Ready for the reckoning? President Donald Trump. Credit: Dustin Satloff/Getty

December 14, 2020   6 mins

How are you for Cope?

Are you a Copium addict? Do you spend your days with Lola at the Cope-acobana?

Cope is one of the supreme memes of 2020. It’s the idea that certain narratives are coping mechanisms that delay a painful collision with the truth. In short, it’s an amazing way to scythe through your opponent’s discourse, to write it off as mere conspiracy. Russiagate? Dems cope. Boris being crap because he’s in Carrie’s pocket? Tory copium so pure it comes from Afghanistan.

Cope is the thinking troll’s gaslighting, and equally on its way to being memed into sheer meaninglessness. Like gaslighting, cope is in the eye of the beholder. Your cope is my rock solid evidence. Yet another meme speaking to the cracks in our basic conceptions of reality.

In 2020, being under the influence of Cope is an accusation that must constantly be swatted away by the Trump loyalists of the online Right. There, in forums, on marathon YouTube chat sessions, a very different US election has been playing out. The various State Senate hearings, only muttered-of vaguely, if at all, on terrestrial TV, are taking centre-stage. They are raked over for the merest details, like latter-day OJ Simpson trials.

It’s a universe with its own stars: men like Colonel Phil Waldron, a former military intelligence officer, who gave detailed evidence at the Arizona hearings on how, statistically, the state’s ballot tallies are wildly improbable. Then there’s the Trump litigator Jackie Pick in Georgia, who showed the hearings video evidence of two women seemingly stuffing ballots in Fulton County. Or the US Postal Service truck driver, Jesse Morgan, from New York, who has testified that he broke the law by transporting ballots across state lines, into Pennsylvania.

The fraud was vast, but the scale of the swing to Trump took Democrat fraudsters by surprise, the narrative goes. In fact, it was such a landslide that the hacked Dominion voting machines algorithm, designed to output perhaps 13% more Biden votes than existed, couldn’t get past it. And that was why the counting stopped, so suddenly, in so many places, in the middle of the night of November 3. The classic illustration of this point being the famous ‘burst pipe’ in Fulton County: once given as the reason counting had to end suddenly, in the weeks since, it has been downgraded to “a urinal overflowing” — a twist of fate that did not impact the count.

This is a world where General Mike Flynn, Trump’s recently-pardoned former National Security Adviser, can state that he is “ten out of ten confident” that there will be a reversal in the electoral college. If any of this turns up good in court, then it’s Watergate-squared. Yet somehow, that great switcheroo always seems one tantalising court case away.

Scott Adams, Dilbert cartoonist and now hardened Trump-stumper, once famously conceived of blue and red America as watching “the same movie through different glasses”. These days, they’re in separate cinemas. These days, Adams gives hour-long vlogs, in which he discourses on Trump’s remaining paths to victory. Gently floating the thought experiment that there has never been a greater means (postal voting), nor a greater motive (defeating 21st century literal-Hitler) to commit massive electoral fraud.

Adams was one of the first people to point to Trump’s talents as a political mesmerist — in a blog he wrote in 2015 that predicted he’d win the Republican nomination “by a landslide”. A month back, in a vlog, he made another prediction: “this year America will have effectively two presidents”. Quite the claim. Yet even as the “safe harbour” date arrives — technically the moment at which the election results are sealed — it doesn’t feel as though his two presidents notion is dead in the water.

To anyone watching this scenario play out, there’s a grim fascination in seeing history’s biggest irresistible force heading towards its largest immovable object. If a massive systemic plot were to be revealed, the consequences would be so hideous it might prove better never to have known. Yet here we are, on the day the result will be certified, and it feels not as though there is a gradual deflation of expectations underway so much as a ramping-up, as the true believers await an ever-bigger deus ex machina.

Take the YouTuber Academic Agent’s Unpopular Opinions livestream. There, on Tuesday night, you could have heard the semi-popular opinion that “Trump strikes me as a wait till you see the whites of their eyes guy”. The idea being that the new court case just then breaking — Texas suing various Democrat-won states on the grounds that their new post-Covid electoral laws failed to make all states’ votes count equally — is the masterplan finally clicking into action, rather than one more salvo in an ongoing rear-guard action.

