The caravan “invasion” and America’s epistemic crisis
Take a step back and appreciate the vertiginous absurdity of our military now being mobilized to defend our border from a walking caravan of refugees from Central America.
There are, the Mexican government estimates, around 4,000 people in this group. They are poor men, women, and children, fleeing horrendous conditions, primarily in Honduras, and intend to seek asylum either in Mexico or the US. They are on foot in southern Mexico, weeks from the border, and their number is shrinking as they go.
Poor people, seeking asylum, walking toward the border: How in the world can this constitute a national security threat?
First, let’s acknowledge a separate group of refugees (calling itself the “second caravan”) attempted to cross the border into Guatemala a few days ago, leading to skirmishes, rubber bullets from police, and at least one dead refugee. So the fear of a clash at the border is not totally unfounded, though the original caravan has shown no signs of violence. Still, we’re talking about unarmed families, on foot, weeks away.
Where is the emergency?
Well, first off, the caravan is much bigger than the fake news media is telling you. “I’m pretty good at estimating crowd size,” Trump told ABC’s Jonathan Karl (hilariously), “and I’ll tell you they look a lot bigger than people would think.”
Trump also said — in one of his most nakedly racist statements to date, though there was no time to dwell on it — “unknown Middle Easterners” are hiding in the caravan.
Presumably, “Middle Easterners” — a class that includes more than 400 million people — is meant to imply “terrorists.”
Trump has not clarified what he meant by this comment. And there is no evidence whatsoever any “Criminals and unknown Middle Easterners” are lurking in the caravan. But that has not stopped him from repeating the claims, media from passing them along, or the conservative movement from adopting them as gospel.
Across the right-wing media ecosystem, several notable commentators, including Laura Ingraham, speculate people in the caravan may be carrying diseases. On Fox, they repeatedly speculate about the diseases heading toward innocent (cough white cough) Americans.
There is, suffice to say, no evidence the refugees are carrying disease (though once they settle in as Americans, they can look forward to heart disease and diabetes).
All of this — inflating a bedraggled group of peripatetic refugees weeks from our border into a disease-ridden terrorist “invasion,” an urgent, imminent “national emergency” — amounts to a kind of willed delusion. It represents a collective agreement in the right-wing echo chamber to believe a narrative spun almost entirely out of whole cloth, draped over a reality to which it bears little resemblance.
It is also powerful evidence that America’s epistemic crisis is spinning up into a full-blown political crisis.
The “scary caravan” story shows conservative conspiracy theories spilling into the real world
This is not the first time the right told itself scary bedtime stories, of course. Conservatives have been trading lurid conspiracy theories in their own media echo chamber for ages.
But a couple of things seem different — ominously so — about this episode.
First, even more than usual, there’s a performative aspect to it. It is advantageous for the right to believe this caravan is an urgent threat. It makes for clickable memes and video clips, gets partisans in a lather, and helps pols running in close midterm races. It is a perfect parable, emphasizing group identity and clearly identifying the corrupting, diseased, dangerous other. It is too good not to believe.
So they have simply willed themselves to believe it, or at least perform believing it, which eventually becomes the same thing.
Not despite but because of its absurdity, believing it together is a strong signal of tribal solidarity on the right.
Second, the paranoid fantasies are no longer confined to right-wing media, as they largely were under Obama (with the occasional individual taking it too seriously, as when a gunmanshowed up at a pizza joint to rescue imaginary child sex slaves).
Now the right wing has control of the US government, and it can act out its fantasies with a military with real guns. The chances, in the hothouse environment Trump has created, that something will go wrong — that signals will get crossed and someone will get killed at the border — are also very real.
This is the white nationalist right emerging from its media cocoon and striding onto the world stage, running the most powerful country in the world. It is now capable of acting on all the bizarre things it persuades itself to believe.
It will not end well.
To recall how we got here, let’s quickly review what I mean by an epistemic crisis (a subject I have written on at length before).
America’s epistemic crisis
Epistemology, for those who didn’t waste a large portion of their youth in academic philosophy programs (hi), is the branch of philosophy concerned with justified belief — with how we come to know things and what it means to know something.
The crisis, in brief, is that the US conservative movement has almost entirely divorced itself from mainstream institutions, norms, and standards, developing its own media, think tanks, legal scholars, and historians — a hermetically sealed ecosystem of knowledge, news, and information in which nonsense and conspiracy theories flourish.
Conservatives have descended almost entirely into what I call “tribal epistemology,” wherein the distinction between what is good for the tribe and what is true collapses entirely — in which “true” simply comes to mean “our narrative.” They do not defer to any transpartisan standards of evidence or reasoning; they do not believe any such standards exist. Attempts to invoke such standards are, in their view, just one side’s way of trying to outmaneuver the other. So they use the language of transpartisan standards as a weapon, but the standards themselves are not a restraint.
