Skip to main content
opinion

The 2016 conspiracy-thriller Designated Survivor, starring Kiefer Sutherland, featured the Capitol building under attack during the State of the Union address.ABC

You watched the chaos and anarchy at the U.S. Capitol building in Washington on Wednesday and thought, “You couldn’t make it up!” Well, you could. That’s been done already.

In the conspiracy-thriller series Designated Survivor, which arrived on ABC in 2016, just three months before Donald Trump was elected president, the Capitol building is attacked in a bombing during the State of the Union address. Much of the government is wiped out and a lowly cabinet member, played by Kiefer Sutherland, ascends to the presidency because he was the guy placed in a separate, safe space.

He sets out to discover the perpetrators of the attack and, at first, he and his team believe it was a terrorist attack by a foreign power. It wasn’t. It was a group of fanatical American malcontents called The True Believers, their goal being the replacement of the constitutional government via a violent revolution.

Binge-watching guide: More than 30 series and specials to help you get through winter

Fact is, conspiracy fiction about the overthrow of the U.S. government, by violent uprising or more subtle chicanery, has been in the bloodstream of the U.S. popular culture for ages. The triumph of Donald Trump is in making fiction turn into fact by means of ugly spectacle or fervid speculation, and thus undermining the norms of politics and government.

You can fancy up conspiracy fiction-turned-real by calling it “misinformation,” but that’s just another word for attempts at seizing and maintaining political power through an amalgamation of rumour and rage. This recent shift in the U.S. culture has happened with stunning ease – a leader just keeps saying that fact-based news reporting is “fake” and insists that fictitious machinations are real. It happened as easily as that mob marched into the hallowed halls of government on Wednesday. But it is not new or truly shocking. It is something constantly nurtured.

On Thursday morning, at a time when you might expect sober reflection on the events of Wednesday, the most influential of right-wing TV pundits were attempting to turn rumour into reality. Lou Dobbs of Fox Business Network was wondering aloud about “Antifa instigators” insinuating themselves into the pro-Trump mob. Former Alaska governor Sarah Palin took the same view on Fox News, saying, “A lot of it is the Antifa folks.” Palin also said some “pictures” she had seen convinced her. On Wednesday night on Fox News, host Laura Ingraham spent ages purporting without evidence that the pro-Trump protest had been orchestrated by Antifa.

Lou Dobbs of Fox Business Network speaks during the Conservative Political Action Conference at the Gaylord National Resort and Convention Center on Feb. 24, 2017 in National Harbor, Maryland.Alex Wong/Getty Images

It is worth noting at this point that during the first TV debate between Trump and Joe Biden last September, Biden said, correctly, “Antifa is an idea, not an organization.” To no avail, of course. He was drowned out by Trump’s shouted interruptions.

Some people attribute a Machiavellian cunning to Trump, but all Trump has is a shrewd understanding that scripted fiction isn’t half as interesting as the heightened, faux reality of the spectacle-based reality TV. Reality TV itself is a kind of trick of delusion about “reality” and, whether he understands it intellectually or intuitively, there is a long, long tradition of mass delusion in the American culture – from the Salem witch trials through the “red scare” tyranny of Senator Joe McCarthy. It exists right up to the here and now, in the delusion that the recent election was rigged and that Trump actually won it.

Back in 1692, in insular, irrationally anxious Salem, it was for a while widely believed that some women flew in the night on broomsticks and there were demonic cats everywhere. It was a long time ago, but that Puritan period is part of the founding myth of the United States and it’s never far from the surface of that culture today.

These mass delusions are often anchored in rumour and spite, but they are generally about maintaining or obtaining power. The reason conspiracy fiction has such a steadfast position in the U.S. popular culture is that it is first cousin to the very real history of conspiracy and hysteria.

All these delusions need to thrive is one charismatic leader and many helpers in the spreading of doubt and delirium. That mob invaded the Capitol building on Wednesday not merely because Trump incited them, but because his helpers give them succour.

On Wednesday night on Fox News, Tucker Carlson said this: “Democracy is a pressure relief valve. As long as people sincerely believe they can change things by voting, they stay calm. But the opposite is also true. If people begin to believe that their democracy is fraudulent, if they conclude that voting is a charade, the system is rigged and it is run in secret by a small group of powerful, dishonest people who are acting in their own interests, then God knows what could happen.”

Those words are a threat of sorts, as well as an excuse for the mob’s actions. Suggesting there might be truth to the idea “democracy is fraudulent” is something that the no-goodnik malcontents might have said in dialogue on Designated Survivor. Or a dozen other TV shows and movies. It’s in Trump’s bloodstream and flows through U.S history. And it always will. Just read the history and watch the TV shows.

Plan your screen time with the weekly What to Watch newsletter, with film, TV and streaming reviews and more. Sign up today.