Paul Krugman: Partisanship, Parasites, and Polarization: "Parasites are a huge force in the natural world.... A number... actually change their hosts’ behavior, in ways that benefit the parasites but damage and perhaps eventually kill their victims...

...Lately I’ve been wondering if that’s what’s happening to America. How much of our political sickness is the result of a parasitic infection? What I have in mind specifically is an infestation of direct-marketing scams that exploit and reinforce political partisanship, largely on the right, basically to sell merchandise.... What set me on this trail initially was learning that Ben Shapiro, the Young Conservative Intellectual du jour, is using his talk-show presence to market dietary supplements.... A lot of political action is driven by people trying to shape policy in a way that benefits them personally. But what the Shapiro/brain pills story drives home to me is that there’s another important factor in our current political scene: the use of political action as a marketing ploy, by people out to make a buck selling stuff that has little to do with politics per se. Rick Perlstein has already written the basic text....

Right-wing websites largely act as marketing centers for stuff like this:

Dear Reader, I’m going to tell you something, but you must promise to keep it quiet. You have to understand that the “elite” would not be at all happy with me if they knew what I was about to tell you. That’s why we have to tread carefully. You see, while most people are paying attention to the stock market, the banks, brokerages and big institutions have their money somewhere else . . . [in] what I call the hidden money mountain . . . All you have to know is the insider’s code (which I’ll tell you) and you could make an extra $6,000 every single month.

And some of the most influential voices on the right haven’t just sold advertising space to purveyors of snake oil, they’ve gotten directly into the snake-oil business themselves. Thus:

  • Glenn Beck in his heyday juiced up his viewers by telling them that Obama was going to unleash hyperinflation any day now; he personally cashed in by hawking overpriced gold coins.

  • Alex Jones makes a splash by claiming that school massacres are fake news, and the victims are really actors. But he makes his money by selling diet supplements.

  • Ben Shapiro writes critiques of liberal academics that conservatives consider erudite (remember Ezra Klein’s line about a stupid person’s idea of what a thoughtful person sounds like?), but makes his money the same way Alex Jones does.

Why should marketing scams be linked to political extremism? It’s all about affinity fraud: once you establish a persona that appeals to angry, aging white guys, you can sell them stuff that will supposedly protect their virility, their waistline, and their wealth. And at a grander level, isn’t that what Fox News is really about?... The Alex Joneses, Ben Shapiros, and Fox Newses of the world couldn’t profit from extremism unless there were some underlying predisposition of angry old white guys to listen to this stuff. But maybe the commercial exploitation of political anger is what has concentrated and weaponized that anger.... It’s really important to realize the extent to which peddling political snake oil, whether it’s about the economy, race, the effects of immigration, or whatever, is to an important extent a way to peddle actual snake oil...