Remember this?Arguably The Onion’s most famous headline ever, it was published in 2009, just as the Tea Party was on the rise. The headline captured, and mocked, the movement’s seeming impenetrability to facts.
Social scientists, less pithily, alas, have long-researched how in politics, not only do facts often not matter to people; the presentation of facts can make people even more hostile to truth. One of the more reported-on examples is research conducted more than a decade ago, in which political scientists Brendan Nyhan and Jason Reifler identified a “backfire” effect to political facts.
The researchers presented subjects with a quote of George W. Bush declaring that his 2001 tax cuts had increased federal revenue. Some of the subjects were also provided evidence “clarifying that both nominal tax revenues and revenues as a proportion of GDP declined sharply after Bush’s first tax cuts were enacted in 2001 (he passed additional tax cuts in 2003) and still had not rebounded to 2000 levels by either metric in 2004.”
Conservatives who were provided the clarifying evidence were, by far, more likely to believe the original statement that Bush’s tax cuts increased revenue.
In other words, exposure to facts that didn’t fit the subjects’ world-view just made them believe the wrong information harder.
Trump knows how this works, not because he reads social science research — even if it’s about him — but in his capacity as an idiot savant.
A substantial minority of the American people, or People, as the (upper) case may be, agree with that tweet. And social science research from Nyhan and Riefler and others suggests the more the media reports on the venality and preposterousness of the Trump administration — the more facts about Trump are reported in the news — the more aggressively Trump’s supporters will disbelieve the reports.
Their ideological blinders and politics-first default settings notwithstanding, I think Nevada’s Republicans in Congress, Sen. Dean Heller and Rep. Mark Amodei, are not, at the end of the day, among those “People.” Sure, they’re wishy-washy and disingenuous, and Heller in particular seems not a very serious man. But like the majority of their Republican congressional colleagues, rather than echo Trump’s denouncement of reports documenting Trump’s corruption and malignancy as “fake news,” Heller and Amodei prefer to hide and keep their mouths shut, or, if necessary, resort to vapid dissemblance so as to gloss over any developments indicating Trump’s obvious unfitness to serve. Products of and foot soldiers in the right-wing narrative that has dominated U.S. politics since the late 1970s, Heller and Amodei harbor their party’s customary disdain for and distrust of the “biased liberal media,” and always will. But they know the news, however objectionable or slanted in their eyes, isn’t “fake.”
I wonder if they’ll ever say so?
Like everyone else in the country, neither Heller nor Amodei can predict how the fiasco that is the Trump presidency will play out. After all, possibilities run the gamut, from quick impeachment to nuclear winter.
There is one possibility, however, that is not on the table: an honorable presidency characterized by an expansion of social and economic justice and the safeguarding and advancement of core democratic and American principles.
That presumably bothers Heller and Amodei on some level. But probably not too much, because they know there will be a well-financed media narrative that says their man, Donald Trump, is making America great again, and a significant portion of the electorate will believe it no matter what. Heller and Amodei may not think the news is “fake.” But that doesn’t mean they’re above benefiting from “alternative facts.” And if actual facts just piss off Republicans and make them want to disbelieve facts even harder, evidently Heller and Amodei are fine with that.