What I see, more than anything, is how squishy and weaponized truth has become in this country
As much as I’d prefer to put the Trump years behind us and embrace a Biden administration without a backward glance, it seems wise to reflect on what the last two election cycles tell us about this country in order to avoid a repeat in 2024.
What I see, more than anything, is how squishy and weaponized truth has become in this country; how little we understand and often misuse generalizations like socialist and fascist; and how far apart the Democratic and Republican parties have drifted.
Not so long ago, we tended to trust new information if we heard it from three or more distinct sources – a write-up in a nationally-reputed journal, a conversation with a knowledgeable friend and a spot on the local news, for example. Take the Apollo 11 moon landing. On July 16th, 1969, half a billion people watched as Neil Armstrong stepped down from the spaceship and onto the surface of the moon. Then, over the loud hum of equipment and distance, his words came to us, “That’s one small step for man, one giant leap for mankind.” In the months to follow, every major newspaper and magazine carried color images from that momentous voyage, along with interviews with Armstrong, Michael Collins and Buzz Aldrin. Did we harbor any doubts about the journey and those compelling images? Maybe a few conspiracists did, but for most of us the moon landing became part of our collective history – a truth we hold up to the clear light of reason, despite no personal experience in walking on the moon.
Fast forward fifty years. Now, even with clear and compelling evidence of a growing climate crisis, people are divided, largely along party lines, on the subject. According to recent a Pew Research Center study, 77% of Democrats consider climate change “a very big problem” for the United States, compared to just 13% of Republicans. The truth, laid out by countless scientific studies, compelling news images of massive hurricanes in the Atlantic or fire tornadoes in California, and personal accounts by desperate farmers, no longer holds sway over the public at large. Truth, it seems, has become like one of those choose-your-own-ending children’s books that were popular a few years back, only now it’s choose-your-own-reality.
Even more puzzling is the ongoing disregard for the COVID-19 pandemic. Unlike the impacts from climate change which will unfold over decades, the pandemic’s cause and effect takes only days to manifest, as evidenced by super-spreader events. But despite ample news coverage, grave CDC projections, and firsthand accounts on Facebook, many Americans believe that COVID deaths are greatly inflated. And it doesn’t help when Trump retweets these QAnon fabrications.
Take my brother, for example. He and his wife live in Florida where COVID has resulted in 19 thousand deaths to date, but he’s down-played the pandemic since the beginning. He texted me a Facebook post a few months back that read, “This week CDC quietly updated the Covid number to admit that only 6% of all the 153,504 deaths recorded actually died from Covid. That’s 9,210 deaths. The other 94% had 2-3 other serious illnesses & the overwhelming majority were of very advanced age” I didn’t respond, but I did go online to sleuth out the truth. What CDC did report was that 94% of those who died from COVID had one or more contributing factors contributing to their death. This was basically what we already knew – that COVID is most lethal to the elderly and those with pre-existing health conditions such as asthma or obesity.
I say this not to point a finger at my brother, with whom I am close, but because his ongoing denial about all-important topics like the building climate crisis and the pandemic has caused me to ask myself how we ascertain truth and why the tenets of truth have gotten away from us.
In considering why facts can seem so elusive, consider the preponderance of information sources from national news feeds to Facebook and tweets. In order to cope with all the information assailing us, we streamline the process by seeking out sources that support our beliefs or suspicions. The internet, with its algorithms, facilitates this narrowing of information, reinforcing our limited world view with every click we make.
Trust is really what’s at stake here. Do we trust the 97% of climate scientists who wring their hands over our lack of action on that front, or do we trust the conservative, corporate-minded media like the Wall Street Journal with stock yields to consider? Are we going to believe the medical establishment who begs us to mask up, or a president, well-known for his blatant disregard for the truth, who shares a tweet lifted from The Federalist stating, “image of Biden in black mask endorses culture of silence, slavery, and social death.”?
Unfortunately, the onus is on each of us to question our assumptions and peel back the layers of the media onion to get at a more circumspect understanding of the truth. The continued trust we place in our democracy and our shared path forward depend on it.
What’s in a Name?
Another text from my brother reads, “I love my country and democrats want to destroy everything I believe in and I can’t support socialism not now not ever.”
