For many of us, mornings have taken on a certain nauseating sameness. We roll out from beneath the blankets and, before the scent of coffee has reached our nostrils, we are checking the news feeds for the latest semi-literate tweet coughed up by the ranting, traitorous squatter occupying the Oval Office.
The rest of the day is spent in a kind of horrified suspension, holding our breath, waiting for whatever outrage will inevitably belch forth from the White House—once a bastion of seriousness and decorum, now ground zero for the demise of western democracy. How many lies will Trump spew today? Which dictators will he suck up to? Will he smear a Gold Star family? Attack a woman who dares to call out his smarmy predations? Unveil a puerile, racist nickname for a Senator or member of his own cabinet?
As much as we loathe it, however sickening it might have become, every day seems all about him, a former game show host and real estate failure, a hawker of rot-gut vodka and bullshit degrees from a fraudulent “University” who once styled himself as “the Donald”. The cable news shows lead with his most recent flatulence, the op-ed pages brim with intimations of doom, late night comedians are having a field day.
He is the president and, thus, bears watching. But we would be mistaken to think that he is truly the center of our universe, a man with a plan, commanding the heights, directing the action.
Virulent as he may be, Donald J. Trump is a symptom not the disease. Without us, he would amount to nothing more than what he had always been before the bizzaro presidential election of 2016: a foppish narcissist desperate for any measure of affirmation; a joke; a nothing. He did not create his voters. They have been there all along, seething with sometimes justifiable anger and suffering their various insecurities. They created and enabled Trump. And make no mistake, in all their vulnerable humanity, they are us: Gullible, compliant, distracted, marinating in irony.
At root, we the people are the problem.
We are understandably reluctant to impugn the intelligence and integrity of our fellow citizens. It is arrogant, uncivil, bad form. Who are we, any of us, to hold ourselves superior? When Hillary Clinton referred to some Trump supporters as “deplorables”, she was roundly castigated on all sides. How dare she? Yet it is an uncomfortable reality that anywhere from a fifth to a third of our electorate can be fairly (if gently) described as low-information voters. If the results of numerous polls and questionnaires are to be trusted, they know very little about the world they inhabit and what they do “know” is often woefully incorrect.
Surveys conducted every two years by the National Science Foundation consistently demonstrate that slightly more than half of Americans reject the settled science concerning human evolution. They are not unaware that virtually all credible scientists accept the overwhelming evidence that we evolved from earlier species. They simply choose not to accept that consensus because it doesn’t comport with their deeply held beliefs. Many also embrace the absurd notion that the earth is only six thousand years old. Astonishingly, in the early 21st century, around a quarter of our citizenry seems unaware that said earth revolves around the sun.
It is a mistake to regard concern about such ignorance as effete snobbery or elitist condescension. While misapprehensions about basic astronomy, earth science and biology may have little impact on these folk’s daily lives, does anyone actually believe that similarly uninformed views aren’t likely to affect their grasp of policies regarding, say, climate change? Income inequality? Gun violence? Immigration?
Profound knowledge gaps like the aforementioned reveal an inability to think critically and leave a person vulnerable to all manner of chicanery. We are all ignorant about many things. Don’t get me started on my dismal grasp of mathematics! But the hallmark of a sound education is not glorying in what you think you know, but, instead, appreciating the vastness of what you don’t know.
If ignorance is the key that opens the door for charlatans like Trump, improved education, whether in school or in the public square, would seem to provide an obvious solution. But here we confront the perverse Dunning-Kruger Effect identified by psychologists—essentially, the less we know, the more certain we become of our superior knowledge. We have also discovered that exposure to facts and evidence does not always have the expected impact. Many people, when confronted by irrefutable proof that some core belief is incorrect, don’t change their minds but dig in their heels. What feels right to them must be right and no amount logic and reasoning will dissuade them. Emotion trumps evidence.
Not too long ago, I fell into conversation with a woman aboard an airplane. Our chat somehow turned to health care. She offered the opinion that people who couldn’t afford health insurance didn’t deserve medical services. Why should she pay for someone’s care when they were obviously too lazy to earn their own money?
Because I’m my own kind of fool, I rose to the bait. Did that mean they should be allowed to die in the street? I wondered. Well, no, she said. That would be inhumane. They could always go to an emergency room. So she was willing to pay for their care, I observed, but only in the least efficient, most expensive manner. This gave her momentary pause, but she quickly regrouped, simply repeating her prior assertion: Why should she pay…? I didn’t ask who she planned to vote for in the then-upcoming presidential election, but given that she had also voiced the opinion that women were, by virtue of their gender, unqualified to be news anchors, I’m guessing it wasn’t Hillary Clinton or Jill Stein.
