Opinion

America's rendezvous with reality

Politics finally confronts the fact that lies can have dire consequences

The days since last Wednesday's insurrection against the legislative branch of the United States have felt extremely odd and quite out of keeping with much of the past four years.

Some of the peculiar sensation can be traced to fear flowing from the realization that thousands of our fellow citizens were so convinced of a lie (that the presidential election was stolen from Donald Trump) that they traveled all the way to the nation's capital for the express purpose of attacking the citadel of American democracy.

Some of it may also follow from a new-found feeling of resolution — a conviction that no matter how futile it turns out to be, or how much it risks an escalation in violence, public as well as private institutions need to act now to try and crush the burgeoning MAGA insurrection against American self-government.

But there's something more going on than a surge of fear and resolve.

There's also a different feeling in the political air — one that might best be described as being snapped back to wakefulness from a semi-conscious dream state. Or maybe a feeling of rubber hitting road after a long, drawn out sideways skid on civic black ice. We may not right our course before we crash, but at least it feels like we might have a brief window and a chance to regain control over our direction.

For the moment, at least, there's a sense in our public life that we've returned to reality after four interminable years of psychological torture and abuse — a time during which the president of the United States has systematically and repeatedly used a bully pulpit amplified with powerful new communication technologies to lie to us extravagantly and constantly about nearly everything. He has conjured an alternative reality of words into which millions of our fellow citizens have gladly retreated. But the rest of us have been captured by them, too, like epistemic hostages confined to a virtual world that was imagined into existence by a narcissistic sociopath.

What we've confronted at long last this past week, as shock from the events on Capitol Hill have sunk in and reverberated throughout the nation, is that lies can have dire consequences — that if enough people believe enough of them, the result can be an all-too-real disaster. That has had the salutary effect of inspiring genuine concern in some of those who, until now, have been perfectly content to play along with the game, convinced that they benefitted from the transformation of our public life into a lunatic asylum.

Evidence of the shift is all around us. There's the decision of Republican leadership in the House not to whip members into opposition to impeaching Trump for an unprecedented second time. And the 10-20 House Republicans who may be open to voting in favor of a single article of impeachment. And the several Republicans in the Senate who may be willing to vote to remove and permanently ban him from office.

And that's not all. Trump's deranged and deranging Twitter account has gone silent. Parler, a social media platform that created a digital space for the conspiracy-addled far right to whip up support for insurrection and murderous violence, has been shut down. Deutsche Bank, Trump's lender of last resort over the past couple of decades, says it no longer wants to do business with his various enterprises. Defense contractor Northrop Grumman has stepped back from giving donations to members of Congress. All of it points to a growing realization that turning our politics into an unhinged reality show has turned reality itself into a madhouse — that the president and his party piling lie upon lie upon lie has had terrible consequences, transforming a segment of the American public into lunatics convinced they must burn down American democracy in order to save it.

But will America's belated rendezvous with reality take root and last?

We have reason to worry it won't. Wavering Republicans have strong political incentives to revert to Trumpian bad habits, not least because large numbers of their constituents continue to believe the lies. How can that be walked back? No one in our politics, on either side, really knows. And lots of people — including 65 percent of the GOP caucus in the House that rejected Pennsylvania's vote certification last week even in the wake of the riot that forced them into hiding for the afternoon — apparently don't want to try.

That's not just because of some high-minded devotion to an accurate representation of (even deluded) public opinion. It's also because, as my colleague Ryan Cooper put it in a recent, well-crafted tweet, "What Trump taught the right is that if you are completely shameless all the time, you gain a sort of political superpower. You can get away with (almost) anything." The advantage of telling lies all day, every day is that nothing real — no outrage, no crime, no act of cruelty or incompetence — can gain traction in the world. Instead, truth, lies, evidence, and substantive policy goals dissolve "in a stew of culture war grievance, resentment, and lunacy," allowing free reign for every corrupt bad actor around.

Yet the key word in Cooper's tweet is the parenthetical: Shameless BS-ing makes it possible for political actors to get away with "almost" anything. Jan. 6 was an "almost" moment because the events of that afternoon were genuinely appalling and scary to lots of people, politicians and ordinary Americans alike. And that may have exposed the limits of what Trump or any other politician can get away with.

That's why the present moment is so important. Like an addict whose reckless abuse of drugs brings him perilously close to a fatal overdose, our political culture finds itself confronting a serious domestic threat with two possible paths forward.

Down one path is the civic equivalent of rehab, where a sizable faction of the right weans itself off of divisive lies and relearns (by resolutely defying Trump) to practice politics in a world of shared facts, common truths, and prudential judgments.

Down the other is a world of ever-more-elaborate fantasy — one that cannot reliably be distinguished from psychological and moral madness, and so could well terminate in a real-world political abyss.

Which will it be? I cannot say for sure. All I can say is that we should be doing everything in our power to encourage those who have momentarily broken free from the spell of the fantasy to act on their newfound convictions. Doing so may even help them to lay down roots that help keep them firmly planted in the realm of the real.

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