I have some good news and some bad news. The good news: 52 percent of Americans support Joe Biden in the FiveThirtyEight poll average. The bad news: 42 percent support President Trump. Why isn’t Trump losing by a whole lot more? How is it possible that so many still back him despite everything that has gone wrong?
Trump is on track to be the first president since World War II to see a net loss of jobs during his term. Even worse, he has presided over the loss of 214,000 lives and counting from covid-19. That’s already nearly four times the U.S. fatalities in the Vietnam War, previously the nadir of presidential bungling. Even now, after having contracted covid-19 himself, Trump refuses to take the pandemic seriously. He keeps promising it will magically disappear of its own accord while holding rallies practically guaranteed to spread the disease.
As if that weren’t reason enough to vote for Biden, there is also the fact that Trump has abused his power; he was even impeached for doing so. He has trafficked in racism and xenophobia. He has incited violence. He has kowtowed to dictators and trashed our alliances. He has welcomed Russian attacks on our elections. He has locked children in cages. He has called for his opponents to be locked up. In sum, Trump has made a strong case that he is the worst president in our history.
Yet tens of millions of voters still support him. What are they thinking? I get that there are single-issue voters to whom Trump has a strong appeal — people who feel passionately about tax cuts, judges, abortion or Israel. There are also people for whom Trump’s boorishness, racism and xenophobia are not a turnoff but a selling point. (Studies show that appeals to prejudice were the most important factor in Trump’s 2016 victory.)
There are also, of course, many Trump voters who are convinced that he is the lesser evil, because Biden is supposedly plotting to turn the United States into a “large scale version of Venezuela,” even while suffering from “dementia.” They claim Biden is a “puppet” of the far left, even though he opposes Medicare-for-all, the Green New Deal, a ban on fracking, defunding the police, expanding the Supreme Court and other progressive ideas.
The very fact that so many are so willing to believe such balderdash about Biden — a lifelong centrist who remains far more articulate and coherent than Trump — is a worrisome sign of how cut off from rational, factual discourse so much of the country has become. Many voters are still supporting Trump because they’re living in a hermetically sealed disinformation bubble that is impermeable to reality.
A Pew Research Center survey makes clear the extent of the problem. Among those who get their election news primarily from Fox “News,” 86 percent say Trump is delivering the “completely right” or “mostly right” message about the pandemic, 78 percent that “the U.S. has controlled the outbreak as much as it could have” and 61 percent that Trump and his administration get the facts right about the coronavirus “almost all” or “most of the time.” Perhaps the most disturbing finding of all: 39 percent of Fox News viewers say that QAnon — an insane conspiracy theory that posits that Trump’s opponents are satanic child-molesters — is “somewhat good” or “very good” for the country.
I’m sorry, these are not issues on which rational people can legitimately disagree. Trump’s covid-19 message — that, as he said Saturday, “it is disappearing” — is objectively false. In the past week, daily confirmed coronavirus cases in the United States have increased by 13.3 percent and hospitalizations by 9.8 percent. Trump’s claims to the contrary, we have done far worse during the pandemic than most wealthy countries. If we had the same death rate as Canada, 132,000 victims of covid-19 would still be alive. And it should go without saying that QAnon, whose adherents have been linked to numerous acts of violence, is a bane, not a boon.
Sen. Daniel Patrick Moynihan (D-N.Y.) used to say: “Everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts.” That’s no longer true.
While irrationality and conspiratorial thinking exist on both the left and the right, the right in recent decades has been much more afflicted by an epidemic of “alternative facts.” This is not a new development: Conspiracy theories about fluoridation, Whitewater, Vince Foster’s death, John F. Kerry’s Swift boat service, Bill Clinton’s 1969 trip to Moscow and Barack Obama’s birth certificate predate the Trump presidency. But the rise of Fox News and Facebook allows “fake news” to spread much more readily — and Trump gives it the imprimatur of the Oval Office. It’s bad enough that the president lies so much; what’s worse is that so many think he is telling the truth.
Unfortunately, even if Trump is defeated, a large portion of the country will continue to believe a lot of things that simply are not so — and a small but significant number could be led into violence by their lunatic beliefs. The disturbing plot by members of a right-wing militia to kidnap the governor of Michigan may be a taste of what is to come. As Francisco Goya warned, “the sleep of reason produces monsters.”
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