There’s a joke about a guy who gets anxious on airplanes. The passenger next to him, trying to be helpful, suggests ways he might relax. A drink? A Xanax? A movie, or a nice nap? The anxious man shakes his head, annoyed. He can’t relax. He can’t lose focus. He can only sit, gripping the arm rests, staring straight ahead in a state of white-knuckled, sphincter clenching terror. Why?
Because his terror is the only thing keeping the plane in the air.
This notion of anxious acting-out as our sole line of defense against chaos — call it the Control Freak’s Fallacy — isn’t new, but it is certainly having a moment in the run-up to the 2020 election. Like the man keeping the plane aloft with the power of his mind, many people seem convinced that their social media posts are the only thing standing between us and the downfall of democracy itself. You must post relentlessly. Desperately. Hourly. You must post like your life depends on it. The fate of the nation is in your hands — at least, as long as you’re holding your phone in them.
Who is the audience for all these urgent digital missives? Is there anyone out there who still doesn’t know that Donald Trump is up for reelection (and will, I hope, be defeated) on November 3, or even one person interested in casting a ballot who hasn’t made up his mind yet? My immediate bubble of liberal-progressive pals seem convinced that they’re speaking to a deep blue sea of untapped virgin or ambivalent swing voters, all ready to turn left forever if only they’re exposed to the proper selection of earnest political memes. (That the incessant peer pressure might alienate the last few fence-sitters toward a Trump vote, purely for the sake of nonconformity, doesn’t seem to have occurred to anyone…or maybe we’re just that confident that any person with a hint of Republican sympathies has long since been purged from our social circles in the wave of mass unfriendings that followed the 2016 election.) Pyramid-style quote-tweets have become a thing on Twitter again, a digital echo chamber of the same phrase on eternal repeat. Instagram Stories, once a treasure trove of esoteric snapshots or personal mini-narratives, are homogenized: everyone reposting the same quote or screencap from the same accounts. The accoutrements might vary — sometimes the clapping hands emoji, sometimes an emphatic THIS! — but the song remains the same, and everyone knows the words.
Why are we spending our time this way? How did we become so convinced that this, of all things, is the best way to make a difference? As if the election will be won or lost on the strength of our emoji game. As if there’s a post out there, yet to be written, that would cause Donald Trump to defenestrate himself from the White House and save us the trouble of voting him out — or better yet, wink him out of existence entirely. They’d find the Oval Office empty, nothing but a small pile of ash on the presidential chair, no sign of its occupant save for the cell phone resting on the desk with the Twitter app still open. A Secret Service agent gingerly lifts the device as various cabinet members hover. He gasps.
Pence: What? What is it?
Secret Service Agent: It’s…it’s a dunk, sir. The most savage I’ve ever seen.
Pence: My God…
Agent: Avert your eyes, Mister Vice President. We don’t know what kind of legs this thing has.
Of course, the post that wins the election — let alone causes the loathed Commander-in-Chief to literally implode — is only a myth, something along the lines of the legendary ‘brown note’ whose vibratory frequency prompts human bowels to spontaneously evacuate. It’s an entertaining, trollish fantasy of control, the idea of owning someone so hard that they change their vote (or soil their pants), and it’s especially tantalizing at a time when the real levers of power have never seemed so slippery and out of reach. Donald Trump enjoys a peculiar, infuriating impunity: for four years, we’ve watched him flout every basic rule of human decency, engaging in the sort of norm-destroying behavior that would spell any other politician’s downfall, only to skate away unscathed just when we’re sure that we’ve got him this time.
But this time, surely, things will be different. American cities are burning, 200,000 people and counting have died of coronavirus, and not even Trump with his I-could-shoot-someone-on-Fifth-Avenue impunity is going to escape his comeuppance in this election…or so we tell ourselves, and each other, in fevered hopes of manifesting a political win into existence. And that’s the secret: all this frantic posting isn’t meant for undecided voters at all. It’s the apex of a digital pep rally on the eve of our biggest Big Game, where generating the proper spirit is as much about trash-talking the other guys as it is cheering on our own. We’re letting our hair down, taking our masks off, and filling our social media bubbles with the thunder of impending change. Loud, louder, loudest. We’ve got him this time, guys. Really. Definitely. The memes don’t lie. This time, please, for the love of all that is good and pure, we cannot take anymore. This time, we’ve got him.