Yesterday a mob of Trump supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol as a joint session of Congress attempted their Constitutionally mandated task of approving the electors for the next president. We spent yesterday watching the news unfold on Twitter and live TV.
I’ve never seen anything like this. I’m grieving for our nation.
There will be so many better opinions and commentaries and I hesitate to add to the noise, but I keep coming back to one thing that I think is important to emphasize.
An erosion of trust and a lack of common truth has imperiled our democracy.
I’m focusing on this issue because I think it’s at the root of a problem we’ve been dealing with not just this week or since the election or even since Trump’s presidency. But I’m not talking about this issue to the exclusion of others.
Yesterday’s actions showed a number of serious failures and problems at the heart of America’s democracy. Anyone can plainly see the stark difference in how police responded to yesterday’s mob compared to last summer’s protesters. Let’s not equate the two groups. There’s the issue of a sitting president inciting a mob and then refusing to to quell the violence. We’ll learn more about what happened yesterday and how it occurred, but right now I’m simply amazed that the Capitol isn’t soaked in blood. Last I heard there were four deaths, and while that’s terrible, it could have been so much worse.
But other folks can talk about those issues better than I can.
Loss of Trust and Truth
Last year I wrote a book about how to make civic engagement civil again, called Better Politics, Please. In the book I profiled 35 public officials and argued that overcoming our divisions requires finding common ground.
Today that book feels rather naive.
Because there can’t be common ground without common truth.
And in America today we find ourselves in splintered realities with different headlines, different facts, and different truths.
This isn’t anything new. But it hasn’t been adequately challenged. We’ve allowed it to take root in our society, and now it threatens to destroy us.
Much of it has been fueled by Donald Trump, though it by no means begins and ends with him. He has shoveled lies and misinformation for the better part of the last decade, going back to the birther controversy where he challenged the legitimacy of Barack Obama’s presidency. Trump lied about silly, bizarre things and he lied about deadly serious things. Many people would dismiss the lies as jokes or assure us that nobody took him seriously.
Yesterday people died because they believed his lies.
There’s an entire group of Americans who have rejected common facts and shared ideals. They talk about civil war because they’ve already succeeded from our shared reality.
This isn’t a small group of extremists. Certainly those who raided the Capitol are small in number, but those who believe the same thing but held themselves back from violence potentially approach half the country. More than 74 million people voted for Donald Trump in 2020. And many of those people believe his lies that the election was rigged and that rampant fraud gave the election to Joe Biden, despite any proof and despite more than 60 court cases being rejected.
In the midst of the riot, Trump continued to spread that false story.
Yesterday and today, I watched on social media as these Trump supporters doubled down on the lies and misinformation. They cling to the idea that they are patriots while attacking the foundation of our democracy.
They’ve lost trust in the media, I’d guess partly fueled by a steady attempt to undermine the media—but also in part by some of the media’s own failings. Like everything else, the news media has flaws. Rather than working to counter-act those flaws, they’ve been exploited to reject the entire apparatus.
There’s an entire sub-group of media speaking to these people, fueling the misinformation and falsehoods. It’s not just Fox News, which has its share of problems but can also still speak truth (calling Arizona for Joe Biden is one example).
A fact check isn’t enough to overcome the lies, because they have an entire media empire (the president recently referred to it as “Trump media”) spreading those lies.
Yesterday’s mob violence centered on falsehoods about the legitimacy of the election, but it goes much deeper. Much of the allegations of fraud center on the fact that states approved more absentee voting measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic. This false echo chamber rejects this because they reject the reality of a global pandemic that’s killed more than 360,000 Americans.
It’s not just election results they reject, it’s science. It’s basic facts.
Our single greatest issue right now isn’t affirming the legitimacy of a single election or ensuring the peaceful transition of power or even addressing the systemic racism that corrupts our country to the core—all of which are monumental problems.
Our problem right now is how do you debate ideas when there’s no common truth? How do you appeal to reason when they’ve stepped away from reality?
Where Do We Go From Here?
Last night I watched the news coverage of the U.S. Congress returning to the Capitol to do their work of affirming the electors and Joe Biden as the next president. What I found disheartening is that the objections weren’t immediately dropped and truth embraced. Many (but not all) Republicans continued to declare the election fraudulent. They had been attacked by Trump’s unruly mob and yet still clung to the same falsehoods that mob peddled.
That’s what worries me about yesterday. Yes, our nation survived an assault on our democracy, but did anything change? God, I hope so. There are reports of Republicans calling for Trump’s removal. But this doesn’t begin and end with Trump.
