The fact-checkers have been overwhelmed. In August, the Washington Post calculated 22,247 false or misleading statements made by Donald Trump in 1,316 days. By Oct. 22, the count was increasing at the rate of 50 a day.
Some of the lies are relatively benign – that the economy is the best in history. (It’s not.) Or that the wall across the southern border is a success. (Nope.)
Others are downright dangerous.
Then came his crushing defeat at the polls and the birth of the Big Lie.
After five years spent undermining truth and fomenting hatred and hostility toward anyone who tried to expose the lies, he mobilized his enablers in Congress and his followers across the country to spread the Big Lie – that the results of the election on Nov. 3 were fraudulent.
Dozens of recounts and election audits and some 90 judges, a majority of whom were appointed by Republicans, rejected the claims as false. And still millions swallowed the lie without question. Thousands traveled to D.C. on Jan. 6 to overthrow the election. Dozens in Congress behaved as if the Big Lie were true.
A piece in Scientific American diagnoses this rampant psychological condition as “narcissistic symbiosis” and “shared psychosis.”
In plain English, that means Trump’s mental illness just might be contagious.
So, I called Dr. Jessica Stern, a Colorado psychiatrist, to try to understand how this could happen, how so many people could embrace blatant lies and act as if they’re true.
She said research shows that, as with our hunter-gatherer ancestors, when people are fearful of real or counterfeit threats they react viscerally and look for an enemy, a predator.
“It’s primal. Our minds try to protect us from uncertainty. It’s an ancient concept,” she said.
“When we feel threatened, we want immediate answers. We can’t handle complexity. If we’re anxious, worried and feeling powerless, it’s easier to believe the worst of other people’s intentions.”
It’s easier to embrace a lie or a conspiracy theory than to struggle to understand and address a complex problem or to accept a person who may look or act differently.
And research shows some among us are more likely to get caught up in false narratives.
People who feel high levels of entitlement, impulsivity, anxiety, depression, cold-heartedness and people who routinely engage in magical thinking often are drawn to conspiracy theories and outrageous falsehoods.
Once people have fallen for the lies, they’re hooked. Trying to confront them with factual arguments is a losing proposition.
“The only thing you get out of confronting them is to have them become further entrenched,” Stern said.
“This might sound defeatist, but I abide by the principle that I only go where I’m wanted and needed, not just where I’m needed. You can’t really change someone’s mind unless they have some level of curiosity.”
She’s right, that surely sounds defeatist. And it makes our political reality seem utterly hopeless.
But, Stern said, what can change minds is experience.
The angry guy with the Trump flag on his porch might easily identify his Biden-loving neighbors as the enemy. That is, until the day that they shovel the snow from his walk, return his runaway dog or deliver a plate of cookies over the holidays.
“I think part of the antidote is living our lives engaged with our communities and other people,” Stern said. “The more isolated we are, the more our distorted thoughts thrive.”
If we don’t like our neighbor’s political signs, we might just think he’s a jerk and avoid him, she said, allowing that negative view to remain unchallenged and become entrenched.
“But if I still spend time with him, most likely there are going to be a lot of experiences that challenge the idea that he’s just a jerk,” she said.
One thing that has contributed to the mass acceptance of the lies – including the Big Lie and the hateful polarization that has resulted from it – is our forced isolation during the pandemic.
Ordinary face-to-face interactions have been interrupted. Casual contact with people in our communities is extremely limited. Working from home means contact with co-workers who may look or think differently is all but lost.
The woman who usually handles your IT problems at the office and wears a Black Lives Matter T-shirt is no longer around to help ground your thoughts in reality. After nearly a year at home, it’s easy to forget her kindness and professionalism. It’s easy to put her in the ranks of the enemy.
“Part of the bad thing about COVID is that we aren’t able to have as many experiences to counterbalance” the blizzard of false narratives, Stern said. “We don’t have the opportunities to experience how thoughtful and generous many of the people around us are and how inspired we can be by other people.”
Some of the folks we’ve demonized, like our crazy uncles and the neighbor spouting the Big Lie, surely deserve another chance.
But not all of them.
Stern is hardly suggesting that simple neighborliness is all we need to heal the divisions that led to the hateful rhetoric and the deadly insurrection in Washington this month.
After all, it’s not as if the likes of Sen. Josh Hawley, Rep. Lauren Boebert, Rep. Doug Lamborn and the cop-killer at the U.S. Capitol can be won over with a plate of cookies.
Not all bad guys are imaginary.
Diane Carman is a Denver communications consultant.
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