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The ultimate spin-machine challenge.
Photo by Bonnie Jo Mount/The Washington Post via Getty Images

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With impeachment, America’s epistemic crisis has arrived

Can the right-wing machine hold the base in an alternate reality long enough to get through the next election?

This piece was originally published in November 2019. Since then, the Democratic House impeached the president and the Republican Senate voted to acquit him, in a “trial” with no witnesses or new evidence. Public opinion remains divided along the exact same lines it was divided before the whole thing started.

Back in 2017, I wrote a piece speculating that the Mueller hearings might bring America’s epistemic crisis to a head. That crisis involves Americans’ growing inability, not just to cooperate, but even to learn and know the same things, to have a shared understanding of reality. We have sorted ourselves into polarized factions living in different worlds, not just of values, but of facts. Communication between them is increasingly difficult.

I wondered what might happen if Mueller offered clear, incontrovertible evidence of Trump’s guilt. Would Republicans be able to prevent supporters from ever finding out? What if the truth was revealed but it had no power, no effect at all, because half the country had been walled off from it? What if there is no longer any evidentiary standard that can overcome our polarization?

As it happened, the hearings didn’t play out that way. Mueller’s report and testimony were oddly oblique and muted, with notable omissions. It proved relatively easy for the president and his supplicant media to dismiss the whole thing as a dud.

Now we may experience the stress test that Mueller never produced: whether the right can shield itself from plain facts in plain sight.

Unlike Mueller’s report, the story behind the impeachment case is relatively simple: Congress approved military aid for Ukraine, but Trump withheld it as part of a sustained campaign to pressure Ukraine into launching an investigation of his political rival Joe Biden’s family. There’s a record of him doing it. There are multiple credible witnesses to the phone call and larger campaign. Several Trump allies and administration officials have admitted to it on camera. Trump himself admitted to it on the White House lawn.

It’s just very, very obvious that he did it. It’s very obvious he and his associates don’t think there’s anything wrong with it. And it’s very obvious there is something wrong with it. Holding US foreign policy hostage to personal political favors is straightforward abuse of power, precisely the sort of thing the Founders had in mind when they wrote impeachment into the Constitution.

It’s a clearly impeachable pattern of action, documented and attested to by multiple witnesses, confessed to multiple times, in violation of longstanding political precedent and a moral consensus that was, until 2016, universal. Compared to Mueller, that is a much more difficult test of the right’s ability to obscure, distract, and polarize.

Right now, the right’s messaging machine is sputtering a bit, cycling through defenses — it didn’t happen, Trump’s not competent enough to do it, it was a failed quid pro quo so it doesn’t count, he did it but it’s not impeachable — that contradict one another from day to day.

Can the machine successfully hold the right-wing base in an alternate reality and throw up enough fog to keep the general public at bay for long enough to get through the next election? It seems challenging, given the facts on record, but this is just the sort of challenge the machine was built for.

Let’s quickly review how we got here.

The rise of tribal epistemology

Earlier in 2017, I told the story of Donald Trump and the rise of tribal epistemology. Epistemology is the branch of philosophy that has to do with knowing and coming to know things — what counts as true, what counts as evidence, how we accumulate knowledge, and the like. It’s where you find schools of thought like skepticism (we can’t truly know anything) and realism (the universe contains observer-independent facts we can come to know).

Tribal epistemology, as I see it, is when tribalism comes to systematically subordinate epistemological principles.

tribal epistemology
Tribal epistemology, basically.
Javier Zarracina for Vox

Perhaps the easiest way to explain is by way of analogy with tribal morality, which people are more familiar with. Tribal morality is what happens when tribal interests come to subordinate moral principles.

Moral principles are generally, by their nature, cosmopolitan. They are meant to apply across tribal lines, to be “transpartisan.” Take, for instance, the principle “it is wrong to torture.” Interpreted as a principle, it is meant to apply to everyone. Anyone, from any group or nation, who tortures anyone else, from any group or nation, is doing something wrong.

But under tribal morality, principles are subsumed under tribal membership. It becomes, “it is wrong for them to torture us.” It is okay for us to torture them, because our tribe is Good and thus whatever actions we take to prosecute the interests of the tribe are Good. They, however, are Bad, so they are subject to the rules. (Readers of a certain age may recall the US having just this debate in the mid-2000s.)

Tribal epistemology happens when tribal interests subsume transpartisan epistemological principles, like standards of evidence, internal coherence, and defeasibility. “Good for our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of what is true; “part of our tribe” becomes the primary determinant of who to trust.

A circular logic, which has become quite familiar in the impeachment affair, emerges: Anyone who says anything contrary to the tribe marks themselves as an enemy of the tribe (cough *deep state* cough); enemies of the tribe cannot be trusted, so their testimony or evidence can be ignored. Thus, by definition, nothing that questions the tribal narrative can be trusted.

