Tag Archives: cults

A Shared Understanding of Reality

For probably twenty years, I have written about the growing gulf between libertarian and “country club” Republicans, on the one hand, and the Evangelical/social conservative/white nationalists who make up an ever-growing percentage of the party, on the other.

I think it is safe to say that the “Never Trumpers” come disproportionately from the ranks of the (increasingly endangered) libertarians.

While I have significant differences with libertarians on economic policy, they tend to be educated and thoughtful proponents of a particular worldview, not– like so many on both the far Right and far Left–emotional and tribal “my way or the highway” extremists.

Trump’s assault on norms of democratic governance has deepened the rift between libertarian Republicans and the others– a rift underscored by a recent article from Reason Magazine,titled “Trump’s Congressional Defenders Deny Reality.” (Reason is a premier publication of libertarianism.)

During Monday’s impeachment hearing, Republican lawyer Stephen Castor denied that Donald Trump had asked his Ukrainian counterpart to investigate former Vice President Joe Biden, a leading contender to oppose Trump in next year’s election. “I don’t think the record supports that,” Castor said.

That jaw-dropping moment starkly illustrated the lengths to which Republicans have gone in rebutting the charge that Trump abused his powers for personal gain. The president’s defenders have repeatedly contested well-established facts in a way that makes fair-minded nonpartisans despair of having an impeachment debate based on a shared understanding of reality.

According to the White House’s own transcript of Trump’s July 25 phone call with Ukrainian President Volodymyr Zelenskiy, Trump asked Zelenskiy to look into the claim that Biden pressed the Ukrainian government to replace Prosecutor General Viktor Shokin with the aim of thwarting an investigation of Burisma, an energy company that employed Biden’s son Hunter as a board member. “There’s a lot of talk about Biden’s son, that Biden stopped the prosecution,” Trump said, adding that “it sounds horrible to me.”

Trump asked Zelenskiy to “look into it,” and Zelenskiy agreed, saying his new prosecutor general “will look into the situation, specifically to the company that you mentioned” (i.e., Burisma). Trump himself has said what he wanted from Zelenskiy was “very simple”—”a major investigation into the Bidens.”

You can argue, as Republicans have, that there was nothing improper about that request. But you cannot credibly deny that Trump made it.

This, in a nutshell, is America’s current dilemma: We do not have a shared understanding of reality. There are multiple reasons for this state of affairs: increasing tribalism, a media environment that encourages confirmation bias and discourages a shared recognition of fact, a widening divide between educated and uneducated Americans, and the cynical manipulation of persistent racial and religious resentment by people who profit from that manipulation.

Thoughtful individuals who disagree about politics and policy can nevertheless come to satisfactory resolutions–they can engage in the scorned but utterly necessary process of compromise. Ideologues and members of a cult–inhabitants of alternate realities–can neither participate in a legitimate conversation (defined as one in which the parties actually hear what the others are saying) nor reach an accommodation that requires them to relinquish even a small part of whatever it is they are demanding.

In the real world, it has been conclusively proven that Russia–and not Ukraine–meddled in our 2016 election. In the real world, Trump withheld desperately needed and congressionally approved military aid in order to get Ukraine’s President to announce an investigation into his (Trump’s) political rival.

But that’s in the real world, and elected Republicans don’t live there anymore.

 

The Party As Cult

Evidently, McConnell and the Senate GOP are still intent upon taking healthcare away from millions of Americans–despite the overwhelming unpopularity and utter immorality of that effort. If this current vote fails, they’ll fall back on their determined sabotage of the ACA and continue their refusal to work with Democrats to tweak and fix that measure’s flaws.

All because their “base” can’t abide the fact that a black President passed it.

On several occasions, I’ve remarked that today’s GOP bears less and less resemblance to the party I once worked for, and more and more resemblance to a cult. I used the term in its broadest and least precise sense–to indicate a walled-off reality–but I recently came across the following description of cult behavior, and it made me think that, at least for the so-called “base,” the comparison may have been more apt than I realized.

There seems to be a typical mindset within most destructive cults. This is often characterized by black and white thinking, a low tolerance of ambiguity and a relentlessly judgementa1 attitude. Members of such a group often think in “we, they” opposing terms regarding those outside their group. This mindset frequently produces feelings of superiority and/or spiritual elitism, claims of supposed “persecution” and unreasonable fears.

The description sent me on a Google search for information about the characteristics of cults. The so-called “unsafe” groups evidently share certain behaviors: affinity for authoritarianism, a lack of tolerance for critical inquiry and analysis (any criticism is labeled “persecution”), isolation and fear of the outside world, and loss of a sense of humor.

To be fair, any group of zealots–left or right–exhibits these characteristics. But the degree to which the Republican base falls within this description is striking. The penchant for authoritarian leadership, wholesale rejection of science and scholarship, isolation within an information “bubble,” excessive fear of terrorism, and the utter lack of a sense of humor (which requires a sense of proportion), are hard to miss.

We live in a time when the increasing complexity of the world around us requires a tolerance for ambiguity, a willingness to consider contending and unfamiliar perspectives and an ability to recognize the common humanity of people who do not look like us. Those are responses that many people simply cannot manage.

Political scientists analyzing the motivations of Trump voters in the wake of the 2016 election have identified “resentment”–especially but not exclusively racial resentment– as a primary characteristic.

That finding brings us back to the description of cult behaviors: black and white thinking (no pun intended), rejection of ambiguity and uncertainty, tribalism and claims of persecution (War on Christmas, anyone?).

The 64 Thousand Dollar question is: will this pass? Are these fearful and self-defeating attitudes mostly confined to older Americans who will die out, leaving the social and political landscape to a less panicked, less tribal and more intellectually nimble younger generation?

We can only hope.