The odor of info-fascismo
How strange that this election, which was supposed to be all about white America’s anxieties over foreign bodies in their midst, should turn out to be all about a foreign power and domestic dirty tricksters hijacking and amplifying their fears through cyber-subterfuge.
The other day, a friend from the Midwest posted a conspiratorial meme to her Facebook wall. George Soros, it said, was paying the anti-Trump protesters. His visage sat in the middle of the image, spider-like, ensconced in a web of chaos.
My friend grew up on a farm in a part of the country that is uniformly Christian and white. She wouldn’t know an antisemitic theme if it bit her. She’s rigorously apolitical, but a conspiracist who is drawn to the hacker vigilantism of Anonymous and believes that there is an ‘us’ and a ‘system.’ Here that system was being represented, as it has often been through Western history, by a fat, rich old liberal Jew looking as if he’d been ripped directly from The Protocols of the Elders of Zion and given a digital makeover.
I clicked through to the host page, on some fake news site probably run out of Macedonia, or perhaps St. Petersburg, and scrolled down to find pro-Trump and pro-Russian propaganda. Don’t let them spoil our victory, it cautioned, warning of false flags and civil strife engineered by an unseen force.
I shuddered and thought of my Jewish loved ones. I thought of our ancestors who’d lived through pogroms and purges and civil wars — and those that didn’t make it — and wondered if, in the beginning, with rumors of war or genocide on the wind, they’d felt the same queasiness that gripped me now, as I read about fake news sites and foreign powers subverting our elections, and about an incoming administration shot through with fascist tendencies and violent white nationalists.
I know, I know. We’ll probably be about the last to experience their wrath, white as we are, safe in the imperial city. First, they’ll come for the blacks, and the Muslims, and the immigrants, and the queers. Our American Kristallnacht may already be rolling out across the country in a disorganized form, even in our big city sanctuaries. But the truly vulnerable are the ones in the wide-open spaces beyond the great metropolises.
It’s hard to feel safe, though, amid news of neo-Nazis setting up shop in the White House, and seeing the Big Man’s flunkies circulating the same conspiracy theories my friend posted on her wall the day before — that the protesters were paid, funded by some shadowy moneyed interests trying to keep down the volk by bashing their champion. This call and response — was it coordinated? Or merely a game of telephone between fascists at home and abroad? Chills and disquiet.
As it turns out, The New York Times ran down this particular conspiracy theory and determined it to be primarily the work not of paid Russian trolls or Balkan teenagers, but of a young Austin businessman who saw a bunch of buses not far from a protest, leapt to conclusions and hit ‘Tweet.’ The buses belonged to a business conference, and he deleted his Tweet after realizing his error, but not before it had ricocheted around the fever swamps of Reddit and the rightwing blogosphere. Somewhere down the line, someone added the embellishment of a Soros connection.
The effect is the same, whether perpetrated by foreign agents or home-grown ratfuckers. This is Gerasimov — asymmetrical warfare conducted through exploitation of information systems and the sowing of confusion in the public mind. What hope have we in the Reality-Based Community of breaking through if the means by which what’s real is determined are compromised?
It’s as if, while we slept and dreamt our tender progressive dreams, the Cold War lurched back to life and the Stalinoids won, perhaps inevitably by hacking into our own homegrown authoritarians, injecting a long-vanished European antisemitism into the American body politic in the process. But of course, we’ve always had our very own plumbers, our Lost Causers and Neocons and Alt-Rightists with nothing but contempt for a pluralistic American democracy and the rule of law. They’ve now cracked the code of the Interwebs and gained the power to spin a million hermetically-sealed filter bubbles through which no fact check can pass.
Gerasimov wants us off balance. Gerasimov wants us afraid. Gerasimov wants us peering into shadows, wondering what nasty surprises lurk around the corner. Gerasimov bids us to ask: What will it be? The knock at the door? Tanks in the street? Green men with black guns? Or merely the subtle corruption of our ability to discern truth from misdirection and propaganda?
We must not be afraid, then. We must not be taken in by the conspiratorial mind, which I know well as the son of a paranoid. It has nothing to offer us but disempowerment and paralysis. Spies will pry and spiders will crawl, provocateurs will provoke and trolls will troll and the security state will menace and maybe worse. But we must go forward with open hearts and the confidence of conscience. We must put our trust not in institutions, but in each other. And we must, as Masha Gessen says, remember the future.