“You can see it,” Longwell told me. “Once everybody in the group kind of knows that they’re all Trump voters, and they all kind of dislike the left, they immediately identify with their in-group.” They start to bond with one another, she explained, reveling in their shared loathing of figures such as Omar and Ocasio-Cortez.
Often, what we think are public-policy debates are really about issues of core identity. This helps explain the unusual intensity surrounding politics these days.
Longwell laments what she refers to as the “symbiotic relationship” between Republican voters and politicians. The base is angry, radicalized, and prone to catastrophize; Republican politicians believe that stirring up the base is in their self-interest; and so Republican lawmakers, combined with the right-wing media ecosystem, inflame emotions even more.
Longwell holds the Trumpian political class more responsible than she does ordinary voters, though she doesn’t let voters off the hook. But she believes that the former know better and are acting more cynically, while she has some sympathy for many Republican voters. “They’re not bad people,” she insisted. “They’re just—they don’t know what to believe or they have been told a bunch of things that aren’t true.” And that confusion, she argued, has been unscrupulously exploited. “Broadly speaking, I think that there are a lot of people who are out to take advantage of the fact that people don’t quite know what to think.”
Many of those who are part of MAGA world are post-truth, subordinating reality to partisanship and ideology, but they are not, strictly speaking, relativists. Or to be more precise: They don’t believe they’re relativists; in fact, they would argue to their dying breath that they’re defending the truth. The problem is that the information sources on which they’re relying, and that they seek out, are built on falsehoods and lies. Many Trump supporters aren’t aware of this, and for complicated reasons many of them are, for now at least, content to live in a world detached from objective facts, from reality, from the way things really and truly are. And without agreement on what constitutes reality, we’re lost.
After Trump’s defeat in November, and especially after his effort to overturn the election results and the role he played in provoking an unprecedented attack on the citadel of American democracy, Republican leaders could have moved away from the indecency and corruption that defined the Trump era. In their different ways, Representatives Liz Cheney, Adam Kinzinger, and Jaime Herrera Beutler and Senators Mitt Romney, Ben Sasse, and Mitch McConnell have done so. “We really can’t become the party of a cult of personality,” Cheney recently warned. “It’s a really scary phenomenon we haven’t seen in this country before.” But even so, most others in the GOP chose to double down.