The Election Night spectacle on Fox News featuring an apparently unhinged Karl Rove taking on a roomful of data analyzers who had called the election for President Obama has me thinking that the whole thing might have been an elaborate stunt. First with a red sharpie and then with a barrage of figures that made anchor Megyn Kelly gasp (“Slow down! That’s too many numbers for me!”) Rove attempted to find a ray of light in every piece of bad Romney news the network was reporting.
To listen to the arguments coming out of Rove’s mouth, you had to think he was joking. But to look at his face, you would never think so. The purported political mastermind was unflappable and unfazed. He stirred doubt about the favorable Obama news out of Virginia and Ohio, drawing upon a magisterial command of precinct-by-precinct data and rough calculations of where as-yet-unreported votes for Romney might be lurking. Here is Jon Stewart’s uncommonly hilarious mockery of the “avalanche on Bullshit Mountain”:
If Rove is so smart and understands electoral politics as well as everyone says he does, how in the world could he flub this evening so badly?
One possibility is that Rove is less of a genius than we thought. Like Stephen Colbert’s parody of his right-wing pundit alter ego, Rove revealed himself as a man who mistrusts facts and puts all his faith in the wisdom of his gut.
Another possibility is that Rove really was on to something in pointing out discrepancies in the polls and maintaining the possibility that Romney had prevailed despite the projection of every major news source that Obama had won reelection. The “decision desk” guys were only “99.95 percent” confident in their Ohio projection, after all.
Or perhaps Rove’s genius was clouded by his massive investment in this election and that of the donors he courted who contributed hundreds of millions of dollars to support Romney’s bid to take the White House. On this view, the episode was a tidal wave of denial and wishful thinking.
But there is another explanation worth considering: maybe it was all a ruse, an elaborate plot to demonstrate how misinformation presented animatedly and relentlessly by a presumed expert can stir doubt in the minds of intelligent observers. Rove was pulling an Alan Sokal-style hoax, demonstrating how a person with epistemic authority can say utterly ridiculous things and convince innocent news anchors — Megyn Kelly and Bret Baier — to take them seriously. Watch Ms. Kelly’s awkward traipse over to the decision desk to run Rove’s wild claims by the Fox analysts who had called the election:
Intransigent, Rove kept fighting after Ms. Kelly returned to her anchor seat. But Fox never retracted its projection on Ohio or its “Obama Re-Elected” headline. In a contest with the facts, Karl Rove’s reputation and powers of persuasion met their match. Whether or not he meant to communicate this lesson, Rove’s performance on Tuesday night should give us renewed cause to stay on our epistemic guard. Ventures into postmodernland are not just for leftists anymore.
Follow Steven Mazie on Twitter: @stevenmazie