We don’t live in ‘bubbles’

We don’t live in ‘bubbles’ January 25, 2024

Trump’s magnet thing was even worse than it initially sounded.

It wasn’t just that Donald Trump thinks that magnets won’t work if they get wet. I mean, that’s part of it. And that is staggeringly ignorant and weird. And, on one level, very funny.

Donald Trump did actually say this: “All I know about magnets is this, give me a glass of water, let me drop it on the magnets, that’s the end of the magnets.”

The misplaced confidence there — the mixture of arrogance and ignorance — is like a Will Ferrell bit. Trump is bragging about thinking that magnets would be ruined by “a glass of water.” As a comedian, Ferrell understands that a buffoon is amusing, but a preening buffoon is hilarious. This is why Trump himself became famous, for decades, as New York City’s premier real-life example of a preening buffoon and thus a walking punchline whose penchant for putting his name on buildings just added to the joke.

But there’s a difference between Ron Burgundy as a local news anchor — or even as a local landlord and failed casino magnate — and Ron Burgundy as president. It’s not funny when the consequences of the preening buffoon’s arrogant, petty, vindictive ignorance are potentially national and global in scope.

That was the scary part of Trump’s boast about his unique misunderstanding of magnets.

He was rambling about the Pentagon and somehow about the new magnetic weapons elevators on some American warships and he explained his theory of water-soluble magnetism as evidence that he was smarter than any of the people at the Pentagon or in Congress and, therefore, he doesn’t need to listen to any advice or suggestions from anybody else.

In other words, it’s not just that Donald Trump is dangerously ignorant and that he would not be able to pass a fourth grade science test. It’s that Donald Trump is proud of his ignorance, incapable of learning, and utterly impervious to advice, instruction, or correction.

That’s hugely consequential and massively important. It’s also, I suppose, something that might be regarded as “old news” and therefore as not newsworthy, since this is something that most Americans came to know about Donald Trump many years ago.

That’s part of why the press treated this as a small, one-day story about Donald Trump when it would have been treated as a massive, weeks-long, career-ending, legacy-defining, first-line-of-the-obituary story about any other politician. If Joe Biden had bragged about thinking a glass of water would ruin magnets three weeks ago it would have been a huge story that would still be making banner headlines today. Every politician — Democratic or Republican — would have been asked to comment on what it means that the commander in chief is so ignorant and out-of-touch with reality.

And that’s how the story would have been treated if the same bizarre foolishness had been uttered by Ron DeSantis, or Nikki Haley.

Heck, if Chester A. Arthur had even said something so completely stupid in such an arrogant tone, then that’s all he’d be remembered for today. Historians would refer to President Arthur as “the magnets guy” instead of just as, um, one of those guys who came between Grant and Teddy and probably won’t be on the final.

But journalists seem to be assuming that Trump is different because none of this matters to his supporters. They have calculated that Trump’s latest batshit nonsense won’t make any more difference to those supporters than the hundreds of equally ludicrous and nonsensical statements the perpetually addled former president has made previously. So if Trump’s supporters don’t care that he brags about not knowing anything about magnets, and if this latest nonsense won’t alter the opinions of the rest of the country because they already understand Trump’s adversarial relationship with reality, then why bother reporting on it?

I don’t think this assumption is wholly true. I think there are, in fact, some Trump supporters who would stumble if confronted by the reality of Trump’s unreality.

Yes, sure, Trump’s lock-step base is a cult of personality and, for them, whatever he says is the new reality. If you asked any of them on the day before whether or not “a glass of water” would cause magnets to stop working, nearly all of them would tell you that of course not … that’s stupid … don’t be foolish. But the next day, after their leader said “All I know about magnets is this, give me a glass of water, let me drop it on the magnets, that’s the end of the magnets” those very same personality-cult devotees would pivot on a dime and tell you that this is what they, too, believe about magnets and water. And they will begin to pretend to believe that with all their might.

But the difference between pretending to believe in unreality and actually believing it is bigger than most people realize. Pretending to believe in something impossible to believe is hard. Almost no one is able to pull it off with complete success. So the magnet thing would be newsworthy even for the most hard-core die-hard members of Trump’s personality cult. It would help to make their voluntary commitment to unreality a bit more difficult to maintain.

And it would be even more newsworthy for Trump supporters closer to the margin — people who voted for him in the past, but who are not fervid members of the personality cult. Bizarre, disqualifying nonsense like his rant about magnets would likely have an effect on that slice of the electorate.

That’s clearly the assumption that Fox News and OAN and Salem Radio and similar far-right, far-white “news” media have made about things like Trump’s magnets rant. That’s why they ignore, bury, or try to distract away from stories like that. They wouldn’t be doing all of that hard work if they didn’t think such incidents would have an impact on their audience.

Please note that Trump’s magnets foolishness wasn’t a Tweet or something that happened only in the virtual “bubble” of Very Online world. This was a televised, public campaign speech in Iowa just before the Iowa caucuses. It happened out there, in public, in the real world, with cameras rolling from every major network and reporters from every big paper right there in the room.

That’s what makes the calculus that it wasn’t “news” so dangerously cynical. That calculus is based on the assumption that we don’t all live in the same reality — that we occupy different epistemological “bubbles.” People who watch Fox live in one reality bubble and people who watch MSNBC live in another and people who watch CNN live in yet another. The larger reality bubble, of course, is the one occupied by most people who instead watch, I dunno, NCIS and SVU and multi-season binge-watches of Friends.

But all of those people live in the same reality. Their viewing habits — their choices of what they will or will not allow themselves to see — may affect the nature of their commitment to reality, but they cannot change reality itself. Reality, as Philip K. Dick put it, “is that which, when you stop believing in it, doesn’t go away.”

When a Fox News devotee puts a magnet in a glass of water, the same thing happens as when an MSNBC fan puts a magnet in a glass of water. The effect of water on magnetism was not previously a matter of partisan dispute, but even if magnetism becomes as polarized (pun intended) as the heat-trapping property of CO2 nothing about what happens with that magnet and that glass of water will change, for anyone, regardless of what media or subcultural “bubble” they attempt to subscribe to.

I always think of that Philip K. Dick quote in tandem with one from a very different writer, Oswald Chambers: “God holds us responsible for what we will not look at.” That’s a useful reminder that all this talk of “epistemological bubbles” or “media bubbles” or “political bubbles” glosses over the perpetual choosing of what we will and will not look at.

I’m not talking about choosing a news channel. I’m talking about the perpetual vigilance that not looking requires. This involves effort, choice, and an active, knowing involvement in the pretense. It can, from long practice, become habitual and thus somewhat instinctive and reflexive, but it can never be wholly subconscious.


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