Donald Trump, Alex Jones and the illusion of knowledge

Why are people talking about collusion, impeachment, obstruction of justice and treason when it is crystal clear that Donald Trump Jr. was simply fulfilling his patriotic duty to catch Russian spies?

At least that’s the explanation Alex Jones, a right-wing radio broadcaster, was peddling on his show this past Wednesday. He argued that Trump Jr. should be praised, not ridiculed, for trying to protect America from hostile foreign intelligence.

Jones is notably the same broadcaster who last month interviewed Robert David Steele, a man who claimed that the 2,000 children who go missing every day are being shipped to Mars to be used as sex slaves.

It’s easy to dismiss Jones’ show and his cohorts as far-right conspiracy theorists, but his blog, Infowars.com, has over 3 million American viewers every month and his radio show, which is syndicated on more than 60 stations, is reported to have anywhere between 2 million and 5 million listeners daily. Most importantly, his show also has the backing of President Donald Trump, who has argued Jones has an amazing reputation and deserves a Pulitzer.

Going as far back as Joseph Pulitzer’s and William Randolph Hearst’s “yellow journalism,” America has developed a tradition of sensationalist writers, broadcasters and fearmongers. But now we have a dangerous mix with a sensationalist president who tweets out his own form of yellow journalism and reinforces the credibility of unhinged thinkers like Jones and his cohorts.

Put simply, fact and fiction are morphing into alternative facts and gospel. Since the United States is the most powerful economy and military in the world, this is not just an American problem — it has the potential to be a global problem, particularly if our government begins to make decisions based on falsehoods.

Notably, following the missing children broadcast, NASA rebuked the report that children were being sent to sex colonies on Mars. That NASA, an independent agency under the executive branch, felt compelled to respond at all gives weight to the number of potential believers and the influence that Jones and his ilk may wield.

Holding onto any illusion of knowledge — which is an easy way for people to feel like experts in in topics they know nothing about — usually doesn’t stand up to any form of critical thinking. If we cannot explain how a political neophyte like Trump Jr. could possibly have the training to track Russian spies or identify who on Mars might be importing sex slaves from Earth, then we should question those claims.

Yet the phenomenon of believing the absurd rather than critically questioning it is nothing new.

Originally published in England in 1841, Extraordinary Popular Delusions by Charles Mackay became a classic that explored and documented the “madness of crowds” and the psychology behind things like 17th century Tulipmania, when mass delusion made people think tulip bulbs were worth more per ounce than gold. This, in turn, created an economic bubble that left a lot of investors in poor financial shape.

And then there were the witch hunts. Salem aside, the BBC reported that 60,000 people could have been put to death in the 15th-17th centuries in Europe alone, a period of time referred to as “The Burning Times.” The witch hunts, in particular, were examples of the masses thinking they had figured out how to make sense of the world — burning all those who might be using sorcery to influence it.

It’s worrisome that the Trump Era seems to be a fertile breeding ground for the illusion of knowledge. Just consider the following ideas which Trump has tried to sell the American people on — coal jobs can be restored even when there is a diminishing demand for coal or a travel ban will keep Americans safe rather than give more fodder to those looking for reasons to hate America.

Trump’s specious solutions to the economic and security challenges facing the United States may resonate with people who can’t explain or comprehend why they are suffering and why no help has come along yet. His ideas channel confusion and anger into comfortable solutions that prey on fear but will never address the root causes, which include growing income disparity and diminishing standards in public schools.

What can those of us who eschew the illusion of knowledge and seek the truth do? Charles Mackay wrote, “Men, it has been well said, think in herds; it will be seen that they go mad in herds, while they only recover their senses slowly, and one by one.” So go find a member of the herd. Appeal to his mind by listening carefully and creating an exchange, and then introduce elements of critical thinking.

Appeal to his patriotism by paraphrasing President Carter’s reflection that “The best way to enhance freedom in other lands is to demonstrate here that our democratic system is worthy of emulation.” (Tip: don’t tell them that Carter said it.)

The whole world is depending on you.

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