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OPINION

What happens when much of the country loses touch with reality?

A rational nation needs to know what’s real and what’s not.

Supporters of Donald Trump and members of the extremist group Proud Boys gather during a "Justice for January 6th Vigil" at St. Patrick's Cathedral on Jan. 6 in New York.Yuki Iwamura/Associated Press

I’ve always believed that America had a modest but important exceptionalism about it, a unique American form of common sense. That our country, for all its faults and foibles, was at core a sensible nation, one that eventually got things right.

For a country to be rational obviously doesn’t mean that its citizens have to hold the same values or share the same policy nostrums. But it does mean that a comfortable majority of its citizens must be able to assess a situation similarly enough that there is some common ground of understanding.

If, like me, you’ve clung to the notion that most Americans eventually see reality more or less for what it is, the last year has been a disconcerting one.

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A significant segment of our population seems unable to evaluate a situation realistically and dismiss as groundless counter-realities that range from extraordinarily unlikely to completely absurd. As an example of the latter, no rational person would believe the QAnon-sense about a cabal of satan-worshipping cannibalistic pedophiles who control the supposed deep state. But millions of Americans have seemed to buy at least some part of that bizarre delusion. It’s hard to pinpoint the perceptual failing that enables that kind of susceptibility to the ridiculous, but it certainly reflects a lack of a realistic understanding of how the world works.

Part of that perceptual problem is obviously catalyzed, if not caused, by partisanship. There, we come to the stolen-election nonsense. No one familiar with the low rate of fraud in American elections or aware of election processes and safeguards — or the difficulty of orchestrating, let alone keeping secret, massive skullduggery — would ever have judged it plausible that there had been a successful multi-state effort to rig the 2020 presidential election.

And in the 15 months since that election, scores of lawsuits filed by the Donald Trump team have gone nowhere and proved nothing. Not only that, but GOP officials in Georgia and Arizona have issued detailed rebuttals of far-fetched election-fraud claims. Even the clownish Cyber Ninjas audit of Maricopa County, Ariz., reluctantly confirmed that yes, Joe Biden did indeed win there. Most recently, an exhaustive Associated Press investigation of all allegations of voter fraud in the six states whose results Trump has disputed found next to nothing.

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Given the absence of any credible evidence supporting Trump’s claims, a believer in voter rationality would expect those views to change. But so far, they have held pretty steady, with 65 to 70 percent of Republicans continuing to say the election was stolen or illegitimate.

Further, stolen-election beliefs appear to be genuinely held and not just a political statement, says University of Massachusetts political science professor Alexander Theodoridis, associate director of the UMass Amherst Poll, which has probed the sincerity of those positions.

“I suspect they are not going to change very much,” Theodoridis said in an interview. “I don’t know that the lack of evidence is really penetrating.” Why? Because Trump has managed to persuade millions of his followers that mainstream reporting refuting his claims of fraud is itself fraudulent.

That compounds the problem for democracy in this way: If you honestly but falsely believe the election was stolen, it becomes easy to justify Trump’s attempts to subvert the results as an effort to right a real wrong, rather than as scheming that was completely beyond acceptable democratic norms.

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Here the political apocalypticism so resonant on the right comes into play. For conservatives, a Democratic victory doesn’t just mark an electoral loss. In hyper-heated conservative alarmism, such a victory portends the triumph of socialism or even communism and, in one oft-repeated right-wing trope, the end of America as we know it. Embrace that and you’re more likely to accept an authoritarian attempt to overturn the election.

All of which raises the question of whether we as a nation lack the demagogue-and-charlatan-resisting skepticism so essential to a healthy democracy.

“This is a case where people in large, large numbers seem unable to distinguish real information from disinformation,” said Theodoridis. The phenomenon itself is hardly surprising; as Theodoridis notes, political scientists have long recognized the lamentable success of propaganda, disinformation, and misinformation in other countries around the world.

“The only surprising thing about it is that we see it happening here in the United States,” he said.

The lingering hope is that as more and more information is revealed, particularly through the vital work of the House’s Jan. 6 committee, a broad majority of American voters, regardless of their political leanings, will come to realize how reprehensible Trump’s attempts at election-subversion were. A 2024 presidential primary season where one or more Republican challengers take aim at Trump’s election lies might also bring that into focus.

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That’s a hope I cling to — but one that, like a candle in a growing wind, is starting to gutter.


Scot Lehigh is a Globe columnist. He can be reached at scot.lehigh@globe.com. Follow him on Twitter @GlobeScotLehigh.