The past ten months have exposed the vulnerability of America’s democratic institutions to a demagogue. We have learned that no matter what transgression is committed, one-third of the country will applaud while the Congress will do nothing in response. Before Trump, many assumed that the public would provide an effective check on the lies, incompetence, and criminality of an authoritarian ruler. Unfortunately, this optimistic view underestimated the willingness of the American public to hold mutually contradictory beliefs and accept logically absurd arguments. Having fostered this ability in the public, politicians are now starting to fully exploit the psychology of Orwell’s Ministry of Truth.
In response to one scandal after another, the American public has shown an increasing willingness to modify its concept of reality to support those in power. George Orwell first observed that one of the enabling features of totalitarianism, is control of the public’s thinking. He coined the term “doublethink” to describe the act of simultaneously accepting two mutually contradictory beliefs. It is similar to the psychological phenomenon called cognitive dissonance, in which contradictory beliefs cause conflict in a subject’s mind. The distinction is that with doublethink the person has trained himself to be completely unaware of any conflict or contradiction.
The recent escalation of this phenomenon is best illustrated by the public’s response to the “Access Hollywood” tape. When the tape first surfaced in October 2016, even a prevaricator of Trump’s renown was not a sufficiently bold as to deny its authenticity. As a recently as a year ago, it would have been considered impossible to do so. The tape was available on YouTube and was broadcast virtually around the clock on cable news. But much has changed in one year.
According to recent reports, Trump has now begun to deny the authenticity of the tape in private conversations. Many have pointed to these denials as a sign of encroaching dementia. More likely, Trump is merely an astute observer of the public and has recognized changes in the public’s thinking that might enable acceptance of claims previously considered outrageous. Specifically, he may have observed that his supporters have conditioned themselves to simultaneously accept both the tape which they have personally watched (as well as Trump’s prior admission) and Trump’s recent denial.
Related to the public’s increased willingness to accept contradictions, is its increased willingness to accept legalistic arguments in novel contexts. One example is the continued support for Roy Moore. Moore has denied the allegations of sexual misconduct against him by claiming that his accusers are liars and part of a conspiracy by his political opponents. At the same time, both he and his supporters have tried to excuse his alleged behavior by citing biblical scripture. In litigation, lawyers commonly employ a rhetorical technique called “arguing in the alternative.” This is a strategy which advances several competing, and possibly mutually exclusive arguments. For example, a lawyer might argue, “my client did not molest those teenagers, but assuming he did molest those teenagers, his behavior does not satisfy the technical elements of a crime.” This type of argument makes sense in the context of litigation where the lawyer is making the argument in a pleading to a judge. It is obviously absurd in the context of a U.S. Senate campaign, where the candidate is making this argument to the public.
A similar argument has been advanced by Trump and his lawyers in response to allegations that he attempted to obstruct the FBI’s Russia investigation. Trump has repeatedly denied that he asked FBI Director James Comey to drop his investigation of former National Security Advisor Michael Flynn and has also repeatedly called Comey a liar. Recently, however, Trump’s attorney, John Dowd, has begun arguing that even if Comey’s accusations are true, Trump committed no crime because the President cannot commit obstruction of justice as a matter of law. As with Roy Moore, the simultaneous use of factual denials and alternative legal arguments is ludicrous outside of a courtroom. And yet, as with Moore, who is likely to win his Senate Campaign, Republican voters seem more than willing to accept it.
Many consider confirmation bias to be the psychological scourge of our time. If whatever happens only confirms our current opinions, we need never change them in response to external events. Confirmation bias can insulate a corrupt and incompetent government from the effects of its own mismanagement. The Bush Administration received widespread support despite its mismanagement of the Iraq War. Only after its botched response to Hurricane Katrina did reality begin to finally penetrate the Fox News bubble. At that point, it became undeniable that the administration was thoroughly corrupt and incompetent.
Unfortunately, things have spiraled downward since 2004. What we are witnessing now is far worse than confirmation bias. Politicians are beginning to recognize the public’s ability and willingness to accept contradictions. We now find ourselves at the point where external reality has no potential whatsoever to penetrate this administration’s constant torrent of bullshit. It’s not entirely Trump’s fault. The public also deserves blame for choosing to lobotomize itself.
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