The retirement community in which Susie and I live has three entrances, all of them on a country road named Whippoorwill Lane. When you exit our community, if you turn right on Whippoorwill you very quickly come to Mount Carmel Church Road which in turn will take you to state road 15/501 and from there by a short drive to the UNC medical complex. If you turn left coming out of our community, Whippoorwill takes you to Old Farrington Point Road and then, in another 10 minutes or so to I – 40. At first I had to think about it to remember which way to turn on my errands but now I have done it so often that it is routine.
Our retirement community is blessed by what seems to be a virtually total absence of Trump supporters, although if there are a few they may just be hiding. But even if we were a majority Republican retirement community like the one in which my sister lives in Carlsbad, California I am quite confident that I would have no bitter political arguments with fellow residents about the best way to get to I-40. We would no doubt argue about everything else, from the outcome of the 2020 election to the efficacy of wearing masks. But not even the most crazed Trump supporter would claim that turning right on Whippoorwill is the best way to get to I – 40, even if urged by Tucker Carlson to think so.
Why not? The correct answer is the obvious one. Trump supporters are not certifiably crazy – most of the scores of millions who support him are functionally sane in the ordinary everyday sense – and like me and anybody else they learn from personal experience such things as to turn left when going to I – 40 and right when going to the UNC medical complex. They also learn how to use their telephones to call their children, where to buy groceries or flowers or home appliances, how the elevators work in their buildings, and everything else they need to know to get through the day in a comfortable manner.
For most of the 200,000 years or so that human beings have been on earth, this is the way in which they have dealt with the world. For most human beings for most of recorded history, which is to say the last 10,000 years or so, the only things of any importance that they believed that were not based on direct sensory experience and interpersonal interactions were their religious beliefs, and not surprisingly it was these that repeatedly led them into murderous and irresoluble conflicts.
But these days all of us know an innumerable number of things not grounded in this sort of direct observation and experience and even the best educated among us or the most curious cannot possibly provide genuine evidentiary confirmation for more than a tiny handful of our beliefs. Who among us can give a factually grounded account, right down to the solid-state transistors and the imprinted circuits, of how a computer actually works? And can the handful of those who can provide such an account give a similarly well-grounded explanation of how the car that they drive in to get to work actually operates?
Let me be clear. I am not at all a devotee of those modern philosophers of science who try to argue that scientific knowledge is no better than concensus gentium all the way down. But it is obvious that all of us rely upon the authoritative judgments of experts in most of what we think we know about the world. To be sure, the more thoughtful among us are perpetually questioning, raising doubts, insisting on corroboration, looking for alternative accounts, especially in areas like politics and economics where we have learned long since to recognize the role of ideology and simple self-interest in the corruption of information. But let us be honest. Those of us who refused to believe the Bush administration’s claims about Saddam Hussein’s possession of weapons of mass destruction would, for the most part, not have been able to identify a weapon of mass destruction if it were delivered by Amazon.com to our doorstep.
These remarks are by way of an explanation for my enormous anxiety about the political future of this country. Scores of millions of Americans believe, or at least claim they believe, that the 2020 election was stolen. Their belief is absurd. But the same people who believe this would not think of doubting the countless beliefs on which they rely in going about their daily business. If Trump called for another assault on Congress and one of my neighbors set out to join this holy crusade, she would turn left on Whippoorwill to get to I – 40 and from there to RDU airport for the flight to Washington, even if the sainted Trump himself were to say “and do not forget to turn right as you leave the retirement community.”
Suppose, as seems likely, that the Democrats lose control of the House in 2022. Suppose, also, that Trump runs again in 2024 and loses once more to Biden by a landslide in the popular vote but rather narrowly in a number of states controlled by Republican legislatures. Does anybody doubt that those Republican legislatures would negate the results of the election and declare Trump the winner of their electoral votes? Does anybody doubt that the Republican majority in the House would confirm those false reports? Does anybody imagine that California and New York and Washington State and Connecticut and Virginia what accept such a travesty?
I think we are one bad election outcome from a crisis in this country the resolution of which could come down to the question of which way the Armed Forces would go.
That is what keeps me up at night.