Explaining Trump and his Followers; Conservatives’ Lies about Heartstopper

  • Two kinds of boomers, and the naivete of older people about how social media works;
  • Why Republican voters believe Trump — it’s all about their feelings of victimhood;
  • An example of how pearl-clutching conservatives lie about Heartstopper.

Not one but two articles today whose headlines purport to offer explanations for Trump and his followers.

Slate, Ben Mathis-Lilley, 22 Aug 2023: The Georgia Trump Trial Will Be, Above All, the Final War Between the Two Kinds of Boomers on the Internet, subtitled “Hillary Clinton did not invent AIDS. (We’ll get into why that’s relevant.)”

Among the many alleged co-conspirators accused in Fulton County, Georgia, last week of helping Donald Trump attempt to overturn the 2020 election, two stand out: Rudy Giuliani and Sidney Powell.

Both are attorneys who were once competent and reasonably well respected. Both urged Trump to continue “fighting” to remain in office even as his other allies were abandoning that possibility—arguably making them the two people, besides Trump himself, without whom Jan. 6 wouldn’t have taken place. And they are both members of the baby boom generation who exemplify its disproportionate willingness to read and share completely made-up things on the internet.

While other aides were telling Trump he had lost the election, Giuliani and Powell egged him on to insist he had won. The article provides many examples of specific things they did, with links to sources. G&P pursued lines of investigation into things that were flatly untrue. They depended on the credulousness, or cynicism, of far-right “news” outlet. More examples with links to sources. G&P were once lawyers; they “were both familiar, at some point, with standards for what constitutes credible evidence—not just in public discourse but in court.” Yet:

They are also members of the demographic group that has been most disoriented by the rise of social media and unreliable (or completely fraudulent) news sources.

Hint here at an explanation? Which groups of people would be more or less disoriented by the rise of social media?

Generation-wide stereotypes aren’t always based on robust, peer-reviewed data, but research supports this one. One academic study found that individuals 65 and older who used Twitter were twice as likely to see “fake news” from sites like Alex Jones’ InfoWars as those age 18 to 29, for example. Another found that individuals 65 and older shared seven times as many fake-news links as those 18 to 29. One explanation that’s been suggested for this phenomenon is the general susceptibility of older adults to memory problems; another is “digital illiteracy” created by the late adoption of computers and smartphones. (A wide majority of older Facebook users don’t realize that an algorithm customizes their feed for them; a third believe that posts are selected by “journalists and editors that work for Facebook.” If only, folks!)

OK, this is something. Many people, but especially older people, have been naive about how social media works. Older people, perhaps, because they grew up in an era of newspapers and responsible TV journalism (the era when there were three networks and PBS).

The article then summarizes the ways in which Giuliani’s and Powell’s careers, once prestigious, fell apart, and they resorted to working the fringes, becoming paranoid and conspiratorial. And how Trump came to rely on such people. The article acknowledges:

Although online disorientation may be disproportionately experienced by baby boomers, we would be remiss (and liable to hearing about it from our older relatives) not to acknowledge that each member of that generation is their own individual person, that many—so many!—are capable of separating fact from wishful thinking, and that some have never even heard of the Gateway Pundit.

I’ve heard of it, but never had any reason to look.

(The aside about Hillary: a quote of someone’s Tweet:

Your parents in 1996: Don’t trust ANYONE on the Internet.

Your parents in 2016: Freedom Eagle dot Facebook says Hillary invented AIDS.


So: Takeaway. As I’ve long suspected, despite the downplaying of its influence by Steven Pinker (in Rationality, reviewed here) and others, we can blame the extremism of current US politics (and presumably similar politics in other countries) on the effects of social media. How some people don’t realize that everything they read there isn’t true, that content isn’t curated the way it is/was in newspapers and network TV; I’ve never quite realized that. (And of course how many people on social media are merely spoofing others, or up to deliberate mischief, as in the current Republican party.)

