View from the Other Side of the Mob

by Robert M. Herzog

“A man hears what he wants to hear and disregards the rest. lie la lie.”

Paul Simon, The Boxer

But still. I have to admit, I can’t fathom the Trump voter. Yes, I keep reading attempts to understand them. They are aggrieved, they hate having to pay for something that someone else gets for free, they distrust the other, they wanted somebody who ostensibly told it like it is, disrupted a status quo they felt was not acknowledging them. Someone who sticks it to the man. Not seeming to realize that they were the man getting sticked to.

People talk about confirmation bias: filtering all information in ways that confirm existing beliefs. But that implies some degree of hearing, of interaction with information. Today’s divides go beyond that. The Trump True Believer is Inaccessible, defined as being unable to be reached. Inaccessible is a door slammed shut, no further entrance, a closing to any but the preapproved corridor of thought.

In her book Uncivil Agreement Lilliana Mason references studies which show how people who identify with a group (even if assigned arbitrarily) generate real and imagined conflicts of interest and demonization of those in the other group. This tendency has been nurtured and fed by Trump and Fox News to the point where there is no way to breach the gulf the Trump True Believer feels about the “other.” Inaccessibility is a venomous characteristic, a by-product of the profound connections people form when they build their identity around a leader, a party, an ideology, a religion.

For once someone makes up their mind that they are part of a certain group, and gets the deep psychological and social benefits of feeling a part of that group, they adopt the visions and decisions, the policies and perspectives, of the leaders of that group. They don’t start with the issues, they start with the identification, and then adhere to the party line about specific matters. Which is why they are effectively inaccessible to hearing anything which contradicts the worldview they adopted. They didn’t embrace it based on analysis and reflection, and they cannot be swayed from it by appeals to reason and logic. Their framework is sealed around the identity they have assumed and all the viewpoints that entails, and that’s that. And once committed, admitting error creates another significant barrier to reconciliation, along with the threat of being expelled from the group bolstering your identity. Just ask Tucker Carlson when he dared question a fomenter of True Beliefs.

So good luck Joe B in reaching across the aisle.

The introduction of the take-no-prisoners approach to policy disputes the Republican party has introduced into our public discourse, and frankly their success as a minority of the population imposing their will on the majority, has gouged the playing field of national discourse to the point of making it impassable. To be fair, I suspect that those who find the notion of “woke” awareness ridiculous, and who in turn feel castigated for their beliefs, would feel the same way about portions of the left, whom they then group as Democrats. While it has been ever thus, no-compromise versions of identity have profoundly infiltrated, to the point of defining, our current political and social environment.

Stevenson voters didn’t castigate Ike supporters; loathers of Nixon rejoiced when Kennedy won but didn’t despise his supporters with the vitriol that replaces dialogue today; when Nixon finally won Humphrey supporters in the Senate didn’t pledge to stop anything he did, whether it might benefit the country (and them). Nobody shouted “liar” at Nixon during a State of the Union speech (much as that might have been deserved). I shuddered when Al Gore capitulated to a banana republic Supreme Court anointing the son of the daddy who appointed them, but he acted for what he thought was the benefit of the nation. Compare and contrast!

This is not to say that people did not pursue their special interests and ideologies, but that the debates around them were contained within a framework that included in its core the common good as part of the infrastructure. That’s what’s changed. The precepts of fundamentalism, that the “other” isn’t just wrong, but morally egregious, deserving only contempt and dismissal, have permeated the consciousness of Americans to a degree not seen since the Civil War. Those who differ are no longer fellow citizens, no longer inhabit the same nation, the same state of mind, or broader, nation of mind.

When your vote is effectively for your version of religion, you’re not going to be open to changing it, and will treat opponents not as valid but as infidels, dehumanized as much as slaveholders viewed their human property. Which in turn justifies threatening them, and seeking to overturn whatever positions they hold, regardless if they represent majority views or, perversely, views that could even benefit the True Believer. Can you say masks? The defiance of science isn’t a new phenomenon in America — there was once a Know-Nothing Party, Proud Boys all — but Trump elevated it to become deadly.

In siting environmental projects, it is an axiom that the way people first hear about a project tends to be what they believe about it. If word spreads that something was coming that would spew toxins into the air or water and deform or kill babies, that formed the standard by which the project, and all additional information about it, was judged. It is far harder to overcome the inertia of that original perception than to form it in the first place.

When the war in Vietnam raged, the nation got its news from essentially three major outlets, the networks of ABC, CBS, and NBC. One could differ in the interpretation of what was presented, but not on the basic evidence; obtaining information that while not necessarily neutral was reasonably balanced in its biases. You had to search hard for French news reports to dispute the absurd body counts the U.S. government put forth, and those who did were among the most radical and hard-lined. Construction workers shouted Love it or Leave It at protesters, but they didn’t storm statehouses carrying AK-47s to impose their views.

Now we get our news from outlets that reinforce our views, create bonds with like-minded pundits and reporters, effectively connecting us to the millions of others who made a similar selection. Fox news presents an impenetrable morass of lies, misinformation, and misguided views to the MSNBC viewer; I imagine the same is true in reverse, as Fox & Co. viewers see red flags around defund the police, open borders, more welfare support. But just as our culture has lost the “water cooler event” when there were only three networks, the pluralism of our society has eviscerated the larger commonality not just of events and perspectives, but of civic and civil standards of discourse.

