Tyler Varsell

American Cynicism Has Reached a Breaking Point

The nation’s politics is in dire need of earnestness. Can its culture meet the moment?

On Tuesday evening, at the start of his Fox News show, Tucker Carlson shared the results of an investigation that he and his staff had conducted into a well-known agent of American disinformation. “We spent all day trying to locate the famous QAnon,” Carlson said, “which, in the end, we learned is not even a website. If it’s out there, we could not find it.” They kept looking, though, checking Marjorie Taylor Greene’s Twitter feed and “the intel community,” before coming to the obvious conclusion: “Cable news” and “politicians talking on TV,” Carlson said, must be responsible for the lies running rampant in America. “Maybe they’re from QAnon,” he added. “You be the judge.”

This anti-investigation, like so much of what happens on Carlson’s show every day, was funny right up until it was frightening. (Just before informing his viewers of his inability to locate QAnon.com, Carlson had attempted a rebranding of disinformation itself: “Freelance thinking,” he called it.) The most basic of good-faith searches would have revealed the reality—and the danger—of a widely believed conspiracy theory positing, in part, that Democrats eat children. But reality is not Carlson’s project. Destabilizing it is. Fox’s most popular personality, his show’s marketing literature will tell you, offers “spirited debates” about the news of the day. In truth, Carlson is simply selling cynicism. Night after night, he informs you that the ways you might have of understanding the world and yourself within it—politics, culture, science, art, the news, other people—are not to be trusted. The only American institution that remains worthy of your confidence, in the bleak cosmology of Tucker Carlson Tonight, is Tucker Carlson.

I mention Carlson’s act not because it is extraordinary, but because it is banal. Topple the media is about as Propaganda 101 as it gets. It’s the Lügenpresse, it’s Newspeak, it’s the coup leaders heading straight for the TV station. Cynicism is, among other things, a habit of disordered vision: It looks at friends and sees foes. It looks at truth and sees deceit. Cynicism, at scale, makes democracy’s most basic demand—seeing one another as we are—impossible. And America, at the moment, is saturated with it. Cynicism makes daily appearances on Fox (and on Newsmax, and on One America News Network). It was the molten core of Donald Trump’s presidency, and the only real message Rush Limbaugh had to give. It lurks in the language of QAnon. It lives in the Big Lie. It seethed in the violence of the Capitol insurrection. It has made suspicion an easy sell. “From falsehood, anything follows,” posits a law of classical logic. It is called the principle of explosion.

The era of Trump seemed as though it might offer, for a time, a wide-scale reckoning about truth and the facts it comprises. Soon after the United States elected a reality star as its president, George Orwell’s 1984, that fable of state-sanctioned delusion, rose to the top of Amazon’s best-seller list. (One spike in sales came just after Kellyanne Conway, attempting to justify the new administration’s lies about its inauguration-crowd size, coined the term alternative facts.) The phrase fake news, wielded by a president who treated ignorance as an art form, settled into the American vernacular; “The truth is more important now than ever,” a New York Times ad campaign replied.

The reckoning, as so often happens, never completed its accountings. What those years primarily achieved was to remind Americans of how profoundly vulnerable they were to those who would try to deceive them. The Russian government, having been caught sowing mistrust in 2016, found a more sweeping means of manipulation in 2020. Fact-checkers noted when Trump told his 1,000th lie as president, and his 10,000th, and finally his 30,573rd. Their labors chafed against one of his presidency’s abiding perversions: The more widely accounted his corruptions were, the less accountable to them he seemed. That remained the case even as the casualties of his falsehoods mounted. The lies Trump told about COVID-19 exacerbated a deadly pandemic. The gaudy fantasies he spread about a “stolen” election proliferated for months. Their result was unthinkable and almost inevitable: A mob, believing the stories it had been sold, attacked the government.

Lies are not semantic. Lies can lead to violence—in some sense, they are violence. They are as destabilizing to the social environment as guns can be to the physical: When someone is armed with a willingness to deceive, nobody else has a chance. And cynicism, that alleged defense against duplicity, can have the upside-down effect of making the cynic particularly vulnerable to manipulation. One of the insights of Merchants of Doubt, Erik Conway and Naomi Oreskes’s scathing investigation into the American tobacco industry’s lies about its products, is that the deceptions were successful in part because they turned cynicism into a strategy. Faced with a deluge of studies that made the dangers of smoking clear, tobacco firms funded their own—junk research meant not to refute the science, but to muddle it. The bad-faith findings made Americans less able to see the truth clearly. They manufactured doubt the way Philip Morris churned out Marlboro Lights. They took reality and gave it plausible deniability.

Trump’s Big Lie worked similarly. He understood, with the fabulist’s blithe intuition, how many people had a vested interest in unseeing the election’s obvious outcome. He took for granted that Fox and other outlets would repeat the fantasies so dutifully that soon, in their hermetic worlds, the fictions would seem like facts. Trump’s legal team filed 62 lawsuits alleging election fraud and lost 61; the resounding defeats made notably little sound. In early December, The Washington Post reported that 220 Republican lawmakers were refusing to say who had won the election. In mid-January, a poll asked likely Republican voters whether they continued to question the election’s results; 72 percent said they did.

