A response to Michael Anton.
Lying to Liberals
Don’t hate the left for believing the tripe they’ve been fed.
In a recent poll, Republican voters said they were mostly concerned with issues like illegal immigration, law enforcement, and high taxes. Democrats mostly worried about COVID-19, Donald Trump supporters, and white nationalism. The only issue over which both sides had a strong concern was economic recovery from the pandemic-related lockdown.
This poll demonstrates the depth of our national division. Not only do both sides have separate concerns, one side cites the other as a main concern in itself. This dynamic makes dialogue impossible. The left doesn’t want discussion or compromise, but demands silence and submission. Control of the White House and Congress, decreasing COVID-19 deaths and cases, and the government’s aggressive moves against insurrectionists have not reassured anyone on the left. To the contrary, their hostile attitude grows more aggressive by the day.
Why is this? And how do conservatives counteract it? These two questions continue to plague conservatives who now face the prospect of persecution, marginalization, and worse.
A good answer to why leftists are so susceptible to a false narrative about their political opponents, and some strategies to address it, may be found in Malcolm Gladwell’s latest book, Talking to Strangers. Though Gladwell—basically a liberal—purports to explain how and why certain encounters between strangers go awry, most of his book explains why many people are so gullible. His examples are not in themselves political, but conservatives can easily apply them to today’s political situation.
When Truth Hurts
Gladwell cites the cases of Jerry Sandusky, Adolf Hitler, Bernie Madoff, and CIA double agents to show how readily people assume a person is being honest. In hindsight, everyone could have identified the many red flags these noted frauds and lunatics were waving, but at the time, they had compelling reasons to trust them, when the alternative—that they were putting trust in sociopaths—was so terrifying.
The same holds true for Democrats. When it comes to the legacy media, well-known technocrats, or leftist politicians, they will default to an assumption of truthfulness. Reporters can repeatedly report lies, Anthony Fauci can flip-flop constantly on health policy, and Andrew Cuomo can lie about sending elderly New Yorkers to their deaths, but they are all still trusted. Collecting the evidence and doing the work of finding and accepting the truth is much harder than simply trusting them, so people ignore the red flags and contradictions. Conservatives can safely claim that they had no part in these disasters, but progressives are forced to account for their misguided support of such people. It’s much easier to ignore the evidence and accuse the other side of being crackpots and bigots.
Face and Fact
Gladwell examines the case of Amanda Knox, the young American woman sensationally convicted for murder in Italy. After reviewing the details of the famous story, Gladwell concludes that the Italian police went after Knox so aggressively not because of any evidence linking her to the crime, but because she acted so strangely after the event. He follows up this story with studies demonstrating how even the most experienced criminal investigators frequently misread people’s facial expressions and assume guilt.
Applied to today’s visual culture, it’s easy to see how images of crying politicians, trembling professors accusing Supreme Court justices of sexual assault, or teenagers having a meltdown assure so many people of their credibility. It seems so real and authentic—even if there is no evidence to back up their claims.
By contrast, images of people not crying or trembling are adduced as evidence of their insincerity. When Covington Catholic High School student Nick Sandmann was accosted by middle-aged activist “Elder” Nathan Phillips beating a drum in his face, all it took was a nervous smile and a MAGA cap to convince everyone that Sandman was a pampered teen bullying a poor old veteran. Even after the video evidence came in to disprove this narrative, most Americans still think of Sandmann a delinquent, not an innocent bystander who successfully sued mainstream news outlets for defaming him.
Because the left now dominates all major media, it can effectively define the context of most events—even when reality contradicts this. At any point, media outlets can coordinate to create an atmosphere of panic, which in turn makes audiences vulnerable to falsehoods. When Americans see everyone wearing masks, business and schools closed down, aggressive media messaging, and dissenters getting cancelled, they succumb to desperation. Consequently, they ignore all the evidence and rely on their leaders and preferred news outlets to tell them what to do.
In this context, the skepticism of conservatives seems dangerous, even evil. On this basis alone, otherwise peaceful citizens now find it necessary to shame, cancel, disenfranchise, and even jail them. Even when a writer in Time magazine explains how powerful people rigged the presidential election to stop Donald Trump and his supporters, many on the left believe that the election was not rigged and, even if it was, it was necessary to save democracy by “fortifying” the vote.
After the Gaslight
Gladwell cautions against extreme paranoia in responding to mass delusion. Constant doubt is not constructive and can easily erupt into violent conflict. One could fairly say that the left’s extreme suspicion of conservatives and law enforcement explains so much of the rage and violence of groups like BLM and Antifa as well as the tacit approval of so many Democrats.
But Gladwell recommends humility and more informed decision-making. Americans do not necessarily need to move to the opposite of extreme defaulting to falsehood, looking away from people’s faces, and fully disassociating from their environment. But, it wouldn’t hurt to apply some common sense and healthy detachment when assessing a person’s honesty and learning the truth.
With that in mind, it bears mentioning that conservatives have been doing this for a long time now. Most conservatives know that it’s an uphill battle to change a culture ruled by a leftist elite aggressively asserting its own image on all Americans. Nonetheless, they are finally fighting back. But unlike the conservatives who resist the barrage of leftist messaging, even just by tuning it out, most leftists trust it without question. They have been conditioned to conform. And even when someone like Malcolm Gladwell writes a whole book to show how this can lead to disaster, at no point does he consider how this conditioning has stifled debate and given leftists confidence in false narratives.
Thus, for the time being, while some conservatives hope in vain for an honest debate with the other side or for reality to set in, they can push for a little more sanity and take stock in the fact that their liberal friends are not malicious—they’ve just been systematically duped.
This means we have to take on the burden of moving past the usual insults leftists hurl at conservatives and teach them truths they are never allowed to hear. The seeds of doubt need to be planted. In most cases, they may not bear fruit, but in other cases they may. At the very least, inconvenient facts from the other side may check the conditioning process.
The American Mind presents a range of perspectives. Views are writers’ own and do not necessarily represent those of The Claremont Institute.