More than fifteen years ago, comedian Stephen Colbert introduced a new word into our vocabulary: truthiness. In 2006, Merrian-Webster Dictionary made it the word of the year, defining it as “a truthful or seemingly truthful quality that is claimed for something not because of supporting facts or evidence but because of a feeling that it is true or a desire for it to be true.”
Demonstrating the notion that comedians like Colbert often play the role of prophets in our culture, Lou Dobbs recently asked why it has been so hard to find proof of the election fraud “everyone knows exists.” Those of us in the reality-based world might ask how everyone knows that election fraud exists if there has been no proof. Similarly, in a video by Seth Holehouse titled “The Plot to Steal America,” the former creative director of Epoch Times claims that, even as mainstream media tells us that the presidential race is over, “in your gut, you know something’s just not right.” You’d be hard-pressed to find a better example of truthiness.
What Colbert noticed back in 2005 was that the Republican Party was breaking away from facts and evidence, increasingly relying on what people feel “in their gut.” By 2016, Mark Turnbull of Cambridge Analytica was telling prospective political clients that “it’s no good fighting an election campaign on the facts because actually it’s all about emotion.”
That is how we reached the point where 39 percent of Americans believe that the 2020 election was rigged, even as Dobbs admits that there has been no proof. Demonstrating how all of this works in the Trump era, conservative political analyst Yuval Levin outlined two types of populism: corrosive and constructive.
Some of [populism’s] complaints…reflect genuine abuses, inequalities, and policy mistakes that have exacted serious costs in the middle and lower educational and economic tiers of our society…These are the kinds of things that a political program could try to redress in various ways. But some of its complaints are based…in unfounded assertions…or in fevered conspiracies of abuses of power without a basis in fact. These kinds of complaints can’t be redressed through acts of governance because the problems they describe aren’t real.
Levin is making the case that Republicans should govern as constructive populists with real policy proposals. In other words, he’s suggesting that Republican politicians actually lead by doing the job they were elected to do. But as David Frum, former speechwriter for George W. Bush, pointed out more than 10 years ago, that would go against the wishes of the real leaders of the GOP—right-wing television/radio personalities—whose business model relies on the rage induced by corrosive populism.
Republican members of Congress who are planning to disrupt the process of affirming the outcome of the 2020 presidential election on Wednesday don’t claim to have proof that it was rigged. Instead, they justify their actions based on allegations that their constituents believe to be true…in their guts.
Senator Ted Cruz of Texas, one of the leading disruptors, released a statement suggesting that “a fair and credible audit—conducted expeditiously and completed well before January 20—would dramatically improve Americans’ faith in our electoral process and would significantly enhance the legitimacy of whoever becomes our next President.”
Let’s be clear. Joe Biden has been elected our next president. Does anyone really believe that Cruz wants to enhance his legitimacy? Not for a minute. These Republicans know their efforts are destined to fail. Their real goal is to spread uncertainty—or doubt. They want to put their lies on equal footing with the truth and claim that the differences are merely partisan.
In the late 1960s, the evidence connecting smoking with lung cancer was mounting. A memo written by the tobacco companies at the time explained their efforts to undermine that conclusion. They wouldn’t attempt to disprove the scientific consensus, but merely inject sufficient doubt into the public debate to make it seem like a controversy with two sides. That became the basis for what historians Naomi Oreskes and Erik Conway called the “merchants of doubt.”
Spreading doubt about a scientific consensus benefited the tobacco companies as they tried to sustain a market for their product. But how do Republicans benefit from being merchants of doubt? Levin answered that question. It has become the means by which they remain in power.
You get credit just for talking about the conspiracies when other politicians won’t, you don’t really have to do anything about them (indeed, you can’t do anything about them), and you can always fan even greater frustration when others deny or ignore them. This is easier than governing, which is inherently unsatisfying.
Our democracy is, indeed, imperiled. But it is not simply by the buffoon who currently occupies the Oval Office. It is threatened by a party—buoyed by the right-wing media establishment—that has become a cadre for merchants of doubt who are determined to rob truth of its power. We will continue to face that threat long after January 20.