The BDN Opinion section operates independently and does not set newsroom policies or contribute to reporting or editing articles elsewhere in the newspaper or on bangordailynews.com.
Amy Fried is a political science professor at the University of Maine. Her views are her own and do not represent those of any group with which she is affiliated. Her most recent book, co-written with Douglas B. Harris, is “At War With Government: How Conservatives Weaponized Distrust from Goldwater to Trump.”
Twisted logic and misinformation are undermining our nation and democracy. Today’s disagreements go far beyond normal disputes and bear more danger, for they rest on a longer pattern of weaponized distrust.
Take a recent opinion piece on the pandemic, with its preposterous inferences.
Writing for Breitbart, John Nolte posits that the left could be trying to harm conservatives by encouraging them to get vaccinated, even as acknowledging that vaccines prevent deaths. Nolte also suggests that leftists may be pursuing political benefits, asking, “In a country where elections are decided on razor-thin margins, does it not benefit one side if their opponents simply drop dead?”
How is this insidious plot — of covertly trying to get a group of people to hurt themselves for political reasons by overtly encouraging them to prevent that harm — being put into place?
In a just-asking-questions way, Nolte suggests that “the left has manipulated huge swathes of Trump voters into believing they are owning the left by not taking the life-saving Trump Vaccine.” Under Nolte’s “logic,” everyone knows conservatives will reject what they’re hearing from certain people, leading to his up-is-down conjecture that encouraging Republicans to take life-saving vaccines may be meant to kill them.
Unlike anti-vaccination activists, Nolte doesn’t contend COVID-19 vaccinations are harmful or back targeting doctors and hospitals. And he’s right that the virus is disproportionately killing people in Trump-voting areas. Yet he’s very much part of promoting distrust, even positing a conspiracy theory that vaccine education is a political connivance.
This same rejectionist, distrustful and conspiratorial dynamic is prominent when it comes to how people see the legitimacy of elections. It’s also been stoked. Just last weekend Donald Trump told Georgia rally goers the 2020 election was stolen.
This came after dozens of courts ruling against Trump campaign complaints and a review of Arizona ballots by a partisan, unprofessional Republican-backed group that found Biden did indeed win the state.
Election lies employed by right-wing legal and political strategists have consequences.
Angry, reactive believers in false tales of stolen elections invaded the U.S. Capitol on Jan. 6 and have continued to threaten state and local election officials.
John Eastman, a lawyer closely involved with the Federalist Society, laid out a strategy for then-Vice President Mike Pence to discard seven states’ electoral votes and declare Trump the winner of the 2020 election. Trump told Pence to follow Eastman’s guidance on Jan. 4, two days before the insurrection after a rally held to stop Congress and Pence from carrying out their constitutional duty. Eastman spoke at that rally and said Pence should act.
As Robert Kagan, a former Republican, recently warned, “The United States is heading into its greatest political and constitutional crisis since the Civil War, with a reasonable chance over the next three to four years of incidents of mass violence, a breakdown of federal authority, and the division of the country into warring red and blue enclaves.”
Indeed, Trump strategist Steve Bannon exhorted believers in the Big Lie to run for lower-level positions in the Republican party and as GOP precinct workers. A flood has arrived.
Kagan warns that we are not taking seriously how Trump’s lies have become central to Republican identity. Some of Kagan’s harshest language is aimed toward GOP Trump critics who behave as if everything is normal, focusing on “preserving ‘regular order’ and conducting political and legislative business as usual, even though they know that Trump’s lieutenants in their party are working to subvert the next presidential election.”
Lies about the election damage our body politic, further endangering our republican system of government. It’s a scary possibility that, as election law scholar Rick Hasen warned, Jan. 6 may have been a “dress rehearsal.”
Lagging vaccinations harm our public health. And while not everyone refusing a vaccine is doing so for political reasons, that dynamic is literally fatal.
Intense damage arises from a combination of weaponized distrust and misinformation. Only by sharing some common realities can we live together with mutual respect, health security and support for democratic norms and practices.