I despair for the future of our country.
It’s not simply because I am a liberal, though political liberalism is my bones. It’s not just because Trump is an ignorant, narcissistic bully, though he most certainly is. It’s because Trump and his supporters remind me of a group that I have written about and dealt with for decades: anti-vaxxers.
Both believe that truth is irrelevant and feelings are everything.
Anti-vaxxers have taught me about the damage and death that can be caused by movements based on ignorance and selfishness, built on bald-faced lies, whose life blood is social media. Trumpism is anti-vax to the max.
At first glance, you might think that the analogy is facile. What connection could there be between pseudoscience and a political movement?
Consider the following
1. Truth is irrelevant.
This, of course, is the bedrock of both anti-vax pseudoscience and Trumpism. The truth does not matter in the least.
Vaccines are settled science. Physicians, researchers and public health officials around the world are in agreement that vaccines are safe, effective and one of the most successful public health efforts of all time, having saved and continuing to save millions of lives each year. Yet anti-vaxxers cling fiercely to delusions that vaccines are unsafe, ineffective and cause “vaccine injuries” including autism and just about any other poorly understood syndrome that you care to name.
The causes of lower middle class economic floundering are equally well understood: automation, irreversible globalization, the switch to a technology based economy among others. Yet Trumpists cling fiercely to delusions that Mexicans are stealing their jobs, black people are stealing their benefits, gay people are stealing their religious freedom and Democrats are stealing their guns.
2. Feelings are everything
Both anti-vax advocacy and Trumpism represent the rise of what comedian Steven Colbert has described as “truthiness.”
According to Wikipedia:
Truthiness is a quality characterizing a “truth” that a person making an argument or assertion claims to know intuitively “from the gut” or because it “feels right” without regard to evidence, logic, intellectual examination, or facts.
Anti-vaxxers are quite explicit in their reliance on “truthiness” over truth. Vaccines cause autism because some parents feel that vaccines caused their children’s autism. Never mind that copious scientific evidence has shown that there is no causal connection between vaccines and autism. In the view of anti-vaxxers, if they feel it, it must be true.
Trumpists are, if anything, more dependent on truthiness than anti-vaxxers. They feel that Mexicans are stealing their jobs so we should built a wall to keep Mexicans out; they feel that black people are getting more than their fair share so they should be knocked down a peg or two; they feel that religious freedom means they ought to be free to force the government to advance their religious beliefs and prejudices despite the fact that America was founded explicitly on a separation between Church and State; they feel that Democrats are coming for their guns, their only source of power in their purportedly powerless existence, so common-sense gun laws must be opposed with extraordinary vehemence.
Democrats, and even many Republicans, have been astounded that Trump can lie with impunity. But that’s only to be expected when people give feelings priority over facts.
3. It makes no difference if others are harmed.
We told anti-vaxxers for years that decreasing immunization rates would lead to injuries, illnesses and deaths of innocent children from vaccine preventable diseases that would inevitably come roaring back. And that’s precisely what happened. No matter. Unless and until anti-vaxxers are personally harmed by vaccine preventable diseases, they don’t care.
You can point out to them that anti-vax is immoral, relying as it does on the fact that anti-vaxxers are free riders, enjoying the benefits of herd immunity while refusing to accept the burdens of supporting that immunity through vaccination. They could not care less.
You can point out to Trumpists, that much of Trumpism is immoral and certainly anti-Christian, relying as it does on vicious prejudice against, Hispanics, blacks, Muslims, etc. They could not care less.
4. Support for and legitimation of ignorance is critical
Social media is the life-blood of both anti-vax advocacy and Trumpism for two reasons. First, social media allows for the unimpeded distribution of fake news. Second, social media promotes social cohesion among believers.
Fake news did not originate with this election or even with politics itself. Fake news has long been prominent in alternative health, particularly anti-vax. Fake news is a never ending stream of lies, prejudice and conspiracy theories constantly pumped out by anti-vaxxers to support each other in their delusions. No claim is too ridiculous since truth doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. Anti-vaxxers feel victimized so they present a never ending litany of grievance.
Alt-right fake news is a never ending stream of lies, prejudice and conspiracy theories constantly pumped out by Trumpists to support each other in their delusions. No claim is too ridiculous since truth doesn’t matter; only feelings matter. Trumpists feel victimized so they present a never ending litany of grievance.
Perhaps even more remarkable that Trumpists’ overwrought sense of grievance is their utter unwillingness to explore or even acknowledge that they have been victimized by many of their ideological confrères. The Republican party has been practicing a never ending charade of bait and switch on their own voters for years. They tell them that reducing taxes will solve their financial difficulties when the truth — that tax reductions benefit the rich, not the poor — has long been glaringly obvious.
Republican policy has allowed economic inequality to grow. It has led to the wealth of the country becoming ever more concentrated in the hands of kleptocrats like Trump. It has led to the personal bankruptcies that destroy middle and lower class families in contrast to the business bankruptcies that allow failed businessmen like Trump to avoid the cost of their mistakes. It has led to the outsourcing of jobs that provide further benefits for Trump and his ilk. No matter.
5. Solidarity builds self image.
I’ve written repeatedly about the social dimension of anti-vax advocacy. Anti-vax is not about vaccines and it’s not about children. It’s about anti-vax parents and how they wish to see themselves. Social media allows anti-vaxxers to cocoon themselves within supportive communities where ignorance, gullibility and penchant for conspiracy theories are normalized.
Similarly, social media allows the alt-right to cocoon themselves within supportive communities where ignorance, gullibility and a penchant for conspiracy theories are also normalized.
In both anti-vax and the alt-right, social media communities provides a platform from which to lash out at the “enemy” and be cheered for doing so, no matter how ugly, vicious or factually wrong the attack. Just as Facebook emboldens anti-vaxxers, Twitter emboldens racists, misogynists, homophobes and anti-Semities. Social media empowers individual bigots to become verbal lynch mobs, doxxing, smearing and threatening.
The conclusion I draw from the similarity between anti-vaxxers and Trumpists is that defeating both will involve different tactics than might ordinarily be used:
Anti-vaxxers have demonstrated beyond doubt that they are fact resistant. Therefore, arguing facts with them is doomed to failure and may even reinforce their sense of grievance. Sadly, they seem to respond only to two things: personal pain and social humiliation.
The biggest blow to the anti-vax movement has been reality itself. Only the growing threat of vaccine preventable illness to the children of anti-vaxxers can shake their faith in lies and conspiracy theories. I fear that only serious harm to the economy, judicial system, standing of the US in the world, etc. can shake Trumpists from the fantasy world of grievance in which they live.
In the meantime, the best weapon we have available is social humiliation.
Both anti-vaxxers and Trumpists are desperate to see themselves as the good guys: smart, savvy, clear-eyed, and poised to save world from itself. We should make it clear to both groups, in all possible ways, that they are none of the above. In truth they are contemptible; their ignorance and prejudice should be fought continually and with every means at our disposal.