The overarching question about this election also speaks to our longer-range future as a nation: Is this vast and disparate country capable of returning to rationality?
That normally wouldn’t be a partisan query. One might disagree with the philosophy of, say, a Ronald Reagan or a George H.W. Bush or a John McCain or a Mitt Romney, but no one seriously doubted they were rational in their outlooks and thus able to assess the facts of a situation and arrive at a reasonable course of action.
Not this president — nor many of his supporters.
One dismaying example is the bundle of QAnon conspiracy theories, which maintain that President Trump is heroically battling a satanist sex-trafficking ring that involves prominent Democrats and Hollywood powers (who, in some iterations, drink children’s blood and harvest their hormones).
Polling shows that between one-third and one-half of Republicans believe some aspect of that hydra-headed hokum. And to think that some of us thought the sea of insanity had reached flood tide back in 2010, when a Harris survey showed that 24 percent of Republicans thought Barack Obama might be the Antichrist and 45 percent said he had not been born in the United States and thus was not eligible to be president.
The QAnonsense, which the FBI has labeled a potential spur to domestic terrorism, makes all that look like quaint intellectual quiddities.
Which is why it was so extraordinary that, when Trump was asked by Savannah Guthrie in NBC’s Oct. 15 town hall about QAnon, he refused to disavow the lunacy, saying he had no idea whether there was a devil-worshipping cult abroad in the land.
Nor is that an exception. From birtherism to the pixilated postulation that Barack Obama and Joe Biden may have ordered the murder of Navy SEAL Team Six to cover up for a supposed bungled mission to kill Osama bin Laden, to the claim that uniformed thugs control Joe Biden from the dark shadows, Trump has ventured into the brambles of bonker-ism with some regularity.
We’ll probably never know precisely what he considers true. But after nearly four years, we do know that all manner of ill-ordered and erroneous notions bounce about like popcorn in his overheated brainpan. Only tenuously tethered to reality, he is able to will himself to believe whatever is necessary to maintain a worldview simultaneously self-aggrandizing and self-pitying.
As long as he doesn’t start wars based on unrealities, some will protest, does it really matter if Trump can’t reliably distinguish between what’s true and what’s not?
Yes. For starters, serious and able people won’t long work for wild-eyed bosses. They leave — and are replaced by sycophants and toadies.
Further, if one distrusts science and expertise and credits conspiracy theories, as Trump clearly does, he won’t make intelligent decisions.
Nowhere has that been clearer than with the coronavirus pandemic. Rejecting advice he didn’t like — and contending Democrats were exaggerating the threat from COVID-19 to hurt him — Trump pushed hard for premature economic reopening. States whose governors followed those urgings experienced COVID-19 surges.
Rather than heed Dr. Anthony Fauci, director of the National Institute of Allergy and Infectious Diseases, Trump has found his own pseudo-expert, Dr. Scott Atlas, who like Trump is clearly hostile to masks. Despite the increasing body of evidence about their effectiveness, the president and his medical yes-man have politicized what should be a common-sense matter.
Like Trump, Atlas is also sympathetic to the notion of herd immunity — and we now know, from White House chief of staff Mark Meadows, that the administration has given up on trying to control the virus.
The pandemic has cast Trump’s conspiratorialist-catalyzed incompetence into stark relief, making crystal clear what really should have been obvious four years ago.
A Joe Biden win would restore rationality to the White House. As such, it would be a large step in the right direction. But make no mistake, Trump’s kooky inclinations resonate with a substantial segment of America. With the incumbent poised to collect some 43 percent of the popular vote, his expected defeat in and of itself wouldn’t be enough to restore this country to rationality.
A long post-election struggle between fact and fallacy lies ahead.