The Descent of the Partisan Mind
It will take renewal, not just rebuttal, to bring an end to the conspiracy-theory right.
It’s done. America has officially retreated from Afghanistan. No, that doesn’t mean that all Americans have retreated. Hundreds have been left behind. Today is a dark day in our nation’s history. I’ve written thousands upon thousands of words about the tragedy.
Here I wrote about the conceptual problem that triggered the demand for withdrawal.
Here I wrote about our nation’s duty to prevent a humanitarian catastrophe.
I explained why the Afghan Army collapsed so suddenly here.
I argued here that it has never been in our national interests to abandon Afghanistan to the Taliban and al-Qaeda, yet our leaders failed to make that case.
Our Dispatch editorial condemning the strategic and tactical choices of the Trump and Biden administrations is here.
Finally, I paid tribute to the sacrifice of those who fought, bled, and died on Afghan soil here.
That’s a partial list of my recent writings, but you can follow the links to get a more complete idea of the reasons why I believe it was wrong to abandon Afghanistan and why I believe the retreat was poorly executed. The last month has represented a perfect storm of error and incompetence.
But that’s not the topic of this newsletter. I want to move on to the other disaster that’s plaguing the United States: our continued battle with COVID and the seemingly-endless stream of conspiracies that torments American politics and culture.
This Sunday I kicked up a hornet’s nest with an essay arguing that much of the continued Evangelical resistance to the COVID vaccine is a problem of moral formation rather than medical information. Christians were approaching the question of vaccination in the wrong frame of mind, with the wrong moral priorities.
The correspondence I received in response was ... robust. A great majority of the dissenters made an argument that went something like this. “How can you remotely argue that this is a moral matter when people are raising questions that have everything to do with safety and effectiveness? Answer those questions, and they’ll take the vaccine. It’s simply wrong to make it a moral matter.”
This statement is undoubtedly true for a great many people, which is why I waited for months to write the piece I wrote. It was (and still is) the case that there are millions of Americans who have been convinced to take the vaccine by combinations of fact checks, heartfelt requests from loved ones, and incentives (or mandates) from schools or employers.
But there was (and is) a core of people who continue to refuse—no matter the arguments they hear and no matter the pleadings of relatives. Even more grievous, the best evidence indicates that continued vaccine refusal is disproportionately (though hardly exclusively) concentrated within conservative and white Evangelical circles.
Here’s one thing I wish I’d written in my original piece. A key piece of evidence that we’re dealing with something deeper and more troubling than a mere information gap is the often extraordinary consistency of belief in a specific series of conspiracy theories. You’ve all seen it. Chances are you know one or more people like the person I’m about to describe.
I’ll call him “Bill,” and I’m basing him on a seemingly endless stream of GOP and Tea Party activists I’ve known since the rise of Obama. Readers may recall that I once represented dozens of Tea Party groups in a federal lawsuit challenging the Obama IRS’s systematic targeting of conservative nonprofit applications for enhanced scrutiny.
I got to know many of these activists. I spent hours talking to them, and while there was a great deal of animosity for the Obama administration (understandably, given it had just violated their constitutional rights), they also shared an infectious enthusiasm for the Constitution, vocalized a strong belief in limited government, and when they were overzealous, were overzealous ideologically. They had core constitutional beliefs and little tolerance for ideological dissent.
I’d say most of these folks came from the Ted Cruz wing of the party. Many of them were reluctant to support Trump, but when they finally rallied to his side, they did so with a vengeance. They went from holding their nose at the polls in 2016 to driving the first bass boat in the boat parade in 2020.
And what about “Bill”? At first he was enthusiastically anti-anti Trump, mainly focusing his ire on the Mueller investigation and the media. Then the media became his all-consuming passion. Every Trump scandal ultimately turned into a media scandal. If Trump misbehaved, the media always misbehaved worse.
Thus the “binary choice” of 2016 turned into an endless series of binary choices. Trump or James Comey? Trump or The Squad? Trump or CNN? Trump or Adam Schiff? And because the answer was always “Trump,” the binary choice faded away. There was but one choice, and that choice was Trump.
