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The Funhouse Mirror of Trumpistan
A new poll surveyed experts on a variety of claims about Trump's criminality. Then, they asked Republican voters the same questions. The results give a glimpse of a warped bizarro world reality.
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Donald Trump just got charged with new, serious crimes: he allegedly tried to conceal his criminality at Mar-a-Lago by ordering security camera footage to be deleted. This has reinforced the now realistic possibility that:
Donald Trump could serve significant jail time;
The Republican nominee for president could be convicted of felonies during the presidential campaign;
That tens of millions of Americans could vote for someone who is headed to prison.
What are we to make of this? The answer lies with a concept that I call The Funhouse Mirror of Trumpistan.
The View from Nowhere
One of my biggest pet peeves is when journalists frame stories not with objective facts, but by acting as stenographers who parrot what politicians say. This is what NYU professor Jay Rosen calls the “view from nowhere” approach, in which ideas promoted by political actors are dispassionately presented to listeners and viewers as though they’re equally valid, even when they’re objectively not.
The “view from nowhere” can work just fine when reporting on subjective political viewpoints, with normative questions such as “should taxes be higher?” But journalism as stenography is disastrous when it’s used to present two political viewpoints on equal footing when one is true and the other is false, or when basic context is essential.
One of the best examples of this phenomenon came from the former CBS White House reporter, Mark Knoller, who tweeted this brainless content a few years ago:
It seems perfectly innocuous, perhaps, but with one glaring problem: Obamacare, passed in 2010, already mandated that pre-existing conditions must be covered. Trump’s “major executive order” promised to accomplish something that had already been accomplished by his predecessor a decade earlier.
Worse, Trump’s administration was directly challenging Obamacare in the courts, trying to overturn these exact legal protections. Knoller didn’t mention either crucial fact. That’s not journalism. It’s stenography. And each parroted squawk of stenography misinforms the public.
Unfortunately, the “view from nowhere” persists, establishing pernicious false equivalency between truth and lies.
That’s why I was heartened to see a new report out this week from the fine folks at Brightline Watch, a pro-democracy watchdog group run by political scientists who are worried about America’s lurch toward authoritarianism.
The group did something novel: they asked experts in political science a series of questions about Trump’s criminality—and then asked the same questions to a representative sample of Americans, broken down by partisan identity. That way, the information can be presented not just with the opinions of American voters, but alongside the viewpoints of people who are experts on the questions being asked.
And, while it’s depressingly predictable, the surveys show that the funhouse mirror of propaganda in right-wing media has worked, warping Republican viewpoints on even the most objective facts surrounding Trump’s alleged criminality.
The Brightline Watch survey compares answers across two waves, one from October 2022 and another from June/July 2023. That way, you can see how some attitudes have changed across time. (Some questions are new in the second wave, so they only have one dot in the graphics below).
For the methodology, they explain: “We fielded parallel surveys of 569 political scientists and a representative sample of 2,776 Americans from June 29 to July 11, 2023.” (For disclosure: I am a political scientist who works on questions of authoritarianism and democratic breakdown, but I wasn’t asked to participate in this particular survey).
There’s a clear pattern in the data: experts think that Trump committed several serious crimes. There’s also a strong consensus that he should serve prison time for at least some of those crimes. Republicans, by contrast, have almost perfectly inverted viewpoints to those of experts.
Here’s the relevant chart from Brightline Watch:
There are several interesting findings here.
First, nearly 95% of experts believe that Trump committed a crime in the federal documents case. Political scientists are least convinced by the Stormy Daniels hush money case, but even in that instance, more than 70 percent of experts surveyed say they believe, based on the available evidence, that Trump committed a criminal offense.
The allegations related to trying to overturn the 2020 election and inspiring January 6th lie somewhere in the middle, with around 80 percent agreeing that Trump’s actions involved criminal behavior. Very few experts — around 10 percent — believe that Biden committed a crime in mishandling classified documents.
Second, Republican views are inverted from those of experts. In the first wave, less than 10 percent of GOP voters said that Trump had committed any crimes, and those numbers were largely similar in the second wave—with one exception. Now, around a quarter of Republicans acknowledge that Trump likely committed a crime in the federal documents case, a significant rise from the last round of the survey.
Unsurprisingly, the numbers are totally flipped for Biden: nearly 70 percent of Republicans think Biden committed a crime. (As a reminder, there is an enormous difference between these two documents cases).
The juxtaposition is even starker when it comes to questions about punishments for alleged criminality, as shown in the next graphic. In case you can’t see it with the fine print, the left bar in each color corresponds to support for “no crime or no punishment”; the middle is for “probation or a fine” and the right is support for Trump serving prison time for his alleged crimes.
A large majority of experts believe that Trump should serve prison time for three of the four major sets of allegations against him: the documents case, his attempts to subvert the 2020 election based on his lies, and for charges related to January 6th. Interestingly, there’s some substantial daylight between Democrats and experts on the hush money question, with a majority of Democrats favoring prison time for everything, while the majority of experts believe it would be justified in just three of the four cases, but not the hush money one.
