Participating in a mob carries a risk similar to that of reveling in being part of the majority (or “the people,” or the righteous). The risk is that the mob or the majority can turn against you. It happened to some Red Guards in Mao’s time, and it is occasionally happening in America too, arguably more and more often on the left as on the right, among the Trumpians and the woke.
Consider the story of Ray Epps (“A Trump Backer’s Downfall as the Target of a Jan. 6 Conspiracy Theory,” New York Times, July 13, 2022) and its latest twist. Mr. Epps was a business owner in Arizona and a fan of Donald Trump, whose self-serving lies about the stolen election he believed. At the last minute, he decided to travel to the January 6, 2021 demonstration at the Capitol. During a pro-Trump rally the preceding night , he was videotaped encouraging people to peacefully march to the Capitol the next day. It is reported that some in the mob already accused him of being a federal agent. He did go to the Capitol on January 6, also showing the direction to some demonstrators. He interposed between the police and a demonstrator, telling him that the cops were only doing their job. He left before the violence started.
After January 6, Trump’s followers tried to shift the blame for the violence on antifa demonstrators, and then on federal agents provocateurs. They saw the videotape of January 5. The New York Times explained what followed:
The problems began for Mr. Epps almost as soon as Revolver News published its first article about him in October. Suddenly, there were emailed death threats; trespassers on his property demanding “answers” about Jan. 6; and acquaintances, fellow members of his church, even family members who disowned him, he said.
NBC (“Pro-Trump Protester Ray Epps Seeks Retractation of Conspiracy Theory from Tucker Carlson,” NBC News, March 23, 2023) further explains:
The video gained significant attention among some prominent conservatives in Congress. In addition to being spread by Fox News, the Epps conspiracy theory was featured in right-wing outlets such as One America News and Carlson’s Jan. 6 documentary series “Patriot Purge.”
Quoting the New York Times again:
Eventually, Mr. Trump joined the fray, mentioning Mr. Epps at one of his political rallies and lending fuel to a viral Twitter hashtag, #WhoIsRayEpps.
Epps was being witch-hunted by his own mob. Under threats and intimidation, banned from righteous populist company, he and his wife sold their house and the family business, and fled incognito to a mobile home in the foothills of the Rockies.
The latest twist is that Epps is threatening to sue Fox News and Tucker Carlson if the latter does not publicly retract his “false and defamatory statements.” I don’t personally condone antidefamation laws, which make some people scared to speak and others more gullible (if he has not sued, it must be true!). But it is easy to understand Mr. Epps’s anger at being betrayed by the political mob he followed; and to sympathize with his plight.
A related fact illustrates the dismal state of politics, the gullibility of large part of the public, and the immorality of media enablers. Former Playboy model Karen McDougal had previously sued Fox News after host Tucker Carlson opined that she had extorted presidential candidate Trump into indirectly paying $150,000 to prevent her from revealing an affair between them. In September 2020, U.S. District Judge Mary Kay Vyskocil ruled in favor of Fox News by accepting the argument that Carlson should not be known for reporting facts, as her decision suggests:
Fox News first argues that, viewed in context, Mr. Carlson cannot be understood to have been stating facts, but instead that he was delivering an opinion using hyperbole for effect. … This “general tenor” of the show should then inform a viewer that he is not “stating actual facts” about the topics he discusses and is instead engaging in “exaggeration” and “non-literal commentary.” … Fox persuasively argues … that given Mr. Carlson’s reputation, any reasonable viewer “arrive[s] with an appropriate amount of skepticism” about the statements he makes. … Whether the Court frames Mr. Carlson’s statements as “exaggeration,” “non-literal commentary,” or simply bloviating for his audience, the conclusion remains the same—the statements are not actionable.
One could claim that all this only proves the existence of a conspiracy to hide Mr. Epps’s status as a FBI agent provocateur. This is not totally impossible, but very unlikely. Which illustrates again the shaky epistemological status of conspiracy theorizing.