The result is that, as a nation, we no longer share the same facts, the same understanding of events. We no longer live in the same world. As Rush Limbaugh, father of today’s right-wing media, said way back in 2010:
We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated, and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are, and that’s where reality reigns supreme and we deal with it. And seldom do these two universes ever overlap.
The two sides share almost no factual premises, so they are no longer able to coherently argue with each other. Their enmity is total, and the country is becoming ungovernable. Politics is becoming a pure contest of wills, of power.
That’s the crisis. I first wrote about it in reference to Robert Mueller’s investigation, raising the question: What if Mueller uncovers rock-solid evidence that Trump colluded with the Russians or committed financial crimes, and … it just doesn’t matter? What if he finds something, but the Americans who get their news from conservative media simply never find out about it? What then?
Some of us have been warning for years that the (paranoid, white nationalist) right-wing fringe was, via the amplification of Fox News and its brethren, taking over the GOP. Yet many, many journalists and other members of the US political elite ignored it or dismissed fringe right lunacy as a kind of quirk, just one of those things “extremists on both sides” do. After all, Farrakhan something something.
The lunacy was somewhat suppressed under George W. Bush, or at least (fitfully) kept separate from the administration itself. And under Obama, Republicans had no power beyond opposition. They could rant on about their conspiracies and hold endless Benghazi hearings, but it never seemed to amount to much.
As so the right has spun off into a world of its own, virtually unrestrained, at little political cost.
Tribal epistemology serves authoritarian politics
When Trump and the Republicans took over the federal government in 2016, the remaining firewalls crumbled. The conservative base, the conservative media, the conservative government — it’s all the same thing now, all with the same perspective, all inhabiting the same epistemic universe, all pursuing the same war against the same perceived enemies. Fox News, Daily Caller, and Breitbart have more or less given themselves over entirely to serving as state media.
With the president himself coordinating the message, the process whereby the right-wing base brings itself to believe whatever it needs to believe has accelerated.
During the Brett Kavanaugh hearings, they needed to believe that Christine Blasey Ford was lying, or paid by George Soros, or confused. So they did. Ed Whelan freestyled a harebrained theory about mistaken identity on Twitter right in front of everyone. It was rapidly debunked and Whelan was forced to apologize, but a goodly number of conservatives — including Sen. Susan Collins, a crucial swing vote on Kavanaugh — believe the doppelgänger theory to this day. Whelan is still gainfully employed by the conservative apparatus. (Trump, always a truer reflection of the base’s id, has simply decided it was all a big hoax.)
The MAGA bombs were fake (they weren’t). There’s going to be a middle-class tax cut by the end of the year (there isn’t). US steel has opened seven new plants in the US (it hasn’t). The trade tariffs are working (they aren’t). The US is the only country with birthright citizenship (it isn’t).
It’s getting easier and easier. Frictionless. There’s barely a pretense at going through the motions of inquiry and evidence anymore. We’ve reached the point where the movement, including its elected members of Congress, follow Trump’s twists and turns like a school of fish.
That’s how we get the caravan “threat” and our current military mobilization.
The dungeon master has a real military
In a sense, the caravan standoff is all conservative role-playing, a set of tribal bonding rituals and shared narratives built around group identity and hostility toward outsiders. It’s a way for the chicken hawks of the right to do war poses, the media to get great visuals, and Trump and his base to get frothed up together about the libs and the illegals.
Like I said, though, the guy who’s leading this round of role-playing, the dungeon master describing the heroes and villains to his enthralled initiates, is the president of the United States. And the president of the United States controls a real government and a real military.
So Trump’s cosplay involves sending 5,200 troops — more troops than there are people in the caravan — to “harden our ports of entry” along the border. (Er, now he’s saying he may send as many as 15,000; it could be more by the time this is published. He told Karl he wants a “wall of people.”)
These troops will be armed, but they are prohibited by US law from detaining or deporting anyone, so they’ll mostly be doing support work. “Many have been pressed into service providing administrative support and doing upkeep,” reports Christopher Woody for Business Insider, “including feeding horses and shoveling manure out of stables, office work, and basic repairs and maintenance work on border patrol facilities and vehicles.”
Assuming the caravan does eventually reach the border in anything like its current form, US troops will also help Border Patrol agents spot immigrants attempting to enter the country illegally, at unapproved crossings. But remember — as Vox’s Dara Lind writes in her story on Trump’s “ongoing war on asylum” — applying for asylum, as the immigrants say they plan, is perfectly legal. So the military will only be there to help watch for immigrants who peel off and attempt to enter unlawfully.
