You know what Ginni Thomas and Vladimir Putin have in common? They are both sealed inside information bubbles of their own making, to disastrous ends.
Let's start with Putin. Russia's invasion of Ukraine has gone badly, but why? Brian Klaas, a politics professor at University College London, says Putin blundered into the war because he didn't have anyone around to tell him what he believed — that Ukrainians don't really have their own national identity, that the invasion would be a cakewalk — might not actually be true. Klaas calls this the "dictator trap."
"It's what happens when authoritarian leaders make catastrophic short-term errors because they start to believe in the fake realities they've constructed around themselves," Klaas said this week in an interview with Vox.
Maybe that sounds familiar. Echo chambers don't just happen to dictators. Nowadays, thanks to social media and tailored TV channels, anyone can enjoy their own fake reality.
Take Thomas, a powerful conservative activist and wife of Supreme Court Justice Clarence Thomas. The Washington Post reported Thursday on texts she sent to Mark Meadows, Donald Trump's chief of staff, around the time of the Jan. 6 insurrection, urging him to help Trump "stand firm" in efforts to overturn the 2020 election.
Strikingly, the texts suggest Thomas really believed some of the outlandish right-wing conspiracy theories pushed by Trump and his allies. Here's a text she sent Meadows, quoting one of those theories:
Biden crime family & ballot fraud co-conspirators (elected officials, bureaucrats, social media censorship mongers, fake stream media reporters, etc) are being arrested & detained for ballot fraud right now & over coming days, & will be living in barges off GITMO to face military tribunals for sedition.
That obviously never happened. It's not just wrong, it's nutty. Ginni Thomas, with connections at the highest levels of government, should've known better. But like a lot of people who also attended the "Stop the Steal" rally on Jan. 6, it seems she bought whatever right-wing websites were selling, no matter how far from reality. Contradictory facts and ideas — the truth that Joe Biden won — were filtered out.
Klaas thinks democracies are less susceptible to the dictator trap. Trump, he notes, obsessively watched CNN and MSNBC to see what people were thinking about him. But I'm not so sure that's right. After all, it's not been so long since American news organizations of all stripes — Fox News and the New York Times — coalesced around the shoddy case for a disastrous war. The Thomas texts suggest that even in today's more-fractured and diverse media environment, it's pretty easy to avoid disfavored voices and facts. And whether the information bubble is contained to one man or a large group of people, it can still have nasty consquences.
The tendency to believe only the facts we want to believe is a longstanding human foible. Not even society's elites are immune. You don't need to be a dictator to fall into the dictator trap.