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Opinion | Welcome to the R.N.C.’s Alternate Universe

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One of the biggest lessons I’ve learned covering the daily information wars of the Trump era is that a meaningful percentage of Americans live in an alternate reality powered by a completely separate universe of news and information.

Some are armed with their own completely fabricated facts about the world while others, as the journalist Joshua Green wrote in this section in 2017, rearrange our shared facts “to compose an entirely different narrative.” There is little consensus on the top story of the day or the major threats facing the country. You will have noticed this if you’ve ever watched a congressional hearing and flipped between CNN or MSNBC and Fox News. The video feed is the same but the interpretation of events is radically different.

Personally, I’ve never seen a clearer demonstration of the Two Universes phenomenon than this week’s Republican National Convention.

For three nights, in a shameless display of loyalty to President Trump, the party has conjured up what my colleague Frank Bruni described as an “upside-down vision” of the world. Theirs is a universe in which the coronavirus pandemic is largely in the rear view (on Aug. 25, 1,136 Americans died from the virus) and where, according to Representative Matt Gaetz, radical Democrats threaten to “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home and invite MS-13 to live next door.” A universe where the existential dangers of climate change pale in comparison to those of cancel culture — even as the West is ravaged by blackouts and wildfires and the Gulf Coast is slammed by a devastating hurricane.

This week, my colleague Jamelle Bouie described some of what we’re seeing as the “Fox Newsification of the Republicans” by “a president who rose to political power via the cable news channel and who exists in a codependent relationship with the network.”

The comparison is apt, as Fox News has been extremely successful in crafting and selling an alternate reality to its viewers each night for well over a decade. The trick is to evoke two dueling emotions — fear and devotion — one conspiracy theory at a time. Fox News has mastered this and so has the R.N.C.

It’s why the convention paraded out Patricia McCloskey — one half of the St. Louis couple who went viral for wielding guns at Black Lives Matter protesters. Her message was designed to provoke feelings of victimhood and racial fear.

“What you saw happen to us could just as easily happen to any of you who are watching from quiet neighborhoods around our country,” she said. “Make no mistake: No matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.”

That threat is far more potent when it’s paired with a second alternate reality: that Donald Trump is the one and only competent protector, the “bodyguard of Western civilization,” as the R.N.C. speaker Charlie Kirk put it on Monday evening.

The power of a conspiracy theory is to offer an easy explanation for something uncomfortable, which is why conspiracy theories thrive during times of alienation or social change. But while one conspiracy theory can be dangerous on its own, it is not a worldview. It’s when you stitch enough of them together that an alternate reality forms.

This same convergence phenomenon is also behind the alarming growth of the QAnon movement, which now acts as a big tent for conspiracies — actively courting and absorbing other fringe theories into its sprawling narrative. Adrian Hon, a developer who designs alternate reality games, told me recently that QAnon’s dynamics remind him of the worlds he’s helped create, calling it “a collaborative fiction built on wild speculation that hardens into reality.”

My colleague Paul Krugman recently pointed out similarities between the conspiracy movement and Mr. Trump’s campaign effort, though he doesn’t think the “desperate strategy” will work.

Having reported on the pull of these alternate realities up close, I don’t feel certain about any outcome anymore. It’s hard to see things clearly or make predictions in such a fractured information ecosystem. And as The Times contributor Thomas Edsall notes, we’ll be stuck here for a while — Mr. Trump’s rhetorical strategy “will have long term consequences for the Republican Party.”

If you’d like more analysis on how that strategy played out in Night 3 of the R.N.C., my colleagues offer their views on the highs and lows here. My only prediction is that, no matter the outcome in November, I doubt we’ll be returning to shared reality anytime soon.

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