The Big Lie did not, in the narrow sense, succeed. Joe Biden was inaugurated on the appointed day, and Trump now leads his legions from the craggy shores of Mar-a-Lago. But nor did the lie end. He is spreading it, still. Compliant news outlets are giving him a platform to do so. (On OANN, this week, he said: “The election was stolen. We were robbed. It was a rigged election.” On Newsmax: “We did win the election, as far as I’m concerned. It was disgraceful what happened.” On Fox: “Rush thought we won, and so do I.”) The merchants of doubt, understanding that “truth in advertising” applies to goods but not to facts, keep right on selling their wares.

Trump’s second impeachment dwelled within the cynicism, too. Democratic prosecutors presented raw footage of the mob’s violence and Trump’s incitement of it (video evidence, in a typical trial, being considered a compelling way to prove that alleged events actually happened). Trump’s lawyer dismissed the video as the slick work of a “movie company.” Here, again, was doubt offered up as a reason to unsee the obvious. The jurors in this particular trial had lived its events themselves. The facts were plain; that didn’t matter. Presented with all the evidence, 43 U.S. senators chose instead to look away.

But partisanship! you might say. And I know, I know—you’re right, of course. But “partisanship” can be a strain of cynicism too. It can insist that only half the world’s facts are worth seeing. And it can claim that there are things more important than truth. “What happens when you’re wrong?” Joey, the son of the tobacco lobbyist Nick Naylor, asks in the 2005 film Thank You for Smoking. Nick has just given Joey a lesson in the art of unfalsifiable-claim making. Joey has been slow to learn it. “See, Joey, that’s the beauty of argument,” Nick says. “When you argue correctly, you’re never wrong.”

Last Tuesday, as a winter storm left millions of Texans without water or power or heat, the state’s governor, Greg Abbott, made an appearance on Sean Hannity’s Fox News show. Here was the message the leader chose to convey that evening, as his constituents chopped down fences so that they might burn the wood for warmth: “This shows how the Green New Deal would be a deadly deal for the United States of America.”

Abbott was manipulating the truth (the claim that the disaster was caused by malfunctioning wind turbines has been thoroughly debunked). But he was also attempting to manipulate people’s compassion. The facts were plain: People were freezing. People were dying. Abbott tried to blur the picture. He tried to turn the blunt fact of human suffering into an airy ideological debate. Why focus on the day’s emergency when the real crisis is Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez?

The historian Daniel Boorstin, in his 1962 book, The Image: A Guide to Pseudo-events in America, described the pseudo-event as a manufactured product: an event that is created only to be covered by the media (and the noun equivalent of the adjectival “famous for being famous”). Abbott’s appearance was an inversion of that idea. Here was the actual event, real and hard and happening; there was the leader—someone with direct authority over the course of that event—attempting to de-manufacture it. Abbott, unable to deny the facts of the crisis, instead sought refuge in cynicism. He stood athwart history, yelling, “Stop looking!”

The Image is often cited, correctly, as an early entry in the literature of post-truth America. But its insights, today, are as relevant to the national heart as they are to the national mind. Misdirection was at play when children were torn from their parents and held in cages at the U.S. border—and when a slew of Fox personalities insisted that the real story was not their suffering, but rather their mendacity. (“These child actors weeping and crying on all the other networks 24/7 right now,” Ann Coulter said, speaking directly to Trump—“do not fall for it, Mr. President.”) Misdirection was at play when Marjorie Taylor Greene, now a member of Congress, reportedly claimed that the shootings of children in Newtown and Parkland had been staged. Cancel culture, too, can be a means of misdirection: The idea might once have been nuanced but now often amounts to an excuse for strategic unseeing. Summoned cynically, it permits the consequence for harm done to take precedence over the harm itself. It defends the status quo. It is, predictably, a regular topic on Tucker Carlson’s show.

A public that doesn’t know how to look at things squarely is a public that is primed to be manipulated. Distorted vision can easily morph into disordered compassion. Framing Britney Spears, a new and widely watched documentary, is ostensibly about the star’s legal status and the battle over her controversial conservatorship. Its broader subject, though, is the ease with which cynicism can curdle into cruelty. One of the film’s most gutting scenes comes early on, as a teenage Spears is interviewed by Diane Sawyer. The journalist treats her like an idea rather than a girl, her questions terse and very personal. (At one point Sawyer asked Spears to comment on the opinion, expressed by a politician’s wife, that Spears should be shot for being a bad role model.) The exchange—Spears cried during the interview—sets the tone for the film’s thesis: American culture, not terribly long ago, was able to look directly at a young woman in pain and see not a person but a punch line.

“We are all the unreliable narrators of each other’s stories,” the conceptual magician Derek DelGaudio remarks in In & of Itself. The show, a compilation of his live performances that recently began streaming on Hulu, does for magic what Nanette did for stand-up and what Fountain did for art: It uses the tools of its craft to question the craft. It talks about magic as a way to talk about trust. DelGaudio, over the course of the show, does card tricks—one of them turns the audience themselves, effectively, into playing cards—and tells deeply personal stories. He offers meditations on what it feels like to be seen, and to be overlooked. He cries. He makes his audience cry too.

