And when we inflate the stakes of nearly every political engagement to the point that it takes on existential dimensions, we create the conditions in which paranoia thrives. Americans are besotted with conspiratorial theories of everything. Whole alternative media ecosystems exist only to reinforce the notion that large segments of society are being persecuted by unseen but omnipotent forces. There is always an element of truth in these assertions. Black Lives Matter protesters are not without evidence that there are bad actors in American police forces, some of whom are capable of profound cruelty. Trump proponents are right when they accuse some in the professional bureaucracy of violating long-observed standards of law and decency in their efforts to oppose the president. But it has become common for aspiring office-seekers to amplify these isolated episodes of malfeasance into a vast plot in which whole American institutions are implicated in corruption on an untold scale. Voters take these assertions to the logical conclusion: America’s institutions aren’t the solution, they’re the problem. And this only accelerates the cycle of fatalism, disengagement, and radicalization.
The result has been a great winnowing. Those who can divest from this unrewarding and psychologically taxing spectacle already have. Those who can’t or won’t are all that’s left—a chorus of uncompromising zealots for whom nothing is out of bounds in the pursuit of their agendas. The only option available left to you, then, is to radicalize yourself. How else can you compete on the same terms as your adversaries? Thus, the radicalization and counter-radicalization reaches the point of critical mass.