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Other View: Democracy requires trust. But Trump is making us all into conspiracy theorists

Last weekend, President Donald Trump accused former President Barack Obama — without any evidence — of ordering Trump’s phones to be wiretapped during last year’s presidential campaign. It was only the most recent in a bewildering number of conspiracy theories the president and his circle have embraced over the past year. In 2017, having the president of the United States openly disregard the truth for short-term political gain is the new normal. And that is not normal.

This is a dangerous time for democracy. Less than two months into the administration, the danger is no longer that Trump will make conspiracy thinking mainstream — that has already come to pass. Conspiracy theories, rumor and outright lies now drive the news cycle, as the weekend demonstrated once again. (Earlier examples included Trump’s false claim about widespread voter fraud and his misrepresentations about a Navy SEAL raid in Yemen.) Far worse, such untruths may now be driving government policy in realms as disparate as immigration policy and civil rights. In the long term, the damage done to trust by the normalization of untruth may threaten the social contract on which democracy itself rests.

Hostility toward facts is at the core of Trump’s governing style. Trump and his advisers do not innocently repeat conspiracy theories about the subjects they choose, whether it’s largely imaginary voter fraud or the false claim that Texas Sen. Ted Cruz’s father was involved in the assassination of President John F. Kennedy. By now, it’s hard not to be suspicious that a pattern of repeatedly bringing up untruths and rumors is more than a coincidence. Judged strictly on results, Trump’s methods have proven incredibly effective. As University of Miami political scientist Joe Uscinski pointed out last year, if anything, voters rewarded Trump for running a campaign that rejected facts.

How did conspiracy theories come to pose such a challenge to truth? The long-term decline in general trust played a crucial role. As political scientists Joanne Miller, Kyle Saunders and Christina Farhart observe, to believe in a successful conspiracy, one must first believe that powerful actors are willing to conspire against the public — hardly the position of someone who believes that elites make the best, or at least good, choices. As more people came to mistrust authority, they became susceptible to stories about how good people like them were being betrayed by nefarious elites.

Growing political polarization provided the second necessary ingredient. As voters have become more and more likely to identify with strongly and vote for their preferred political party, they have also become more closed off from other viewpoints. The creation of partisan echo chambers on social media and in other institutions has accelerated the growth of conspiracy thinking. As Norbert Schwarz, Eryn Newman and William Leach note in “Behavioral Science and Policy,” people judge whether they should believe an argument not through rigorous fact-checking but through criteria, such as coherence, familiarity and plausibility.

Polarization generates closed loops in which believing untruths about the “other side” becomes more plausible than seeking out information that might challenge those ideas, as The Washington Post’s Ishaan Tharoor suggested Monday. Thus, conspiracy theories can come to seem more plausible than objective sources, even if only just through repetition. Similarly, Schwarz, Newman and Leach suggest that brains judge coherence by whether a claim tells a good story. Ironically, that means that unfalsifiable conspiracy theories, in which everything can be explained as evidence of a sinister design, lends them a coherence that reality, full of coincidence and randomness, can never have.

To be fair, Trump did not create the conditions for the rise of untruth. Through luck or design, however, he has exploited it. Moreover, his embrace of fringe thinking has led to a reversal of a usual pattern. Before 2017, conspiracy thinking was a feature of the party out of power. Now, however, Republicans have continued to embrace ideas like “DeepStateGate” even though they control almost the entire edifice of government, from the White House and Capitol to two-thirds of state legislatures.

The damage to the foundations of a fact-based discourse has seeped to both sides. Last week, liberals and Democrats crowed about Attorney General Jeff Sessions’s admission that he had met with Russian Ambassador Sergey Kislyak during the 2016 campaign. The subtext — and sometimes text — was that Sessions may have helped coordinate a Kremlin-based plot to steal the election. The evidence supports no such assertion; as Ryan Lizza wrote in the New Yorker, so far this appears to be a “cover-up without a crime.” Yet the echo chambers of Twitter resounded with liberals eagerly sharing the news and hoping that Sessions would resign for a highly visible — but still undefined — transgression.