Up to 15,000 members of the world’s greatest fighting force, sitting in the desert, watching for poor refugees approaching on foot.
The ludicrously named “Operation Faithful Patriot” will last 46 days. Even if it walks 20 miles a day, the caravan will arrive, at the earliest, in 45 days. It’s possible none of the troops will ever see an actual refugee.
In short, the troops currently heading to the border are being used entirely as a stunt to boost turnout for the midterms.
Using the military for a domestic stunt has real consequences. “Committing troops to one operation means fewer forces for another,” write Helene Cooper and Thomas Gibbons-Neff in the New York Times. “Compared with how many troops the United States has stationed in Syria (2,000), in Afghanistan (14,000) and in Iraq (5,000), the number of soldiers sent to Texas, Arizona and California will be a significant slice of all troops deployed worldwide.”
And that’s to say nothing of the more intangible consequences of this stunt, which is yet another blow to the norms of conduct that hold our political life together.
And of course there’s the small but not inconsequential risk, if things go badly wrong, that we could see footage of US troops firing on unarmed refugees before the year is out.
With Trump, the base and the government have merged. The paranoia, hostility, and tribalism that have characterized right-wing media for so long now extend all the way up to the top; they now command troops.
Believing crazy things on purpose is always a step on the road to tyranny
As Voltaire famously put it: “Anyone who has the power to make you believe absurdities has the power to make you commit injustices.”
If Trump can take a bedraggled group of asylum seekers and transmute it into a national emergency just by tweeting about it, what would it take for him to do the same to his domestic political foes? How hard would it be for him to use antifa, “ecoterrorists,” or inner-city gangs as a pretext to expand police powers or justify political violence?
After all, he has already encouraged violence numerous times and told his followers that Democrats are a crazed mob.
Even though it’s been shown pretty clearly that the Pittsburgh synagogue shooter wasspecifically enraged by the “Soros funded the caravan” theory — “The apparent spark for the worst anti-Semitic massacre in American history,” Adam Serwer writes in an excoriating essay, “was a racist hoax inflamed by a U.S. president seeking to help his party win a midterm election” — the numerous Republican leaders who endorsed it have conspicuously refused to disavow it.
Trump is still flirting with it.
The right, in all its organs, from social media to television to the president, is telling a well-worn, consistent story: Opposition from the left and Democrats is fraudulent, illegitimate, a foreign-funded conspiracy against the traditional white American way of life.
Having two versions of reality constantly clashing in public is cognitively and emotionally exhausting. To an average person following the news, the haze of charge and countercharge is overwhelming. And that is precisely what every autocrat wants.
That is why every aspiring tyrant in modern history has made the independent media his first target. (Read Ezra Klein’s excellent essay on Trump’s war with the media.) There can be no epistemic authority, no one to trust, other than the autocrat and his mouthpieces. That is step one.
Then they go after the courts, the security services, and the military. Once they have a large base of support that will believe whatever they proclaim, follow them anywhere, support them in anything — it doesn’t have to be a majority, just an intense, activated minority — they can, practically speaking, get away with anything.
But believing absurdities comes first. If they can make you believe absurdities, they can make you commit injustices.
That’s why this caravan story is notable. The intensity of belief on the right has begun to vary inversely with plausibility. Precisely because the “threat” posed by the caravan is facially absurd, believing in it — performing belief in it — is a powerful act of shared identity reinforcement, of tribal solidarity.
Once that support system is in place, Trump is unbound, free to impose his fantasies on reality. He can campaign on Republicans protecting people with preexisting conditions even as the GOP sues to block such protections. He can brush off Mueller’s revelations and fire anyone who might threaten him. He can use imaginary Democratic voter fraud to cover up red-state voter suppression. He can use antifa as a pretext for deploying troops domestically.
Perhaps that last one still sounds implausible to you, much as asylum-seeking children in detention camps once sounded implausible to me. But do you think, in any of those cases, that any significant element of the conservative apparatus would oppose him? Is there any remaining resistance to delusion and violence at all within the right’s coalition, other than from Sen. Jeff Flake’s tweets?
Trump does not view himself as president of the whole country. He views himself as president of his white nationalist party — their leader in a war on liberals. He has all the tools of a head of state with which to prosecute that war. Currently, he is restrained only by the lingering professionalism of public servants and a few thin threads of institutional inertia.
The caravan story, a lurid xenophobic fantasia that has now resulted in thousands of troops deployed on US soil, shows that those threads are snapping. The epistemic crisis Trump has accelerated is now morphing into a full-fledged crisis of democracy.