Phantom Coups, Cognitive Distortions, and the Journos Who Love Them

Boris Yeltsin staring down a Communist coup in 1991. Journalists like to think they have a lot in common with Yeltsin lately, but they’re really just alcoholics while Yeltsin was an alcoholic hero.

The political commentariat has had a good run over the last couple months.

From breathless articles depicting phantom coups which never happened, then taking credit for preventing the coup that never happened, many writers have taken advantage of credulous readers eager to believe the worst. Myself, as what is known as a cynical skeptic by haters, I wager a coup requires tanks or at least some minimum of military support; and if it were to happen, these comfortable journos probably wouldn’t be writing about it from the comfort of home.

The tanks never rolled onto the White House lawn. Russian conspiracies to place a Manchurian candidate in the White House were never proven, although that doesn’t mean the belief he is has vanished. The much-coveted Pee Tape never surfaced.

A man can only be stimulated so much without release before it becomes painful.

Honestly, these catastrophist writers are the biggest teases I suspect the union has seen during my short life time. To be sure, if one reads some old pulp from the 18th, 19th, and 20th centuries, they’ll find papers peddling nonsense easily enough in addition to campaign ads accusing others of being hermaphrodites. It is the norm, not the exception. It is a rare event indeed when a newspaper, responsible for churning out content each and every day, puts out something worth consuming by anyone at least curious about the truth of the matter.

To deny this puts one on an interestingly difficult side of the thing. Although, those very same papers would assert the opposite. The most trusted name in news trusts you to keep watching, it seems.

I’ve used the term catastrophist several times already, I should likely define it.

The catastrophist of which I speak is not to be confused with geologists, who are quite justified I think, in being their own specific brand of catastrophist. The geologist holding this view believes the planet Earth’s layers of dirt and crust were formed due to sudden, violent changes. Fair enough. But that is not what I mean.

When I use the term here, I mean the catastrophist described by Cognitive Behaviorial Therapists. Catastrophism is considered a cognitive distortion by these folks, which is a fancy way of saying thinking wrong. Wrong being defined as out of step with reality or consistently negative for no good reason, I suppose. Therapists spend a lot of time trying to get people to quit believing the worst. They also spend a decent amount of time telling people to tune out the news.

How we make ourselves crazy, one headline at a time.

As an example, an insecure young man texts a (likely equally) insecure young woman and asks her if she’d like to get some coffee together. Hours go by without the young man receiving a response, so he begins to believe he has ruined the thing; and the young woman is now so repulsed by the very idea of going anywhere with him, she has spent the last several hours vomiting into a bath tub. In reality, her phone is dead, or in another room, or any other of the infinite possible explanations for her lack of response other than the catastrophic, imagined outcome which never materialized. Eventually, she says sure, I’ll get some coffee. You’re neat.

If only that young man could turn that catastrophic, cognitively distorted imagination of his towards political writing. What a pundit, he would be.

So what happens when you mix catastrophism with narcissism? Well, you get folks who slay imaginary dragons. Striking at mental apparitions like drunks in alleyways; but in this case, rather than pissing all over themselves, they’re writing headlines and attempting to spread their particular brand of insanity. This kind of thing is quite common, particularly in political writing.

Some of these wankers, like Dean Obeidallah, manage to expose their catastrophism right away. You know you’re dealing with a complete tool when they talk about illegal coups being attempted through legal courts. Institutions have existed to handle legal cases for centuries by now and challenges to election results are a long-standing, American tradition. Refusing to recognize that and opting instead to frame legal challenges as a coup lets you know the writer in question has issues dealing with reality. They are a dead-mind.

Others are more subtle, but by consequence more vague and less specific. They don’t phrase legal challenges as a coup, which is great, since coups are illegal. But they phrase them instead as attempts to erode the legitimacy of democratic institutions. They have more traction here than they do with the idea of an outright coup, to be clear. But only due to referring to something less concrete than tanks and missiles and such. They refer instead to trust in democratic institutions. This is the go-to for anyone who doesn’t have anything specific to say.

Still, there is something to this idea of an erosion of trust. It seems obvious this is in fact going on and one can place a good amount of the blame on catastrophist writers.

Myself, I haven’t trusted writers or news anchors or anyone on television since my late-teens. I saw some things which were then reported inaccurately by people who weren’t there the very same night; perhaps the topic of another story some day.

But those who claim not only was there a coup but they stopped it from occurring? These people are insane and hoping their readers are too. The courts throwing out the various GOP election challenges is part of the legal process, where one presumes the minimum requirements to move those suits forward weren’t met. It seems highly unlikely this was the result of judges reading The Atlantic rather than examining the merit of the cases.

Catastophists in the media don’t deserve credit for preventing a coup they made up. The legal system does, if anything. Of course, a legal coup is a contradiction in terms.

Interestingly, for me anyway, this is just another example of what epistemologists call the problem of induction. I’ve written about this problem in politics before, so if one would like a (hopefully) amusing summary of the thing they can find it linked below. But in brief, it means we have a tendency to assign improper causes to results we see. We fall prey to this problem in political considerations far more often than in others. In scientific inquiry, this problem is understood and we attempt to mitigate it through rigorous testing and observation. In politics, we never even acknowledge it.

Catastrophists of course take this thing to the next level. It is fairly totalitarian, in the sense the totality of the thing is entirely within them. They imagine the problem, they articulate the problem; then they say articulating the problem is itself how the problem is solved. This is also how academic philosophy works, most the time, as well. Some nerd dreams up a problem (like the problem of induction) just so they can solve it in ten chapters or less.

But not all philosophers claim they are the most trusted name in news. That’s just Marx and Engels.

For more on the Problem of Induction, how protests fit into that, and how easy it is to confuse a cat (or protester) about cause and effect, read here.

Like what you read? That’s weird and you should know psychologists are always available, but you can find the author’s wine-soaked ruminations on History and Change on sale here if you’re interested in more.

Attempted humorist, hobo historian, and complete idiot. Follow at for new stuff.