Yet again, the Republican numbers are the outliers, with overwhelming majorities favoring no penalty whatsoever for any of the cases. None. Zip. Nada.
The Funhouse Mirror
Now, let’s play devil’s advocate for a second. I often trot out some version of this idea in my writing: that “every group of humans is a non-random subset of the population.” In other words, every group is skewed in some way relative to the rest of the population. That’s certainly true for political science experts, who are, in many ways, an extremely unusual subset of the population. There are partisan skews, too, likely exacerbated by the Republican party’s embrace of authoritarian Trumpism since 2016. Put plainly, these days, most political scientists vote for Democrats.
So, there’s a plausible objection here: what if the survey is just capturing partisanship rather than expert viewpoints? Maybe these are subjective opinions and it’s to be expected that the left-skewed field of experts align more closely with Democratic attitudes. That’s a fair question. But we can quickly deal with it by examining questions that relate to objective facts, which is what the clever boffins at Brightline Watch did next.
Lo and behold, for each question about objective statements, the experts got the facts right, while Republicans got them wrong. This isn’t a normative or partisan statement about whether Republican voters are good or bad, but rather a presentation of empirical evidence that Republican voters are badly misinformed about basic facts surrounding Trump’s alleged criminality.
For each of the four statements they surveyed, there are mountains of ironclad, publicly available evidence that these things happened. And yet, Republicans continue to exist in the funhouse mirror version of reality, in which allegations about Trump are either dismissed as lies…or they’re just never exposed to the damning facts of the case, cocooned as many are in a Fox News information bubble.
Astonishingly, only 52% of Republican voters surveyed indicated that they believed that Trump ever brought classified documents to Mar-a-Lago, even though Trump himself admits doing so. There have even been countless widely publicized photos of those documents in various places around his private club. (Here they are in a location that is widely known to be a perfect, secure clandestine hiding place: on a literal stage).
(Now, the funniest bit of this story was when Republican Speaker of the House / Trump remora Kevin McCarthy defended Trump storing classified documents in a bathroom by noting that “a bathroom door locks.” Great point, Kevin! But have you ever been in a bathroom that locks…from the outside?).
Anyway, here are the depressing stats. Consider the third one: Do you believe that “Trump showed documents” to others? We have a publicly available audio recording of him doing exactly that, but only 34% of Republicans believe it’s true.
This is what I call The Funhouse Mirror of Trumpistan, in which even the most rudimentary facts are distorted, creating an altered sense of reality that’s…just wrong.
Here’s where old school journalistic norms collide with objective reality. Too many journalists still wrongly believe their goal should be “balance.” It shouldn’t. It should be objectivity. If something is untrue, the press needs to say so, in clear language, even if one partisan group wrongly believes the lie to be true.
In poll after poll, we have clear evidence that the overwhelming majority of Republican voters do not inhabit a fact-based reality on key questions about modern American politics, from “Who legitimately won the 2020 election?” to “Do you believe that Trump actually did the thing that he has directly admitted to doing?”
And yet, how many times have you read such a clear-eyed statement in the mainstream press as this: “Polls show the majority of Republican voters hold delusional ideas that are at odds with objective facts”? That’s what this poll shows. No need to mince words. But too often, mince they do.
The report from Brightline Watch also teaches another important lesson: it’s a good idea in polling to ask not just about opinions, but about basic facts. It’s extremely relevant that the opinions of Republican voters are based on false beliefs about the world. It’s easier to contextualize and calibrate polling findings if opinions are interspersed with fact-based questions.
I invite you to take a look at the whole report, as it’s full of interesting (and depressing) tidbits. But I’ll leave you with this extraordinary graphic, in which respondents are asked what words should be used to describe January 6th, a horrific violent attack on the US Capitol, in which an angry mob tried to overturn the results of a democratic election based on a lie, including some who were armed and had zip ties, so they could take members of Congress hostage. Some in the group even brought along a noose and gallows while chanting about their enthusiasm to hang the vice president.
I despair to inform you that 58% of Republicans in this survey believe that those events would be most accurately described as a “legitimate protest.”
The Big Picture
Democracy provides a mechanism to forge compromise based on the informed consent of the governed.
Unfortunately, that becomes impossible when one political party looks at the world through a funhouse mirror that distorts the most basic truths, when partisan identity becomes a dystopian “choose your own reality” world of splintered politics, and when voters aren’t disagreeing on normative opinions of how the world should be, but rather are divided over basic facts about how the world is. The task to save modern democracy, then, isn’t just about electing the right people or reforming broken systems.
Instead, the lesson is that if you break information flows, you break democracy. Therefore, the only lasting solution to a fracturing democratic system lurching toward authoritarianism is to do everything we can to ensure that the information pipeline to voters is pristine rather than polluted with toxic lies. And that requires a view from somewhere, in which journalists refuse to parrot what was said and solely focus on conveying what is true.
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