By Frank Lesko
We can't fact-check our way out of fascism.
Many are scrambling to figure out how to respond and resist the growing power of the Trump administration and its resemblance to historic fascism. Every day I see people frustrated, locked in political debate and despairing over the lack of success in their efforts. Many throw themselves at Trump supporters in online debates or conversations at the dinner table, attempting to change them.
The impression I’m left with from many left-leaning articles and discussions is that nothing will change until those conservatives recognize their mistakes and change their ways. This is a losing strategy. It gives the impression that the left is simply going to wait around until the other side budges. This gives conservatives all the power and therefore reduces any incentive for them to actually move.
Like the spectator’s in Plato’s cave 2,400 years ago, strapped in to their seats and fixated on the shadows on the wall, the U.S. political left has not figured out how to encourage those folks to turn their heads and look in a different way.
The article “As Critics Assail Trump, His Supporters Dig In Deeper” (June 23, 2018) in the NY Times reports that political debate only seems to be increasing polarization. What are we to do?
The left has to face this sobering reality: If fact-checking were going to be effective, it would have done its job a long time ago. Instead, the key is to have a bold vision rooted in the Kingdom of God. An analogy from the martial arts makes my point:
Students of the martial arts make a common mistake when attempting to break wooden boards: They focus too much on the board.
Unless you possess large amounts of brute force, your foot will simply bounce off the surface when you focus too much on the board. You are more likely to injure yourself than break the board.
The strategy to break boards is to put your attention on your true goal--getting your foot to a point several inches on the other side of the board. You respect the board, but it just happens to be in the way.
There is a parallel with the current partisan gridlock in the U.S.
Just like breaking boards, fact-checkers painfully bounce off the surface and only hurt themselves. The board (i.e. the Trump supporter) remains unchanged. Some cracks and breaks do occasionally occur by sheer pressure, but it is consistently a losing endeavor.
Reports have shown that criticism of Trump results in more polarization as Trump supporters simply dig in their heels more solidly. Anti-Trump advocates are trying to figure out how best to respond to those who seem unmoved by Trump's constant lies, incompetence and flagrant violation of ethical stands. Is there no point when Trumpers will question their support for this man?
If integrity in journalism and factual accuracy were all that mattered, Trump's initial campaign would never have gotten off the ground. The left should not abandon those values, but it has to look past them toward a bold vision.
The classic problem is that many on the left want to be right. Trump supporters simply want to win. Those are fundamentally different goals. People on the left assume that getting the facts right by debunking Trump's lies is the same as winning. They assume that once the facts are revealed, good and evil will be sorted like the sheep and goats of Matthew 25 and the rest will fall into place. They are constantly puzzled when Trump continues to maintain enthusiastic support after the left has so cleverly and clearly exposed his fraudulence, incompetence and, well, evil.
The Academic vs. the Used Car Salesman
Imagine the editor of Webster's Unabridged Dictionary going head-to-head with a sneaky used car salesman in a game of Scrabble.
The editor will mistakenly assume that the key to Scrabble is knowing words. He almost takes pity on the salesman as he imagines his robust and speedy win. By contrast the salesman recognizes there is a psychological game that is played along with the stated rules. The editor comes armed with a dictionary. The salesman employs a medley of tricks which includes a cry baby routine of pouting, generating distractions, wearing down his opponent with constant challenges of words, submitting made-up-words that he swears are real and offering a few slight-of-hand tricks (and hidden letters in his pocket). If the salesman can drum up fervor among spectators with his antics, whipping them into a boisterous, mob-like fervor, no appeals to the dictionary are going to matter.
A perfect example of how this played out in politics was the stolen Supreme Court seat pick from Obama. Rules, precedent and tradition didn’t matter. Republicans made a big show of their stonewalling, armed with only shady Constitutional logic. However, they more than made up for it with plenty of inertia and circus tricks. People accepted it, and that’s what ultimately counts. It didn’t matter so much which side had the correct Constitutional interpretation. Conservatives pushed through the door and whether it was the manipulation of the media, public apathy or Democratic weariness, they simply won.
The separation of families of asylum seekers illustrates this point: The White House and conservative media outlets were giving contradictory accounts: First, it was happening, and then it wasn’t. Then they claimed it was a continuation of Obama policy and then later said it was the result of an act of Congress. People on the left shake their heads at what seems like the overt stupidity of the Trump leadership team. The left cannot believe how gullible Trump supporters are to fall for all this, but it may be the left that is most gullible. Perhaps this conflicting information is an intentional effort designed to create confusion. Trump’s team doesn’t need to win the argument outright, they just want to create enough doubt so that the people are stuck in a quagmire of endless debate. While the left consumes itself in fact-checking and online debate, the average American will be unable to know what to decide. In the smokescreen, the Trump machine moves on to its next sinister objective. The left is always playing defense and always more than a few steps behind the Trump machine which is clearly on the offensive. The left may be factually correct, but it is always playing defense, and that seems to be what makes the difference.
To the Moon and Stars and Back
The left doesn’t have to become sneaky charlatans to overcome Trump and his supporters. But it has to play the psychological game. The way to do that while taking the high road is to speak from the place of values and vision. It has to excite people describing what the post-Trump world could look like. It has to be committed to going there whether Trump supporters agree with it or not.
The left has to offer more than “We are not Trump.” Instead of saying, "How can we convince Trump supporters of their error?" We should instead say: "Here is the kind of society we are moving toward, get on board or miss the bus!"
In his May 25, 1961, address to Congress, President John F. Kennedy boldly announced:
"I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to the earth."
This is a perfect example of articulating a vision. It was controversial and there were many detractors with lots of excuses. However, before the close of the decade, the U.S. had indeed landed on the moon. We simply can’t get anywhere until we dream big and articulate what “anywhere” is.
The left needs a bold vision that grabs people by the shirt collar. Examples: We will have universal healthcare by 2025. We will sponsor a massive public works investment to revitalize and "green" our infrastructure, putting people to work and helping our climate at the same time. We will abolish private prisons by 2020. We will end drone warfare and failed attempts at nation-building abroad.
We must not quit fact-checking and editorializing. Good journalism is enshrined as a fundamental right in the U.S. Bill of Rights for good reason. In addition, some political compromises and other tediousness can happen on the road to that vision, but none of these is a substitute for the vision itself. We need to know where we are going and invite others into that excitement.
The ability to inspire and proclaim a vision is also why Bernie Sanders is so appealing. It shocks me when people on the left criticize his proposals for being impractical or unrealistic. Critics said the same about the moon landing proposal.
The left has forgotten how to dream. That is a serious disadvantage, because dreaming was always the most powerful tool the left had to offer. The faith community can be salt and light to the political left as it has the necessary language and vision the left needs. But somehow, the political left needs to figure out how to dream big again and invite others into that dream.
You can follow Frank on his blog at: http://travelingecumenist.blogspot.com/