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A Democratic Crisis Rooted in Mass Delusion

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A number of ongoing news stories illustrate the depth and character of our nation’s governance crisis. These accounts point to the larger looming trends in policy and politics within which the Institute now conducts its research efforts. Because these developments are so signally important and their possible consequences so profound, I would be remiss not to comment on and explore them briefly here.

        The recent release of a memorandum written by John Eastman, a lawyer and advisor to then President Donald Trump by Washington Post reporters Bob Woodward and Robert Costa, has made clear that neither the ex-president, nor those who followed his call to mount an invasion of the United States Capitol on January 6 worked without a playbook.[1] Eastman’s text laid out a scheme aimed squarely at overturning a legitimate election to install Trump for a second term. That it failed, although narrowly, and that it was predicated on faulty reasoning and an even more egregious understanding of the Constitution, changes nothing concerning its central and abiding significance. The January 6 assault on our nation’s assembled lawmakers sought explicitly to instate Trump for a second term against the expressed will of the nation’s citizens as revealed by a free and fair election. That mob action was, by definition, an effort to establish authoritarian rule.  

        A second story presently in the news as I write in late September is the ongoing stance by Republican Party leaders to threaten and possibly undermine the good faith and credit of the United States by refusing to raise the nation’s debt ceiling, thereby placing the nation into delinquency and likely into a financial recession or worse. Republican Senate Minority leader Mitch McConnell has declared this central governance concern “the Democrats’ problem” and suggested GOP members would simply not undertake the action.[2] This is not only irresponsible in fiscal and moral terms, it also bespeaks an unbelievable level of cynicism in light of the fact that Republicans passed legislation that added $7.5 trillion to the nation’s debt during the Trump presidency and unhesitatingly raised the debt ceiling to cover those obligations three times. Nevertheless, McConnell and other party officials are now telling their supporters that their actions are aimed at preventing Democrats from engaging in untenable spending and creating socialism in the United States, an argument for which there is no evidence.

        A third recent story reported by news outlets was the GOP-sponsored and funded “audit” of the November 2020 presidential vote in Arizona, undertaken by a much-criticized contractor, which officially found no fraud in those returns and declared Biden the winner in the state (for a fourth time and by a wider margin than previously reported).[3]  That outcome, however, has not prevented Republican legislative and executive leaders in Wisconsin, Texas (where Trump prevailed by a wide margin) and Pennsylvania (where Biden won by roughly double the margin by which Trump triumphed in 2016) to call for partisan-controlled “audits” for all or a share of those state’s voting returns on the basis of supposed irregularities that have never been clearly articulated or established. Politico recently described this perverse outcome this way:

If you’re inclined to believe that facts matter, then the results of Arizona’s long-gestating review of the 2020 election results reaffirmed what was already known: Joe Biden won the election and Donald Trump lost. But in a political environment often divorced from factual reality, the so-called “audit” — we hesitate to use that word even in quotation marks — didn’t need to prove anything to be a success. Its findings were ultimately beside the point: The mere existence of the investigation validated the idea that the most outlandish claims about the election should be taken seriously. Understood from that angle, it makes sense why “Friday’s flawed report from the Republicans investigating Arizona’s 2020 election isn’t changing minds or dampening enthusiasm among election conspiracy theorists,” as Zach Montellaro and Meridith McGraw report in a sweeping look at the trend. “Instead, the movement keeps gaining traction in the Republican Party.”[4]

        The important point is that the Republican Party, as party, has adopted Donald Trump’s “Big Lie” concerning the presidential election and is pressing it at the state level as a device to mobilize its supporters. Weighed only as strategy, that effort is working to some degree. The National Opinion Research Center at the University of Chicago found in a recent national poll, for example, that “26% of Americans now believe that [t]he 2020 election was stolen from Donald Trump and Joe Biden is an illegitimate president,” and 8% believe that the "[u]se of force is justified to restore Donald Trump to the presidency."[5] This must be labeled for what it is, patent delusion.

        Finally, the COVID-19 pandemic continues in the United States and its death toll continues to mount, despite the wide availability of vaccines to address it. Approximately 40 percent of the country’s eligible population remains unvaccinated and the nation has now lost more than 688,000 of its citizens to the virus, more deaths than the country experienced in World War I and World War II together, and a higher total than the combined Union and Confederacy losses in this country’s bloody Civil War. This suffering continues in large measure because Donald Trump and other Republican leaders and media allies have convinced their partisans that taking simple public health precautions unduly impairs their liberty and/or that the virus is not “really” serious or is the product of a government or other conspiracy. That hospital intensive care units continue to treat grievously ill and dying individuals when a remedy is easily and freely obtained that could prevent that occurrence, is testimony foremost to the cynicism, extremism and moral bankruptcy of the GOP’s current leaders.

