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.