all of this third- and fourth-layer self-referential metacommunication (a fussy and fancy way of either saying “playacting” or “lying”, depending on your point of view) is going on, however, there’s a large group of people who interpret it as first layer communication — as unvarnished truth, as gospel. They hear someone they trust — a politician, a columnist, a talk radio host, a trusted friend on social media — say something, and they assume it must be earnestly true.
Why wouldn’t it be? The person they trust wouldn’t lie to them.
This past week, we learned — or were reminded — that Donald J. Trump, current president of the United States of America and, consequently, the most powerful human being on the planet, is one of these people.
When the Adam Laxalts and Michael McDonalds of the world — truly third- and fourth-layer communicators if there ever were any — told their supporters the reason they wouldn’t win the election was because of rampant voter fraud, and not because they were simply outnumbered, they did so because they knew saying so would increase their public profiles and draw donations. These people don’t actually believe a single word of their claptrap. They just know it makes them sound extra-Republicany when they do so, which makes them look far more loyal to potential voters, donors and volunteers than the Heidi Ganserts, Ben Kieckhefers, and Jill Tolleses of the world, each of whom could change parties tomorrow if they wanted to since they’re actually allowed in polite society.
The people digesting this horse manure, however, are people like Assemblyman John Ellison, the cast of characters occupying several of our state’s county commissions, and yes, Donald J. Trump, who all believe every word. That’s why the President was cold-calling secretaries of state only a week ago — because he sincerely, truly believes the election was stolen from him. Why wouldn’t it have been? He has the best people working for him — the best! — and they’re all telling him and each other so.
What happened on January 6th is that many of Trump’s supporters, many of whom are every bit as credulous (a fussy and fancy way of saying “gullible”) as he is, took what passes for political discourse on the Republican side of the aisle these days at face value. President Trump promised a 'wild' protest, so they prepared to deliver a wild protest. They were told the vice president had the power to overturn election results, so, when he didn’t, they built a functional gallows and threatened to hang him. When President Trump said our media has “become the enemy of the people,” the rioters took his words to mean journalists should be, well, treated like enemies of the people — so they inscribed “Murder the Media” on the doors of the Capitol and destroyed equipment.
To quote Tim Miller from The Bulwark, he and his supporters took everything they’ve been saying to each other literally and seriously.
In retrospect, it was about time somebody did.
With the events of January 6th now behind us, it’s up to us — not historians decades from now, nor some gauzy disembodied concept of “history” itself — to decide what those events mean and what lessons we will learn. We are history. It’s well past time we start acting like it.
A good first lesson would be to say what we mean, mean what we say, and hold everyone around us accountable as if they truly are telling us what they think is the truth. Online communities learned a long time ago that irony poisoning — “ironically” saying increasingly edgy and provocative things for attention — shields many earnestly terrible opinions. On the internet, nobody knows you’re a dog and nobody knows whether you’re joking when you wear a hoodie that says “6MWE”. This is why many users in online spaces increasingly err in the direction of taking so-called “edgy humor” earnestly — if what you say in jest is indistinguishable from what a Nazi would say in earnest, why should we give you the benefit of the doubt?
Now it’s time to apply this same principle to political speech.
Political policy in this country has long suffered from a categorical refusal to clearly describe what it does, how it does it, and why it’s doing it. For example, as Matthew Yglesias recently pointed out, pandemic checks are wildly popular while the Paychecks Protection Program is considered an ineffective boondoggle. Pandemic checks are exactly what they sound like — the government writes a check, you cash it. The PPP, on the other hand, was a small business bailout program for businesses affected by the pandemic — only instead of cutting small businesses checks, the governments decided to call each check a “loan,” even though the loan only has to be paid off if the recipient business fails to maintain the payroll they’re ostensibly paying for with the check. (Editor’s disclosure: The Indy received a PPP loan, which later converted into a grant.)