        If one can reasonably contend that Trump and Republican officials have adopted the “Big Lie” and sought to overturn a legitimate election and broken their oaths of office in a single-minded quest for power, whatever its costs for democracy and freedom, that fact does not explain why so many of their supporters (and, surely, at least some other Americans as well) have chosen to believe their patent falsehoods. I sketch here several factors common in mass delusion events that may help to shed some light on this phenomenon. Those episodes, whether resulting in mass deaths or major monetary losses among misled investors, have occurred throughout modern, indeed, human, history.

        The phenomenon of mass delusion, and the factors that lead to and support it, was first chronicled in the modern era by the Scottish writer, poet and journalist Charles Mackay in 1841 in a book entitled, Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions, which has never gone out of print.[6]  Neurologist, historian and financial theorist William Bernstein revisited Mackay’s arguments and provided analyses of more recent examples in The Delusions of Crowds, Why People Go Mad in Groups, published earlier this year.[7] His argument drew on insights from multiple disciplines to argue that humanity periodically falls prey to broad scale manias of all types because human beings are the “ape that imitates, tells stories, seeks status, morally condemns others and yearns for the good old days.”[8] While there are complexities associated with each of these propensities, Bernstein contended that these elements are all linked to humankind’s survival instincts and that each can be exacerbated by their sustained evocation within specific crowds. That is, the more individuals considering delusions do so within a self-reenforcing group, the more likely they are not only to adopt such claims and allow the delusion to animate their behavior, but also to hold those views vigorously, even in the face of compelling contrary evidence. This is one reason why Fox News, with its constant barrage of lies and conspiracy mongering, is so significant to today’s GOP and why social media that allow widespread and rapid sharing of false assertions matter so profoundly as well. The more one is exposed to a delusion and interacts with others who believe it and begins to act as one with that aggregation, the less accurate and increasingly radically divergent one’s assessments of reality are likely to become. As the philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche observed, “Madness is rare in the individual—but with groups, parties, and peoples and ages it is the rule.”[9] This contention appears to describe neatly what has been occurring in the GOP in recent years, especially.

        Bernstein argued that human beings make sense of reality by adopting narratives to “explain” it. The GOP and its allies, including Fox News and the U.S. Chamber of Commerce, have offered a story that minorities and the Democratic Party are working to use government to take money from hard working Americans and give it to undeserving individuals and to hobble the entrepreneurship of businessmen who otherwise should rule and who would ensure good lives for GOP devotees. In addition, the Party has become the principal political home of the nation’s evangelicals, whose faithful typically believe in a specific story of a looming eschaton in which, increasingly for many, Republican leaders play significant roles. This element, too, reenforces partisans’ support for Party-sponsored fantasy tales that purport to illuminate the actions of Democratic leaders as illegitimate evildoers or as individuals who are otherwise unjustly challenging divinely ordained GOP officials. These stories all end with the suggestion that Democrats should never, and can never, legitimately wield political power.

        One additional aspect of the Republican Party story now rending this country is its  adoption of racism and racial hierarchy as central planks of its appeals to voters. Even as GOP policies have often exacerbated the economic and social dislocation experienced by their followers in recent decades, the Party has successfully convinced many of those people, in Bernstein’s terms, that however difficult their plight, at least they are “better,” or higher in status, than the minorities and immigrants that party leaders suggest are otherwise seeking to take advantage of them. This is exactly the argument on which the Nazi Reich drew in its scapegoating of Jews for Germany’s economic and political woes in the 1920s and 1930s. It completely undermines calls for, and any aspiration to, democratic equality in the name of encouraging those at whom it is aimed to perceive themselves as superior to negatively targeted groups.

        Bernstein also contended that to survive in evolutionary terms, humankind has had to learn quickly to imitate the actions of others. While this has often resulted in survival in otherwise new climes and situations, it can also lead to tragedy and indeed, to widespread delusion, as has so often occurred in financial market bubbles and mass frauds and fads as well as in religious sect deaths. Imitating the behavior of another you perceive positively, for ideological or other reasons, can lead to positive outcomes, but, as the example of refusing vaccination and public health measures in the face of the COVID-19 pandemic illustrates, it can lead to singular tragedy as well.