She is hardly the worst example of an unthinking voter. Bill Maher once invited onto his show former GM Executive Bob Lutz. One supposes that such a fellow has benefited from an adequate education and that he’s open to reason. Yet, when the subject of climate change arose, Lutz denied it was happening. A bunch of nonsense as far as he was concerned.
As it happened, Maher had also invited Neil deGrasse Tyson, an astrophysicist, educator and Director of the Hayden Planetarium. Tyson patiently explained why Lutz was misinformed. The planet was warming. Humans were largely to blame. This is how we know.
You might expect an educated person to respond by at least engaging on the topic. Tyson was, after all, vastly more knowledgeable on the subject at hand. Had their roles been reversed, with the topic being cars, I have no doubt he would have deferred to the automaker, asking questions, trying to improve the state of his own knowledge. Not Lutz. You could see him shutting down before Tyson had even warmed to the topic (no pun intended). As Upton Sinclair famously put it, “It’s hard to get a man to understand something when his salary depends on him not understanding it.”
Anyone who has watched the focus groups of Trump voters has seen this sorry dynamic played out again and again. Everything, no matter how tawdry or malicious, is excused or minimized. You get the feeling these folks would accept the sexual molestation of teenage girls as a trade-off for Neil Gorsuch. In fact, many did in supporting Roy Moore.
Welcome to the Post-Truth Era.
Much has been written about the impact social media and the internet in general have had on how people receive and absorb information. By now, we are all familiar with bots, trolls, phony scandals and the tendency of folks to hunker down in their own info-silos. The old adage that a lie is halfway round the world before the truth gets its socks on has never been more salient.
Consider the recent attacks on one of the young Parkland shooting survivors. A teenager who had just witnessed classmates being gunned down at his own school quickly discovered that speaking up for common-sense gun regulation resulted in vicious trolling and the viral lie that he was a paid “crisis actor”. This was similar to what befell the grieving families of the small children murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. Imagine waking one morning in a state of searing grief over the violent death of your baby to discover that some odious prankster like Alex Jones is telling his gullible audience that the whole tragic incident was staged, that your child was actually a paid performer doused in artificial gore and posed in a gruesome tableaux of death.
That Jones and his ilk have not been thoroughly shamed and driven from the public sphere says a lot about our growing tolerance for vile nonsense.
Trump did not invent Fake News. The Big Lie has been the stock in trade of con men and tyrants since time immemorial. But he understands its value. “Alternative facts” as his lickspittle factotum, Kellyanne Conway infamously put it, has long been his metier. He’s a bullshitter, a phony and now he’s our president.
This shouldn’t have happened. But we let it happen, though Trump did have plenty of help
Unsurprisingly, the Fox propaganda machine and any number of right-wing radio ranters enthusiastically clambered aboard the Trump Train. They were abetted by many in the mainstream media who, mindful that Trump lured eyeballs to advertisers and too timid to call him out as the carnival barker he so obviously was, went along for the ride. A number of Republicans in Congress dismissed him at first. But when it became clear he had a shot at winning and that his devotees comprised at least half of their party, they scurried to adopt him as their useful idiot.
It’s true that we are not all equally culpable. Roughly three million more people voted for Trump’s chief opponent. But the right-minded among us didn’t do enough to forestall the plainly looming disaster. The proof of that is the Trump presidency itself.
So, if we in our various incarnations are the problem, then what is the solution? Is there any way out? We’d better hope so. What’s certain is that it’s on us. We made a wreck of our government and it’s up to us to fix it.
There are positive signs:
A once compliant media has begun to take the gloves off. Genuine conservatives, outraged that their movement has been hijacked by philistines, are sounding the alarm. People are rising up and calling BS. For every Sean Hannity there is a Rachel Maddow, Jake Tapper or even Shepard Smith (at Fox News, no less!). For every Paul Ryan, there is a David Frum or Max Boot. Frothing crowds at CPAC are countered by the #MeToo movement and impressively eloquent teenagers fed up with politicians of any stripe who cower before the gun industry. On a good day, a John McCain or Jeff Flake will stand up to the cringing accommodationists in their own party. And, of course, Donald Trump himself, along with his corrupt lackeys, face a formidable foe in the person of Robert Mueller.
NSA Director Admiral Mike Rogers’ recent testimony before the Senate Intelligence Committee should mark a turning point, though he merely confirmed what has been apparent for some time: that even as our nation is under attack from a Russia determined to subvert our democracy, the president has not directed any relevant agencies to defend the country. This is a violation of the oath Trump swore on inauguration day and smacks of treason. We have entered uncharted waters.
What’s clear is that we need to use all non-violent resources at our disposal to rid ourselves and our country of the dangerous infection spreading from the White House into our body politic. These are not normal times and our usual reflexes will no longer suffice.
Trump is a problem of our own creation. We must become the solution.
Ron Reagan is an author and political commentator who lives in Seattle and Arezzo, Tuscany.