So, years ago I quite accidentally injected the phrase “epistemic closure” into political discourse. This became a buzzword for five minutes, but a lot of people misunderstood it as effectively just a pretentious synonym for “stuck in an echo chamber” or “closed-minded.”
And that’s not quite how I originally used the phrase (which at the time thought was just... two words used descriptively, not some new buzzword). Originally, I used it to mean you had an *ideology and media ecosystem* that would enable you to reject new contrary information.
So an “echo chamber” just means you never hear any contrary information. The idea of “epistemic closure” was that you WOULD hear new and contrary information, but you have mechanisms in your belief system that reject anything that might force you to update your beliefs.
So, for instance, if someone believes that the Illuminati control the world, and that any evidence AGAINST this hypothesis was manufactured by the Illuminati to hide their existence—proving their power and influence—that’s more what I meant by “epistemic closure.”
I bring this up now, because the Trump ecosystem has developed a pretty sophisticated set of epistemic closure mechanisms that work to reject new information that might otherwise pose a problem. Like this...
It is extraordinary, and as far as I know unprecedented, how many of Trump’s own former appointees & senior officials have come out to say “this guy is unfit for office, and in fact a serious threat to U.S. national security.” You’d think people might find that hugely alarming.
This doesn’t seem to give supporters much pause, though. Not (just) because they don’t become aware of it, but because there’s a mechanism that enables supporters to reject this sort of testimony out of hand: The “Deep State.”
If the “Deep State” is part of your belief system, the testimony of these officials doesn’t affect your confidence in Trump’s competence; it proves how threatening he must be to the wicked network determined to undermine his presidency.
Ditto “Fake News.” Plenty of news every day calling into question Trump’s honesty, competence, decency, etc. But if “Fake News” is part of your belief system, the sheer volume of this actually works to validate his claim that media elites are hopelessly biased against him.
Ditto “The Swamp”: If people who were once widely respected conservative thinkers or elected officials are appalled by Trump, their stature is converted from a reason to take them seriously into a reason to discount them: They don’t want their cushy position disrupted.
I think these overlapping mechanisms are pretty critical to the resiliency of Trump support among his admirers, despite a constant flow of new information that, to the rest of us, counts as overwhelming and ever-clearer proof of his radical unfitness.
It’s not that they never encounter any of this information, but that there are mechanisms in place that effectively judo-flip it into confirmation of the preexisting narrative, rather than new contradictory data.
I’m not sure what you do about this, but to the extent Dems political messaging is aiming at chipping away at that base—rather than just turning out more of their people—it needs to factor in, and maybe even focus on—those closure mechanisms.
One thing worth considering is that closed belief systems like this tend to be strong but brittle. That is, it’s hard to make a crack in the firewall, but if you DO make a crack, often the whole edifice crumbles with surprising speed. And the crack can be something small.
I remember hearing a talk by a North Korean refugee who wholeheartedly bought into the state’s propaganda—and when his mother was arrested for crimes against the state, he took for granted she HAD to be guilty... until he noticed one small and indisputable error in the charges.
The government claimed she was in one place (at a dissident meeting or some such) at a time and date when he knew for certain she hadn’t been. And once it was clear the state COULD make mistakes, everything else was suddenly in doubt.
(“Whataboutism” is one of the mechanisms that works against the formation of minor cracks: If you’re in danger of having to concede a point, you change the subject, then develop localized amnesia about the near-concession.)
Honestly, it probably doesn’t make sense for *political campaigns* to waste too much effort messaging to the true believers, but for friends & family who still have the energy to argue, it’s worth thinking about how to target the closure mechanisms—the ideological immune system.
If you try to attack the Trump-belief Death Star head on, your arguments are just going to bounce off the force field. You need to take out the shield generator first. I don’t know how you do that, but maybe folks who’ve had some success can offer what worked for them.
Final thought: Are there sources of authoritative information that DON’T have a closure mechanism—an ideological T-cell—set up to neutralize them in the Trumpist narrative? There’s a T-cell for media, intelligence agencies & national security officials, Republican incumbents...
They’ve covered the bases pretty well, frankly—there’s a prefabricated “you can disregard this because...” mechanism for the obvious sources of contrary information. But if there’s one they’ve missed, that might have some luck until they can construct a counternarrative.

