When evaluating the unrest and violence that engulfed the Capitol earlier this week, it is tempting to place the blame solely on Donald Trump’s shoulders. He certainly fails to acquit himself in rhetoric or conduct. Trump has behaved disgracefully in the aftermath of the election, culminating in a pathetic tweet that served to justify the violence.
Needless to say, this is entirely unbefitting of the office of the president. Trump no longer meaningfully occupies that office in any way.
The agencies under his control were unable to defend the House and the Senate due to “failure at the top.”
His grasp on the presidency was increasingly ephemeral following his defeat on Nov. 3, but the events of recent days have proved Trump to be a president in name only. It is the constitutional duty of the representatives left at the mercy of the mob to remove him from office.
As cathartic as removing Trump from office may be, it is only the beginning of the work that must be done to extirpate the rot in our civic culture. Any sane observer will note that political violence of all stripes (accompanied by despicable justifications) has increased exponentially in recent years.
This problem is far more complicated, but Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell gave a succinct explanation of why so many feel that violence is justified to redress their grievances:
“Self-government, my colleagues, requires a shared commitment to the truth … We cannot keep drifting apart into two separate tribes with a separate set of facts and separate realities, with nothing in common except our hostility toward each other and mistrust for the few national institutions we all still share.”
This is the story of our deepening divisions and heightening cynicism, up to and including the attack on the Capitol. The story of parallel realities and institutional collapse. It is why trust in media is at an all-time low, why elections are seen as existential struggles, and why large numbers of health care professionals are refusing to be vaccinated for COVID-19.
Trump may serve as a convenient proximate cause of these problems to his detractors, but he is yet another symptom of institutional failure. His campaign and victory in 2016 were fueled by the simmering hatred conservatives (and many former Obama voters) had for establishment Republicans and the DNC.
Trump’s baseless claims of widespread voter fraud would not have found the purchase they did if major media outlets had not abdicated whatever post-Obama credibility they maintained with Republicans by nakedly serving as a block-and-tackle for the #Resistance.
His claims could have easily been squashed by the Republican Party had large swaths of it not been hollowed out of any guiding principle besides supporting Trump. A majority of House Republicans pledged fealty to Trump athwart objective reality, even after Trump all but urged a mob on them.
The entwined institutions of higher education and science have also fallen victim to this rot. The near uncountable instances of woke hysteria on campuses could fill a thousand-page novel. Once-austere scientific journals have become increasingly political, and the validity of research has increasingly depended on its adherence to woke ideology.
The failures of the GOP are easily explained by strong Republican support for Trump, but those of other institutions are less clear. Many on the right have characterized the left-wing transgressions listed above as some nefarious institutional capture by “neo-marxists” intent on destroying western civilization. While this theory has limited explanatory power, the broader truth is much less nefarious and conspiratorial.
Economists and political commentators have long recognized the danger of governments and corporations consolidating power and advancing their own interests to the detriment of society. What has happened recently is a similar conspiracy against the public good by the institutions responsible for creating and disseminating knowledge itself.
Instead of a clear-eyed search for truth, wherever it may lead, organizations from the New York Times to major universities have decided (in a successful bid to bolster their bottom line) to curate their content, curriculum, and research to please their readership, students, and grantors.
While left-wing ideologues began to dominate mainstream institutions, right-wingers simultaneously created or cannibalized their own partisan venues, from Liberty University to The Daily Wire to OANN.
As people flock to increasingly ideological media and intellectual institutions (often still brandishing the now-defunct credibility of their objectivity), our collective epistemology has completely shattered. Nearly everyone is immersed in a media diet that affirms their every bias, constantly demonizing the opposition and canonizing the consumer’s preferred tribe.
Our political leaders have been selected for and molded by this collective psychosis, nowhere more clearly than the Trumpification of the GOP and the derangement of the #Resistance.
Otherwise sane people are increasingly told by their preferred news outlets and political leaders that their fellow countrymen are not people with well-founded and reasonable disagreements, but rather domestic enemies to be crushed, banned, disenfranchised, prosecuted, and otherwise excluded from polite society.
As for people not otherwise sane, look to the epidemic of political violence and domestic terrorism.
This problem will not go away with Trump. Our institutions, from the media to the CDC to the National Park Service, will continue in their derangement unless we drastically rethink our relationship with them. The invisible hand of the marketplace of ideas got us into this mess, and no fairness doctrine or monopoly breakup is suited to get us out of it.
If you find yourself in constant agreement with the media you consume, diversify it. Be sure to listen to mainstream sources as well as political dissidents. Pay special attention to those ejected from ideologically corrupted institutions because they failed to submit to dogma.
If we are to remain self-governed, we must become responsible media consumers and regain our “shared commitment to the truth.”
Featured image: Caricature of Trump. Unmodified image by Max Goldberg used under a Creative Commons license. (https://bit.ly/2FPsrzq)
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