The Ghost in the (Voting) Machine

The MyPillow Guy is living in a dream—and he’s not alone.

Dear Reader (Including those of you who also got distracted by the St. Petersburg Paradox while on deadline),

A couple of weeks ago, pillow magnate Mike Lindell attended a meeting at the White House to help figure out a strategy for Donald Trump to cling to power despite losing the election. A photographer snapped a picture showing his notes from the meeting, which included references to the Insurrection Act and declaring “martial law if necessary.”

Before I go on, let us take a moment to bask in the weirdness of that.

If, six years ago, I had told you, “One of these passages will be accurate five years from today,” you might pick this as one of the obvious fakes. Of course, it would depend on what the other snippets were. If the other choices included things like, “The national debt has passed 130 percent of GDP”—which it has—or, “Canada stays out of the headlines for another year,” the Big Pillow Menace sentence would stand out as particularly implausible. But if the other passages were things like, “One year after border collies seized control of the federal government, kibble production has surged,” you might find the suggestion that a Pillowy Bond villain was in on a conspiracy to keep the guy from The Apprentice in the Oval Office to be pretty plausible by comparison.

Anyway, it turned out that whatever Lindell’s plan was, it didn’t save the day. So he’s moved on to phase two. He’s put out a “documentary” “explaining” how the election was “stolen.”  It weaves together nearly every strand and thread in the grand conspiracy that the election was stolen. This shouldn’t surprise us, after all he knows a lot about high thread counts. 

Anyway, on the eve of its release, he told an interviewer that “this is the miracle” we’ve all been waiting for. “It will change everything.” He believes it will be so persuasive that it will “unite the whole country” and we’ll be “one nation under God again.” And, if it doesn’t pan out, well then “it’s the End Times.”

Now I’m not one to denigrate sincere Christian—or any other—faith cavalierly. But I have a hard time believing that the apocalypse hinges on a pillow-pusher’s skills as an election fraud investigator and documentary filmmaker. I also struggle to imagine that authentic prophecy comes with a legal warning written by OAN lawyers in a full bowel-stewing panic about the content of said documentary. 

Though the stakes for OAN and MyPillow may indeed be apocalyptic, for it says in Revelation 18:

And he cried mightily with a strong voice, saying, Babylon the great is fallen, is fallen, and is become the habitation of devils, and the hold of every foul spirit, and a cage of every unclean and hateful bird ... And the merchants of the earth shall weep and mourn over her; for no man buyeth their merchandise any more.

The movie shall set you free.

Lindell says something interesting in that interview:

“Every day, I’m praying, ‘God, we need a miracle here.’ And we got it, you guys! We all have it. And it’s gonna happen, uhm, you know, I believe tomorrow. It’s like living inside of a movie.  We’re in the dark part, the bad part of the movie.”

He goes on to explain that the happy ending to the movie will come about when the truth in his documentary sets everyone free:

“Then God’s gonna give us grace and America is unified. But, if all this doesn’t happen, then it’s the End Times! I mean, this is what’s coming in—this isn’t a thing, ‘Oh, well better luck in 2022!’ It’s over! It’s over, everybody! Look at Marxism, uh, this is the cancel culture. They take away communications. This isn’t a Democrat Party that’s in there. This is an entity that came into our country through election fraud and it came through the machines.”

The evil ghost is in the machines, you see. The machines. And Lindell’s documentary is the phlebotinum that will exorcise these Skynet-like demons.

In science fiction writing, phlebotinum is shorthand for any “impossible or imaginary device which is used to move forward the plot of a TV show, book or film, especially in science fiction and fantasy.” Reportedly coined by a writer for Buffy the Vampire Slayer, phlebotinum is everywhere once you start looking for it. The infinity stones in the Avengers movies are made from phlebotinum. So is pixie dust, the monkey’s paw, or that dream-granting doohickey from the new Wonder Woman movie. The key ingredient in vibranium, adamantium and unobtanium alike: You guessed it, phlebotinum.  It can be normal tech, magic, alien tech, or magical alien tech.