Until we address this erosion of truth, our democracy is in danger.
And I don’t know how we do it.
I grew up in a conservative Baptist church where the leaders preached the dangers of relativism. That was going to be the downfall of the atheist liberals, that they had no foundation in truth. If everyone has their own truth, then nothing is true and we’re lost. How painfully ironic that they were right—just not about the liberals, but themselves.
So many of the caring Christians I grew up with have traded the truth for Trump. They’ve embraced the lies and called it truth.
And when you call them out on it, it’s either a merry-go-round of misinformation or you’re unfriended, further isolating them in their echo chamber.
I wrote a book about finding common ground, about finding something to celebrate in someone even when you disagree. But now we’re so far beyond that. We’re not even in the same reality, never mind common ground.
So I’m feeling pretty naive and dejected this morning.
My One Hope
But I think there is a way forward. It’s not easy. It’s not simple. It’s not quick.
We have to reclaim truth and facts in America.
That sounds stupidly simple as I write it, but I think that has to be the first step.
While there is a massive group of Americans who have embraced this alternate reality, they are not the majority. We need everyone who values truth and common ground and basic facts to embrace and uphold those things. We need to call out the falsehood and misinformation everywhere we can. We need good people to reject the lies.
Note I’m not talking about common values or political beliefs. The majority who still values truth are not liberal Democrats or independent moderates, they’re Americans of every political stripe who will passionately disagree about just about everything. But we do agree on facts and truth.
Yes, this rejection of truth is rampant in the Republican party. I say that based on the more than 100 Republicans in Congress yesterday who challenged the electors. They’re still embracing the the false story of election fraud. But I also know many conservatives who reject that falsehood. Those conservatives need to reclaim the Republican party (or abandon it to the Trump mob and start something new).
It’s incumbent on all of us to embrace what is true. That applies to our own side as well—spreading our own lies or misinformation only fuels the erosion of truth. It’s vitally important that we check what we say and avoid even a single retweet or share of misinformation.
We must regain truth in America. Our democracy depends on it.
And I don’t know if it’s enough. In many ways it feels like the die is cast and we’re in for decades of fallout.
But I have to believe we can start by championing the truth. One day at a time, one conversation at a time, until we have safeguarded our democracy.
3 thoughts on “The January 6 Insurrection: The Loss of Trust and Truth”
Enjoyed reading your expansive commentary on yesterday’s horrendous events- very concise and thoughtful. I pray that your words will reach and inspiring others to really think.
You are right. We must, as Solzhenitsyn wrote, “Live Not By Lies.” Because so many of us choose to live by lies, the breakdown of the social order is more or less inevitable. What happened yesterday was a direct consequence of (some of) the more potent lies. Worse: it is only a preview of things to come if we don’t reverse this.
I’ve had a long, exhausting night cajoling, critiquing, and outright yelling at my friends on the Right who were (and, in some cases, still are) spreading lies. They themselves are dupes, not liars. And they are not morons, either. They are generally highly-educated, several with terminal degrees in their fields, and highly intelligent. One in particular (not a local) is a college professor. But it’s for precisely that reason that it is difficult to see their gullibility as anything other than them CHOOSING, at some level, to BE duped. How do you undupe someone who, deep down, kinda sorta WANTS to be duped? And yet, in the wake of the MAGA riot, what can I do except call on them to live not by lies?
Suffice to say, I’m very tired, and so this comment will be terser than it might otherwise be.
I think that you are right in your conclusion that we have to restore a consensus reality. And, more importantly, I think your desire to bring that about is sincere.
Yet I think you begin from a place that misses important pieces of the dynamic that has brought us to this point, and that this will make some of your efforts less productive — even counter-productive.
You and your “team”, emphatically, are not the folks mainly responsible for what happened yesterday, so please don’t take this as a deflection. It’s not. My “team” attacked the Capitol, and did so only after a shockingly large part of my “team” engaged in an unprecedented attempt to overturn the results of a free and fair election. No side has ever done that before; nothing your side did provoked it or justified it. I share these thoughts simply because I agree with your mission and I want you to accomplish it, rather than find yourself caught in the same traps we’ve all gotten trapped in during the past several decades.
I’m going to share two articles, and then I’m going to tell one story… and then I’m going to stop, because I need a break.