A decades-long effort on the right has resulted in a parallel set of institutions meant to encourage tribal epistemology. They mimic the form of mainstream media, think tanks, and the academy, but without the restraint of transpartisan principles. They are designed to advance the interests of the right, to tell stories and produce facts that support the tribe. That is the ultimate goal; the rhetoric and formalisms of critical thinking are retrofit around it.

Talk radio and the birth of Fox News in the 1990s were turning points. They eventually expanded to create an entire, complete-unto-itself conservative information universe. It was capable of cranking out stories and facts (or “facts”) in support of the conservative cause 24 hours a day, steadily shaping the worldview of their white suburban audience around a forever war with The Libs, who are always just on the verge of destroying America.

As I covered in more detail in this post (and this one), over time this led to a steady deterioration in fealty to norms, epistemological and otherwise, to the point that something like 30 percent of the country is now awash in a fantasia of conspiracy theories and just-so stories.

As journalist Alex Pareene wrote in a scathing 2017 piece, the propaganda machine that the right built to keep its base outraged grew out of control and swallowed the GOP. “They’re screwed,” Pareene wrote of conservatives, “because they and their predecessors engineered a perpetual misinformation machine, and then a bunch of people addicted to their product took over the government.”

Now everyone with any power on the right is deep in the bubble, right up to the president himself, who spends a considerable portion of his time watching and tweeting about Fox News. There are no more moderates or responsible Republicans behind the curtain, keeping an eye on the difference between tribal tall tales and reality. Fox natives are running the show, including the federal government.

And Trump, the ultimate tribalist, has made it clear that he doesn’t want to hear any of these half-ass stories about how he did something wrong but it’s not that bad. He demands ultimate loyalty, and to him loyalty means insisting that he did nothing wrong at all.

Following Trump down that path requires ignoring or wishing away mountains of evidence and decades of precedent, opting instead to believe him when he says, “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening.” This is tribal epistemology in its rawest form: It’s us or them, our story or theirs. If you are one of us, you believe our story.

Republicans need to maintain doubt and prevent consensus

As a recent Crooked Media/Change Research poll showed, voter opinions on impeachment are as inflamed and polarized as they are on everything else. Some 91 percent of those polled have strong feelings on impeachment: 94 percent of Republicans and Republican-leaning independents oppose it; 94 percent of Democrats and Democrat-leaning independents support it. Meanwhile, “50% of independents and 57% of swing voters support removing Trump from office.”

This is the story of American politics: a narrowly divided nation, with raw numbers on the side of the rising demographics in the left coalition but intensity and outsized political power on the side of the right coalition. Put in more practical terms, the right still has the votes and the cohesion to prevent a Senate impeachment conviction.

On the downslope of a fading, unpopular coalition is not a great place for Republicans to be. It doesn’t augur well for their post-2020 health as a party. But it is enough to get them through the next election, which is about as far ahead as they look these days.

All they need to do is to keep that close partisan split frozen in place. Above all, they need to ensure that nothing breaks through to the masses in the mushy middle, who are mostly disengaged from politics. They need to make sure no clear consensus forms, nothing that might find its way into pop culture, the way the entire nation eventually focused its attention on Nixon’s impeachment.

It’s a kind of magic trick they’re going to try to pull off in full view.

The right has hacked the cognitive biases of voters and reporters

They are working with a few key tools and advantages. The first is a strong tendency, especially among low-information, relatively disengaged voters (and political reporters), to view consensus as a signal of legitimacy. It’s an easy and appealing heuristic: If something is a good idea, it would have at least a few people from both sides supporting it. That’s why “bipartisan” has been such a magic word in US politics this century, even as the reality of bipartisanship has faded.

Republican Senate leader Mitch McConnell has been very canny in recognizing this tendency and working it ruthlessly to his advantage. He realized before Obama ever set foot in office that if he could keep Republicans unified in opposition, refusing any cooperation on anything, he could make Obama appear “polarizing.” His great insight, as ruthlessly effective as it was morally bankrupt, was that he could unilaterally deny Obama the ability to be a uniter, a leader, or a deal maker. Through nothing but sheer obstinance, he could make politics into an endless, frustrating, fruitless shitshow, diminishing both parties in voters’ eyes.

This is what Republicans need more than anything on impeachment: for the general public to see it as just another round of partisan squabbling, another illustration of how “Washington” is broken. They need to prevent any hint of bipartisan consensus from emerging.

Tribal epistemology is key to this. Republicans must render partisan not only judgments of right and wrong but judgments of what is and isn’t true or real. They must render facts themselves a matter of controversy that the media reports as a food fight and the public tunes out.

That’s the main reason they are focusing their attacks so intently on process complaints. The investigation itself, the hearings, the whole process must come to be seen as partisan, which will serve as permission for the engaged on the right to attack it, the engaged on the left to embrace it, and the broader public to dismiss it.