This brings up a topic my husband and I have been batting around. Namely, what jargon do we use to define the Trump presidency, and by extension, what sort of presidency do Republicans expect under Biden? All of us banter words around without a clear understanding of what they mean. I’ve heard Trump described as an autocrat, a plutocrat, a populist, a nationalist and a fascist, while Biden is accused of being a socialist, a communist, and (again) a fascist.
The problem is, in order to agree to a label, even those as seemingly universal as Democrat and Republican, we need buy-in from all parties. Instead, we use these labels as triggers, or accusations. I liken Trump’s administration to fascism, which, according to Wikipedia is “a form of far-right, authoritarian ultranationalism characterized by dictatorial power, forcible suppression of opposition and strong regimentation of society and the economy.” To this, my brother would never agree, having once told me “I think Trump may be the only person who can save this country.”
To my brother’s claim that Biden will take us down the path of socialism, I found several interpretations for the term socialism, ranging from “a system of society or group living in which there is no private property” where government owns or controls everything (something I am not in favor of), to a society run to meet public needs, not to make profits for a few. This means greater economic and social equality, Medicare for all, less corporate control and a democratic process. That sounds great to me. In fact, Social Security benefits (which my 64-year-old brother just signed up for), farm subsidies, and Alaska’s oil and gas Permanent Fund Dividend could all, arguably, be forms of “meeting the public need” as defined by the Democratic Socialist Party.
A Shift to the Far Right
Over the past fifty years the Republican party has made a sharp right turn thanks to a narrowed focus on a handful of key issues like abortion, the right to bear arms, and economic growth (which ropes in everything from choking off refuges at our southern border to trade with China and fuels the dark specter of racism). They have also collectively detached from reality, ceding to the misinformation fed to them by the likes of Rush Limbaugh, Pat Robertson, and Breitbart. If every website you turn to promotes the disinformation that the presidential election was rigged, especially if you fear that outcome, why wouldn’t you believe it? And why wouldn’t you be angry? It goes back to belief in those three trusted sources I mentioned earlier, especially when one of those sources is the very man you voted for.
But let’s be clear on this next point. Nothing justifies the dangerous level of vitriol we’ve seen during this election process, from the escalating violence during Black Lives Matter protests in Oregon to the 17-year-old protester who opened fire, killing two, in Wisconsin. And this week in Georgia, as Trump refuses to concede to Biden, members of his base are making sexualized threats, and demands for election officials to be fired, shot, and hung for treason. Which is no excuse for protestors on the other side of that dividing line, who burned and looted shops in a pointless free-for-all, or the shooter in Portland who killed a member of the Patriot Prayer group in a counter demonstration. That level of anger is counterproductive and poisonous to our future as a country.
Clearly, this past election revealed the fault lines in our free and fair election process. Never in our lifetimes have American politics been so blatantly, unapologetically, us vs. them, White vs. Black, the privileged vs. the poor. Progressive vs. repressive. Throw in a pandemic, a flailing economy, and a world on the brink of climate collapse and you have a crisis of epic proportions.
It’s easy enough to point out that higher education is key to placing trust in science and embracing those with backgrounds other than our own, but with a decline in college enrollment even before the pandemic, that ground is eroding out from under our feet.
Instead, we need to work harder at understanding one another’s underlying concerns. We are, most of us, decent, compassionate people. Prone to our own version of deception, denial or dismissal, sure, but largely well-intended and worth knowing as neighbors, relatives, or colleagues.
If Trump has one a talent, it is his ability to tap into people’s feelings. He fired up the Right by giving voice to their anger and their sense that this country, under Democratic rule, will not be governed according to their interests and values. But, as he intended, his supremist tirades unleashed latent hatred and bigotry and brought this country to the brink of civil war.
The 72 million Americans who voted to retain Trump for a second term are not going anywhere. Nor is the media, which blatantly fuels the divide between Right and Left, us and them. While Biden can set a conciliatory tone, it’s up to all of us, as Americans, to bridge that divide. Under Trump, Republicans have made themselves heard. We would do well to allow them to voice their insecurities and grievances and seek common ground. Otherwise, we are no better than those we blame for all the inequality and injustice we rage against. Only then can we hope to rebuild trust and find common truths we can all support and live with. That’s the whole point in this experiment we call Democracy.
In the meantime, my brother and I will agree to disagree.