Yesterday I met a friend for lunch in Oxford. He’s from the Deep South and his name is Frank. To protect Frank’s complete identity I’ll only add that he’s an actor who, as is true with so many actors, works as a caterer. I mention all this because his employers are the motivation for this article.
Frank tells me his employers, a married couple, are a perfectly wonderful man and woman to work for: generous, kind, considerate, full of warmth and good humour. They are also full-on MAGA. They’ve a signed photograph of Donald Trump hanging in their kitchen. They are dedicated Republicans and vote party line whenever they go to the polls.
I’ve heard this kind of thing enough times to believe it to be not just true but fairly common. Not all MAGAs are slavering monsters of pure evil. Some of them are good, caring and decent people.
How on earth can they reconcile the cognitive dissonance of their own decent morality with the performative evil of the likes of a hateful, bitter and divisive man like Donald Trump? How do they rationalise the inhumanity of Republicans the likes of Texas Governor Greg Abbott who, on this last freezing cold Christmas Eve, shipped a lawfully assembled group of immigrants to the Vice President’s house? I honestly don’t know for sure. But I can guess.
Part of the problem, I think, is a lifetime of indoctrination. When you grow up in a place where your friends and everybody at your church are Republicans and you get all your news from Fox News, it’s harder to appreciate that what you’ve signed up for is evil. It’s more difficult to perceive your own party’s hypocrisy.
Also, the things we know to be lies aren’t obvious lies to them. While we suspect that Hunter Biden has committed no provable crimes, they don’t. While we know that the 2020 presidential election wasn’t stolen, some of them honestly believe (or at least suspect) it was. While we know that Barack Obama didn’t steal any classified documents, let alone more than Donald Trump, they think he did and they have the “proof.”
What you must understand, brothers and sisters, is that while we hear the real truth every day, all they ever hear is propaganda — from friends, at church, on TV. They don’t get to watch the lacerating and fact-filled videos of Brian Tyler Cohen, or watch the sane and factual reportage of a Rachel Maddow or an Anderson Cooper. When all you have is MAGA news in your MAGA world, it’s tough to see beyond it.
I also understand it from experience, even though that experience was from a different era. When I was an evangelical Christian back in the 70s and 80s, what politics I had was largely conservative. But, I hasten to add, back then Republicans weren’t anti-American crazies bent on the destruction of democracy. Most were relatively decent men and women with different economic and political philosophies and a somewhat obtuse and simplistic view of the world.
Today, Republican politicians are much more like the Nazis in Germany of the 1930s: hateful, violent, intolerant and stupefyingly willing to believe every word of a deranged and evil man as if it was holy writ. Many ordinary and decent Germans also had signed photographs of Adolf Hitler hanging in their kitchens.
I further know that when people believe a thing to be true, their strong confirmation bias causes them to shun narratives that contradict that point of view. It is easy and comforting to watch and listen to other liberals. We find it disturbing to listen to Republicans.
I would also add that we believe what we believe with good reason, but that’s my bias. The principal difference between us and them, for the most part, is that we are evidence-driven. We need more evidence than they do to believe what we believe. But when evidence supports your politics it’s natural to turn to it. When it doesn’t, it’s natural that you would be suspicious of it. And therein, I believe, lies the crux of the matter.
We are, for the most part, no better at sifting evidence than our counterparts. And if you doubt that to be true, consider how many liberals are also 9/11 “Truthers.” The refuting evidence of that absurd conspiracy theory is readily available for all to see. But many Truthers don’t even know what that evidence is because they refuse to look at it. So they just ignore it. Or they cling to any theory that refutes it no matter how ridiculous that theory may be.
I think we are, for the most part, lucky to be on the side of the truth. I know that contradicts the idea that we’re smarter and better people than they are, and that we arrived at our beliefs because of careful examination of the facts. And while that sometimes is true, it also sometimes is not. Some of us were lucky to be raised in liberal homes or liberal states.
Either way, when you have the truth on your side it’s easier to approach a debate with calm assurance, much the way it’s easier for a well-armed brigade to meet a poorly-armed regiment in a battle.
I’m coming around to the idea that maybe I need to be a bit more humble in my defence of the truth. Had I grown up in Germany in the midst of fascists, perhaps I would have become a goose-stepping Nazi. Who knows? There but for the grace of, well, somebody, goes I.
Whatever the case, I think we have the truth, and the truth is something real, something factual, something tangible. The truth is absolute. It is not “relative.” I’m glad I landed on the right side of it, but must acknowledge the higher truth that I arrived here thanks in part to conducive circumstances and good old-fashioned luck. And, as ever, ladies and gentlemen, brothers and sisters, comrades and friends, stay safe.
Robert Harrington is an American expat living in Britain. He is a portrait painter.