Do We Have a Country Without a Shared View of Reality?

Sept 3, 2020
Farhad Manjoo: Opinion in New York Times

Selected portions, not in its entirety:

As an immigrant who escaped to America from apartheid-era South Africa, I feel that I’ve cultivated a sharper appreciation for political trouble. To me, the signs on the American horizon are flashing blood red.

Armed political skirmishes are erupting on the streets, and scholars are tracking a rise in violence and instability as the election draws near. Gun sales keep shattering records. Mercifully, I suppose, there’s a nationwide shortage of ammo. Then there is the pandemic, mass unemployment, natural disasters on every coast, intense racial and partisan polarization, and not a little bit of lockdown-induced collective stir craziness.

I watched [the Republican Convention] wall-to-wall, and it drove me to despair. In that four-night celebration of Trumpism, I caught a frightening glimpse of the ugly end of America, an authoritarian cult in full flower, and I am not keen to stick around much longer to see if my terrifying premonition pans out.

I want you to know that I am straining, here, to resist partisan squabbling. There was a lot for a lefty like myself to dislike about the Republican confab, but what shook me was not any particular policy goal but instead the convention’s Peronist aesthetics and the unembarrassed profligacy of lies.

The convention certainly intensified my worries about a Trump re-election. Unloosed from all checks, a two-term Trump would, I fear, usher in a reign by his clan for long into the future. (Trump has repeatedly “joked” about serving beyond a second term.)

But the Republican convention also quickened my worries about American democracy even in the event that he loses. If Trumpism has charmed a sizable minority of Americans, and if the Trump dynasty retains its mass appeal, will America ever move on? Even if the country can get as far as a peaceful transition of power, can we expect anything like a functioning federal government beyond the inauguration?

In a new book, “Presidents, Populism and the Crisis of Democracy,” the political scientists William G. Howell and Terry M. Moe argue that Trumpism is largely a symptom of growing populist disaffection with the American government’s inability to solve people’s problems. Even if Trump does lose, they argue, our democracy will still face serious questions about its viability. I asked Moe, a professor at Stanford, how America might recover from this damage.

“It’s not clear that we can,” he told me. “I think the Republicans, for now, are an anti-democracy party.” Their only chance of political survival is to continue to “make the country as undemocratic as they can so that they can win elections.”

The party’s complete submission to Trump was on full display at the convention. It adopted a platform that was essentially no new platform other than to “enthusiastically support the president’s America-first agenda.” There was no mention of Obamacare, the repeal of which was once a Republican policy obsession. There wasn’t a single reference to the number of Americans who’ve died from the coronavirus, nor even a passing recognition of the threats of a changing climate.

Instead, we saw a dynastic cult of personality: Of the six convention speakers who spoke for longer than 10 minutes, four were Trumps.

Then there was the blizzard of lies. The convention represented a new low in collective artifice and delusion. These weren’t lies about obscure details or matters of interpretation. These lies cut to the bone and marrow of reality — the rendering in the past tense of a pandemic that is still killing about a thousand Americans a day, or the description of an economy that is in the worst downturn since the Great Depression as roaring on all cylinders. How did the party get low-income New Yorkers to praise Trump? They simply tricked them into participating.

It’s not the lies themselves that worry me most, but the fact that millions of people might accept them. Can America endure such mendacity? When you don’t have social trust, when you don’t have a shared view of reality, do you even have a country?

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