In & of Itself, which premiered off-Broadway in 2016 and ran through 2018, coincided with a time when America was reexamining the interplay between illusion and reality. Now, as Americans reckon with miasmic mistrust, the show provides some clarity about the mechanics of manipulation. The magician understands roughly the same principles that the propagandist does: P. T. Barnum argued that what he was selling, as he charged people for the thrill of being tricked, wasn’t really the trick itself; it was the opportunity for them to investigate the terms of the fakery. Audiences didn’t want to see the “Fiji mermaid,” the creature he billed as a mystical wonder, so much as they wanted to see how Barnum had constructed the lie. Later, Hannah Arendt would find similar insights in her assessments of propaganda and politics: “Instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them,” Arendt writes, people “would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”

Today, the exhaust of their observations is visible far beyond American politics. Reality TV long ago gave up trying to fool audiences into thinking that its dramas are “real”; instead, the genre presents riddles to viewers, daring them to decide for themselves what is true and what is a lie. (Consider, too, that QAnon works in similar ways.) The Masked Singer and its sibling series, The Masked Dancer, which just wrapped its first season on Fox, take a similarly forensic approach to entertainment. The singing/dancing competitions feature a series of celebrities in identity-disguising costumes (a monster, an ice cube, a hammerhead shark) who perform routines and are voted off the show, week by week. The point for viewers is to guess their identities before the masks come off.

Entertainment can have a candid kind of eloquence; they’re revealing, these ways people choose to spend their time when they’re not spending it on something else. The Masked franchise is a straightforward competition series in the American Idol vein, but it has also spawned a world beyond the television: social-media accounts and message boards dedicated to mining each episode for clues. The franchise has been a hit. That could well be because its solvable mysteries channel some of the frequencies of this cultural and political moment—a drive for knowingness, an assumption of ambient manipulation. It takes for granted that its audiences are experts about the lives of the famous people in their midst. It assumes its viewers’ savviness. It is premised on Americans’ assumption that they are always, somehow, being a little bit lied to. (Some other recent products of American pop culture: Big Little Lies, Pretty Little Liars, Lie to Me, House of Lies, The Lie.)

And yet, crucially: The Masked franchise rejects cynicism. Its tone is deep, almost saccharine, earnestness. Person and persona, illusion and delusion, suspense and suspicion—these are the distinctions the shows explore each week. A recent episode of The Masked Dancer revealed that the moth who had previously shimmied to “Boot Scootin’ Boogie” was … the former abductee and current child-rights advocate Elizabeth Smart. The reveal was, even for The Masked Dancer, pretty shocking. Asked why she had decided to do the show, Smart replied that her grandmother had recently died. “She never let a moment pass her by,” Smart said, “and so when this opportunity came along, I thought, I live a pretty serious life, and I’m going to take this opportunity and just have fun.”

Trauma, repackaged as a two-step: Is that cynicism, or something else? The celebrities who appear on The Masked Dancer will do so, of course, for lots of reasons they won’t mention on the show’s stage: money, flagging careers, the finicky nature of fame. Onstage, though, the show is coming to the same conclusion In & of Itself is: that there’s a crucial distinction between savviness and cynicism. Smart may have joined the show’s cast for several reasons, but one of them—maybe even the main one—might just be that she wanted a cathartic reclamation of fun. The Masked Dancer, in that sense, is doing the work that many other recent pieces of culture, including The Great British Baking Show and Ted Lasso, have engaged in with their own varied spectacles. They’re trying to teach us to trust one another again.

The dynamics of all this are pretty straightforward; American pop culture is reacting to American news culture. It’s no coincidence that kind TV, a genre that is less about topic than tone, rose to prominence as TV news—cable news, in particular—became meaner and more mistrustful. And it’s no surprise that Tucker Carlson, who just lived through the same years everyone else did, took as the message of those years that cynicism sells. (One of his recent assessments of “the media”: “Imagine a drunken teenage border guard at the crossing between Togo and Burkina Faso shaking you down at midnight as you pass through.”)

Carlson talks that way because he can. He implies to his viewers, every night, that they might talk that way too. The world of Tucker Carlson Tonight is angry but also very easy. If you reject facts as the instruments of a biased media, you can say pretty much anything, as long as you say it interestingly. If you brand yourself as an entertainer, not a journalist, you can spread falsehoods in the name of fun. Truth has obligations that opinions do not. Fox, the network, is learning that all over again: The election-security firm Smartmatic, its reputation caught in the tangled web Fox wove as it repackaged the Big Lie, is suing Fox for $2.7 billion.

It might be tempting to look at that development and see a measure of accountability—wild claims made answerable, cynicisms squelched by truth. But the suits will not save us. The entertainer answers to no court of law. And he knows that cynicism, a means of seeing nothing, will remain a powerful sell. What will follow the Big Lie? One answer is that Fox News finally found a way to hold Carlson accountable for the role he has played in breaking Americans’ trust: Last week, it gave him a promotion.