Last week was the first article in a new multi-part series on trust in the 21st century. I began by talking about the growing number of people who believe in conspiracy theories. This message—that for several reasons we tend to trust others less than we used to—has one major exception: influencers. Today, I want to dive deeper, not into the conspiracy theories themselves, but rather the people who are spreading them — and why we are so uniquely positioned to believe these people even while we grow increasingly distrustful of the institutions designed to keep them in check.
In June of 2013, an NSA contractor named Edward Snowden dropped what most consider to be the largest and most consequential leak of classified documents in U.S. history. These documents, and the story they told of a global network of illegal surveillance programs, captivated headlines — making Snowden a folk hero to some and the world’s most notorious traitor to others. What everyone can agree on, is what to call him: a whistleblower. His actions were significant because he stood as one man alone in the gap between truth and power. And if I know one thing for sure, we Westerners, especially Americans, love it when one person heroically stands up to power.
Many of today's influencers and politicians would like us to think that they too are whistleblowers just like Snowden. The anchors of upstart “media” networks, fiery podcast hosts, and viral TikTok stars all position themselves as outsiders, willing to stand up to power and tell us the “real truth.” But of course, today's “whistleblowers” aren’t whistleblowers at all. Sure they stand on the outside of powerful institutions and call for transparency, but they are missing the one key characteristic that makes true whistleblowers believable: accountability.
When Snowden blew the whistle, he lost everything: family, friends, home, safety, and probably a thousand more things I don’t know about. When today's influencers call out powerful people and institutions, they grow their influence. Snowden sacrifice serves as a power validation of the truth of his claims. But, how are we supposed to trust the words of a person who claims to be telling us the truth, when they stand to gain so much by our believing them? This question, which to me seems so obvious, hasn’t stopped people in droves from following and believing rouge influencers — and I think I might know why.
Our Appetite for Influencers, A History
A quick history lesson can reveal to us two characteristics that make us more susceptible to the message of an “outsider influencer.” Beginning with the Enlightenment up and through the mid-twentieth century, these two characteristics shifted the perspectives of the average American.
The first of these shifts was what Gardner Howard and Katie Davis note in their book, “The App Generation,” as a transition from the “tradition-directed individual” to the “inner-directed” individual. The research most quoted when discussing this shift comes from sociologist David Riesman and his colleagues in 1950. Their work became known as “The Lonely Crowd” study. According to their research: “The tradition-directed individual looked to the examples of those who came in preceding generations for patterns of what to believe and how to behave.” In contrast, the inner-directed individual, “attempted to develop an internal compass that came to govern his or her behavior and belief systems.”
As I write this article, I am finally getting around to reading Doris Kearns Goodwin’s “Team of Rivals,” which tells the story of Abraham Lincoln and the group of men who led our nation through one of its darkest periods. What is most fascinating about the early life of the four protagonists of the book, set in the second half of the 19th century, is that while each grew up completely different in terms of family, socio-economic, and even political environments, each man felt a calling to seek their own “fame and fortune in the Wild West, the big city, or the recesses of their own imaginative powers.” Whereas the tradition-directed individual would have achieved value by adhering to and proliferating the traditions of his or her people, the inner-directed individual was much more concerned with their own personal legacy. In my book, “Ready for Real Life,” I argue that the main reason for this shift was identity. The tradition-directed individual’s identity was wrapped up in his or her people and family. To lose their tribe’s identity, was to lose their own identity. The inner-directed individual’s identity, by contrast, was singular and specific. They could lose their people, without losing themselves. Today, there are almost as many “identities” as there are people.
You can also see this transition in the way media has encouraged self-expression over the last 70 years. “Pre-1960s, the most powerful voices all encouraged members of society to become more like everyone else. Since the 1960s, most of the influential voices in America told the American people to ‘be yourself.’” Increasingly, the desire to ‘be themselves’ has led leaders to see institutions in government, education, and the corporate sector as platforms for their own benefit. Rather than channeling their ambition and power in the service of other people, or of broader causes, these leaders see only how they can utilize the institutional brand to promote themselves.
Many years after the Enlightenment period, in the-mid twentieth century, a historian named Warren Susman argued that another shift was beginning to take place. It was not a shift of identity but of values. As these inner-directed people were determining how they were going to leave their legacy, a new belief about the path to success began to emerge:
"American values had traditionally emphasized a collection of qualities we might shorthand as “character”: honesty, diligence, an abiding sense of duty. The rise of mass media changed those terms, Susman wrote. In the media-savvy and consumption-oriented society that Americans were building, people came to value—and therefore demand—what Susman called “personality”: charm, likability, the talent to entertain.”
It is amazing to consider that Susman wrote these words in the 1950s — scarcely able to fathom how true they would become with the emergence of reality TV, social media, and sensationalized news headlines. What Susman was likely responding to was the now famous presidential election of 1952, which was the first to include the short and pithy political television ad and the first to feature live election night TV coverage. The entrance of spectacle into what was previously a rather tedious debate about the political future of the nation had changed everything. There is no time to figure out what kind of character our favorite candidate might possess in a 30-second TV spot. So instead, we adjust our values to fit the medium, choosing our candidate the same way we pick our favorite late-night TV host: Who do I like the most? (In the election of 1952, the answer for most Americans was simple: “I Like Ike!”)
Megan Garber, in her urgent and necessary article in the Atlantic earlier this year, summarized our now fully mature penchant for likability over character poignantly: “All the world’s a stage” was once a metaphor;” she says, “today, it’s a dull description of life in the Metaverse.”