Phlebotinum is often used as a MacGuffin—the thing the hero needs to find, like the briefcase in Pulp Fiction or the Maltese Falcon in, well, you know. But it also often serves the purpose of being The Power No One Should Have. The ring in Lord of the Rings is 24-carat phlebotinum, the MacGuffin, and the Power No One Should have all at once. But it can also be the terrible power that is necessary to use just once to save humanity—or, at least, the day—and then must be destroyed to prevent it from ever being used again. Doc Brown destroys his time-traveling DeLorean in Back to the Future III because no one else can be trusted with time travel. In The Dark Knight, Lucius Fox lets Batman use the terrible cell-phone tracking power just once, but then destroys it because "this is too much power for one person." 

Life, the movie.

So where am I going with this? Well, throughout history, all sorts of new technologies were greeted with the “this is too much power” response from those in power. The most obvious example is the printing press. There’s a wonderful exchange between a head monk and Johannes Gutenberg about the dangers of the printing press. Gutenberg wants to use his invention, “To help men and women be literate, to give them knowledge, to make books so cheap even a peasant might afford them: that is my hope, yes.”

Head monk: ‘The word of God needs to be interpreted by priests, not spread about like dung.’

Gutenberg: ‘I do not wish to despoil the Word.’

Head monk: ‘But it will happen. To hand it about to all and sundry is languorous, Would you have ploughmen and weavers debating the Gospel in taverns?’

Gutenberg: ‘If that is what they want to do.’

Head monk: ‘But what of the dangers? It would be like giving a candle to infants.’

Gutenberg: ‘Such copies we make of the Bible would first be for monasteries and churches.’

Head monk: ‘The Bible? You plan to make the Bible as well?’

Gutenberg: ‘I have considered it.’

Now, I am decidedly on team Gutenberg. And I have zero desire to get into a debate about the Reformation. But opponents of the printing press made some good points as an analytical matter. They warned that the printing press would shatter the monopoly over the written word. They warned that this would profoundly change society, unsettling established institutions and norms. They warned that the way individuals conceived of themselves in society and in relation to God would change. They warned it would put a lot of monks out of business (you see the key to the monk way of life was often working as scribes and illustrators. The printing press would spell the doom of this monk-key business). Putting aside arguments about whether this was all good or bad (I think it was good), they were right about all that.

Ideas have consequences. But so do gadgets, thingamabobs, and doohickeys. The early automobile delivered—literally—young people from the watchful eyes of their community. My old boss Ben Wattenberg once studied census data and found that shotgun marriages and out-of-wedlock births skyrocketed with the proliferation of the car. The birth control pill did more to change sexual mores than a thousand feminist tracts. The telephone transformed courtship.

My point isn’t just that technology changes behaviors, but that it changes the way we think. If it didn’t, our behaviors wouldn’t change that much with every innovation. Populist upheavals have many causes, but the advent of the printing press, the radio, and the television helped spur some of the most significant ones.

I think it was Peter Suderman who noted that one of the addictive things about video games is that designers have figured out ways to simulate the feeling of satisfaction you get from putting in a lot of work toward a meaningful accomplishment.

In Suicide of the West (hint), I argue that one of the main drivers of our screwed up politics is that we increasingly see politics as a form of entertainment. In movies we forgive—even celebrate!—all sorts of behavior that we would never condone in real life, because all we care about is the victory of our heroes. Obviously, one can exaggerate the importance of a pillow impresario’s cinematic eschatology. But when Lindell says “It’s like living inside of a movie,” I think it tells you something important about how people think today.

As Neil Postman argued decades ago, “Americans no longer talk to each other, they entertain each other. They do not exchange ideas, they exchange images. They do not argue with propositions; they argue with good looks, celebrities and commercials.”

I believe our saturation in entertainment explains a lot in our politics. I think it explains a lot about cancel-culture. The audience wants plotlines or characters in their preferred narratives removed. 

 It also helps explain why so many once-sane people seem to have lost their minds. The blood-brain barrier between fantasy and reality has been eroded. I could speculate about the factors that contribute to this. More believable special effects. The decline in reading. The elevation of feelings as a more reliable source of truth than reason. The decline in faith in institutions and in the leaders who delegitimize nonsense ideas. The way we reward leaders, particularly politicians, who place more importance on entertaining than governing. But I wrote about a lot of this at book length already.