Aiding in the effort is the propaganda machine. One of the more notable findings from the aforementioned poll: “89% of Republicans who get most of their impeachment news from Fox oppose the inquiry because they think the allegations aren’t true; 59% of other Republicans say the same.” As I have written before about AOC and the Green New Deal, the right has an ability to convey a partisan message to its base that the left utterly lacks.

As a massive post-election study of online media from Harvard showed, media is not symmetrical any more than broader polarization is. “Prominent media on the left are well distributed across the center, center-left, and left,” the researchers found. “On the right, prominent media are highly partisan.”

Democrats are still dependent on the mainstream press to convey their messages to the broad public. Many of their consultants and press officers still view their role as managing relationships with mainstream reporters. But the mainstream media, catering to low-information voters and reinforcing their worst prejudices in the process, persists in covering politics precisely through the most cynical lens, as a team sport, competing performances to be narrated like an announcer calling a game.

Meanwhile, the right not only commands the highest rated cable news network and an army of supportive online media outlets, it is spending millions on Facebook, Tik-Tok, 4chan, 8chan, and God knows what other online swamps, targeting messages where their audiences are rather than futilely attempting to reach them through the Washington Post.

Impeachment is make or break time for America’s epistemic health

As Putin and other modern autocrats have realized, in the modern media environment — a chaotic Wild West where traditional gatekeepers are in decline — it is not necessary for a repressive regime to construct its own coherent account of events. There are no broadly respected, nonpartisan referees left to hold it to account for consistency or accuracy. All it needs, to get away with whatever it wants, is for the information environment to be so polluted that no one can figure out what’s true and what isn’t, or what’s really going on.

The recipe is always the same: attack independent media outlets as partisan enemies of the regime and, by proxy, enemies of the people. At the same time, use the media under state control, along with an army of bots, trolls, and shitposters, to inject accusations, lies, and conspiracy theories into the public dialogue.

In an information fog filled with vexed uncertainty, people will either tune out, revert to their tribal affiliations, or both. They will seek a strong leader who offers simple certainties and a clear account of who is to blame for the chaos. Confusion and fear, not deception, are the ultimate goal.

That is precisely the kind of machine the US conservative movement has built: one designed to produce confusion and fear. Trump is its natural leader, the first Republican president to reflect the party’s contemporary core and character, and his impeachment is its ultimate test.

Meanwhile, Democrats are attempting to do something that arguably nothing since the 9/11 attacks has done: unite Americans in a clear understanding of a threat and a clear will to action, in a way that reaches across conventional partisan lines, at least to some extent.

On their side, they have the products of America’s tattered remaining institutional processes and norms: clear evidence, painstakingly laid out in a Constitutionally prescribed process, communicated through mainstream news outlets. The facts are clearer than ever, but those institutions are weaker and social trust, which the right has been concertedly attacking for decades, is at a low ebb.

Protesters call for the impeachment of President Trump during a demonstration. One holds a sign that reads, “Save democracy. Impeach 45.” Another reads, “Nobody is above the law.”
Protesters call for the impeachment of President Trump during a demonstration in June in New York City.
David Dee Delgado/Getty Images

In opposition is a large but stable minority united by unquestioned loyalty to a tribal leader, dedicated to guerrilla information warfare unconstrained by conventional norms of accuracy or consistency, and motivated by an almost eschatological will to power.

If the latter triumphs, if it is able to muddy and distract enough to make impeachment just another Mueller, just more partisan white noise, we will cross a kind of rubicon. It will demonstrate that, to a first approximation, lol nothing matters.

lol nothing matters Giphy

Moral consensus will have become impossible. Epistemological consensus will have become impossible. It will show that no amount of evidence is capable of bridging the partisan gap. The epistemic crisis, and its attendant political crisis, will be fully upon us.

Ultimately, communication, and with it survival as a polity, depends on a shared body of facts and assumptions about the world. For decades, the right has been sawing away at the threads that still connect it to mainstream institutions, procedures, and norms of conduct, to the point that it has created a hermetically sealed and impenetrable world of its own.

As congressional scholars Thomas Mann and Norm Ornstein warned in 2012, the GOP as become “an insurgent outlier: ideologically extreme; contemptuous of the inherited social and economic policy regime; scornful of compromise; un-persuaded by conventional understanding of facts, evidence, and science; and dismissive of the legitimacy of its political opposition.”

The machine was primed and waiting for someone like Trump. Now, with his erratic and indefensible conduct, he is accelerating the breach, pushing the right into ever-more cult-like behavior, principles laid aside one after another in service of power.

That is what a tribalist like Trump wants: for communication and compromise across tribal lines to become impossible, so that loyalty becomes the only measure and everything is reduced to pure struggle for dominance. If he makes it through impeachment unscathed, he and the right will have learned once and for all that facts and evidence have no hold on them. Both “sides” have free rein to choose the facts and evidence that suit them. Only power matters.

If the right’s epistemic break becomes final and irreparable, as impeachment threatens, then no matter what happens in the next election, American democracy is in for a long spell of trouble.


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