I’ve spent some time in these pages discussing the moral, ethical and political shortcomings of Donald Trump, thinking that detailing his attitudes toward women, minorities, our military, immigrants and anyone less fortunate than himself would convince Republicans and conservatives (no longer the same category) that he was manifestly unfit for office. Eighty-one million Americans agreed with me, but some 74 million voters still voted for autocracy and orange hair.
One of the significant differences between these two groups is their attitude towards reality. Voters for Biden seem to accept the fact that there is a COVID-19 pandemic, that masks and other measures are effective, that mail-in voting is a good way to participate in democracy during said pandemic, and that compassion and generosity are objectively effective in creating a better world.
On the other hand, many voters for Trump seem to think that the pandemic is a hoax, that there is a vast conspiracy that rigged the election, and that masks and social distancing are an evil plot to turn the United States into a communist tyranny. If that seems like a view detached from reality, you’re not into QAnon or other fantasies, and you’re horrified at Trump’s attempts to subvert the election. If you’re a Trump supporter, you seem to think the judges who ruled against him (many of whom were appointed by him) are part of an anti-Trump conspiracy, the Supreme Court (stacked with conservative justices) has sold out to the Democrats, and Republican governors, secretaries of state, and election officials have betrayed the country.
Pointing out the absurdity of this (as Derek Wright did so well) doesn’t faze the conspiracists. They’ve committed themselves to a self-reinforcing world view that simply doesn’t allow reality to enter, a fatal flaw for a democracy. In the book “On Tyranny,” Timothy Snyder observed, “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom.” Facing facts and reality is what really gives us the capacity for true freedom, allowing us choices that can affect the real world. (Snyder’s book is a source here for thinking about reality and freedom.)
Believing in stuff that’s not real, however, takes away our capacity to deal with what is real. For instance, if you believe in Trump’s fantasies about the election, what should you do? Occupy the state Capitol? Shut down the next election with violent demonstrations? All such fantasies take you away from real accomplishments, like registering new voters, knocking on doors for real candidates, or making voting easier for senior citizens (often the bedrock of conservative voters).
Nevertheless, unreality has its attractions. Participation in an alternative reality gives you a sense of power, a sense of community and a feeling that knowing the “truth” makes you superior to the poor fools who believe in verifiable facts. Furthermore, our new digital universe provides sites that allow active participation in unreality. There are several articles available on the internet that explain how QAnon and other conspiracy purveyors work like video games, rewarding visitors for finding new “evidence,” allowing players to make increasingly bizarre connections between made-up elements of the vast conspiracy until we finally have Sydney Powell blaming a long-deceased Venezuelan dictator for rigging the election.
This is not healthy for our democracy. The founders of this nation envisioned free speech as providing a marketplace of ideas, where thoughtful voters would work out the best options for governing our country. They did fear demagogues, cynical voters and corruptible politicians, and did their best to build in checks and balances to counter these elements. They could not envision addictive web sites or politicians who would give up their institutional authority to support the disempowerment of their own legislative bodies.
What to do about all this? First, if you love democracy, commit yourself to reality. Reality isn’t hard to find, but it is hard to defend. Unreality presents itself as both confident and self-evident, but reality is complex and multi-faceted. It’s easier to float in a warm bath of foolishness, but, in the end, reality is much more satisfying.
Second, demand that those advocating unreality support their positions with facts. If they believe that the election is rigged, demand proof, real proof, not just assertions. (Check out the conspiracy theories about election software, all debunked by dependable reality-checking web sites.)
Finally, reject politicians and candidates who tell you that you’re a victim of a vast conspiracy. There are economic and political forces that influence us, but they’re right out there in the world to see. The Illuminati are not directing the Chinese government; aliens are not controlling political parties. Expect better of your candidates, and reject them if they don’t measure up; choose reality instead.