America has a Problem.
This problem is of a nature that we do not even have a vocabulary sufficient to describe—no portmanteau or Germanicized club sandwich of a word that combines “undemocratic” and “disgraceful” and “unprecedented” and “mein Gott.” All we have to go on is that we’re facing a capital-p Problem. And this sort of ineffable Problem does not have neat and obvious solutions.
The Problem is, roughly, this: The leadership of one of the country’s two major political parties is all-in on trying to brainwash its tens of millions of supporters into believing that a presidential election was “stolen” from their guy and thereby justify the subversion of democracy in his name. We can only begin to imagine the downstream consequences. For future elections, the behavior that’s outrageous now may well become the norm—and a precursor to worse. Kelli Ward’s rhetoric has less a chance of being an outlier than a harbinger.
So, friends: What are we going to do about it?
First, we must ground ourselves in reality. There’s a reasonable chance that the country as we’ve known it (democratic, functional, stable) is on a downward and unalterable trajectory.
Second, we must avoid making perfection the enemy of the good—or allowing tenuousness to become the enemy of the possible. We will have to try a number of different tacks and see how they go.
Third, we should be open to the idea that possible solutions are asymmetric. And this is where things get interesting. I propose that we separate how we think about the grassroots versus the grasstops.
At the grasstops level, we can’t go straight through the bosses (the Trump family) or even their capos (at, for example, OANN, Newsmax, the Federalist, TPU$A).
The truth is that those actors are so post-truth they can’t even be opposed in the arena of ideas. Their existence in such a forum is no more real than an apparition. Just look at Eric Metaxas, who recently argued that Donald Trump won the 2020 election by a “landslide” with the following explanation: “So who cares what I can prove in the courts? This is right. This happened . . .”
As Rod Dreher puts it, this isn’t an argument. It’s a statement of faith. Which is exactly what the top-level Trumpists—whose modus operandi has more in common with religious fanatics than political polemicists—traffic in.
So while it might be fun or self-actualizing to subtweet beaucoup crazies like Metaxas or Emerald Robinson, it’s not going to accomplish anything productive. And the truth is, it’s probably best to just ignore them. David Brooks recently called their work the establishment of a separate “epistemic regime.” That’s right. And we don’t have to live in it. When Aristotle imagined the best life, he probably wasn’t thinking of people living out their days on Planet Parler.
Instead, the way past Trumpism at the grasstops level is the path around it.
Trumpism can and should be trapped in a pincer movement between the existing Democratic coalition spanning the political left on one side, and a new common cause on the other—one formed by conservatives and Republicans in exile from their former homes.
What will distinguish this second group from the party of Trump? At its core, a commitment to the democratic process and the Constitution: the foundation of the American political system which the outgoing president and his professional allies and enablers have fractured. Realistically, a right-of-center movement that rejects Trumpism will continue to have meaningful differences on matters of public policy with the party of President-elect Biden. But there should be no light between the two entities in upholding the rules, formal and informal alike, of democracy. They should create a shared political space that represents most of the country and is inhospitable to Trumpism.
Who knows what shape Republican defectors will take in the political process: If they’ll stand up their own distinct political movement, if they’ll just wind up as Red Dogs, or some of both. In whichever case, the basic truth about the Republican party is the same: As long as Trump is the dominant influence over the GOP, the GOP needs to be marginalized, not retaken.
And the Democratic party cannot do that alone.
At the grassroots level, we have to circumvent Trumpism a different way, with a different set of tools: neither with a pincer movement nor with political arguments. It’s with a strategy that lives outside the partisan atmosphere, that targets cultural flaws in nonpolitical spaces and incorporates communications and advocacy tactics largely outside the political process.
We often think about “nonpartisan” ideas. But it would be better to think in terms of being “pre-partisan”—reaching people before they’ve formed partisan identities—and “post-partisan”—getting people to see the characteristics of their communities (and the country) outside a partisan frame.
Consider the following spheres:
Media. One of the Republican party’s cognitive dissonances is that many of its thinkers advocate for localism, while Trump constantly directs his followers’ attention to his Acela corridor-based political obsessions.
We should fight against this nationalizing of the American experience. And the journalism trade can help.
For example, someone with deep pockets could take the Texas Tribune model nationwide and replicate it in all 50 states. Or create a nonprofit network of local papers in swing states with large rural populations. People in “flyover country”—where I was raised and which I always will love—should not care if a major coastal newspaper “gets them.” Let’s tell more stories about where they live—stories told by outlets headquartered and staffed by people in their backyard.
Education. History curricula are a mess. But imagine what the world would look like in 10 years if high schools taught kids more about topics that helped them understand the modern world of which they’re becoming a part: say, the connection between Jim Crow and redlining and the Black Lives Matter movement. In general, Americans ought to incorporate a greater diversity of subject material and authors into their thinking, which includes but doesn’t reduce the nation’s story to its Founding. Absolutely, citizens of every political ID should know about the Framers and how our government institutions were designed to function. But that period of American history should not obscure the periods since, which is exactly what an announcement such as “Protecting America’s Founding Ideals by Promoting Patriotic Education” is designed to do.
Tech. Some group with authority—of political scientists and sociologists and behavioral economists and psychologists—and well-known advocates who are not on, have left, or criticize Twitter and Facebook—George Packer, Millie Bobbie Brown, Franklin Foer—need to carpet-bomb the country with a social media disengagement campaign. #QuitTwitter. #QuitFacebook.
I’m not kidding.
Not enough people would leave these platforms to deprive them of their influence. But that’s not the point. The point is that it would get the attention of Dorsey and Zuck. To relax social media’s grip on society, the elites who are active on social media first need to start souring on social media.
Here’s your “to be clear!” disclaimer: Social media isn’t all bad. But its pernicious effect on American culture and politics is undeniable. As one recent study concluded, “few people are prepared to effectively navigate the online information environment.” This same study found that exposure to material as simple as “‘tips’ to help spot false news stories . . . reduces people’s belief in false headlines.” The study’s authors refer to these as “media literacy interventions.” When they’re appended to the bottom of a tweet with a little exclamation point, the Trumpists invariably label them “censorship.”
Regardless of what they’re called (by any name, they’re legal), they address only the supply side of the issue. The demand side is on us, particularly the people who “drive conversations” on social. We can choose to engage less or engage the same or more. As a wise knight once advised an archaeologist, we should choose wisely.
Community culture. What if we repurposed the concept of “sister cities” domestically, to foster cultural exchange between communities of different socioeconomic or racial makeups? Consider how the urban/rural divide in voting patterns is widening. It’s not crazy to suggest that the cultural difference between Idaho and Massachusetts is at least as big as the one between certain countries. Americans need to understand each other; to develop a shared set of assumptions about the world and preempt many of the U.S.’s meaningless partisan divisions. Imagine making conscious efforts to foster cultural exchange between a black-majority neighborhood in Atlanta and a town like Ellijay, Georgia (population 1,700)—not merely to “get people talking,” but to get them learning about and invested in solving the problems that exist just up the road. This idea has nothing to do with politics but could pay dividends to the polity.
Of course, the preceding ideas aren’t an exhaustive ingredients list for some cure that will heal the country. But taken together, they’re intended in the spirit of reorienting Americans’ worldviews toward the fact-, history-, and community-based, and away from the partisan-, identitarian-, and digital-without-boundaries-based.
Such a shift would take years—maybe decades—as well as the mobilization of creativity and goodwill. It may well be a generational undertaking. But it’s how to help secure the future of the generations to follow.