There’s a factor — a group of people, really— who are badly distorting America’s political dialogue because of their members’ individual need to create chaos, and there’s virtually no discussion of them in our media or among politicians. And if we don’t get a handle on this soon, they will do even more damage than they’ve already done.
Part of the problem is that such voices and behavior — which had been largely marginalized or ignored throughout most of American history — have acquired a new force and power. Social media and the rise of a dishonest, billionaire-funded highly partisan rightwing media infrastructure — both relatively recent phenomena — have now amplified the reach and power of this element in our society and body politic.
This isn’t about the traditional left-right divide in American politics, although most of this group’s destructive power right now is centered in the GOP’s side of the aisle as a result of the Trump presidency. So, while it may be partisan, it’s not ideological.
Our American political discussion relies heavily on analysis of Democratic and Republican politicians and positions, and occasionally (I do it more than most) delves into the dynamic of authoritarian followers and leaders, including fascists.
Once in a while we even have a conversation about communists — the far left of the left spectrum — although they’re so marginalized as to be irrelevant (the peak of the American Communist Party’s membership, in 1942, was 85,000 people; today it’s estimated at a mere 15,000).
But nowhere, in mainstream analysis of today’s politics, do we find a characterization or analysis of the anarchists — agents of chaos — those who embrace chaos either for its own sake or as a way of reordering society.
Yet these people have an outsize influence on American society and our politics.
A few weeks ago, I was doing a Zoom virtual tour for my new book The Hidden History of American Democracy: Rediscovering Humanity’s Ancient Way of Living and my publisher’s publicist booked me onto a rightwing show. At least a half-dozen times in the thirty minutes we talked, he brought up “the widespread riots” and “vandalism” that resulted from “the Black Lives Matter riots.”
This rightwing mythology is a great example of the power of chaos agents to distort reality.
In the real world, as researchers from the Harvard Kennedy School, Radcliff Institute for Advanced Studies, and the University of Connecticut found when they did an in-depth analysis of virtually all of the major BLM protests in 2020 — 7,305 of them — those demonstrations were “overwhelmingly peaceful.”
As they noted:
“Only 3.7% of the protests involved property damage or vandalism. Some portion of these involved neither police nor protesters, but people engaging in vandalism or looting alongside the protests.
“In short, our data suggest that 96.3% of events involved no property damage or police injuries, and in 97.7% of events, no injuries were reported among participants, bystanders or police.”
Trying to tell a rightwinger that only 1.6 percent of the protests ended with a single person injured, or that the largest cluster of killings were done by a single white man (Kyle Rittenhouse), was, I discovered, useless: he had his reality and he was quite certain that 2020 had seen Great Masses of Black People Behaving Badly in every city in America.
Although he thought his beef was with Black people, his real complaint was about mostly white people who were engaging in violence purely for the chaos it produces. Intentionally.
That narrative of “BLM riots” lives on and is amplified on a loop regularly on Fox “News” and rightwing hate radio, and it seems nobody is even bothering to correct the record anymore. Indeed, this white supremacist spin on BLM is so widespread that a Morning Consult poll reported by the The Armed Conflict Location & Event Data Project (ACLED) found:
“[D]espite data indicating that demonstrations associated with the BLM movement are overwhelmingly peaceful, … 42% of respondents believe “most protesters [associated with the BLM movement] are trying to incite violence or destroy property.”
But the reality is that those people who engaged in intentional violence during the BLM protests were often — I believe in most cases, but haven’t been able to find a credible analysis — white. And their goal wasn’t to advance the interests of Black lives: it was purely to create chaos.
For these people, destructive violence is like a drug. They crave it, and the chaos that it brings. Destroying the lives or property of others gives them a sense of meaning.
And, because of that, they do extraordinary damage to democracies when they hold prominent positions like being a candidate for the presidency, Senate, or House. Or, when they’re willing to directly participate in violence themselves, like militia or gang members.
Certainly that was the case with the first reported instance of violence during the George Floyd murder protests, in Minneapolis on May 27, 2020, where a member of the Hells Angels connected with the white supremacist militia Aryan Cowboys (he was dubbed “Umbrella Man”) started smashing store windows.
Most of the protesters that year were white, so white people being responsible for most of the damage makes sense. It was the largest mass movement in American history, attended by as many as 26 million people.
An analysis of the protests nationwide by the Pew Center found that 46% of the BLM protesters were white, 17% were Black, 22% were Hispanic and 8% were Asian. Similarly, fully 95 percent of the counties hosting BLM protests were majority white.
So, clearly, if the majority of the people in any one racial group attending were white, a majority of the malefactors were also white.
Here in Portland, it was the largely white “Black Bloc” anarchists who were responsible for trashing and trying to firebomb the federal building and other parts of downtown that ran on loop on Fox “News” for months. The same was largely true of Seattle: in both cities (and others around the country), Black protestors tried unsuccessfully to stop those black-clad mostly white-boy vandals.
So here — as one of many possible examples — we have people on the right (Umbrella Man, Rittenhouse, etc.) and people purportedly on the left (Black Bloc) exploiting the BLM protests just to create chaos. If it had been World Bank protests, they would’ve showed up there, too. In fact, they did — back in 2000.
