“Bug Eyed with Fear and Vengeance.”

In the opening scene of The Hamlet[1], Ab Snopes strides across his future landlord’s barnyard, then tracks manure into the front hall.  His behavior, and that of the whole scabby Snopes clan, deteriorates from there on across a trilogy of novels.  When David Mikkelson needed a user name for a group, he picked “snopes.”  Soon, impressed by the amount of sheer nonsense he encountered on the internet, he and his wife started a fact-checking site called Snopes.  To this day, the site tracks manure into the front hall of many internet fantasies.

Recently, the editor at the Snopes site reportedly told The Atlantic[2] that the majority of political false reports and rumors now come from or are aimed at liberals.  To follow one example ripped from the pages of Snopes, in February 2017 a story circulated that Donald Trump had met Vladimir Putin at an exclusive Swiss Alpine resort in June 2016. The story originated with three newly-created “fake news” sites.  “Redirects subsequently put in place for these fake news sites demonstrate that they were established as a promotional effort for the psychological thriller film ‘A Cure for Wellness’.”[3]

In similar fashion, surveys of Democrats conducted in July and November 2016 revealed an increase in a disposition to believe conspiracy theories from 27 percent to 32 percent.[4]  Political psychologists suggest that a belief in conspiracies is a coping mechanism on the part of people who have lost power or status in some fashion.  Thus the same survey that found an increase in Democrats’ conspiracy belief also found a decline in Republican conspiracy belief from 28 percent to 19 percent.[5]  As one academic expert on George Orwell put it, “people are hungry for frames of reference to understand this new reality.”[6]

Perhaps one sign of the post-election state of mind among Democrats is to be found in the surge of sales for “dystopian classics.”  George Orwell’s Animal Farm and 1984 topped the sales charts at Amazon.com.[7]  Sinclair Lewis, It Can’t Happen Here[8] and Aldous Huxley, Brave New World, came close behind.  Sales of Margaret Atwood’s The Handmaid’s Tale (1984) jumped 30 percent in 2016 and 100,000 copies were printed in the three months following the election.

It has been suggested that alarmed Democrats are turning to works of fiction because non-fiction journalism can’t keep up with reality.  It isn’t for want of trying.  To take one example, one “The Interpreter” column in the New York Times offered “scholars of authoritarianism” a platform from which to compare Donald Trump to Recep Tayyip Erdogan, Vladimir Putin, and Rodrigo Duterte.[9]  Will all this turn out to be incitement to some rash act?

[1] William Faulkner, The Hamlet (1940).

[2] Which was read by a reporter at the New York Times, who quoted the Snopes editor in a story which I read and am now trying to write about for the blog which you are reading.  Just laying out the provenance here.

[3] See: http://www.snopes.com/trump-putin-switzerland/  The film was produced for Regency Films, owned by Amon Milchan.  https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Arnon_Milchan

[4] Brendan Nyhan, “More Democrats Turn to Conspiracy Theories,” NYT, 16 February 2017.

[5] It is curious (to me anyway) that in July 2016, essentially equal percentages of Democrats (27) and Republicans (28) were disposed to believe in conspiracy theories.  I wonder if that is just a result of an election campaign and that the numbers are lower between elections?

[6] Alexandra Alter, “Fears for the Future Prompt A Boon (sic) for Dystopian Classics,” NYT, 28 January 2017.

[7] Understandably, sales of his Homage to Catalonia (which details the murderous behavior of the Communists to their fellow-leftists during the Spanish Civil War) and The Road to Wigan Pier (which lambast middle-class contempt for the values and behavior of working people) failed to budge.

[8] The novel commonly is taken as an attack on Huey Long, the Louisiana demagogue and rival to Franklin D. Roosevelt until Long’s assassination.

[9] Amanda Taub, “The Travel Ban and an Authoritarian ‘Ladder of Violence’,” NYT, 2 February 2017.

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