So then, allow me to summarize this combined Western ideal in just a few words. We Westerners tend to value people who are aggressively self-reliant, unbeholden to any institution, outwardly and independently successful, charismatic, talented, and likable. The average American is so in love with the idea of this “charismatic outsider” that we idolize this person over and over in our television, our books, our movies, our art, and even our myths.
It should be no surprise then, that this same Westerner’s perspective is that the “charismatic outsider” (as opposed to the institutional insider) is uniquely poised to tell us the real truth.
The Holy Fool
If you’ve not read Malcolm Gladwell’s, “Talking to Strangers,” I highly recommend it. One of the central ideas of the book is that we struggle to communicate effectively with those around us because we have several internal mechanisms (some innate and others learned) that condition us to misunderstand others.
One such mechanism is our penchant to “default to truth.” Gladwell argues that so long as our suspicions are not alerted, the average person tends to trust what is being told to them. The rare person who doesn’t is considered an outsider. They never seem able to “go along with the crowd” because their lack of trust causes friction with the “everyday citizens” around them. When these individuals stand up to power and fight for truth over conformity they become something else: what Gladwell calls “The Holy Fool.”
“Holy Fools” (most often called whistleblowers in modern times) are willing to sacrifice loyalty to their institutions, and in many cases the support of their peers, in the service of exposing fraud and deceit and unveiling truth. “Holy” refers to their noble purpose, and “fool” refers to their perpetual ability to make life harder for themselves. We need “Holy Fools” in our society. They are the ones who expose fraudsters, uncover inconsistencies, and ultimately hold powerful institutions accountable. The problem is, that today the idea of a “Holy Fool” has so enraptured our social consciousness, that this role, which previously made one a social outcast, now makes them powerful.
Today, being an “institutional outsider” is seen as a positive thing — even among those who are not outsiders at all. Barack Obama won on his ‘outsider identity’ though he graduated from some of the top schools in the country and was a career politician. McCain, running against him, positioned his campaign on a similar message. ‘Outsider’ Bernie Sanders has been in national politics since the early 90s. ‘Outsider’ Ted Cruze went to Princeton. And even political ‘outsider’ Donald Trump grew up as a member of the rich elite.
Today’s “Holy Fools” are, with some exceptions, not burdened with holy purpose. At the very least, we have no way of telling if their purpose is noble. Today’s influencers utilize the tools of the digital world to spread their message, increase their followers, and expand their power with little to no accountability. Their stand for their own personal causes of injustice doesn’t give them less power, it gives them more. This is why they are not actually “Holy Fools” at all. Whereas previous generations of influential leaders needed institutions to help them rise to the level of national and global prominence, today’s influencers see institutional affiliation as a burden rather than the refining fire it once was.
So if today’s influencers are not “Holy Fools” and they aren’t “whistleblowers” what are they?
A Lesson and A Warning
German-American Historian and Philosopher Hannah Arendt, a Holocaust survivor, once mused:
“The skill of the totalitarian leader is the ability immediately to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.”
Aldous Huxley once observed,
"The propagandist’s purpose is to make one set of people forget that certain other sets of people are human.”
Both of these thinkers, I believe, were talking about the same kind of leader. What they both realized is that there is a certain archetype of a leader who possesses an ability to convert unrelated events and activities and show how they fit with or are opposed to their own purpose. To their loyal followers, they have become the only reliable ‘truth-tellers;’ fighting for a righteous cause. Their words dripping with disgust for “the other.” They say what no one else is willing to say and that polite society refuses to utter. There is a fitting word for these kinds of people: narcissists.
Narcissists are self-important. Preoccupied with power and success. They are entitled, arrogant, and have even clinically been shown to lack empathy for others. These men and women do not tell their followers the “truth” about conspiracy theories, government plots, or secret ambitions of public figures because they are on some holy mission. They play on our proclivity to “default to truth” and our penchant to follow self-made, successful, and charismatic people in order to get the one thing they desire most: to see their own importance in the eyes of their admirers. And when we bestow upon them the title of “Holy Fool” we play right into their hands.
I want to close with a lesson and a warning. There is something in these words to be learned about how to gain and maintain influence. With the ideas I’ve been discussing here in mind, the strategies used by influencers will begin to appear more and more transparent to you. So first, consider the ways in which you have been susceptible to the pull of the “Holy Fools” in your orbit. Which of your favorite podcasts are playing the “us versus them” card a little too often? Which of your reposts should you have investigated a little more? What “justices” are you fighting for online because if you don’t they are set to “doom America?” (If you are looking for a tell, take notice of how often narcissistic influencers tell you that “they” are endangering your children — it’s the oldest trick in the book.)
Finally, take care with how you use these powers yourself. Even as I sit here writing to you, it would be easy for me to play the “Holy Fool;” to claim that I am somehow morally superior to the intentionally unnamed people I’ve been talking about in this article. I must actively make myself remember that I am not. To combat my innate lust for power and privilege I attempt to follow the words of one of my favorite books, “Playing God,” by Andy Crouch.
"True greatness and true power,” he says, “is faithful all the way down, including being humbly quick to admit limitedness, sin, and brokenness, and to ask for forgiveness."
“Holy Fools” make fools of us all, by leading us to believe that the path to trust is about power, attention, and authority. But this is not where deep and lasting trust is found — in this or any century. More on that when we wrap up next week.