When Donald J. Trump was elected president of the United States last night, politicians, pollsters, and pundits all wondered how they had been so terribly wrong about the intentions of the electorate. The explanations ranged from the technical—incorrect weighting of poll responses—to the systemic—blindness to small town and rural Americans. Watching the election coverage last night, one could see on the blanching faces of the pundits and analysts the exact moment they realized that Trump was on track to win. It was probably at 9:00 PM, when Minnesota and Wisconsin came in as too close to call when polls said they never should have been competitive.
Here in Albany, New York, a heavily Democratic region, the mood on the street was grim. In my admittedly small part of the world, people out and about this morning were ashen-faced and upset, though part of that is likely due to the cold, rainy weather. One group, however, was not. The working class white men already at work in the early hours of this morning were excited.
“Say good-bye to your Obamacare for me,” one supermarket shelf-stocker said to an African-American colleague, only half in jest. She responded, “Why do you always have to call it Obamacare? It’s the Affordable Care Act, and it doesn’t apply to us because we get health care from the company.”
A group of construction workers were equally excited. “I don’t like liars,” one said to his colleagues between puffs on a cigarette. “All the politicians, they’re always lying.” Oblivious to irony, he praised Trump for speaking the “truth.” “He says what I’m thinking about the country.”
At the local barbershop where I get my hair cut, conversation turned to the election at opening time, but didn’t stay there. They seemed to realize that it wasn’t possible to talk rationally about what happened. The barbershop has a mix of white, black, and Latino barbers and an a diverse, if plurality white, clientele. They switched CNN off the TV, and the barbershop went uncharacteristically silent.
Many pundits this morning noted that the Trump coalition was composed of four partially overlapping demographic groups: white people, men, older adults, and those without a college education. I want to point out that this is also the exact demographic audience for fringe history, especially the fringe history offered on channels like History. (The demographics of History Channel viewers are 75% male, almost all white, mostly over 50, and on the lower end of the socioeconomic spectrum.) I’ve said it before, and I’ll say it again: Fringe history has been the canary in the coal mine, foretelling what was to come.
Let us leave aside that, in my admittedly unscientific survey, a majority of American (citizen or resident) fringe historians, conspiracy theorists, “white genocide” Solutrean believers, and Nephilim hunters, openly or tacitly supported Trump, including Alex Jones, L. A. Marzulli, Steve Quayle, David Wilcock, Scotty Roberts, J. Hutton Pulitzer, John de Nugent, etc. The most prominent to oppose Trump was probably Giorgio Tsoukalos, an admitted liberal, who tweeted (sort of) support for Hillary Clinton.
It is, to my mind, hardly a coincidence that the current wave of fringe history began in the spring of 2009, with the launch of Ancient Aliens just three months after Barack Obama, the nation’s first African American president, took office. It was followed by Holy Grail in America that same year, a show about pre-Columbian European colonization of America, which served as a test run for America Unearthed and helped to inspire Curse of Oak Island and other similar shows that seek to extend the depth of time white people have rule America. Other fringe history documentaries had aired in similar timeslots on similar channels and failed to resonate, but these did gangbusters business right in time to capture the reaction against the cosmopolitan, globalized world that Obama represented.
Fringe history is not about the past. It is about the present, and about our culture today. It always has been, from the early days when it served to justify imperialism and colonialism and slavery, to more recent times when it represents a fantasy version of history where selected groups get to imagine a glorious history in which they earned the divine right to power and prestige over other groups. Today’s fringe history, as sold in the media, is about appealing to a certain segment of white Americans’ longing for a history that places them at the center of world history, in command of events, in control of America, and in touch with the divine. The media are amoral, and the fact that so many shows and books promote these narratives speaks to the media’s calculation that it represents a core of white Americans’ psyches.
I erred in trying to contextualize this by suggesting that the 1 to 6 million people who watch any given show are a vanishingly small percentage of the American population. But the fact is that if the media thought there were an audience for an opposing narrative, it would be on TV. It isn’t. This should tell us where the culture outside of the elite currently sits. I don’t have any way of knowing, but my feeling is that the audience for shows about fringe history, cryptozoology, ghost-hunting, and other pseudoscience on TV doesn’t overlap as much as I once thought, and a larger number of people have at least some exposure to the different branches of bad ideas and their cultural messages.
Last week, I was talking with a contractor, the American-born son of Eastern European immigrants, and he asked about my work. I described some of my books, and he said that he loves the History Channel, especially Curse of Oak Island. The interesting thing is that he wasn’t able to recall the name of the show, or to differentiate it from America Unearthed or Ancient Aliens, with which he had gotten parts of it confused. What he did remember clearly, though, is that it was about how all the different Europeans came to America before Columbus and how the real history of Europeans in America was being suppressed. By whom? I asked. He didn’t know. It was just something the TV said. He wasn’t even really aware of any of the implications of the messages these programs send, but something about them just resonated, at an almost subconscious level.
Since that was depressing, I thought I might end on a humorous note. The Daily Mail published an absolutely awful article by Shivali Best about the scientific study that claims the Santorini eruption of 1600 BCE set off devastating tsunamis through pyroclastic flow. The article tries to tie this event to the destruction of Atlantis and makes two ridiculous claims. The first is that Atlantis is “one of the oldest myths of mankind.” This is ridiculous since it dates back only to the time of Plato, around 360 BCE, younger than the Iliad or the Odyssey. The second, in a sidebar, is a laughable example of circular logic revolving around the Minoan settlement of Akrotiri on Santorini: “Assuming that Atlantis was actually Akrotiri, means that the island was actually the lost Atlantis.” Well, yes, if I assume that writer Shivali Best is actually a chatbot that generates randomized word salad for articles, then that would also mean Best is actually a chatbot. Q.E.D.
I am an author and researcher focusing on pop culture, science, and history. Bylines: New Republic, Slate, etc. There's more about me in the About Jason tab.
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