Of course, one problem with identifying cope is that the people who make the accusation against you so often do so in bad faith. Take, for instance, the conventional media, who have spent every waking hour desperately, incuriously telling us that this stuff is all, always and everywhere, false.

There may be some merit in some of Giuliani’s many cases, or they may all be meretricious. But courts are precisely the places where we test confusing claims. We’ve only just breached the 37 days it took Al Gore to concede to George W. Bush, yet the cases and hearings seem invisible. Sky, to take but one example, have so far seemed most enthused about the trajectory of Rudi Giuliani’s hair dye.

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Sometimes, you do wonder who’s coping who. A recent piece by David S. Cohen for Rolling Stone, on the Texas lawsuit, spends half its length protesting rather too much about why this one will definitely, 100%, totally-for-sure, fail. Overall, the post-election period has seen a huge acceleration of what you might call The Nigel Lawson Principle.

In 2017, Nigel Lawson was invited on the Today Programme to debate climate change against a scientist. There was an outcry. Lawson, it was argued, had no credentials in this area, yet his view was being treated as though it had equal value. The Beeb ultimately agreed (though Lawson was never speaking “as a scientist”, merely as an eminent person who had done his own reading).

From then on, a kind of precautionary principle took hold. The shepherding hand of the news media would decide not merely what was covered, but which people were “expert”, meaning inside or outside of the agreed epistemological tree of power. The Lawson Principle has meant that, increasingly, without the human equivalent of academic footnotes, you are automatically deprecated.

Silicon Valley has since embraced this principle, hard. Google “Fulton County Voter” and wait for auto-suggest. Out of a dozen answers, the one term it won’t give you is the one that is perhaps the most googled: “voter fraud”. It is happy, however, to point you to “voter suppression” — a speculative story about Republicans potentially under-registering black voters. To even find the source text — the full half-hour Fulton hearing video — on YouTube takes a certain skill, and the tenacity to wade through pages of edited ABC and CNN “debunkings”.

It doesn’t help either that the fact-checking industry is increasingly aligned to only one side, as anyone who has encountered the once-great Snopes in modern times will know. Snopes debunked a claim that Biden had lied by publicly accusing the truck driver who killed his wife and child in an auto accident of being drunk. The “definitive fact-checking site” claimed Biden’s unsusbtantiated and very public attack was actually “a mixture” because: “No definitive evidence exists to prove or rule out whether the other driver had been drinking”. Biden had “probably heard it from others in the community”.

Equally, according to the fact-checkers at CNN, the fact that Trump won 18 of the 19 bellwether counties doesn’t matter, because that could be mere statistical fluke. Fair enough. But it also sounds like precisely the kind of eyebrow-raising statistical fluke that would demand a stewards enquiry from a Nate Silver type under other circumstances.

When merely chasing a straight answer becomes a diverting, gamified internet pastime in itself, you should expect the people who bother to seek out the details to become both enchanted with the process, and convinced that something is being hidden from them. As if to illustrate this more fully, last week, YouTube announced that it would begin deleting videos that referred to anyone other than Joe Biden as President-elect after the safe harbour date. A perfect way to ensure the two screens never meet again.

But all movies end. As the window for a reversal closes, what will happen to all those who’ve stuck with the alternative narrative?

In Copeland, the supreme fantasy is that Justice Kavanagh — so wildly shellacked by the Democratic Party in his confirmation hearings — will deliver the majority verdict on the Supreme Court decision, to pronounce Trump the winner.

But if that — somehow — proves impossible, the annoying truth is that the election becomes a mere sub-plot in an ongoing arc. The average cope user can still point to a few headline facts which are indisputably true, yet also wave in the general direction of conspiracy. A makeweight like Biden now has 81 million votes. 12 million more than Obama in his epoch-making pomp. Does that feel logical?

After all, we’ve had four years of Trump Derangement Syndrome, of Russiagate, of porous impeachments, and Carole Cadwalladr retractions. Now, an equal but opposite meltdown is brewing. The only difference is that you will have to go much further out of your way before you encounter it.

Gavin Haynes is a journalist and former editor-at-large at Vice.