The Party of Conflation — Republicans and Bad Faith

Photo Illustration: Laura Kammermann / Wall Street Journal

In their desperate attempt to gaslight the nation during our recent impeachment trial, the lawyers of our former president utilized their client’s favorite go-to tactic to create a postage stamp sized fig leaf for the anti-democracy wing of the Republican Party. What-about-ism, both-sides-ism, false equivalencies — in a word: Conflation.

Conflation, as it was employed by the defense team on February 12, 2021, was a distraction effort inspired by bad faith, and, as we have so often seen in the past, the volume and breadth of nonsense used to distract is proportional to the severity of the crime. The big crime of January 6th, motivated by the Big Lie of the preceding two months, required the defense team to utilize what might have been one if the bigly-est conflations in American history when they subjected their jurors to a video barrage of democrats and celebrities using the word “fight” to imply that — in every context in which it was used — it was no different in meaning or intent then when it was spewed forth by our former president as a call to action for his ready-to-rampage mob. It was welcomed by this audience as a literal order, leading to an attempt to literally overthrow our country and kill our leaders.

Hours later, a travesty that provoked horror and sadness in nearly every other human living in the real world elicited pleasure and expressions of support — even “love” — for the insurrectionists by the former president. And despite hours of video and audio evidence — all of it tied together by the large common thread of the Big Lie — the defense expected us to believe that the person who presided over the United States played absolutely no role in their attempt to carry out his commands.

The posturing acceptance of this fabrication by so much of the Republican Party points to just how far they have strayed from principles in their desperate effort to preserve power. When we speak of bad faith, we are referring to exactly this instinct, in which the single ends of holding on to power justify whatever means are necessary — a dark state of mind and motivation that sees no sacrifice of morality as too small. And so, the purpose of the defense team was never to provide a cogent and rational counterargument to that of the House Managers. It was instead to provide just enough conflation to masquerade as an argument for the fallen Republicans and the constituency that governs them, who’s primary ideological doctrine boils down “owning the libs”.

We’ve heard the term “bad faith” a lot lately because we’ve seen a lot of it. For most of us, it is against our nature to call people liars and presume they are motivated by evil, but at a certain point, our own naivete, in which we ascribe good faith to those with whom we simply disagree — becomes an obstacle to progress. Ironically, the issues that divide so many of us are no longer about disagreement — they are about a brazen pursuit and preservation of zero-sum power with no regard for the constitutional laws of acquisition, distribution and sharing of that power. The faith in these laws — and the oath that is meant to uphold them — has been abandoned by one of our two major parties because it no longer serves their interests.

When we pull the curtain all the way back, we should acknowledge the correlation between the evil of bad faith within the Republican leadership and the ignorance of good faith among many of those who call themselves Republicans.

As a thought experiment — one that I wish could be more than a thought — consider the question of whether the presidential election was actually stolen from the former president. There are many people who really believe it was stolen, and so, hypothetically, convincing them should be as simple as providing valid and credible data to prove once and for all that Joseph R. Biden clearly and fairly won the election. They would be disappointed, but because they are Americans of good faith — including faith in our system of democracy — they would accept it and reorient themselves as all people of good faith would, toward some version of unity to address our nation’s biggest problems. Those of good faith, by definition, honor the truth as the basis of their judgment and a welcome cure for their ignorance.

Regrettably, on the other end of the faith spectrum resides those of bad faith: the Republican leadership and their media proxies. These are the people who don’t have to be convinced that Biden won the election because they already know he won. But it is in their (evil) interest to prolong the ignorance of those of good faith, which is why they willingly signed on to the Big Lie and promoted it with such fervor that it culminated in a deadly stampede of ignorance upon the physical and ideological institutions that define a presumably enlightened America. By January 6th 2021, whatever good faith might have once resided in the hearts of those who chose to maraud democracy had been overwhelmed by enough evil to explode into some awfully bad beliefs and even worse behavior.

Most revealing, but under-emphasized during the trial, was the ongoing distinction the defense team made between the motivators and the perpetrators. By dramatically disavowing any responsibility for the deadly and destructive behavior that was unleashed, the defense expected us to believe that the mob was no different than the comparatively small number of arsonists who tarnished what were peaceful Black Lives Matter demonstrations — a false equivalency that is conflation at its worst.

This is bad faith. This is evil. This is the Republican Party.

While the result was not just, it is final, and now it’s time for Democrats to govern, with the irrefutable knowledge that the party across the aisle will be consistent in their motives and faithless in their service to the country.

Regardless of ideology, everyone who enters politics craves power. The trick of democracy is to align those cravings with the achievement of a greater or common good. But for democracy to work, there must be truth — some common definition of reality to maintain the connection between power and progress. As I’ve often written, this is why the failure to have a common reality is our “Problem #1”. If we don’t have a shared reality — if we have millions of people in our country who, despite their good faith, are living in an alternate reality that says the election was stolen, that Covid is a hoax, that systemic racism doesn’t exist, that Democratic leaders are cannibalistic pedophiles — then, at best, achieving a common definition of progress will remain beyond our reach, and at worst, we will descend into a fascist authoritarian nation-state.

For the Republicans whose sole motivation is to maintain power, “progress” is not just irrelevant to their interests, it is a threat to their power, especially if it happens under Democratic leadership. With nothing meaningful to offer, these bad faith Republicans must keep their constituents ignorant enough to believe they are their only alternative. They and their right-wing media arms will continue to facilitate power-preserving, ratings generating ignorance by maximizing conflation in a manner that will demonize their opposition.

In practice, rational police reform is conflated into “Defunding the Police.” A radical school board in San Francisco that wants to remove Abraham Lincoln’s name from a school is proof that Democrats are intent on dissolving capitalism and replacing it with communist socialism. A criminal act by a single immigrant is an indication of a nationwide immigrant crime wave of thugs and rapists. A cold snap is proof that global warming doesn’t exist, thoughtful end-of-life care becomes “death panels”, frozen wind turbines are the reason people in Texas are freezing to death, and on and on. Conflation is a useful method of spinning an alternate reality because it comes equipped with “proof” in the form of a single and/or irrelevant anecdote.

Proof! A frozen wind turbine in Texas.

But it may also be the only way for Republicans to cling to power in upcoming elections. It works like this: Disgruntled voters for Trump claim “disenfranchisement”, conflating their disappointment with the experience of the millions of black citizens who were denied their right to vote, often by threat of death, for much of the last 150 years. Bad faith Republicans point to a small number of fraudulent votes as proof of statewide voter fraud, triggering an onslaught of bad faith Republican legislation with the intent to dial up the suppression of those who don’t vote for them. If you can’t beat them, cheat them.

Is this the death of the Republican Party? It does not bode well that the few courageous Republicans of good faith are being punished for their integrity by their own party leadership. They have chosen reality and principle over power, and becasue they are Republicans, that may ultimately end up disqualifying them from office. As one state party leader recently said: “We didn’t elect them to vote their conscience; we didn’t elect them to ‘do the right thing’.”

Principles, ideology, truth, science, morals, progress, and of course, good faith: these are no longer of any use to those who run the Republican Party. They will do the only thing they know how to do to maintain power: prevent Democrats, and perhaps even democracy, from succeeding.

Where there is great fear, there is no empathy. Where there is great empathy, there is no fear.

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