The right is hooked on a feeling

Trump supporters don't think he won. They feel it.

A Trump supporter.
(Image credit: Illustrated | Getty Images, iStock)

How do President Trump's truest believers explain their certainty he won the 2020 election?

They don't. It doesn't need explanation. They just know it. They feel it. And they have public figures — pundit and politician alike — willing to validate those feelings and channel them via political performance art into a perpetual motion machine of grievance, animosity, dreampolitik, and fundraising.

The notion that populist variants of the American right run on feelings more than fact or reason is not new, of course (nor is it a phenomenon exclusive to the right). Stephen Colbert introduced "truthiness" the better part of two decades ago, and President Trump's whole political career is constructed on emotion. Many of his major policy "accomplishments" are barely connected to reality: The wall, what little of it has been built, will have minimal effect on border security. The trade war with China significantly consists of taxes paid by Americans. And Trump's ostensible record of ending "endless wars" includes zero concluded conflicts.

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Still, there's a new and remarkable purity of this politics of feeling where the 2020 election is concerned. The conservatives I was raised among saw themselves as the temperate, hardheaded counterweight to illogical, irresponsible "bleeding heart liberals." The right-wing slogan of recent years declared "facts don't care about your feelings." But the conviction that Trump won is wholly felt.

Some may rattle off unsubstantiated claims and figures, as Trump did in his call with Georgia election officials, but often there's no pretense of a deeper rationale. There's no attempt to build a case. Trump's victory is an article of faith in the absolute worst sense of the phrase, as it might have dropped from the lips of Christopher Hitchens. Anything that supports it is accepted without scrutiny; anything that opposes it is rejected without pause.

"This is how I feel," said Fox & Friends weekend cohost Will Cain on Tuesday. "I think Americans — I think Republicans, conservatives — can be forgiven for their skepticism [of President-elect Joe Biden's victory], because whether or not an election was rigged, it certainly feels like society is rigged right now."

Former National Security Adviser Michael Flynn explicitly promoted feelings over reason last month at an event insisting Trump would somehow serve a second term. Don't think, he advised, just feel. "It's in our hearts where we truly know what is right. It's in our hearts where we differentiate good and bad," Flynn said. "It's your heart talking to you, not your mind, because your mind is going to say, 'I'm afraid.'"

In an interview with Trumpist youth activist Charlie Kirk, evangelical radio host Eric Metaxas — after clarifying that both men "firmly believe that Trump actually won" — argued they should "just stop" discussing how, specifically, Trump could still win. "My attitude is, like, so who cares what I can prove in the courts? This is right. This happened," he continued. Kirk nodded vigorously. Later in the interview, Metaxas declared himself "thrilled to be too ignorant of the details" of the Trump team's court cases to analyze them. Kirk grinned.

This blatant elevation of feelings as the ultimate authority has been widely in evidence on the Trumpy right even as deadline after deadline has passed and court after court has ruled against the president's groundless contestations. And why not? These developments don't matter if they don't change how you feel.

Also in evidence are Republican politicians who have realized the value this feelingsfest can have for their own careers. I don't entirely include Trump himself in that category. After reading the transcript of his phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger, I think Trump is his own true believer. He's selling and lying and grifting too, but I suspect he sincerely feels he won.

The same cannot be said of the dozens of Republican members of Congress who intend to object to the certification of Biden's Electoral College win Wednesday. It cannot be said of those, as my colleague Joel Mathis put it, who are "lying without quite lying," pledging to fight lawsuits they know will go nowhere, posturing themselves as tireless knights in service of a fantasy they don't even share.

They have chosen to "elevate and champion fundamentally imaginary complaints," writes Yuval Levin at National Review, because it is convenient and profitable. "You get credit just for talking about the conspiracies when other politicians won't, you don't really have to do anything about them (indeed, you can't do anything about them), and you can always fan even greater frustration when others deny or ignore them. This is easier than governing, which is inherently unsatisfying."

The Trumpy right's politics of emotion has put this temptation before every Republican official, and it won't disappear when Biden takes office in two weeks. Why risk real legislative losses when you can email donors about your heroic defense of castles in the sky? Why craft policy if you can play-act? Why not lean into this emotive nihilism and give the people what they want?

There are a thousand reasons against it. But I'd have to use my mind to explain, and I've heard that's off-limits.

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