There’s an old saying in poker that, if you look around the table and can’t figure out who the sucker is, it’s probably you. Last week, a lot of people tuned in to watch the impeachment inquiry of the president begin and came away feeling like the sucker at the table. Ever so anxious to see the downfall of Donald Trump, all they bore witness to was the nothingness of the Democrats’ case. A hollow smear campaign masquerading as solemn and dutiful congressional oversight.
Following months of Democrats selectively leaking the strongest elements purporting to prove their claims, and failing to move the needle, is it really any wonder that the two days of testimony culminated in an enormous nothing? No smoking gun, no knock-out punch, and not even one person to say that they were ever even in the same room as the president. At the end of the day, the question isn’t “Where did the Democrats’ case go?” The true mystery is, why did anyone believe it in the first place?
Oddly enough, and sadly enough, the current impeachment fantasy shares, at its core, an identical structural form and presentation as another cultural phenomenon, the urban legend. The fuel of campfire stories and fodder for children’s slumber parties, urban legends persist through childhood and into adulthood, through college and, in the current case, into the United States Congress. Such myths or urban legends generate, thrive, and persist due to certain common elements which happen to be present in the current tale of Ukrainian corruption.
All urban legends begin with one universal commonality, an audience that wants, for whatever reason, to believe. A willingness to suspend reason and accept as fact, that which is not. Take, for example, the dying college roommate. Virtually everyone who went to college in the past thirty years knows that, for some inexplicable reason, if your roommate dies suddenly, you get a 4.0 for the semester. Nobody can be sure where exactly the myth comes from, but it spreads because people want to believe it. Scandalous accounts of corruption are no different. If you can come up with a story, you can find people who want to believe you, and the Democrats did just that.
Another common trait of urban legends is the ‘Friend of a Friend’ (or FOAF). Someone, never present or reachable at the time of storytelling, that can verify the tale. “My cousin was a nurse on duty at the hospital that night the celebrity came in with the embarrassing situation.” The supposed FOAF lends credence to the story, either out of reputation among the target group or the position he or she holds. The FOAF never appears to tell the story, yet such absence is overlooked by people hungry to believe. The FOAF serves to authenticate the story, despite their conspicuous absence, and lend credence to the tale. And the Democrats found their FOAF. Democrats found their FOAF in the form of an anonymous whistleblower.
Finally, a truly great and lasting urban legend utilizes an already existing narrative that, with the benefit of hindsight, can be easily manipulated to the storyteller’s deceptive ends. Words that clearly mean XYZ, carefully presented to mean ABC. Take one of the biggest urban legends of all time, the Phil Collins classic, In the Air Tonight. The lyrics, written in anger over a divorce, with the benefit of creative hindsight, became the story of witnessing a young boy drowning in a lake. An urban legend more popular and lasting than the hit song itself ever was.
This art of myth construction is eerily similar to the Democrats’ most recent attempt to fool the public. Adam Schiff and other propagators of the Ukrainian story began by appealing to a highly suggestible mass that was so desperate to believe. An impeachment-obsessed crowd that has swallowed every bit of fiction that has been dangled in front of them for three years. Be it Russian collusion, obstruction of justice, tax returns, or emoluments, a scandal-hungry left has screamed in unison, “Lie to me, I promise I’ll believe!” They have fallen for everything, gotten their hopes up, been let down, and run eagerly to the next opportunity to repeat the cycle. A desperate audience willing to buy whatever Schiff is selling. The unwitting suckers at the table.
Next, to sell their myth, Democrats introduced their FOAF. A mysterious whistleblower-intriguing, scandalous, exciting. The FOAF worked in the White House, so he must be credible. The FOAF could verify the tale of intrigue, if only you could speak to him. Unfortunately, true to urban legend form, you can’t speak to this FOAF, or examine his FOAF-tale. Ostensibly for his protection he must remain anonymous, yet in reality, any examination of this FOAF would destroy the story. A partisan Democrat and political ally of Joe Biden who met with Adam Schiff would destroy the credibility the FOAF brings to the story.
Finally, all the Democrats had to do was introduce a false narrative. A carefully crafted, hindsight manipulation. They took basic elements of the truth and applied different meanings. They paraphrased, just a little bit, here and there. Mischaracterized just enough. Inserted new phrases, like “dig up dirt” and “political rival”, making sure to use such phrases in every public statement despite their conspicuous absence in the actual Trump-Zelensky dialogue. Most importantly, before anyone was permitted to hear the unvarnished version, they assured them what they were going to hear. They heard “quid pro quo” because they were promised they would, and they wanted to. People heard “political rival” and “dig up dirt” because they were promised they would, and they were willing to.
Americans are now witnessing the largest political spectacle possible, all crafted in precisely the same manner as an urban legend, and some believe not simply because they are manipulated to, but because they want to. Did you know Phil Collins saw a kid get murdered in a lake? Go listen to the song, after you heard the false narrative, it’s almost impossible not to hear it. Especially when you, really, really, want to hear it.