Despite overwhelming relief at the victory of the Biden/Harris ticket, those of us horrified by Donald Trump and his enablers are still coming to terms with the fact that some 70 million people voted for four more years of the disaster we’ve just experienced.
Unlike those Republicans who continue to insist that up is down and Trump was somehow cheated out of a win, we live in the real world. We recognize that those 70 million votes were cast. The question is: why? Trump’s hardcore base is demonstrably racist, but surely, America isn’t home to seventy million racists willing to dispense with functional governance so long as dark-skinned people and “foreign elements” are kept in their place.
Will Wilkinson considered that question in a recent column in the New York Times. He identified three factors that made the election difficult for the Democrats: partisan polarization, obscured by the inaccurate polling; the strength of what he labeled the “juiced” pre-Covid-19 economy; and the success of Mr. Trump’s denialist, open-everything-up nonresponse to the pandemic.
How could a president responsible for one of the gravest failures of governance in American history nevertheless maintain such rock-solid support? Democracy’s throw-the-bums-out feedback mechanism gets gummed up when the electorate disagrees about the identity of the bums, what did and didn’t occur on their watch and who deserves what share of the credit or blame.
When party affiliation becomes a central source of meaning and self-definition, reality itself becomes contested and verifiable facts turn into hot-button controversies. Elections can’t render an authoritative verdict on the performance of incumbents when partisans in a closely divided electorate tell wildly inconsistent stories about one another and the world they share.
Wilkinson looked at Trump’s war of words against governors and mayors — especially Democratic ones — who refused to risk their citizens’ lives by allowing economic and social activity to resume, and to Republican messaging that defined the contrast between the parties’ approaches to the pandemic as a battle between individual freedom and over-reaching government.
The Republican message couldn’t have been clearer: Workers should be able to show up, clock in, earn a normal paycheck, pay the rent and feed their kids. Democrats were telling the same workers that we need to listen to science, reopening is premature, and the economy can’t be fully restored until we beat the virus. Correct! But how does that help when rent was due last week?
Make no mistake, it was unforgivably cruel of Republicans to force blue-collar and service workers to risk death for grocery money. Yet their disinformation campaign persuaded many millions of Americans that the risk was minimal and that Democrats were keeping their workplaces and schools closed, their customers and kids at home, and their wallets empty and cupboards bare for bogus reasons.
Democrats fell into the trap Republicans set with their dogged refusal to do anything about the uncontained pandemic. Wilkinson concluded that the “spell of polarization” turns every issue into a clash of political identities. As a result, “real” Republicans largely dismissed the pandemic as a hoax, a dismissal that conveniently excused the President’s manifest failure to deal with it.
This rings true to me–so far as it goes. But political polarization alone does not and cannot explain why millions of Americans chose to occupy an alternate reality and to dismiss evidence that was staring them in the face.
Constructing a world where the deaths of one’s neighbors are attributed to something–anything– other than COVID, a world in which a President’s too-obvious-to-ignore lack of competence is a sign that he’s being hobbled by the “deep state,”a world in which that President’s lack of humanity is explained away as “telling it like it is,” a world where science is “elitist” and warnings from doctors are politically-motivated efforts to diminish the President–such a world requires a media infrastructure.
There are multitudes of alternate reality purveyors: websites and cable channels and talk radio hosts willing to confirm the accuracy of your preferred “facts” and the superiority of your chosen tribe. Trump will go, but that media infrastructure will stay.
I think I need a drink.