I think this mindset explains a significant portion of why so many people bought into the stolen-election narrative and why they thought the movie would end with victory on January 6.

But I also think there’s something else going on.

America’s slow phlebotinum poisoning.

We are in the early stages of the dematerialization of our economy. We are a long way from living in some digitized astral plane. But if you looked back on this moment a century from now, you might see our present as prologue. How many people spend big chunks of their lives in the digitized landscapes of video games? How many careers involve simply moving or manipulating things on screens? How many kids are already bored by the technology that lets them swap their face with Luke Skywalker’s?

Imagine if, a century ago, I tried to explain the power of iPhones and their imitators. Nearly every person in America will be able to afford a pocket-sized computer that will let them talk to anyone around the world, often with video. They will have at their fingertips access to more information than is contained in any library as well as an endless supply of porn, panda bears sliding down hills, and poutine recipes.

You could certainly imagine someone saying, not unreasonably, “This is too much power for one person.”

Now, I’m no Luddite and I don’t think the genies can be herded back into their bottles anyway. But in a world where the cut-and-paste of screen life is increasingly part of what we call real life, is it any wonder our brains might think you can cut-and-paste the non-screen world? Obviously, few sane people think explicitly in these terms. But technology has a way of changing how we think without us thinking about it. For instance, the convenience of technology changes how we perceive time and distance—just think about how 19th century people thought about the prospect of traveling from the East Coast to the West Coast and how you think about it now. In other words, we think crossing a continent in a few hours while catching up on WandaVision is normal.

During the progressive era, intellectuals embraced Darwinism over Newtonianism as a better paradigm to understand politics. This gave politicians and social engineers the permission structure they needed to guide the evolution of the body politic.

The paradigm of Trumpism is entertainment. Arguments now are about the marshaling of passions to will into existence what we want to be true, not to reveal what is true. There has always been plenty of this in politics. The difference today is the battlespace of our brains has been prepped by technology that yields bespoke reality. Our ability to recognize appeals to passion and feelings has been degraded by the elevation of feelings and passion as dispositive of major controversies, while things like historical knowledge, principle, dogma, and healthy religious orthodoxy have been downgraded by constant bombardment. When I was writing this, a friend of mine informed me by text that the head of the Texas GOP wants a referendum on secession. Such madness is possible in a world where people have internalized the idea that everything is permitted and life is a choose-your-own-adventure video. When Marjorie Taylor Greene finished her press conference, Matt Gaetz—a poster boy of everything wrong with conservatism and politics today—said, “That was so good I almost had to smoke a cigarette afterwards.” This is brain rot.

If I’m right—and I think I am, I just don’t know how right—our politics will continue down this path for a while. What worries me is that these societal changes are most acute among conservatives, especially since conservatives are supposed to be the ones marshaling arguments against the idea that everything is permitted and that feelings trump facts. Instead, they’re growing content with casting themselves in a cautionary tale about the perils of phlebotinum poisoning.

Various & Sundry

Canine update: It still feels weird to have only three quadrupeds in the house. But everyone is doing fine. Zoë and Pippa have had a particularly good week because it snowed, and we all know that snow is proof God loves dogs. We even got some old school waggling for Waggle Wednesday. It’s been particularly nice because it means that when they come home from after their zoomies, they relax more. Meanwhile Gracie has mastered the ability to discern the exact moment the dogs have left to swoop in for some love.

ICYMI

Last week’s G-File

Last weekend’s Ruminant

A “frazzled” GOP

The week’s first Remnant, with Lord of the Charts Scott Lincicome

The first Dispatch Podcast of the week: checks, QAnon, Hong Kong, and more

The Midweek Epistle, on the wild goose-chase for the DemSocs of West Virginia

The week’s second Remnant, wherein Joe Uscinski returns to terrify us

Remember that “unity” thing?

And now, the weird stuff

John Adams does a hard pass on Thomas Paine

Europe’s royals have even brought their petty squabbles into the digital realm

Speaking of royalty on social media: the Habsburgs have claimed territory within Twitter

Reminder that Adorno hated jazz music for bizarre reasons

Learn to play the drums through postmodern comedy