This week our gas stations had gas again, which was cheering for those of us with internal combustion engines. I headed east to Alligator River and Pocosin Lakes looking for wildlife. It was good to connect with animals again, though as always, I regretted my own greenhouse gas emissions. Along the dirt roads it was pretty quiet. I saw plenty of birds and one handsome (I think) young rattlesnake.
On the drive out and back, I listened to various podcasts and audiobooks. I strongly recommend a new podcast series called The Improvement Association. The subject is election fraud in Bladen County, NC, where in 2018 they had one of America’s tiny number of actual election fraud incidents. The podcast was put out by Zoe Chace and some of the same folks that made the podcast Serial.
The fraud involved improper ballots in support of the Republican congressional candidate and resulted in invalidation of the election. During and after the scandal, Republicans in Bladen County claimed that Black politicians there had done much worse. Zoe Chace decided to investigate.
Chace is not a showy personality, but she is an excellent journalist. She asks reasonable questions, lets people have their say, and resists pat answers. She recognizes that people often aren’t able to put things into words, including their own feelings about race, and that such feelings sometimes help account for how they see things.
Much of her podcast focuses on the persistent accusations of white Republicans that Black organizers regularly committed election fraud, and she finds hardly any evidence that they did. But she also examines the very interesting question of why white Republicans keep insisting the opposite. She found both political opportunism and sincere racial fears, which sometimes hardened into an impossible-to-shake belief.
In a way it’s a small story, but just now it has a lot of resonance. Those of us not on the right are finding it difficult to comprehend how the majority of Republicans can continue to think, as they do, that Democrats committed election fraud that resulted in Joe Biden wrongfully becoming president.
Chace’s podcast suggests part of the answer: traditional racial attitudes have a psychological filtering effect, blocking out certain facts (like the nonexistence of evidence) and concentrating some assumptions (like Blacks are like [something]). Confirmation bias and motivated reasoning can feel just like logical thinking.
With some of the generosity and curiosity of Zoe Chace, I want to give Trump supporters the benefit of a doubt. I’m willing to assume that they aren’t just gaslighting, and most aren’t specifically hoping to overthrow democracy and reinstitute legal white supremacy. They may truly believe that America faces an existential threat from leftists who seek to institute radical socialism and outlaw Christianity, and the only defense is Trump or someone like him. They may actually be unable to process the overwhelming evidence that none of this is true.
As far as I know, there’s no easy way to assist folks perched on this perilous ledge to gently move back towards a more fact-based reality. But unfortunately, it is quite easy to make them feel even more terrified, confused, and in need of a powerful leader to defend them. Opportunistic Republican leaders and right-wing networks, concerned with maintaining power and audience share, are currently doing so, with a vengeance.
A recent new ploy is instituting more recounts of the 2020 election votes. As most people know, the presidential election has been officially completed and confirmed, with massive oversight by qualified specialists and courts. But state legislators in Arizona and Georgia have decided to continue recounting. This could, I guess, go on as long as they think, or want others to think, that there was a conspiracy and all the tallying so far is wrong. That is, potentially, forever.
It may be that such shenanigans will keep the MAGA base energized and eager for the next election battle. It’s at least as likely that it will slowly drain away belief in fair elections. Big lies, like Trump’s gigantic lie about the 2020 election can work by fooling gullible people, but they can also have an even more insidious effect.
Repeating unbelievable things while demanding they be believed works to erode belief in one’s own common sense. The big liar implicitly says, belief and loyalty are more important than reality, and anyhow, it’s impossible to know what’s true. Your only choices are uncritical belief or hopelessness and confusion. The big lie can work by getting people to give up on the idea that political action may be a force for good, and make them both despondent and acquiescent to power.
This is a difficult moment in the American political experiment. We’ve learned that there are malign forces at work that are more infectious than we thought, and there’s no vaccine at the moment. But we’ve still got a lot of the good sense and good will that have sustained us in difficult times before.