For them, it wasn’t so much the cause as it was an opportunity to engage in violence and create chaos.
But why? Who are these people?
They do an extraordinary amount of damage to our society and our politics.
From cyberstalking across social media to arson to murder; from Tim McVeigh’s bombing in Oklahoma City to the slaughters of nonwhite citizens in El Paso, Pittsburgh, and Buffalo; from armed “militias” to “Jews will not replace us” Nazis in Charlottesville: the real goal in every case is to sow hate, mistrust, fear, and — ultimately — chaos.
Now we find that there’s a personality type that’s obsessively drawn to this, and Trump, Fox “News,” and rightwing hate radio are calling out to them every day, to the detriment of a functioning and orderly society.
A new study published by Cambridge University Press finds that the majority of people who share conspiracy theory memes on social media, for example, are doing so because they have an inherent “need to create chaos.”
They share a newly-identified mental illness. And some of the people afflicted with it exploit the personality quirks it brings to gain status, money, or power (or all three), leaving a trail of damage behind them, both personal and societal.
The researchers note this is a novel investigation in modern politics (although its reality must be as old as history):
“While prior studies have focused on partisan motivations, we demonstrate that some individuals circulate hostile rumors because they wish to unleash chaos to ‘burn down’ the entire political order in the hope they gain status in the process.”
I remember a few people I knew in MSU SDS back in the 1960s who probably fit that characterization: both of them ended up in the Weather Underground, and one went to prison for eight WU bombings and an armored truck heist that killed two police officers and a guard.
The researchers conclude that, like those authoritarian followers looking for a Trump-like “big daddy” authoritarian leader, this is a personality type that creates a social pathology: people who crave creating chaos are imbued with a deep-seated need specific to pain, turmoil, and pandemonium:
“To understand this psychology, we theorize and measure a novel psychological state, the Need for Chaos, emerging in an interplay of social marginalization and status-oriented personalities.”
Not only are these the people who engage in physical violence to “tear down society,” they’re also the people who are driving the vast majority of social media posts that promote conspiracy theories designed to tear people and politics apart:
“Across eight studies of individuals living in the United States, we show that this need is a strong predictor of motivations to share hostile political rumors, even after accounting for partisan motivations, and can help illuminate differences and commonalities in the frustrations of both historically privileged and marginalized groups.”
Interestingly, a small subset of these people who crave chaos aren’t just promoting hate and confusion for its own sake: in their delusion, they see this as the best path to societal and political change.
Researchers who analyzed the psychological profiles of 3,336 Americans, roughly half Democrats and half Republicans (or leaning in those directions) found that a very active but small minority of people promoting destructive conspiracy theories were mostly those who the Cambridge scientists posited as having the mental illness of a pure “need for chaos.”
A small percentage, though, were also motivated by believing chaos, violence, and destruction could lead to a “renewal of society”; or were simply sharing destructive conspiracy theories because they believed them and wanted to “sound the alarm.”
These three different motivations for spreading destructive memes and engaging in violence and vandalism makes it hard to know if the people promoting, for example, third-party candidacies or notions that Democrats drink the blood of children are doing so simply for the joy of burning society down or genuinely believe such efforts will produce a better world.
Regardless of their secondary motivations, though, they’re spreading chaos in our society and body politic, and we need to reckon with their role in today’s political discourse.
To be clear, these chaos agents are not revolutionaries in the mold of this country’s founders, no matter how much they claim that lineage and use the language, flags, and logos of that era.
The people who created America were doing the opposite of creating chaos: they shared a coherent belief in the goodness of humanity and the possibility of democracy working here in North America, and therefore organized themselves into orderly and well-organized political and military groups.
Their role models were, in large part, Native American societies that had held stable across, in many cases, millennia, as I lay out in The Hidden History of American Democracy. If anything, our nation’s Founders were trying to bring order out of the chaos of a randomly enforced and exceedingly corrupt British rule, as laid out in the Declaration of Independence.
Additionally, some of the pollution of social media and our political discourse is being done by people and foreign governments with a purely personal agenda: they envision politics as a tool to enhance their own fame and fortune (Trump/Ramaswamy), or, in the case of Russian, Chinese, and Saudi trolls in our social media, an opportunity to diminish the status and political or military threat to them that America represents.
Which raises the question: how can our social, political, and media systems deal with an outspoken minority bent on sowing chaos, particularly when social media algorithms are fine-tuned to amplify their voices?
Given that this is an entirely new field of psychological and political science, there are no easy or glib answers. Certainly, legislation mandating transparency in social media algorithms would be an important first step, as I lay out in The Hidden History of Big Brother.
But we also need to acknowledge that there’s a new (or newly identified) psychological factor at work in American politics and call out these chaos agents whenever and wherever they raise their voices.
Unless and until we understand the genesis of the chaos sweeping our nation, we’ll be helpless to stop it and its consequences. Hopefully, this new research will be a wake-up call for both political parties and our media across the board.
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