A couple of years ago I was driving my car in California and listening to the BBC World Service on the radio. Specifically, I was listening to an interview with the Russian ambassador to the United Kingdom. He was happy to admit Russia had interfered with both the US Presidential election and had also funded most of the Brexit campaign. Then he said something that has remained with me ever since: “There’s no such thing now as objective truth. Truth is whatever we want it to be.”
What’s striking about that interview is the fact that the Russian ambassador was so supremely confident of the fact that ordinary people are so easily manipulated that you can even tell them they’re being manipulated and it simply won’t matter.
This fact of life is now commonplace in politics around the world. Today the formula for success in politics has nothing to do with policy. Instead, the keys are (a) to tell people what they want to hear, even if that means lying outrageously in defiance of every objective fact, and (b) do so in simple words, ideally monosyllables, in easy-to-remember sound bites. From Trump in the USA through Boris-the-Clown in Britain to Duterte in the Philippines and Bolsonaro in Brazil, everyone’s jumped on the “lie about everything” bandwagon. This is because it works.
Why are we so easily gulled by blustering incompetents whose “policies” are obviously going to destroy everything we value?
It’s because of evolutionary hardwiring. For almost all of our existence as a species we had to deal only with the relatively simple environments of the African savanna and the primordial forests of Eurasia. We didn’t need to do much thinking; just a few simple rules and some hardwired behaviors like “if you hear a rustling in the bushes, run for your life” sufficed. Thinking burns precious calories and calories were scarce for most of our evolutionary history. So we evolved to avoid thinking wherever possible.
Back then our default was automatically to accept whatever we were told by our parents and tribal elders because, well, they seemed to know best. And if they were in fact wrong, it didn’t really matter. Who cared if that flint wasn’t napped quite as precisely as it could have been, or if the rain dance only seemed to work occasionally?
Today we live in a complex technological world that is highly dependent on global interconnections. But our brains are tiny and sluggish and we want simple answers to problems we don’t even understand. Today’s breed of demagogue gives us those simple answers and we love them for it. We resolutely ignore reality in order to cleave to those simple-minded answers, those lies so full of the simple-minded promises we desperately want to hear. The more they lie to us, the more we love them for it.
In short, we fool ourselves. That’s why it is so effortless for the incompetent charlatans and blustering morons to gather up our votes and sweep themselves into power, where they can proceed to undermine every essential foundation of civilization merely because they are venal, stupid, and lack impulse control.
So the problem isn’t really Trump or Brexit or AfD or Le Pen or Salvini or any of the other hundreds of blabbering cretins that now dominate the media as they pander to our primitive yearning for a life in which foreigners know their place, in which we don’t need to be thoughtful or know anything in order to prosper, and in which we don’t need outsiders for anything (except to buy all our products, but we’ll ignore that because it’s inconvenient…).
The problem is us.
Until we stop staring at the latest must-watch series on Netazon and begin to educate ourselves about the complexities of the real world, we’ll keep falling for ridiculous lies and impossible promises. Until we make an effort to think about the likely consequences of the ridiculous lies and impossible promises the posturing demagogues spew out, we’ll keep voting for the things that will destroy us. Until we stop thinking that facts are just whatever we want them to be, we’ll continue to be patsies, manipulated with absurd ease by people who simply don’t care about the future because they think they’ll be wealthy and powerful enough to insulate themselves from it.
Unfortunately there’s no sign that enough of us are either capable of doing this or interested in doing this intellectual work. So we’ll continue to vote for the morons and we’ll continue to undermine our own civilization until there’s nothing left. We will rot from the inside, just like the Roman Empire rotted nearly two thousand years ago.
Russia and China don’t need to attack; we’re doing all the demolition work ourselves.