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The Cult of Authority

Photo by Miller Center | CC BY 2.0

On a recent episode of “Intercepted,” Glenn Greenwald, James Risen, and Jeremy Scahill, three celebrity journalists employed by a billionaire to provide the masses with fearless, adversarial journalism, debated, for approximately fifty-seven minutes, whether Donald Trump might be guilty of treason. This debate was prompted by the negative response to Risen’s first investigative piece for The Intercept“Is Donald Trump a Traitor?,” a lengthy rehashing of the official narrative the corporate ruling classes have been relentlessly disseminating for the last eighteen months. Dedicated readers of The Intercept had wondered aloud on social media how, exactly, this repetition of the evidence-free “Trump is a Putin Puppet” narrative qualified as fearlessly adversarial. Some had even gone so far as to suggest that Risen, a legend in the world of investigative and national security journalism,had been a bit reckless, ethically speaking, in throwing around words like “treason” and “traitor,” and in allowing his status as a journalistic legend to lend further credence to the most ridiculous official propaganda campaign since the “Saddam is stockpiling WMDs for al Qaeda to attack America with” hoax.

In any event, The Intercept, its brand identity under attack, sprang into action and arranged this debate. Scahill and Risen were live in New York, possibly at First Look’s Fifth Avenue studios, with Greenwald participating remotely from his home in the mountains above Rio de Janiero. Following a solemn introduction by Scahill, and after kowtowing to each other at considerable length, Greenwald and Risen get down to the work of defining the word “treason.” This takes twenty minutes. They then move on to ascertaining whether Greenwald believes, and will admit on camera, that “Russia intervened” in the 2016 elections. Mercilessly pressed on this point by Risen, he finally confesses that he probably believes that the Russians likely “did some things.” This takes up another twenty minutes. The rest of the episode is dedicated to establishing that Greenwald is not a Trump-loving pinko (despite his occasional appearances on FOX), and that Risen agrees that the general public (not to mention fearless, adversarial journalists) should not just accept whatever intelligence agencies tell them without supporting evidence. Scahill then wraps up the episode by joking about Greenwald getting paid in rubles and Risen getting paid by the CIA, and noting how “interesting” it is to be a fearless, adversarial journalist at a serious operation like The Intercept, where extremely affluent, award-winning colleagues are allowed to respectfully disagree about whether the President of the United States should be tried and executed for treason because some Russians bought some Facebook ads and said mean things about Hillary Clinton.

I realize you’ll probably want to break off now and go watch this thrilling debate yourself, but bear with me for just another few minutes, because this essay isn’t really about the debate, or The Intercept, or even First Look Media. Believe it or not, I’m a fan of Glenn Greenwald, who is one of the very few celebrity journalists who has had the guts to consistently challenge the ridiculous “Russiagate” narrative from the start. And just because The Intercept is owned by a neoliberal oligarch who backed a fascist coup in the Ukraine, micro-financed a few Indians to death, and employs a personal security detail of ex-Secret Service agents and State Department types who will fly him to safety in his private jet in the event of imminent zombie apocalpyse, that doesn’t mean The Intercept staff doesn’t publish important investigative journalism.

No, what struck me as I was suffering through this debate was how utterly divorced from reality it was, whatever “reality” might mean anymore. Watching Greenwald, Risen, and Scahill sitting there, like rational people, “debating” whether Donald Trump might be part of some convoluted Russian conspiracy to destroy America and Western democracy, I felt like I was finally having one of those apocryphal LSD flashbacks. It was as if I was watching these respected journalists debating whether the face of Jesus may have actually appeared on a breakfast taco at a daycare center in Beeville, Texas.

Now, I mean no offense to The Intercept, or Jesus, or even breakfast tacos. I’m simply trying to point out how, after eighteen months of relentless repetition, we have all been barraged with so much ridiculous “Russiagate” and “Collusion” propaganda that it is almost impossible to step back from it enough to recognize how ridiculous it is. Fundamentally. The basic premise of the narrative. Imagine for a moment, if you can, that you had never heard about “Russiagate,” and listen to the story concept as if you were hearing it for the very first time. Ready? OK, here it comes … “Donald Trump conspired with Putin to brainwash Americans with Internet ads into electing him President of the United States so he could help the Russians take over the world!” How is this story concept any more credible than the one where a radical Jewish prophet who’s been dead for over two thousand years, but who rules the universe with his omnipotent father, appeared on a taco in Beeville, Texas?

