Left and right have more than just a difference of opinion — it's a difference of reality
After the Mueller hearings this week, we’ve seen yet another example of how those on the left and on the right do not see things in the same way. Like so many events, these hearings are yet another Rorshach test in which people see largely what they prefer to see in what is there before them.
Those on the left saw a devastating series of statements that indicate multiple incidents of criminal conduct by the person currently holding the highest office in the nation. When a foreign government dedicated itself to tilting our last national election to their preferred candidate and implemented a sweeping and systematic attack upon our election systems and the American people, its preferred candidate accepted and welcomed its help, sought it out, and made his primary campaign strategy dependent on the its releases of information stolen from the candidate’s opponent. He then implemented a cover-up in which over a half dozen members of his campaign repeatedly lied to law enforcement, and deleted and destroyed crucial emails, text messages, and documents while proclaiming all claims of involvement by that foreign nation and himself to be a complete and total hoax.
The right saw a doddering elderly gentleman who mumbled and stuttered through his testimony with an apparently weak recollection and command of the facts, who did little to disprove the worst and wildest accusations of bias against his staff, and the secret plot by the candidate’s rivals to undermine and discredit his administration.
Both left and right were essentially experiencing different realities in the same moment. Is that merely a matter of a difference of opinion, or is there more to it?
Ranking House Intelligence Committee member Devin Nunes, who asked few questions during the hearing, argued afterward that real collusion is between Democrats and Russia, and that Democrats live in their own alternative universe.
“This is over,” Nunes said. He went on to say that there was nothing more important for the security of our country than passing Trump’s latest trade deal. It was an odd statement coming from a former Intelligence Committee chairman, who issued a report on how to protect American elections from hacks, but failed to implement any of those protections while he was in charge in Congress.
Nunes then said that Democrats ran on protecting the border and solutions to immigration. In fact, Democrats campaigned on healthcare, but regardless, Democrats and Republicans came together for a bipartisan immigration agreement in the Senate that Trump said he wouldn’t sign because it didn’t have funding for his wall. The parties were working on the bill for nearly a decade.
According to Fox News reporter Chad Pergram, Nunes also said that Democrats refuse to accept reality because they live in an alternative universe.
It doesn’t much matter to Nunes that, during the primaries, prior to DNC law firm Perkins Coie hiring the company Fusion GPS, it had been paid by the conservative Washington Free Beacon to conduct opposition research. It doesn’t matter that Steele didn’t write the first memo in his collection of intel reports until over a week after the Russia investigation had already begun. It doesn't matter that 73% of Steele’s findings have been completely or partially confirmed by press releases and the Mueller report. It doesn’t matter that when Steele made his discoveries, he didn't deliver them to Perkins Coie, the DNC, or the Clinton campaign—he gave them to the FBI. If the plan had been to release a bunch of made-up negative information about Trump, giving it to the people who ultimately fired him as a source because he had talked to the media and didn’t reveal anything until months after the election wasn’t the smoothest move. It doesn’t matter that the DOJ inspector general just this week revealed that he had found Steele to be credible after interviewing him for 16 hours.
Nope. Even though James Comey is a Republican, Rod Rosenstein is a Republican, and Robert Mueller is a Republican, this was all a “Democrat-generated hoax,” even though there are outstanding indictments for 13 Russians who are either members of the GRU or work for the Internet Research Agency. Trump’s former national security adviser, Michael Flynn, has been prosecuted for lying about his contacts with Russia. Trump’s former personal lawyer, Michael Cohen, has been prosecuted and imprisoned for lying about his contacts and business deals with Russia and for campaign finance violations. Trump’s campaign chairman, Paul Manafort, has been prosecuted and imprisoned for lying about his business deals with Ukrainian and Russian oligarchs, while also being in contact with someone with ties to Russian intelligence and sharing internal polling information with them. Manafort’s deputy, Rick Gates, has been prosecuted for his financial ties to Russia and Ukraine. Attorney Alex Van Der Zwaan, who has links to Manafort in Ukraine, has been prosecuted and imprisoned for lying about communications between Rick Gates and Russian intelligence. Trump’s longtime friend and Manafort’s former business partner, Roger Stone, is currently being prosecuted for lying about being in contact with Russian Intelligence, WikiLeaks, and the Trump campaign while sharing information back and forth between them.
All of the lies, deletion and destruction of documents, obstruction, and witness tampering carried out by these Trumpsters may have been a cover-up conspiracy that ultimately succeeded and blocked Mueller from gathering the evidence he needed to make his case. It’s not that there wasn’t any collusion or conspiracy on the part of the Trump campaign; it’s that the obstruction itself may have prevented the special counsel’s office from proving conspiracy.