There’s also the factor that people who read newspapers, for example, have never been more than a small fraction of the US population, some 25 million (according to this Pew Research Center), which is only some 7.5% of the population (which is about 330 million). But now virtually *everyone* (97% according to Google and Pew) in the US has a cell phone, and can exchange ideas and “news” with others in their social media groups, trading scandalous stories about all the people they don’t like, stories that are simple to understand, unlike the complicated stories like those that scientists have been telling about climate change, for decades.

Simple stories, like space lasers: Conspiracy Theorists Go Viral With Claim Space Lasers Are To Blame For Hawaii Fires (Forbes).

Life in the modern, complex world is so much easier if you can just blame everything on simplistic (though implausible, to those who understand how the world works) conspiracy theories.


OK, here’s another news analysis that claims a kind of explanation. We just saw yesterday how Trump voters trust him more than family, friends, or even clergy.

CNN, analysis by Ronald Brownstein, 22 Aug 2023: Why Republican voters believe Trump

Former President Donald Trump has solidified his lead in the GOP race by convincing most Republican voters to view his four criminal indictments as a politicized “witch hunt” aimed not only at him, but them.

Trump’s success in selling that argument to GOP voters has some immediate causes, key among them the choice by all of his leading competitors in the race, as well as most prominent voices in conservative media, to echo rather than challenge his contention. But the inclination of so many Republican voters to dismiss all of the charges accumulating against Trump also reflects something much more fundamental: the hardening tendency of conservatives to believe that they are the real victims of bias in a society irreversibly growing more racially and culturally diverse.

So this matches the familiar big picture observation: things change, and conservatives almost by definition resent change. Thus they want to roll back history (MAGA) to the kind of life they thought ideal as a child — and most of them are white Christians. Trump channels their resentments, their feeling of victimhood. Anything else?

The article goes on with much discussion about social trends in the US and decline of trust in American institutions among Republicans.

All of this has occurred against a backdrop of demographic and political transformation. For most of American history, White Christians and Whites without a four-year college degree have each constituted a majority of the US population. In the 21st century, though, each group has fallen below 50% of the population for the first time. Yet, even as they are declining in society overall, both groups remain a clear majority within the Republican coalition.

Among Republican voters, anxiety about this demographic and cultural change appears to have heightened alienation from institutions in the same way that the warming of ocean waters in the changing climate has intensified hurricanes. Multiple polls in recent years have found that Republican voters in general, and Trump supporters in particular, believe they are more likely to face discrimination than groups that historically have confronted more tangible evidence of bias, including racial and religious minorities, women and the LGBTQ community.

So then?

Trump’s portrayal of conservatives as the real victims of bias “is intoxicating for his base,” she says. “Issues that have arisen in the past seven years related to race and gender (George Floyd, #MeToo) are very uncomfortable. People don’t like to feel discomfort. They don’t like feeling blamed or at fault. Trump cures those feelings. He’s the magician who makes their discomfort disappear and then gives them something to be angry and righteous about, which makes them feel superior. It’s not their fault, it’s someone else’s.”

And as for why the indictments haven’t hurt Trump: “Many [of his supporters] are receiving their information largely from inside a conservative media bubble that has almost universally disparaged and dismissed the charges.”

Another familiar indictment of the bubble effect of social media. And then there’s the sunk-cost fallacy.

Veteran GOP pollster Whit Ayres points to another, more personal, reason so many GOP voters have discounted the charges against Trump. “Many of them had conflict with siblings, with parents, sometimes with children, sometimes even with spouses about their support for Donald Trump,” Ayres says. “And they are very defensive about it. That makes them instinctively rally to Donald Trump’s defense because if they suggest in any way that he is not fit for office then that casts aspersions on their own past support for him.”

People of all stripes hate admitting they were wrong. They’d rather pursue their commitment (even if demonstrably wrong) to the death.

