Tribal Truths

Vested emotional interests, almost inescapable in life, are a constant threat to rational deliberation. If heightened by extreme circumstances, they may prove the enemy of reason itself. The current gulf between the two sides in the debate over the 2020 U.S. election and its fallout provides an object lesson in the danger of allowing one’s mind to become immersed in emotional interests, which is all the more likely when private emotions are artificially amplified by waves of collective feeling. With a little prodding from cynical leaders, an entire country may be torn apart by the mutually blind rhetoric of competing tribal truths. 

In the days and weeks immediately following the 2020 U.S. election, the majority of the Trump wing of the Republican Party, which at that time (and perhaps still today) comprised upwards of forty percent of voting Americans, truly believed, with all their souls, that the election had been stolen from them, and that Joe Biden was about to be sworn in as president in defiance of the provable truth that his victory was fraudulent. This was not (at least from the rank and file voters) a “coup attempt” or a refusal to accept the results of the democratic process. They were certain in their hearts and minds that Trump was still the legitimate president, and that the U. S. Constitution was being subverted before their eyes by leftist radicals and their ideological allies in the “corporate media.” 

Hence, all attempts to portray the words and actions of Trump voters (and even some, though not all, of Trump’s allies in elected office) during the days leading up to January 6th, 2021 — words and actions related to replacing the official state electors with new ones, or rejecting hundreds of thousands of votes, and so on — as acts of deliberate and willful criminality or election-stealing on the part of Republicans, are pure nonsense.

But this nonsense seems perfectly reasonable and even obvious to mainstream Democratic voters and their spoon-feeders in the media, because to the rank and file Democrat, the idea of Trump’s loss having been fraudulent, or of the Democratic Party being capable of such an act of treason as the systematic faking of an election result, is simply beyond all possibility or common sense. Hence, to the Democrat, the very notion being propounded by Trump voters being so inherently unthinkable, the only rational explanation for anyone making such an accusation must be that the Republicans — all seventy million of them — were “planning a coup” and “trying to oust the duly elected president.”

False on both sides. Trump’s voters, caught up in the emotions of a disappointing loss, and believing (not without reason) that a Democratic victory in 2020 would lead to the institution of an even more radical progressive agenda for America, one which might forever erase the last recognizable traces of the constitutional republic they (sort of) believed in, were primed to believe that the election result was unreal. The notion was so satisfying — as imagining that one’s losses might be overturned will always bring emotional relief — that it would have taken relatively little effort to persuade the majority of them that the whole thing was merely a nightmare from which they were about to awaken. And since the man offering exactly that assurance to them was precisely the individual they were most inclined to believe in at that moment, Trump himself, it is hardly surprising that so many of them innocently assumed that when their leader claimed to “know” the election had been stolen, he must have had some evidence, and that when he and his mouthpieces repeatedly promised to bring the whole Democratic fraud crashing down next week, he and they must really have had a major discovery or confession to unleash on the world. And when Trump and his acolytes, from the administration and the “conservative media,” asserted that January 6th, the congressional counting of the electoral college votes, would put the official seal on the fraud, and must therefore be stopped at all costs, pending the great presentation of proof coming soon from Trump’s team, these na├»ve and sincerely frightened Trump voters had every emotional reason to believe it.

On the other hand, it must also be granted that the Democratic voters who follow their own media and political leaders in assuming that those Trump followers were actually trying to steal the election from Joe Biden — that Republican voters knew they were violating the constitutional process in the name of an authoritarian impulse — are not all lying or maliciously misrepresenting their opponents. Democrat voters are not all “in on the steal,” anymore than Republicans are. They simply have an opposite set of emotional vested interests. Whereas Trump voters are naturally inclined to believe their defeat was obviously fake, so Democrat voters are naturally inclined to believe their victory was obviously legitimate. Thus, just as Democrats are wrong to assume that (most) Trump voters were knowingly acting to undermine the democratic election process, so Trump voters are wrong to assume that (most) Democrats were and are knowingly acting to uphold a fraudulent election result.

It is the most natural bias in the world to assume that one’s successes are earned and justified, and one’s failures unearned and unjustified. And so it is with the two sides in this increasingly absurd public debate over the January 6th riot at the U.S. Capitol. The fact that many people prior to January 6th were attempting to overturn the result does not prove that they were traitors or authoritarians — although it may reveal something along those lines about those people’s leaders, who so abused their followers’ trust. Likewise, the fact that most Democrats cannot experience the world of late 2020 as tens of millions of crestfallen and panicked Republicans experienced it does not make those Democrats co-conspirators in the destruction of America — although it might reveal a certain lack of empathy or basic human understanding, which is to be expected from the party of “wokeness,” the latter simply being an American slang popularization of the old-fashioned Marxist tribunal.

The 2020 U. S. election was not “stolen,” though neither was it proper and fair. Voting machines did not “flip” millions of votes, but early mail-in ballots (which likely followed the letter of the law, though not its spirit) undoubtedly contributed mightily to Biden’s totals. In a straight-up, in-person election carried out at physical voting booths on the proper election day, Trump probably would have won. On the other hand, Trump’s claim, on election night itself, that the vote was being stolen from him and “everyone knows it” was nothing but a rabble-rousing psychological operation to manipulate his emotionally untethered followers, at the moment of their most extreme vulnerability, into believing exactly what they would have wished to believe at that moment, and what Trump himself most wished to believe, for the sake of his puny ego. 

No, the protest at the Capitol on January 6th was not attended primarily by rioters and violent subversives — but neither were such people entirely absent or without motivation from their leader on that day. When Trump told his crowd that Mike Pence could and should stop the counting of the electoral votes, and that he ought to be condemned as a coward if he did not do so, the people in the crowd interpreted those words in a manner consistent with their own temperaments; most probably felt hopeless and angry about Pence’s lack of “loyalty” to Trump, but many, encouraged by incendiary statements from public supporters of Trump such as Lin Wood, understood Trump’s words as a call to “hang Mike Pence.” And Trump clearly knew he was playing with such fire; he just didn’t care, as was obvious from his long-delayed reaction to the ensuing violence at the Capitol. By instigating the violence in this “wash my hands of it” way, Trump was, in the long run, hanging his rank and file voters out to dry. He tarnished all of them with his demagoguery and lack of conscience, such that today, millions of people who merely allowed their fear and anger to overwhelm their reason in 2016 now find themselves subject to categorical rejection and suspicion from millions of their political opponents who now regard them, due to tribal biases of their own, as “insurrectionists.” Trump did that to them. I would like to believe that someday a few of them will realize that the man they turned to as their savior is the one most responsible for the armband of shame they are being forced to wear forever. If they do realize it, I will even refrain from saying “I told you so,” although in fact I did, many times.


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