Well … OK, I’ll tell you how it’s more credible. It’s credible because “authoritative sources” say it is credible, over and over, and treat it as a “serious” story, in spite of how blatantly ridiculous it is. It’s not just the corporate media that does this. It’s also fearless, adversarial, “authoritative” organizations like The Intercept. I wish there were a more sophisticated theory I could set forth to explain this phenomenon, but, sadly, it really is that simple.

In any authoritarian society, social group, culture, or … cult, those with the power can make up pretty much any official narrative they want and get the members of the group to believe it, or at least conform their behavior to it. The social hierarchy does all the work. Cults provide the clearest example. The leaders come up with some ludicrous narrative (e.g., Helter SkelterThe House of DavidBody Thetans from Outer SpaceTransubstantiation, et cetera) which is reified by the “inner circle,” who conform their behavior and speech to this narrative, and then pressure the outer members to do likewise. Gradually, everyone gets the message: if you don’t want to be excommunicated, you had better believe, or pretend to believe, the official narrative of the cult. It isn’t a question of deception, belief, gullibility, or even intelligence. It is a question of power, social pressure, and fear of ostracization and exile. Anyone invested in any type of social group that functions along authoritarian lines is susceptible to this type of pressure, regardless of how savvy or intelligent they are.

Which brings me back to The Intercept and this debate about whether Trump is a traitor. If you have an hour to kill, try this experiment. Watch the debate, ignore what they’re saying, and pay attention to how they say it and the effect that is generated by how they say it. (You can also do this with any mainstream media political debate-type show, but assuming you’re as predisposed as I am to identify with The Intercept’s brand, it will be more instructive if you use this debate). What you’ll be watching is a simulation of “seriousness,” “authoritativeness,” and “credibility,” and a demonstration of how “respectable” journalists discuss a “legitimate, newsworthy” story (as opposed to, you know, a conspiracy theory).

In other words, you will be watching a performance … a performance intended to convince its audience that (a) the nonsense being “debated” is a “serious” story worthy of debate by serious, grown-up, authoritative journalists, (b) that there exists such a creature as a “serious, grown-up authoritative journalist,” and (c) that these serious, grown-up journalists, and the “authoritative sources” they rub elbows with, inhabit an exclusive “authoritative” realm populated by “serious people” deserving of our trust and deference.

As it just so happens, in this authoritative realm, where serious people (a/k/a “grown-ups”) are dealing with “real,” “adult” type matters that are none of our business, and which we wouldn’t understand, everyone is extremely well-paid. That’s one way you can tell they are serious. That, and various other hallmarks of “seriousness” and “respectability,” like their overuse of a certain type of adjective (i.e., the type I’ve been having fun with in this essay), important-sounding but meaningless adjectives like “major,” “serious,” “authoritative,” “well-respected,” “legitimate,” and so on. “Serious” people use these adjectives to refer to other “serious” people, or the views or statements of other “serious” people. The more ridiculous the propaganda they are pressuring you to take seriously is, the more they tend to overuse these words. Most of them do not do this consciously. They do it instinctively. They do it out of fear of being excommunicated from the Cult of Authority.

Which might explain why The Intercept has brought a legend like Risen on board to report the ridiculous Russiagate story from the viewpoint of serious, authoritative people, i.e., to balance out Greenwald’s “collusion rejectionism.” After all, at this point, the only people who continue to doubt that Donald Trump is somehow in league with Vladimir Putin and his plot to dominate the entire world by brainwashing folks with Facebook ads are Russian bots, Nazis, traitors, and other such non-authoritative persons. Given all the money they’re paying their journalists, First Look Media can hardly afford to allow them to be confused with that lot. Before too long, they would find themselves deranked, and would be reduced to writing for nothing. And who could possibly take them seriously then?

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C. J. Hopkins is an award-winning American playwright, novelist and satirist based in Berlin. His plays are published by Bloomsbury Publishing (UK) and Broadway Play Publishing (USA). His debut novel, ZONE 23, is published by Snoggsworthy, Swaine & Cormorant. He can reached at cjhopkins.com or  consentfactory.org.

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