I must confess to indulging in a certain amount of schadenfreude watching Donald Trump squirm. I have been an unwavering never-Trumper since before he announced he was running for president. And yet I am mindful of the fact that nearly all of the predictions I have made about Trump's political fortunes have been wrong. In fact, while researching links for this post I realized that I wrote almost the exact same opening statement a year and a half ago, back when I was smugly confident that Donald Trump and the Republican party would meet their collective downfall Real Soon Now. I still believe -- or maybe "hope" is a more accurate characterization -- that they will meet their downfall, but I no longer believe it will be Real Soon Now, and I am certainly no longer smugly confident about it.
In science, when your predictions turn out to be wrong that means that your theory is wrong and you must reject it. My theory, and that of many of my fellow liberals, has been that Donald Trump is plainly a lying, cheating, incompetent, narcissistic poseur, and it is only a matter of time before everyone comes to their senses and realizes this. And yet this belief flies in the face of the facts: Trump's approval ratings have barely budged in three months, holding steady just under 40%. Among Republicans, his approval rating is consistently above 80%. None of the recent Russiagate revelations have made a dent. The idea that Trump's popularity is plummeting and that he's going down Real Soon Now has about as much empirical support as the idea that Jesus is coming back Real Soon Now.
What liberals don't seem to realize about Trump supporters is the same thing that atheists don't seem to realize about religious people: the reason they believe the things they do is not because they are idiots, it's because they start with fundamentally different assumptions. (BTW, that link is to an excellent analysis by George Lakoff which should be require reading for all liberals.) To a liberal, Trump is clearly a corrupt liar trying desperately and not very effectively to cover up an obviously illegal and possibly treasonous collaboration with the Russian government to influence the 2016 election. How do we liberals know this? Because it's the only theory consistent with the facts. And how do we know what are the facts? Because we read the news (though not, of course, Fox News, which is clearly a shill for the Republican party and hence full of lies).
But to a Trump suporter, the world looks very different: the fundamental ground truth is that liberals are conspiring to use government power to indoctrinate people into a secular (a.k.a. Godless) anti-capitalist worldview which undermines the Puritan work ethic that made America the Greatest Country on Earth (tm). Liberals control both academia and the mainstream media, and so everything originating from either of those two sources is biased in service of this conspiracy and hence untrustworthy. Fox News is the sole courageous holdout swimming against the liberal tide.
One of the reasons this worldview is so hard to dislodge is that it is actually correct. There really is a vast left-wing conspiracy, except of course that we who are engaged in it don't think of it that way. We liberals think of it as fighting for rationality and empirical truth, against superstition and religious demagoguery, for separation of church and state, for advancing the interests of women, minorities, and the economically disadvantaged. But conservatives think of all this as fighting against God Himself, our Creator and hence the ultimate source of all that is good and just. This is the reason, for example, that gay marriage is such a hot-button issue: it is clear that there is no rational argument that can be advanced against it. It is equally clear that it is against God's will (and this, of course, is why we need God: because our reason can lead us astray).
The part of this that causes me the most cognitive dissonance is that when I put myself in the opposition's shoes I come to the realization that this is how democracy is supposed to work. What if the shoe were on the other foot and I were in the numerical minority trying to swim against the demographic tide? Would I not want there to be some mechanism by which I could advance my interests against those of the tyrannical majority? If a political savior somehow arose who promised to Make America Rational again, would I not support that person in spite of the lies and smears that the opposition would inevitably level at him, especially if the alternative was total political defeat? Might I not support that person even if some of those smears turned out to be actually true? Could I resist the temptation to rationalize by saying that desperate times call for desperate measures, and that the ends justify the means? If the alternative were to see the my country become a Christian theocracy?
Replace "Christian theocracy" with "Godless communist hellhole" and that paragraph could have been written by a conservative.
What keeps me from just being philosophical about this, unfortunately, is that I really do believe that we are on multiple roads to catastrophe. I really do believe that Donald Trump is mentally unhinged, and that he could cause a Constitutional crisis, or even start a nuclear war out of spite, particularly if he's backed into a corner. I really do believe that climate change is an existential threat to technological civilization, and that the window of opportunity to prevent this is closing rapidly (if it has not already closed). (BTW, if you're still skeptical about this, you really should take a look at Randall Munroe's take on it.)
Ironically, Conservatives agree that we are on the road to disaster; our dispute is merely a quibble over details. The disaster they foresee is a moral one, where we drift away from personal responsibility and become unable to function without bread and circuses provided by the nanny state. We drift away from God and find ourselves unprepared to face His judgement when the rapture comes (which, of course, like climate change, is going to happen Real Soon Now). They hold these beliefs with every bit as much passion and sincerity as I hold mine.
I wonder if this scares them as much as it scares me. I'm guessing it does.