It’s one thing to hear Sen. Tim Scott, R-S.C., call President Joe Biden divisive, to hear him say that Biden and his Democratic allies are “pulling us further apart.” Given the harsh and hateful rhetoric of Biden’s predecessor, Scott’s description might be considered deep irony.
It’s quite another thing to hear commentators on Fox News declare that Biden’s climate change proposals would limit consumption of red meat, all but banning that all-American favorite, the hamburger. Or to read a tweet from Sen. Tom Cotton, R-Ark., who helped to spread the tale that the government is handing out a picture book written by Vice President Kamala Harris to migrant children in U.S. facilities. Or to read in Gateway Pundit, a right-wing misinformation site, that wearing face masks not only doesn’t prevent COVID-19, but can result in “premature death.”
Those are outright lies, fictional claims that spread like a contagion through the right-wing conspiracy ecosystem. The hysterical assertions about Biden’s environmental plans and Harris’ book for children are intended to whip up crazed opposition to political proposals, which is bad enough. But the lies about masks, like falsehoods about the safety of vaccines, could easily result in sickness and death.
How did we get to this place? How did we arrive at a time when Americans are better educated than at any point in history but so easily deceived by the utterly irrational? How did we come to a point in which people who seem otherwise normal could believe in a vast conspiracy in which powerful Democrats are leading a global ring of pedophiles?
As a journalist who has spent her career in a profession dedicated to giving citizens a transparent accounting of government actions, I am unnerved by the deliberate disavowal of facts. As an American who believes that facts are essential to a healthy democracy, I am depressed by the ease with which lies capture the allegiance of so many of my fellow citizens.
This is certainly not what the Founding Fathers had in mind. Educated men, they believed that their fledgling democracy depended on an educated citizenry. Let’s face it: They were also racist and elitist, and they constructed a system that gave power only to white men like themselves. But their Enlightenment ideals led to a nation with a widespread system of free and compulsory public education, giving every citizen the opportunity to learn to read, to write, to reason.
The Founders also bequeathed to us a First Amendment that gives the government little power to control what people say or write — a freedom for which I am deeply grateful. But neither the educational ideals nor the free-speech liberties are working out as the Founders might have hoped. Education has failed to produce rational thinking; free speech has led to a vast network of disinformation.
As historian Richard Hofstadter pointed out, there has always been a “paranoid style” in American politics. That style was in evidence in the 1950s, when Sen. Joseph McCarthy, R-Wis., smeared members of Harry Truman’s administration with false accusations of communist subversion, claiming to have a long list of communist spies serving in the State Department. But his fellow senators eventually rose up against McCarthy; fellow Republicans led a successful move to censure him.
It is impossible to imagine such a thing happening in the current Republican Party, which has been taken over by loyalists to former President Donald Trump. Rather than condemn the former president for his role in the insurrection of Jan. 6, his lackeys continue to make pilgrimages to his retirement retreat at Mar-A-Lago. And rather than sign on to an investigation of the insurrection, Republicans are downplaying it or lying about it outright — insisting that leftists, not Trump supporters, were responsible for the riot.
Earlier this week, in his first address to a joint session of Congress, Biden struck an optimistic tone. Citing the attack on the Capitol, he noted that our adversaries are betting that American democracy will not survive. “They are wrong,” he said. “And we have to prove them wrong.”
That won’t happen as long as so many Americans are captive to lies and conspiracy theories.