        In this regard, it is vital to emphasize that Trump has led his Party and supporters into accepting ever more extreme denunciations of any and all Americans and those from other nations who do not agree with his shifting policy stands. Far from recognizing the legitimacy of alternative points of view, the GOP and its allies today are characterizing all who might disagree with them as worthy only of contempt. The Party has taken steps in 18 states to limit the voting by groups it believes will not support its candidates and has worked to gerrymander electoral outcomes in all of the states it controls. Indeed, its state leaders have gone to extreme lengths in recent months to blame purportedly morally reprobate “others,” always including “Socialist Democrats,” for policy outcomes of their own making. Governors Kay in Alabama, DeSantis in Florida and Abbott in Texas, have all offered such tropes as explanations for high rates of COVID-19 deaths in their states, for example. For his part, Trump has long sought to cast any who might disagree with his assertions as not only stupid, but also detestable. His most recent example of this sort of rhetoric occurred at a “rally” in Georgia in which he fatuously and completely misleadingly depicted Senator Raphael Warnock this way, “He’s a Marxist controlled by the radical leftist Democrats. Next year Warnock and every single one of these far-Left lunatics must be routinely and resoundingly and decisively defeated.”[10]

        Finally, the GOP has adopted Trump’s slogan, “Make America Great Again,” without articulating just what that entails, except a Manichean struggle against the “evil” Americans and others who are allegedly responsible for actively preventing that Edenic possibility for the party’s followers under elite businessmen’s leadership. As noted above, this sort of claim has resonated especially with evangelicals who link it to their vision of the coming eschaton, but it has also mobilized many others who are willing to believe that a racialized nation ruled by a white business elite will yield them an economic and social standing they believe their forbears had enjoyed, but that they fear they have lost. These individuals justify their anti-democratic delusions as the “natural” order of things. Persistent rationalization and confirmation bias has provided grist for these individuals in their willingness to demean and to degrade their fellow citizens in pursuit of an evanescing eschaton.

        In sum, the GOP now offers a full-blown anti-democratic mythology that appeals to its supporters in ways that have allowed its sustainability as a mass delusion. History suggests that many individuals may never overcome that illusion, even when, or if, it results in death. Some COVID-19 victims, for example, who have died claiming that the virus was not their killer or that it was the product of one governmental conspiracy or another provide current examples of that bitter reality. Overall, our present political environment can be seen as a test of whether the GOP’s deliberately created mass delusion can be punctured in time for democratic institutions to survive in this nation, or whether the Party will succeed in establishing autocratic rule and successfully maintaining the fantasy among its followers that such a course is reasonable. The proverbial jury remains out on this vital question. The Institute is well positioned to continue to contribute to the public dialogue concerning this central issue as we go about our work, and we will do so.

Notes

[1] CNN. “Read: Trump’s lawyer’s memo on six-step plan for Pence to overturn election,” September 21, 2021, https://www.cnn.com/2021/09/21/politics/read-eastman-memo/index.html, Accessed September 21, 2021. 

[2] Leonhardt, David and Prasad Philbrick. “Congressional Brinkmanship,” The New York Times, September 23, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/23/briefing/government-shutdown-debt-ceiling-brinkmanship.html, Accessed September 23, 2021. 

[3] Epstein, Reid and Nick Corasanti. “‘Stop the Steal’ Movement Races Forward, Ignoring Arizona Humiliation,” The New York Times, September 24, 2021, https://www.nytimes.com/2021/09/24/us/politics/arizona-election-audit-analysis.html, Accessed September 24, 2021.  

[4] Lizza, Ryan et al., “Driving the Day,” September 25, 2021, Politico Playbook, and Montellaro, Zaach and Meridith McGraw, “ ‘The No. 1’: Issue: Trump whips up election falsehoods after flawed Arizona report,” Politico, September 24, 2021, https://www.politico.com/news/2021/09/24/trump-election-falsehoods-arizona-report-514275?nname=playbook&nid=0000014f-1646-d88f-a1cf-5f46b7bd0000&nrid=0000014e-f100-dd93-ad7f-f90530ea0000&nlid=630318, Accessed September 25, 2021. 

[5] Pape, Robert A. “21 million Americans say Biden is ‘illegitimate’ and Trump should be restored by violence, survey finds,” Associated Press: The Conversation, September 23, 2021, https://roanoke.com/opinion/columnists/21-million-americans-say-biden-is-illegitimate-and-trump-should-be-restored-by-violence-survey/article_0445fdfe-db9a-54a5-9765-31db476bf8bf.html, Accessed September 25, 2021. 

[6] Mackay, Charles. Memoirs of Extraordinary Popular Delusions (London: Richard Bentley, 1841).

[7] Bernstein, William J. The Delusions of Crowds: Why People Go Mad in Groups, New York: Atlantic Monthly Press, 2021).

[8] Bernstein, p. 14.

[9] Nietzsche, Friedrich, as quoted in Bernstein, p. 12.

[10] Murphy, Patricia and Greg Bluestein. “Trump attacks Gov. Kemp, joins pro-Trump candidates in Perry, The Atlanta Journal Constitution, September 25, 2021, https://www.normantranscript.com/region/trump-attacks-gov-kemp-joins-pro-trump-candidates-in-perry/article_a22fe37f-281a-5027-b90d-9b8779752ab0.html, Accessed September 25, 2021. 

Publication Date

October 1, 2021

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