The essay ends:

Long before Trump enters a courtroom, Republican voters, in their near-uniform dismissal of the charges, are rendering a clear verdict not only about his lasting imprint on the party, but also their estrangement from much of the modern US. Whether or not Trump is ever convicted, that corrosive discontent among his followers is likely to continue eroding the foundations of American democracy and straining the fraying ties that bind an increasingly divided nation.

A key line here is “their estrangement from much of the modern US.”

So, takeaway. Is there anything new here? Taking a big picture, we could say this is about an a declining segment of the American population, resentful their dominance over the country is fading, clinging to a fearless leader, no matter how corrupt and immoral, who promises to restore their dominance. It’s pure tribalism, nothing to do with policy, rationality, or searching for ways to fix problems. Taken that, the headline is a tad misleading; it’s not that his voters “believe” Trump; it’s because they trust him more than anyone else to assuage their feelings of victimhood.


Here’s another example of pearl-clutching conservatives either simply lying, or making claims they might believe of things that are simply not true.

LGBTQNation, Greg Owen, 22 Aug 2023: Angry Mississippians get “Heartstopper” books banned from teen section at library, subtitled “One resident claimed ‘homosexuals’ were using the Heartstopper books ‘to recruit your kid, my kid, and grandkid to get into that lifestyle.'”

The first thing to say, given the subtitle, is that their fears simply are *not true*. No one gets “recruited” into some kind of “lifestyle” by watching a movie or reading a book, unless they were already inclined that way, and that experience gave them lease to escape the oppressive conformity of the tribal, Savannah morality, as I’ve been calling it, in which the priority above all is survival and expansion of the tribe, and not personal freedom. The morality of most small towns. (I have another link about this, which I’ll post about tomorrow.)

I’ve written before about why conservatives are repelled by homosexuality. Here, for one (at the bottom of the post): aside from their personal feeling of ickiness about the idea of gay sex, because it’s about their existential panic that their genes will not be passed on if their children do not marry the opposite sex and have children. This is, ironically (because in general such people don’t “believe” in evolution), an evolutionarily driven fear, and in a sense is perfectly understandable, because of that Savannah tribal morality. Or mentality.

Now, I’ve mentioned this Netflix series Heartstopper once before (here), but I haven’t followed up to say that this is the most adorable and emotional TV show I’ve ever seen, even aside from its being about two gay boys in high school, or its English equivalent, and their slow, careful relationship.

There is nothing the least bit racy about the show. The story follows not just the two boys, but also their several friends, including a lesbian pair, without nary a mention or depiction of actual sex. No discussion among friends of who’s having sex with whom. No discussion of accidental pregnancies. Only about who’s “dating” whom. The only thing seen on screen between any of the characters is kissing. Compared to the vast majority of movies and TV shows, this is the most chaste, purely romantic, show I’ve ever seen.

So these people in Mississippi are simply lying when they call the graphic novels, upon which the TV series is based, “pornographic”. I’ll quote the first few paragraphs, and some later passages.

A Mississippi library has banned the Heartstopper graphic novel series from teen access after an angry group of parents demanded the gay love story be removed to the adult section.

Residents characterized the chaste books as “pornographic.”

The Heartstopper graphic novels and popular Netflix show tell the story of two teen boys who fall in love. Neither the books nor the show feature any explicit sexual content.

One resident claimed “homosexuals” were using the Heartstopper books “to recruit your kid, my kid, and grandkid to get into that lifestyle.”

When asked what she found objectionable in the books, Marion County resident Heather McMurry, who lodged the original Heartstopper complaint, directed the Mississippi Free Press to the website BookLooks.org, which claims the graphic novels contain “sexual activities; alternate sexualities; alternate gender ideologies; profanity; and violence.”

These things are simply not true. They’re another example of conservative lying.

“Who makes the decisions about buying these books that are not appropriate and are degrading to the morals of America?” one woman asked. “Is it God’s will for us to have this type of material that the taxpayers are paying for?”

These are sad people.

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