Having watched almost the entire Democratic Convention, I wanted to give equal time to the Republicans, so I watched their Convention. Well, I should say, I tried, until I couldn’t take it anymore, and then I read about it the next day. My tolerance for the alternative reality and fear mongering in real time was generally about 20 minutes.
Though I don’t understand it, I accept that there are people who are going to vote for Trump, and I was hoping to get a better grasp of why. I assume a lot of Trump voters are decent and well meaning, with things in their life experience and psychology that net out to belief in MAGA.
At the Convention, there were many normal-looking, normal-sounding people singing the praises of Trump. Some told anecdotes about Trump’s being helpful to particular industries or being nice to particular people, some of which could have been true, though after four years of his nonstop lying, who knows?
I felt like I’d somehow wandered into an alternative universe, where the last four years hadn’t happened. Everything Trump had done was kind and good, while his cruelty, corruption, and incompetence had disappeared. It was disorienting, but somehow familiar. Then I realized where I actually was: the Fox News universe, a media bubble where Trump is a god-like being receiving unquestioning adoration, and his impulsiveness and crack pot ideas are lauded as genius.
Some of the character references could have been viewed as ordinary political puffery. But there were some claims and positions that were dangerous and so flagrantly false that it’s difficult to see how anyone could agree to say them, much less believe them.
A prime example is the Covid-19 pandemic, which Trump and other speakers spoke of in the past tense as having been successfully addressed by Trump. It pushes the limits of the human capacity for denial and delusion to think either that the pandemic is over or that Trump did a good job handling it.
As of this writing, the United States is seeing around 40,000 new cases per day, with a total of around 180,000 deaths so far. The US is the world leader in active cases and total deaths. Many of these deaths would not have happened under an ordinary, competent president, as shown by the lower infection and fatality rates in other countries. Trump still has no plan for handling the pandemic, other than trying to distract attention from it and promoting miracle cures, like ingesting bleach.
In fact, Trump continues to push in exactly the wrong direction by discouraging masks, modeling non-social distancing, and encouraging people to get back to work. For his speech at the White House on the final night, he showed his profound selfishness and recklessness by having thousands of worshippers crammed together, with no testing and almost no masks. They may have believed the lie that the pandemic was over. In any case, with the President’s encouragement, they effectively risked their lives. What kind of person would do that to his followers?
As with the pandemic, in other areas the Republican Convention challenged America: are you going to believe us, or your lying eyes? With millions unemployed and thousands of businesses shuttered, the Republicans praised Trump for a fantastically successful economy. He claimed to have kept every promise, and declared victory on health care, job creation, building the wall, foreign relations, building new infrastructure, and other areas in which he has accomplished almost nothing. He did not attempt to defend his support for Russian interference in our affairs, his energy rules that will worsen the climate crisis, his tax cuts for the wealthy, the criminal conduct of his close advisors, or his own corruption.
With police shootings continuing and Black Lives Matters protesters still calling for an end to racist police violence, Trump persuaded a few Black supporters to say he’s not a racist. But he continued to claim that Black people are threatening to burn down our cities and invade the suburbs if he loses. He did not explain his proposed solution to this imaginary problem, other than to keep repeating the phrase law and order. Based on his recent activity, this seems to be shorthand for meeting protesters with tear gas and bullets and locking them up.
All this was unsettling, especially when combined with fear mongering about liberals. Trump and his acolytes warned loudly and absurdly that Joe Biden and the Democrats embodied a dangerous alien ideology (such as communism or socialism) and would turn America into a hellhole. There were a few quick nods to non-white people, but no acknowledgement or apologies for Trump’s ongoing support of white supremacists, his tear gassing protesters to get a photo op, his Muslim ban, and his putting immigrant children in cages and then losing them. At least he didn’t threaten to lock up Joe and Kamala — yet.
How do we know what is reality? In general, we have a look at the people around us and try to figure out what they agree on. This usually works well enough for us to stay out of big trouble, but as the Republicans have shown, not always. Last month, Naomi Oreskes, a history professor at Harvard, wrote a short piece in Scientific American about the intellectual foundations of science, which I thought was so intriguing that I bought and read her new book, Why Trust Science?
In the SA piece, Oreskes noted that one common reason for rejecting scientific knowledge is that people don’t like information that conflicts with their existing beliefs. Thus there are many people who deny scientific consensus findings on climate change because they require responses that are inconsistent with their faith in markets and opposition to government, or just with their rosy picture of the world.
In her new book, Oreskes argues that what is distinctive about science is not that it is always correct (it isn’t), but that it involves a social methodology involving trained and specialized experts that in the usual course corrects errors and leads to improved understanding. She points out that when we need specialized knowledge to fix a problem, we turn to experts, whether they are plumbers, electricians, or doctors. Scientists are our experts on the natural world, and they assist and correct each other. Like all other experts, they sometimes get things wrong, but on the whole they do better than non-experts.
Anyhow, it isn’t surprising that Trumpists often don’t care to engage when scientists are trying to communicate unwelcome news. But that’s a big problem with the coronavirus pandemic. Many if not most of us know people who have been seriously ill or died from the virus. Adopting the Trump position that the pandemic is no longer of serious concern is a mistake of epic proportions that will lead to a lot more deaths. We’re at a new frontier in propaganda and politics: a presidential message that all those deaths are of no consequence, with a political party prepared to advance it.