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More from @normative

27 Oct
If your concern is public perception of election rigging, it seems bizarre to worry about the optics of the “result” changing after midnight on election night, but not about the optics of... thousands of ballots being thrown out because USPS delivered them late.
It is, after all, hardly unprecedented for an election result to be uncertain for a few days. Or for early returns to trend one way, only to be overwhelmed by later ones going the other way. Why would that provoke more public suspicion than refusing to count validly cast ballots?
It is hard not to suspect this strange picture is the result of Kavanaugh’s own social circle very disproportionately comprising people concerned with only one kind of imagined “vote rigging” scenario.
Read 5 tweets
23 Oct
I’m not sure this is an accident. You’re supposed to come away with a vague impression that there’s something scandalous going on with Biden’s kid. Who knows what, exactly, but if the junkies are so steeped in the details it must be pretty bad.
This was what worked in 2016 after all. “FBI finds new laptop with Clinton emails!” It was nothing, but that didn’t matter. What mattered was that voters got a sense there was something shady.
DID JOE BIDEN KNOW ABOUT HUNTER’S TIES TO GORPMAN AND BLEEMER? Who are they? Why is that supposed to be bad? Who cares? It sounds shady. You’re just supposed to throw up your hands and infer that Biden must be no less corrupt than Trump after all.
Read 5 tweets
15 Oct
A prediction: The Hunter Biden laptop story is going to end up being pretty big as it plays out over the next week or two. Not because of the contents of the (putative) e-mails or Hunter’s sex tapes, which are nothingburgers even if authentic—but because of Giuliani’s role.
By Monday, nobody but the fever swamps will be talking about the contents of the hard drive. We WILL be talking about whether this was a foreign info op, and how much Trump knew about Giuliani’s decision to accept stolen communications and send them to the NY Post.
In the unlikely event the NY Post’s narrative of where the laptop came from is basically accurate, Giuliani’s actions still look appalling, and if Trump knew & approved reflect badly on him. If that narrative is a cover for an info op, things look substantially worse...
Read 5 tweets
15 Oct
The more I think about the Post’s story, the crazier it seems. IF the story is accurate, Rudy Giuliani is approached with a private citizen’s stolen hard drive, containing e-mails about conduct that on face isn’t even inappropriate, let alone criminal, & hands it to a tabloid.
That’s the best case scenario where we assume this incredibly sketchy “abandoned laptop” story is true. At worst Giuliani is participating in a foreign information operation. But even on the OFFICIAL version his conduct is appalling & of dubious legality.
I’m also pretty curious about the claim that the laptop was handed over to the FBI. Again, IF the story is correct this is basically stolen property. Instead of trying to return it to its owner, they just take it and comb through private files?
Read 8 tweets
14 Oct
Google is so powerful they lobbied for Section 230 to be enacted two years before the company was founded.
Let me offer another explanation: They get that protection because the idea that platforms (or bookstores, or newsstands, or cocktail party hosts) should be legally responsible for what other people say is self-evidently incredibly stupid.
Additionally: Punishing them with incredibly stupid liability for exercising their own first amendment rights of speech and association would be both incredibly stupid and constitutionally dubious.
Read 5 tweets
7 Oct
The Trumposphere appears to be freaking out about the Clinton campaign having a messaging strategy around Russian interference, while folks on the left are bizarrely dismissing it as “disinformation.” This is all very weird. It’s both obviously true and totally fine.
The Russian interference campaign on Trump’s behalf was absolutely real. The Trump campaign was consistently downplaying and denying it long past the point of reasonable doubt and signaling gratitude in countless ways. Of course you draw attention to that.
Any comptetent politician would have done the same thing. And the FBI would have been utterly derelict not to open an investigation on those facts. The idea that this means the FBI was somehow taking orders from the Clinton campaign is ridiculous.
Read 4 tweets

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