This intentional confusion has led to unceasing frustration from Americans about the incomprehensibility of our political outcomes and undoubtedly played no small part in Donald Trump getting elected to president in the first place. It’s also part of the reason why our vice president-elect, who inspired the Oddly Specific Kamala Harris Policy Generator, didn’t end up at the top of that ticket. Say what you will about Trump, but he clearly means what he says. On the other side of the aisle, it’s why candidates like Bernie Sanders remain stubbornly popular — when he says “Medicare For All,” he’s not bluffing.
The solution, as Yglesias pointed out, is to openly advocate for public policy which does “what it says on the tin”. No, it won’t be finely tuned or targeted as, say, a zoning deregulation program for deployed soldiers who open a comedy club that operates for three days in upstate New York (seriously, go play with the Oddly Specific Kamala Harris Policy Generator — it’s still fun!), and it certainly won’t be as inexpensive to implement, but it’ll be transparent and intelligible to voters.
For a local example of precisely the opposite of what I’m describing, read all 112 pages of the second version of our state’s vaccination playbook, which should be replaced with a paragraph that says health care providers will be the first to receive vaccines as they’re the ones responsible for giving them, followed by each vaccine dose getting into a Nevadan’s arm as fast as possible. No, it wouldn’t lead to those who might need the vaccine the most getting it first, like the elderly, schoolteachers, and front-line retail workers, but it would lead to more than 23.8 percent of the vaccines delivered to Nevada getting into the arms of Nevadans.
Vaccines. Arms. Now. Keep it simple.
That, in turn, would shrink the space charlatans and grifters, who prey upon the gullible by promising to deliver “real truths” about our otherwise opaque political process, can operate in. As Rex Briggs pointed out in his excellent two-parter in December on Nevada’s election system, few people actually know anything about how our election system works and the people responsible for administering it don’t do a very good job of making it easy for the rest of us to learn. That’s getting better, especially after our most recent election, and simplifying our process won’t keep people from lying about it, but doing so makes it much easier to catch people when they do.
Next, we need to take our politicians and pundits seriously. When someone prominent says Sisolak is a king, or even Hitler, we need to treat them as if they actually mean what they say and aren’t using those words for rhetorical effect. Where’s Sisolak’s Tower of London? Where are his concentration camps? Show me a single Republican legislator condemned to the Nevada State Prison via executive order, show me a single political enemy executed for crimes against the state, or shut it. There’s plenty to criticize our state government for, and we absolutely should, but pretending Nevada in 2021 is somehow indistinguishable from pre-revolutionary France or Hitler’s Germany because we’re kind of sort of requiredish on paper to wear masks in public is absurd.
This just doesn't apply to local opinion pages. Many political attack ads are well north of irresponsible and have been for generations. Aspiring politicians who try to motivate by fear need to be named and shamed.
Finally, we need to take inventory of who encouraged us to get into this mess in the first place. Assemblywoman Annie Black proudly attended the protest, then proudly shared misinformation (misinformation that was eventually taken down by the Washington Times, by the way) about the rioters to cover her rear. Assemblywoman Robin Titus, after getting caught telling the Lyon County commission to refuse to certify their elections, is now trying to cover her rear by pushing Ms. Black out of the airlock. Then there’s the matter of Republican Party leadership, which, if this letter from the Nye County GOP is any indication, is completely disconnected from reality — a disconnect which goes all the way to the top with help from the likes of Michele Fiore.
Trump will be president for another four years? Biden will not be president? Extraordinary claims require extraordinary evidence. How do you plan on making that a reality? What, exactly, are you asking your followers to do to make that happen? Be specific. Show your work. Or shut up and give an adult the keyboard for a change.
It’s been well past time for a long, long time to get back to the first layer of communication — to get back to telling each other the truth, or at least trying to. If nothing else good comes of January 6th, let’s at least hope we get that.
David Colborne has been active in the Libertarian Party for two decades. During that time, he has blogged intermittently on his personal blog, as well as the Libertarian Party of Nevada blog, and ran for office twice as a Libertarian candidate. He serves on the Executive Committee for both his state and county Libertarian Party chapters. He is the father of two sons and an IT professional. You can follow him on Twitter @DavidColborne or email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.