In the longer term, the feedback loop of lies begetting rumor will threaten the foundation of democracy. Democracy requires trust — including the fundamental trust that losing an election does not mean losing power forever. Not only do conspiracy theories feed on mistrust of authority, they also promote mistrust. If a substantial fraction of Americans believes that their political opponents have become their enemies, then the basis for compromise and accommodation that democratic institutions produce will collapse. Through his actions, Trump is bidding for that to be his most lasting legacy.


Mailbag
Letter: Dietrich needs house cleaned

We have been closely watching the events occurring in Dietrich concerning the alleged assault of a young black male by fellow high school football players. We are disgusted by the entire event, especially the apparent lack of oversight by the school district, as well as the light sentence given the one suspect who pleaded guilty to a lesser charge.

Our question is where were the school district principal, superintendent, teachers, coaches and especially the parents of the suspects and the parents of others who engaged in bullying, which lead to a violent assault? It appears to us a complete cleaning house of all of the school district administers, coaches, prosecutor and judge as they have certainly shown they are not capable of being entrusted with the lives of young people.

This incident shows what can easily happen when a community and school allows sports, in this case football, to be so important that it controls the community's values. It is unfortunate that such a terrible incident had to occur to force a self examination of the school, community and parental skills. Our thoughts and prayers are with the victim and his family.

Michael and Ann Stayner

Pocatello


Editorial
featured
Our View: Email bill a threat to transparency

Raise your hand if you want your government to become even more secretive.

Anyone? We’re still waiting to see a hand.

Even though absolutely no constituents that we are aware of are asking the Legislature to make their work more secretive, the Legislature is striving to do just that.

Last week, Rep. Vito Barbieri, a Republican from Dalton Gardens, introduced legislation to keep communications between lawmakers private, exempting them from disclosure under the state’s open records laws. That means the public would no longer have access to lawmakers’ emails, a forum where the public can often learn a lot about how and why policy is crafted.

Needless to say, we’re bitterly opposed.

It’s a shame we need to keep reminding lawmakers about this, but here we go again: Legislators are elected to conduct the public’s business. And the public has a right to know how that business is being conducted. To that end, the public has broad access to the inner workings of government and are allowed to examine records and communications that shape policy. That’s how a good democracy works.

Good government does not happen when policy is crafted in smoky backroom deals, despite the wishes of Barbieri and other Republicans.

The good news is that high-ranking Republicans agree (at least in concept) that transparency is vital and that press access to policy discussions is vital. House Speaker Scott Bedke says he isn’t likely to support Barbieri’s proposal, which pretty much dooms his legislation.

Still, we find it alarming that proposals like this surface year after year. Even if lawmakers have nothing to hide, their efforts to suppress transparency have only served to further erode public trust in the legislative branch.

And sometimes, public officials really are trying to hide things.

Emails helped us uncover how the city of Jerome billed a property owner for its devastating downtown fire – then scrambled to pretend it was all a mistake. Emails were part of a larger records investigation that helped us expose the Twin Falls School District’s secret payoff to a top administrator. Most recently, emails allowed the public to see exactly how the state investigated the incident in the Dietrich locker room case.

Barbieri says his bill is needed to allow lawmakers more freedom to communicate, without the pesky press looking over their shoulders. Lawmakers are already doing this, in the quiet one-on-one conversations in Statehouse hallways. Caucus meetings are closed in Idaho, allowing parties to shape their platforms in private. And now that the Capitol has been renovated, lawmakers’ offices are downstairs, behind a security guard, and very little policy crafting happens on the chambers’ floors. Nothing is stopping lawmakers who want to have private conversations.

Emails, however, are not private and nor should they be for exactly the reason Bedke opposes this bill.

“If we’re conducting the people’s business on the people’s computers, using the people’s system, that’s not ours,” Bedke said.

He’s right. That’s yours.

And you have the right to expect that the people’s business on the people’s computers remains the people’s.