The first article I share because of your suggestion that the Right “exploited” flaws in the mainstream media to secede from them, “rather than working to counter-act those flaws.” As Scott Alexander writes in “Neutral vs. Conservative: The Eternal Struggle,” this is a somewhat self-serving misremembering of the past fifty years:
“The way I remember it, conservatives spent about thirty years alternately pleading, demanding, suing, legislating, and literally praying for greater fairness in mainstream institutions, and it was basically all just hitting their heads against a brick wall. THEN they defected to create their own.”
Mr. Alexander then goes on to describe the radical asymmetry between conservative and neutral media — agreeing, wholeheartedly (and correctly) that conservative media is WAY worse, but also taking note of the dynamics in “neutral” institutions that guarantee conservative media will both exist and be horrendous.
The second article, by Aaron Sibarium, instead focuses on the symmetries between left-wing and right-wing worldview bubbles, through the lens of Weimar Germany. While there are certainly asymmetries (see Mr. Alexander’s piece!), I think there are far more symmetries than anyone (left or right) would like to admit. Worse, I think that both sides contribute to the other side’s worst excesses in just the way Mr. Sibarium describes:
Finally, a story.
The morning after the MAGA riot, my Facebook feed was lit up with very upset MAGA friends insisting that actually, MAGA didn’t riot. It was antifa! Look, we have cropped pictures! Some of them with red circles drawn on them in MS paint! A friend of mine shared a screencap of a tweet from a guy he follows who says he got a text from a cousin in D.C. who has a source in the FBI who says that, ACTUALLY, a whole bus of antifa showed up to make trouble! The protest, they unironically tell me, was “mostly peaceful.”
(Meanwhile, my friends of the Left were decrying the unprecedented choice by a political leader to incite, justify, and fuel the riot.)
I couldn’t shake my memory of the first week of June 2020.
The morning after it became undeniable that the Twin Cities protests had become riots — which was about two days after the first building was torched, if memory serves — suddenly my friends on the Left, all over Facebook, were confidently insisting that the riots weren’t caused by the “mostly peaceful” racial justice protestors. They had obviously been caused by outside infiltrators. The police! The Proud Boys! Trumpers! The WSP Neighbors group and others started featuring posts by well-meaning citizens taking pictures of and harassing “suspicious” people in vans without license plates. This was because (based on literally absolutely nothing, as far as I could find) unmarked black vans were widely understood to be used by unspecified “white supremacists” to fuel trouble.
They had pictures, too! Some of them with red circles drawn on them in MS Paint! They shared screencaps of tweets claiming that “sources” were saying most of the culprits were “out-of-state agitators”! (Memorably, even Gov. Walz repeated this one.) And, geeze, those guys parking on a Lowry Hill side street in that Facebook video sure LOOKED suspicious, didn’t they? Why wouldn’t they let the noble citizen filming them open their trunk for an inspection? They had nothing to fear if they had nothing to hide, right?
As it turned out, some of this suspicion proved well-founded. “Umbrella Guy” wasn’t the undercover police officer my left-wing friends spent days trying to link to the Autozone burning… but he DID ultimately turn out to be a Hell’s Angel. It wouldn’t be insane to find out that SOME of the MAGA rioters were antifa, too. But, as arrest records started coming out, it became clear that our rioters and looters were overwhelmingly left-wing protesters and anarchists, overwhelmingly homegrown right here in Minnesota.
In short, my left-wing friends had tried to absolve themselves for the violence of their own side by blaming it on false-flag infiltrators on the other side, based on thin evidence invested with wishful thinking. If they ever took responsibility for being duped by this lie, I missed it. But that hasn’t stopped them unleashing their ire on my right-wing friends for committing *precisely the same sin.*
(Meanwhile, my friends of the Right, spent June 2020 decrying the unprecedented choice by a political leader to incite, justify, and fuel the riot. Today, they’re claiming that Trump did nothing wrong, and that his statements over the past several days were as perfect as his phone call with Zelensky.)
We don’t need to say that the BLM rioting and the MAGA rioting were morally identical in every respect to notice that a lot of the social dynamics surrounding the two were strikingly similar… and that neither side seemed to have a monopoly on honesty, or even reality, in their aftermaths. We don’t need to claim that both sides are perfect symmetrical in every way to notice that both sides are made up of humans… and that humans, for better and for worse, are almost always more alike than they are different.
And now it’s time for that break. Thank you again for committing anew to the truth. (If you’ve never read Solzhenitsyn’s “Live Not By Lies” essay, do. It’s quickly becoming my creed.) Talk to you sooner or later.
I feel as though a large part of our nation has been brainwashed by self-administered propaganda. “A Day in the Life of Ivan Denisovich,” “1984”, and “Lord of the Flies” seem newly relevant.