Back in the benighted 1990s, one of Chris Rock’s signature routines was a bit on why O.J. Simpson might have killed his ex-wife:
So, you gotta think about O.J.’s situation: $25,000 a month [in alimony], another guy driving around in his car, f—ing his wife, in a house he’s still paying for.
Now, I’m not saying he shoulda killed her . . .
. . . but I understand!
On Thursday night, I was reminded of that bit as I interviewed 13 Obama-to-Trump voters in two Michigan regions: suburban Detroit and Saginaw. Our timing was impeccable. Federal authorities had announced a few hours earlier that they’d filed charges against six men for attempting to kidnap Governor Gretchen Whitmer.
What did her constituents think of this dramatic news? Here are a couple of responses:
- “She’s basically been running our state like a dictator. She’s been breaking all the laws of our state constitution. So, honestly, I’m not really surprised to hear that there was any kind of plot, or anything hatched against her.”
- “Most of the people here in Michigan are fed up with Whitmer. It’s all about her. It’s all about politics. She doesn’t care about the businesses; she doesn’t care about Michigan. And I don’t want anybody to get kidnapped. Don’t get me wrong. But I think people are truly fed up, and we just . . . don’t know where to turn.”
They weren’t saying these guys shoulda kidnapped her . . . but they understand!
There seems to be a lot of this kind of thinking going around. In recent weeks, I’ve heard things from focus groups that I never imagined would bubble up in normal conversation.
On September 30, several Obama-to-Trump voters in Ohio offered a litany of conspiracy theories tied to: the “scam-demic”—meaning the exaggerated severity of the pandemic; Joe Biden’s apparent ability to read hidden messages during the debate using secret-agent style contact lenses; and widespread pedophilia in Hollywood. These are not topics I asked about. The voters brought them up on their own.
Curious how far and wide the Qanon-related Hollywood conspiracy has spread, I specifically asked about it at my next focus group on October 8. Ten of the 13 Michigan respondents had not only heard about it, but said that they thought it was true.
When I asked why they believed the conspiracy theory was true, here is some of the evidence they offered:
- “Corey Feldman came out and tried talking about it, but they’re hushing him.”
- “I’ve watched a couple documentaries on it, one by Corey Feldman. I mean . . . it seems like it [fits] with the direction that the state’s going now that they’ve lowered the consensual age to 14. That’s crazy; that’s crazy. I don’t even understand how California can do that and still have any kind of morality.”
- “Movie mogul people seem to be attracted to younger girls that are just outside their range, but perfect for arm-candy and other things.”
- “I worked with a lady for a year at Speedway here by my house, and back in the ’70s she was one of the girls, she was 15, 16, [and] would go to parties there [in Hollywood], do coke, have sex, trying to get a career . . . The house looks fine and everything [from the outside]; they’d open the door, and it was just a whole different scene. Directors, all of them, would be involved.”
But Hollywood pedophilia wasn’t the only conspiracy on tap. Another Michigander accused unspecified actors of supplying rioters with weapons:
- “We know that people have planted bricks in cities, you know, pallets of bricks in cities. None of that has been, you know, really talked about in the media. . . . I’m not entirely sure if it’s right-wing groups or left-wing groups, or both. I’m not really clear on that.”
And then there’s the subject of vaccines. One respondent said something odd about vaccine development being purposefully slow. I asked, “Are you saying to me that scientists are deliberately slowing the process of getting vaccines to the public?”
His reply: “Yes. I believe that 100 percent. I believe that there’s a cure for cancer out there. And the reason there’s not [a cure right now] is because, just think of all the billions of dollars in funding that they would lose.”
Humans have a seemingly unlimited capacity to hear what they want to hear, and ignore what’s uncomfortable, even when true. But most of the time, reality eventually finds a way to break through.
In the last chapter of his Memoirs, Ulysses S. Grant recounted how civilians in Georgia and the Carolinas—who throughout most of the Civil War had not felt the direct wrath of Union armies—were fed a steady diet of newspaper stories about fictitious Confederate successes. These people believed them.
Even during this march of Sherman’s, the newspapers in his front were proclaiming daily that his army was nothing better than a mob of men who were frightened out of their wits and hastening, panic-stricken, to try to get under the cover of our navy for protection against the Southern people. As the [Union] army was seen marching on triumphantly, however, the minds of the people became disabused and they saw the true state of affairs. In turn they became disheartened, and would have been glad to submit without compromise.
But of course, that was before Facebook.