A better way of saying this is that all is unfolding as Jonah had foreseen. In 2016, he wrote a G-File called “In a Slow-Motion Invasion of the Body Snatchers, Media Figures Embrace Trump One by One.” (Scholars of the G-File still debate whether it’s the greatest ever.) Here’s Jonah, months before Trump’s election:
At times, I sometimes think I’m living in a weird remake of The Invasion of the Body Snatchers. If you’ve seen any of the umpteen versions, you know the pattern. Someone you know or love goes to sleep one night and appears the next day to be the exact same person you always knew.
Except they’re different, somehow. They talk funny. They don’t care about the same things they used to. It’s almost like they became Canadian overnight—seemingly normal, but off in some way. Even once-friendly dogs start barking at them. I live in constant fear that I will run into Kevin Williamson, Charlie Cooke, or Rich Lowry and they will start telling me that Donald Trump is a serious person because he’s tapping into this or he’s willing to say that. I imagine my dog suddenly barking at them uncontrollably. (I don’t worry about this with Ramesh because Vulcans are immune.)
Then Jonah brought receipts, noting the transformation of Newt Gingrich and Bill Bennett, even back then. But it all got worse, much worse, until we hit the pandemic, then the election, and it seemed as if part of the right spun entirely out of control.
At least when “Bill” talked about the “Russia hoax” he could point to actual, unsubstantiated conspiracies on the left. When he decried the “impeachment hoax,” it was a bit worse. After all, the underlying charges were true. But at least there was a viable argument that Trump’s misconduct didn’t merit removal.
But then we hit 2020. If you could draw a Venn diagram between those who believed, in turn, that 1) COVID was basically the flu; 2) mandatory masking and social distancing represented ineffective acts of government tyranny; 3) the election was stolen; 4) vaccines are experimental “gene therapies” at best and an outright threat to public health at worst, and 5) the real treatment for COVID is hydroxychloroquine or Ivermectin, there would be a high, high degree of overlap.
In fact, in my experience, belief in any one of those items almost always implies a belief in most if not all the rest.
I can think of many “Bills” who believe each one of those things—Bills who live in public and private life. I submit that when you’re playing whack-a-mole with that many conspiracies, then something else is going on aside from a dispassionate search for the truth. Bill doesn’t have an information problem. In fact, Bill reads voraciously. But Bill has lost his way.
When I speak to college students, one of the first things I say is that they should do their best to avoid the “partisan mind.” I don’t mean they should avoid voting for partisan candidates. I don’t even mean they should avoid running for office as a member of a political party. What I mean is they should reject partisanship as an identity, in part because we are learning that there are often no limits to the gullibility and rage of the truly partisan person, especially when negative polarization means that partisan commitment is defined by animosity against the other side.
Even worse, because the Bills of the world deem themselves so highly-informed, they’re virtually immune from criticism. After all, they know more about COVID than you. They know more about the election than you. They’ve read and read and read.
That’s why—for Bill—the challenge isn’t rebuttal. It’s renewal. That’s why the moral framework matters so very much. And moral frameworks are hard to change.
But it’s not impossible. People do change. Sometimes through tragedy, when death or serious illness causes the scales to fall from their eyes. Sometimes it’s through love, as friends and family members slowly pull them from rage and extremism. Occasionally it’s through shock. There were people I know who snapped back to themselves when they watched January 6th unfold and could barely believe their eyes.
Many others, however, roll on, driving deeper and deeper into the rage and unreason of the reactionary right. I still know those folks, these “Bills,” though few still count me as a friend. They just can’t figure out what happened to me. “Do you still like David French?” they’re asked.
Bill pauses. He swallows his Ivermectin, finishes his email demanding an election audit in Pennsylvania, fires off a tweet condemning “face diapers” in classrooms, and finally speaks.
“Nah. Trump broke him.”
One last thing …
This story is amazing. In a sad and terrible week, there continue to be stories of American virtue and courage: