Scapegoating, Fearmongering, Faux News, and Politics

1  Why Do People Watch?

Why do people watch Faux News? One cannot begin to understand contemporary politics without answering this question. I do not claim to understand it entirely, or even mostly, but here are some preliminary steps in that direction.

Let’s begin by answering a different question: If you were a RWNJ1 politician, why would you want people to watch Faux News? Well, for starters, there are tons of sociological studies that say when people are scared, they are more likely to support right-wing issues and candidates. So as a right-wing demagogue, you would be willing to spend vast amounts of money on advertising, to scare people as much as possible.

You have to be careful about scaring people, because you want to be seen as their savior, not as the cause of their fear. People do not like being scared all the time.

Quite remarkably, Faux News does this for free. They scare people all day every day. They don’t make politicians pay for the service. Indeed Faux News is hugely profitable, because people choose to watch it.

So we are back to the original question, why do people watch Faux News?

Part of the answer, possibly a rather big part, is that people want to have scapegoats. Faux News gives them what they want. The message is simple: It’s OK if you cannot adequately provide for your family, so long as you have somebody to blame for it: some dark-skinned person, some foreign-born person, some filthy liberal devilcrat, or whatever.

This overlaps quite a bit with the rampant racism and xenophobia that are central to contemporary politics: The voter who doubts their own self-worth can say, I may not be an objectively wonderful person, but at least I’m better than that filthy criminal ***** thug over there.

Let’s be clear: Fearmongering and scapegoating are not the same, although they overlap quite a bit, as shown in figure 1. They have to overlap, because a bogeyman has to be somewhat scary in order to be effective. However, keep in mind that people don’t want the fear. What they want is the scapegoat, and they want that so dearly that they are willing to pay a high price in terms of fear.

Figure 1: Scapegoating versus Fearmongering

One reason we know that scapegoating and fearmongering are not the same is that not all types of fear are equivalent. People should be frightened by the climate emergency, but Faux News does doesn’t go there. In fact they strongly downplay it. This is symbolized by the CO2 molecule in the figure. Similarly, people should be afraid of the coronavirus, but Faux News strongly downplays that, too. The reason, it would appear, is that these topics don’t give viewers what they want. They do not adequately play the role of scapegoat.

There are efforts to blame China (and all Chinese people) for the virus, and Faux News does talk about that, so all-in-all what we see fits the pattern.

As depicted in the upper-left corner of the diagram, puppies are not very scary, and do not make very effective scapegoats. Faux News runs plenty of puppy stories, for the same reason that rowdy music is not uniformly 𝆑𝆑𝆑 (fortississimo). It’s more effective if you alternate invasion / puppies / race-riots / puppies / blasphemy / puppies and so on.

2  Politics

Faux News hosts are not journalists; they are entertainers. They tell people what they want to hear.

Similarly, politicians in general (and demagogues in particular) constantly tell people what they want to hear.

So lets focus on the intersection of fearmongering and scapegoating, i.e. the large square zone in the lower-right corner of figure 1. This is a win/win scenario for politicians: They benefit from the fear (which makes people more conservative) and they benefit from scapegoating (which makes people feel good).

It is no wonder that the #pussygrabber forms his opinions based on what he hears on Faux News, rather than by listening to government experts. They’re birds of a feather. They’re demagogues. Game recognizes game.

3  This Comes at a Terrible Price

As the saying goes, no matter how cynical you get, it’s impossible to keep up.2

Nigh unto a quarter million people have died. Many more have been permanently injured. The economy is in shambles. Some folks say it was intentional, while others claim it was merely reckless, but it hardly matters. About 94% of the economic losses, suffering, injury, and death would have been prevented if the #fakepresident done his job properly, if he hadn’t been a malignant narcissist and a pathological liar.3

This has been his modus operandi since long before he became involved in politics: he doesn’t solve problems; instead he specializes in deflecting blame for the problems. In other words, he’s not just Voldemort but also Gilderoy Lockhart. He’s in trouble right now, because you cannot gaslight a virus, so deflection isn’t working, and he has no idea what to do instead.4

Here’s another part of the price: The demagogue wants people to remain fearful. He continually promises to be their savior, but he never delivers. So the high levels of fear persist or get worse. It’s little wonder that people turn to opiods to dull their pain.

More generally, racism and xenophobia are very expensive. It costs money to oppress people. Burning down the Greenwood district kills some people and makes others destitute, but it makes the whole town poorer in the long run. By any objective measure, you are better off if your neighbors are prospering. Making them poorer makes you look better in relative terms, but only a fool would grade this on a curve; in absolute terms you are worse off.

In the real world, most deals are win/win propositions. This is the foundation of all commerce, and indeed of all civilization. Alas, the #toadstool and his toadies believe that everything is a zero-sum game (or worse, a fight), where the only way to get ahead is by hurting somebody. This attitude does terrible damage to the fabric of society, short-term and long-term.3,5 Let’s be clear: It is much more profitable to do business with people than to exploit and brutalize them.

*   Notes and References

RWNJ = Right Wing Nut Job
Jane Wagner, writing for Lily Tomlinson
“Fundamental Character Flaws”
“An Explanation of the Federal Coronavirus Non-Response”
“Why People Vote for the Bully”