Millions of people who believe in Trump/Fox News/etc. have been told the election was rigged. Much as I admire Biden’s calm and steadfastness in the face of this onslaught, and respect the reports of all those actually involved in the election’s management, it is unlikely that an evidence-based approach to rebutting the fraud claims will have much success. The believers are inaccessible to evidence or reason, distrust the to them so-called experts, and further bond with each other to form their identity around the belief that something was stolen from them, holding arms to fight the good fight against the forces of evil. When the background is insanity, the sane look crazy.

We lack commonly accepted sources to mediate differences. You watch Fox, and only look at MSNBC to sneer in contempt. Or vice versa. The same people who raise the bugaboo of Sharia law coming into our borders are willing to support a President who tries to use the power of his office and attendant appointees such as the Attorney General to stifle discussion, spread false narratives, and persecute political opponents. People use the Constitution the way they use the Bible — they will find something in it to support their views. With truth as well as God on our side, the other guys, lacking in both, are beneath consideration.

Through many years of negotiating deals, I have learned that no one says, now I’m going to act irrationally. They do what they think is in their own interests. I may view their perspective as deeply flawed, produce mounds of evidence to support that, but my perception, however expressed, will have no impact on theirs.

Two thirds of Trump voters earn more than $50k a year. They are, above all, white. But their status, security, and confidence have been threatened, as much by changing mores around sex and gender as by shifting economic forces. Faced with being a dwindling majority in the country; affronted by a sense of unfairness, that society has become more solicitous of the needs of newcomers, outliers, and minorities than theirs; purposefully manipulated around issues of belief such as abortion and gun control; and with nobody else taking to the streets for them, they have found their own way to shout: white lives matter; their lives matter. Nobody’s shooting a teenager for being white, but their psyches are being battered, they don’t want to recognize the disproportionate impacts of discrimination, historical and current, and Trump provides license for their shouts.

They are angry at the “elite,” whether real or imaginary. Trump and Fox have constructed a malleable bogeyman who embodies all the characteristics that piss them off — lack of concern or respect for their cultural and social mores, their jobs, perceived attacks on the validity of their views on core social issues, the exalting of the merits of globalization while not addressing its consequences, the “other” seemingly more concerned about the laws governing bathrooms than the issues of their work, their jobs, their money, their values. With the dissonance of views about abortion, gun control, gay and gender politics, all elevated from disagreement to life-affecting and identity-shaping differences by their adoption of the policies of the group, they are… inaccessible.

I would argue that the most elitist group in America is not the intellectual left but the Koch Brothers and their compadres, whose actual impact has been overwhelmingly to ignore the interests of anyone minority to themselves, including working and middle classes of all races, Republicans amongst them. They hoard income, deny opportunity, cause the potential ruination of much of the planet, as they buy bunkers in New Zealand to protect themselves and their offspring. They use globalization to bolster their own wealth through depressing the earnings of others, while manipulating them through social issues to lead them to their own slaughter. Yes the left’s seeming lack of recognizing the virtues of middle-American life is galling to them, but that psychological impact, while fueling their reverence for Trump, has done far less in reality to harm them than what the wealthy (and Republican) elite have done to them.

I have to wonder about the Koch co-conspirators, the editorial board of the Wall Street Journal. They must be pretty bright, or at least clever. But they have placed economic issues at the pinnacle of their concerns and justifications. Brains without souls, unleashed. Judging by their words, they literally don’t care about: the mismanagement of the Covid crisis and tens of thousands of avoidable deaths; politization of science; degradation of the environment; grotesque inequality of wealth; assault on women’s rights; reinfusing basic norms of decency and respect for the other. They seem to have made a deal with the devil — money matters more, lower taxes matters more, no regulations matters more.

I’m reminded of the ending of the movie Fargo, in which Frances McDormand says to the culprits, “You mean, this was all about money? Don’t you know, money isn’t the most important thing? Don’t you know that?”

The political is often the personal, a professor of political science I once had stated. Trump has corrupted the understandable energies of economic, social, and racial uncertainty into something meaner, sharply divisive even when self-destructive, inflaming anguish, despair and vitriol. Providing no actual solutions serves to keep the anger fueled.

What we have learned to our horror is that the nation’s founding principles and the documents that expressed them depends on a level of common acceptance for those norms, more fragile than we ever thought.

What does this mean for a democratic America? Will Biden have to run roughshod over their perceptions in order to enact his programs and policies. That runs counter to his own tendencies, but his innate decency will find no recognition from his embedded opponents.

So long as one’s identity is built around membership in a group, a tribe, a race, a religion, then unthinkingly adopting all the self-interested perspectives of the leaders, they remain inaccessible to compromise, tolerance of other views, the right to hold them and the humanity of those who differ.

Inaccessibility is no longer confined in America to splinter or fringe groups. It is the fundamentalist dynamic of tens of millions, and it must be acknowledged before it can be addressed. Hopefully, policies and programs can be initiated that not only respect most lives, but can improve their condition, while not appearing to give preferential treatment to some groups over others. Then perhaps the experience of ideas once anathema but that have a positive impact can break through the barriers that separate us from them.

See my other works here on Medium, and more prescient commentaries from the past 20 years about America, how we got to where we are and what we can do about it, in my new book, Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, which ranks highly on Amazon in Political Commentary and Historical Essays. I’d love to hear what you think about it. https://amzn.to/2H4SmDz And more of my writing, fiction, stories, film and such, at https://www.thezog.com/ Let me know what you think, and what you’re thinking!

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Robert M. Herzog

Robert M. Herzog

Published author exploring they dynamics of America, in Views from the Side Mirror: Essaying America, and novel, A World Between, see my writing at thezog.com