It doesn’t matter that when Michael Flynn told then-Russian Ambassador to the United States Sergei Kislyak that Trump would likely “take another look” at sanctions against Russia, Trump tried to get his deputy K.T. McFarland to write a fake memo claiming that Trump knew nothing about Flynn’s discussions of sanctions with Kislyak. She ultimately refused to write the memo because she didn’t know if it was true. It doesn’t matter that Trump tried to order his White House counsel Don McGahn to tell then-Attorney General Jeff Sessions to fire Robert Mueller over so-called conflicts that had already been vetted by the Justice Department and that Steve Bannon had called “petty bullshit.” McGahn refused to pass the message to Sessions and threatened to resign in protest of the “crazy shit” Trump was asking him to do; he also refused to write a false memo denying that he had refused the request and threatened to quit.
When that didn’t work, Trump gave a note to his former campaign manager, Corey Lewandowski, to give to Sessions, again asking him to fire Mueller, but Lewandowski slow-walked it. Eventually, when Trump asked again about the note, Lewandowski gave it to former Sessions deputy Rick Dearborn, but Dearborn also “didn’t feel right” about it and ultimately didn’t pass on the note.
When that didn’t work, Trump asked his then
-press secretary Chief of Staff Reince Priebus to talk to Sessions about having Mueller limit his investigation, but Priebus didn’t do it either, because he didn’t think it was appropriate. That’s because it wasn’t appropriate, or legal.
All of this was criminal obstruction. It doesn’t matter whether Trump succeeded in these attempts to fire Mueller or curtail his investigation; it doesn’t matter if he “felt innocent”; it only matters that he tried, repeatedly, to influence and impede a federal criminal investigation. One of the articles of impeachment against Richard Nixon was for obstruction after he told his people at the CIA to lie to the FBI and say that the Watergate case had classified links to the Bay of Pigs; and this was a valid article, even though the CIA never actually said anything about the Bay of Pigs to the FBI. We would hope this would all be obvious; we would hope that Republicans in the House and the Senate would understand this by now.
But no, none of that really means anything, because Hillary Clinton has missing emails. Also, Uranium One and Benghazi. Barack Obama once told former Russian President Dmitry Medvedev that “after the election I’ll have more leverage [to work on a missile treaty],” which has exactly what to do with Vladimir Putin and his deep-seated hate for Obama and Clinton?
Nope: witch hunt. Total exoneration. No collusion. No obstruction.
Sure, Nancy Pelosi and Democrats could launch a quixotic campaign to impeach Trump at this point, but frankly such an effort wouldn’t get the support of even a majority of Democrats in the House, let alone reach the Senate and gain the 67 votes it would need to pass. Mueller’s report and his testimony have not reached those across the aisle. Perhaps a specific witness such as McGahn, Lewandowski, Dearborn, or Priebus might move the needle, but those subpoenas are currently being blocked by the White House and are held up in court. I feel confident that Congress will win those cases, even if it doesn’t start an Impeachment inquiry first, because it does have legitimate oversight authority that deserves to be upheld, but it’s going to take time—and meanwhile the Repubs are all saying, “Move along, move along, nothing more to see here.”
Is this all just tribal? Is it just like opposing teams on a sports field? Fans of the team with the red jersey are going to cheer them on no matter how many fouls and penalty calls it gets, while those on the blue team feel exactly the opposite about exactly the same plays on the field?
Or is it something even deeper about how liberals and conservatives actually think and process information? Perhaps it is.
Decades of research have shown that people get more conservative when they feel threatened and afraid.
Threats of terrorism make everyone less liberal — researchers found this was especially true in the months after 9/11. During that time, the US saw a conservative shift, and Americans displayed increased support for military spending and for President George W. Bush.
Americans aren't the only ones whose political leanings are influenced by fear. A 2003 review of research conducted in five countries looked at 22 separate tests of the hypothesis that fear fuels conservative viewpoints and found it was universally true.
Brain scans show that people who self-identify as conservative have larger and more active right amygdalas, an area of the brain that's associated with expressing and processing fear. This aligns with the idea that feeling afraid makes people lean more to the right.
One 2013 study showed conservative brains tend to have more activity in their right amygdalas when they're taking risks than liberals do.
Groundbreaking research that Yale psychologists published in 2017 revealed that helping people imagine they're completely safe from harm can make them (temporarily) hold more liberal views on social issues.
The authors of that study said their results suggest that socially conservative views are driven, at least in part, by people's need to feel safe and secure.
That finding didn't hold true for people with economically conservative views, though.
