One of the most comforting talking points in politics is to claim that your political opponents are irrationally obsessed. I’m sure this is as old as time, but I first noticed it in the late 1990s. Many of Bill Clinton’s most ardent supporters responded to every new criticism by claiming the president’s enemies were twisted by hate for the man. During the George W. Bush administration, thanks in part to a phrase coined by my late friend Charles Krauthammer, conservatives deflected criticism of the president by claiming his foes suffered from “Bush derangement syndrome.”
The term caught on, and Obama supporters hurled charges of “Obama derangement syndrome” (along with charges of “racism” — a secular term for a kind of derangement) at Obama’s opposition. Today, it’s not hard to find people claiming that Donald Trump’s adversaries are obsessed, deranged, or conspiracy-obsessed witch hunters. A search of Twitter finds an infinitely long stream of references to “Trump derangement syndrome.”
Now, here’s the thing: Sometimes it’s true. Clinton, Bush, Obama, and Trump all had — and have — their haters. And some people do lose their bearings and immediately leap to the most outlandish interpretation of the facts (or rumors disguised as facts). The paranoid style is a bipartisan phenomenon in American life.
But sometimes the people making the “derangement syndrome” or “hater” charge are the ones who refuse to see the facts, taking comfort in the fallacy that the motives, real or imagined, of a critic automatically disqualify the criticism.
Anyway, you get the point.
What interests me is how this psychological phenomenon has become professionalized, particularly in the digital age.
As Emory University political scientists Alan Abramowitz and Steven Webster have documented, we live in a moment of extreme negative partisanship: Millions of Americans are driven more by dislike of the other party than by attachment to their own.
In this kind of climate, being hated by the right people is the best way to get not just a big following but an intensely loyal one. I’ve written about this before, but I think it’s worth revisiting in the context of Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, the “it girl” (sorry, “it person”) of the Left these days.
The head of the DNC not long ago referred to her as “the future of the Democratic party.” She’s received fawning, glowing-to-the-point-of-incandescent coverage from the mainstream media and outsized critical attention from Fox News and other right-leaning outlets.
AOC, as many call her, is attractive, young, Hispanic, and almost eloquent in her passion for some ill-defined notion of socialism or social democracy. She also says many untrue and silly things. Just this week, she suggested in a tweet that the Pentagon misplaced some $21 trillion in funding that could have paid for most of a $32 trillion “Medicare for All” scheme. A Defense Department spokesman told the Washington Post’s Fact Checker column: “DoD hasn’t received $21 trillion in (nominal) appropriated funding across the entirety of American history.”
In recent months, she said unemployment was low because so many people are working two jobs (that’s not how it works), that the “upper-middle class doesn’t exist anymore” (it does), and that we’d save money on funeral expenses if we had “Medicare for All.”
If you point out the absurdity of these things, the almost instantaneous defense is that her critics are obsessed with an incoming-freshman congresswoman. In some cases, they’re right. The fixation some conservatives have with her clothes is over the top (though I did love one wag’s phrase, “Neiman Marxist”).
But what her defenders leave out is their own obsession with the woman.
In other words, AOC is quite brilliantly playing a lot of people for suckers. She already has more Twitter followers than the other 60 incoming freshman Democrats combined.
Ocasio-Cortez, wittingly or not, has appropriated a technique mastered by President Trump.
Trump prefers positive attention, but he’ll take negative attention over no attention every time, in part because he knows his supporters will intensify their dedication to him in response to allegedly unfair attacks. AOC is doing the same thing. By forcing partisans to take sides, she generates controversy. Controversy attracts media attention. Media attention generates even more controversy. And so on.
As with Trump, sometimes she clearly knows what she’s doing, and other times she simply displays her ignorance. But at this stage, it doesn’t matter. The more right-wing partisans attack her, the more left-wing partisans rally to her. The more left-wingers rally to her, the more justified the Right feels in paying attention to her.
I suspect this will be new model for years to come.
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