Government By Panic
We may never know if it was spying, but the Chinese balloon served its purpose, feeding our political establishment's tireless efforts to keep the public freaked out
“This is completely an isolated and accidental incident caused by force majeure, but the U.S. still hyped up the incident on purpose and even used force to attack.” — Chinese foreign minister Mao Ning
Empires can’t be ruled without belief. Without confidence in official words, subjects will lack direction, becoming “lost at sea,” as Revolt of the Public author Martin Gurri put it. They’ll support Brexit, Catalan independence, Trump; they’ll wear yellow vests, throw away masks, even refuse the shot. When you tell them Beto O’Rourke is Robert Kennedy, they vote as if he were Ralph Nader.
Now take a hypothetical. Say you’re a member of the American political establishment after the 2016 election of Donald Trump. You’re staring at four years as part of a government-in-exile and need a new message to solve your belief problem. What’s your answer?
My hypothesis is such people never bothered to find one. Instead, they declared a state of emergency.
What emergency? Doesn’t matter. Russian interference was a good startup disaster, but you can keep changing them. The important thing is the pattern. One, declare a crisis. Two, spread panic. Three, take emergency measures. If you do this over and over, you end up with permanent crisis, permanent panic, permanent emergency rule. So long as new crises keep evoking unconscious fear and anxiety, the legitimacy of the political establishment is continuously justified.
An episode that took place over the weekend speaks directly to our leaders’ new dependence on government-by-panic. A Chinese balloon of unknown etiology drifted into American airspace, and wigs flipped from coast to coast. The episode ended in Kubrickian spoof, with one unsmiling official after another lining up to declare victory over a balloon. And nobody thought it was odd.
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