Other studies have found similar results, showing that, in conservatives, the amygdala, which affects emotions such as fear and dampens feelings of empathy, is more developed, whereas liberals tend to have a more developed anterior cingulate cortex, which has more to do with controlling one’s emotions, problem-solving, and admitting one’s mistakes.
Studies have not yet determined if these physiological differences in our brains are caused by genetic factors, experience, or some combination of both. Does your amygdala grow more active because you have experienced higher anxiety, or is the anxiety a result of an overdeveloped amygdala? Is that also true for the anterior cingulate cortex in liberals?
We like to think that we can use rational logic and evidence to convince those who disagree with us of the correctness of our position, but, as I examined last week, when I basically said that you can’t reason with a Nazi—or members of the GOP who enable and collaborate with alt-Nazis—like he’s a normal human being, because it’s not that simple.
I admit that I’ve struggled with this subject for some time. I’ve alternatively written long letters ranging from outreach to “fair-minded Republican voters” to asking “Have you removed all Cult45 Trumpsters from your life yet?” No, not everyone on the other side is in the cult—but enough of them are to be a serious concern. It’s frustrating.
The devotion we see in Trump fans to him, and their willingness to swallow whole even the most ridiculous self-aggrandizing lies and gaslighting, may be more than just an ideological bent, more than just cheerleading for their team. It may also be because he has managed to tweak the brain physiology of conservatives by repeatedly triggering their amygdalas with his incessant talk about the various “threats” to America. Immigrants. Muslims. China. Mexico. Iran. Democrats. People who allegedly hate America, such as The Squad of freshmen house Democrats or the survivors of the Parkland High massacre.
Trump has painted himself as their savior from all of these various threats. He’s like a Snickers dealer in a store full of chocolate addicts. He’s giving them just what they want, just what they need—feeding their fear, stoking their hate. And he and they don’t really much care if this hate has risen to a point where white supremacist terrorism is now one of the greatest real threats to the nation.
FBI Director Christopher Wray told Congress on Tuesday that the agency has seen an increase in the number of domestic terror arrests this fiscal year, a majority of which have been motivated by white supremacy.
Wray told the Senate Judiciary Committee that the FBI has recorded about 100 domestic terrorism arrests in the last nine months. “A majority of the domestic terrorism cases we've investigated are motivated by some version of what you might call white supremacist violence,” he told the panel.
Wray said the number of the domestic terrorism arrests has increased and is now close to the number of international terrorism arrests the bureau has made.
They don’t much care that the would-be #MagaBomber was apparently radicalized by Trump and his rhetoric of hate.
Cesar Sayoc, the domestic terrorist who pleaded guilty to 65 felonies after mailing improvised explosive devices to dozens of top Democrats, was radicalized by President Donald Trump and Fox News, his lawyer told the court in a sentencing memo.
Sayoc pleaded guilty to the terror plot in March after he mailed apparent pipe bombs to prominent Democrats, media figures and celebrities, including former President Barack Obama, former Vice President Joe Biden, and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, as well as CNN and other news organizations. The FBI later concluded the bombs were not operational.
They don’t see Sayoc or white supremacists as a threat—to them. They don't think that an army of CBP agents snatching up asylum-seekers and their children—and sometimes U.S. citizens—whom they detain in cages without due process, adequate food, water, and proper hygiene for months is a threat—to them. They don’t think cutting regulations that are causing rising levels of air pollution, which currently kills 100,000 Americans per year, is a threat—to them. They don’t see rising sea levels and climate change as a threat—to them. Russia hijacking our elections, and the current White House resident trying to cover it up and obstruct justice to hide it and his own campaign’s acceptance of it, isn’t a threat—to them.
Obviously, we don’t see eye to eye on any of this.
Basically, Nunes isn’t wrong that left and right aren’t really living in the same world at the same time, that they aren’t experiencing the same reality in the same way, because they aren’t. We’re perceiving things differently. However, there is only one world, only one reality, and we’re all living in it together.
None of this is to say that these conditions are absolute or mutually exclusive. Clearly liberals have an amygdala and are prone to fear responses, while conservatives do have the ability—somewhere—to solve problems and admit their mistakes. Frankly, there are probably more differences between various liberals, and between various conservatives, than there are between the two groups writ large.
But there are still major challenges to bridging these gaps and solving these problems, because, unfortunately, even though they might like to pack up and send the rest of us “home” — even those of us who were born here, starting as we saw with President Obama — we’re all still here. We’re all staying, and somehow, we have to find a way to work it all out, even if just presenting the facts and the figures sadly isn’t enough to be convincing for some of us.
Perhaps, just perhaps, understanding how the other side thinks might help.