The man who recently leaked world-shaking classified government documents is reportedly a gun-happy bigot who was trying to impress his teenage gaming buddies in a Discord clubhouse. The Washington Post broke the news in a terrific story incorporating conversations with one of the man’s pre-adult acolytes. It seems the leaker, known by fans as “OG,” pilfered the documents from the military base where he worked. And you can bet he’s a nobody. As the Post notes: “Thousands of military personnel and government employees around OG’s age, working entry-to-low-level positions, could plausibly have access to classified documents like the ones he allegedly shared.” But that didn’t stop him from becoming, first, king of the digital Lilliputians and, then, a threat to national security. OG “appears to have persuaded some highly impressionable teenagers that he’s a modern-day gamer meets Jason Bourne.”

And that’s how we arrived at our latest geopolitical crisis: cosplay gone wrong. A nonentity in the real world pulls a bunch of gamer kids into his fantasy life and rocks diplomatic relationships around the globe.

This may be a new phenomenon in global security, but it’s already an old one in our public life. Look at the other big stories of the day. Expelled Tennessee lawmaker Justin J. Pearson, now the face of progressive social justice, looks like a Black Panther and speaks like a Baptist preacher. And it’s all a put-on—a researched and rehearsed portrayal of a civil-rights/black-power icon. A video clip shows Pearson, while running for president of Bowdoin College’s student government in 2016, looking and sounding like an insurance pitchman. Sometime after that, he created a character as different from himself as Peewee Herman is from actor Paul Reubens. And then he foisted it onto our politics and was rewarded handsomely.

Then there’s corporate America’s favorite trans activist Dylan Mulvaney, whose ubiquitous Toni Basil routine is as sad as it is lucrative. In the past two years, Mulvaney has earned over $1.5 million for portraying a hyperactive cheerleader. The national conversation on trans identity is now dominated by this cartoon creation.

Most tragic are the young mass shooters who dive headfirst into a demonic fantasy where they see killing as the remedy to their powerlessness. The portraits that emerge from their manifestos and digital trails is almost always of young men who gradually “become” the mass shooters they look up to. This is what it means to be a copycat. They are imitating other killers. They dress the part, talk the part, live the part. Their fantasy is finally made real when they commit the act.

One of the signal peculiarities of the 21st century is how much our lives are shaped by officially endorsed make-believe, by fantasies given the ontological status of reality. This trend rose with the expanded use of the Internet, which allowed people to hide behind avatars and live out supplementary lives in an alternate realm. In a few years, that realm seemed to swallow up the real world. But we’ve gone far beyond that. We’ve entered an age of real-world avatars who do real-world damage. And they tend to follow a common path to their varied make-believe lives. After incubating in a primordial soup of radical thought, online technology, and personal insecurity, they each emerge as someone new with more power.  It’s no wonder that Mark Zuckerberg’s attempt at rebooting virtual reality has been a flop. People like OG, Pearson, and Mulvaney already have everything they need to construct “rewarding” virtual lives.

Forget Plato’s Cave. We’re all trapped in Rupert Pupkin’s basement, being forced to engage with him as he acts out his grandiose delusions. Only he’s no longer the sad outcast. He’s already the star of the show.

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