February 25, 2021

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The populists’ slipperiest lie

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Around the time of the election, when COVID-19 vaccines were on the cusp of federal approval for public distribution and political anxieties were extraordinarily high, a mini-trend swept through TikTok. In pantomimed videos overlayed with a melodramatic song called “Train wreck,” TikTok influencers imagined themselves being beaten to death by U.S. government agents for refusing to be vaccinated. The videos — soon parodied — cast the faked executions as a sort of martyrdom, ending with a welcome into heaven and a declaration of divine approval.

A report at The Washington Post this week tracked down Taylor Rousseau, a 21-year-old makeup influencer whose contribution to the trend went viral. It was all imaginary, Rousseau told the Post. “Everybody missed the point,” she said. “The video was 100% a POV [point of view] to portray what life would be like in the End Times.” She’s not saying these vaccines definitely have antichrist microchips in them, see, just some unspecified vaccines could be blasphemy potions. But also, if “someone doesn’t get the [COVID-19] vaccine ’cause of me,” Rousseau told the Post, “I don’t really feel that is harming them.”

This slipperiness has become a hallmark of modern discourse, especially online and among the populist, Trumpy right. There’s a deliberate ambiguity and innuendo, a way of dancing around statements, a feint-disengage, an incessant “not really, but seriously … ” “I’m just asking questions.” “I’m just joking.” “I don’t know, hahaha! But actually …” It’s frustrating, trollish — intentionally so. And perhaps the most powerful troll of all is the old populist lie: “A lot of people are asking.”

This and its near variants (“a lot of people are saying,” “a lot of people think,” “people think,” “some say”) are a favored tic of former President Donald Trump, of course. He used these phrases liberally throughout his campaigns and presidency, deploying them as an all-purposed tool to introduce any claim, however outlandish, as a weighty idea deserving of real consideration — and yet simultaneously something which, should it prove unsuccessful or unpopular, could hardly be laid at his feet. It was those other people who were saying these awful things. And there were so many of them! It would have been elitist not to take them seriously. Don’t shoot the messenger!

Where Trump tends to use “a lot of people are asking” to avoid taking full ownership of an idea he’s promoting, some of his acolytes see a slightly different value. For them, the populist credibility the phrase accords is its most useful feature.

This was the approach evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas took in an interview with The Atlantic published Sunday. Pressed to explain the exact nature of his assertion that alleged presidential election fraud wasn’t investigated or properly litigated (it was), Metaxas took the populist dodge.

“I’m not the sort of person who followed this the way you did,” he told Atlantic religion reporter Emma Green, denying the reality that this claim has dominated his public commentary for months. “Most Americans have less time to follow it than I did. And so if there is the impression that some of what I’m saying is true, people need to deal with that.” A joint statement from 11 GOP senators in early January made the exact same move: There are “unprecedented allegations of voter fraud,” it said, and they should be given credence because they’re “not believed just by one individual candidate. Instead, they are widespread.”

The problem with this use of “people are asking” is it’s a lie. It’s not a surface-level lie, because Metaxas and the senators are in the barest sense correct: Many people are making these allegations and, as Metaxas oddly admits, doing so in ignorance, willful or otherwise.

No, the lie is in the assumption that the popularity of the allegation tells us anything about its truth. That’s nonsense.

A lot of people believe a great many wrong and stupid things; that does nothing to make those things less wrong or stupid. “A lot of people are asking” is a fallacy of relevance: argumentum ad populum. It also bears the timelier name of “mob appeal.”

What makes this populist lie truly devious is not only how slippery it is. Unlike the TikTok playacting or Trump’s revealing “jokes,” “a lot of people are asking” is self-perpetuating rubbish. Insofar as it convinces, the lie grows.

Allegations are “unprecedented,” say officials who are actively spreading those very allegations. People “need to deal” with the “impression” he helped create, the pundit insists. Hearing from these prevaricating populists that “a lot of people are asking,” a lot of people do begin to ask. The trouble is the answer doesn’t change per the number of askers. The truth isn’t determined by “a lot of people.”


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