All over the country, including here in Georgia, Republican congressmen and senators are acting like snowflakes who might melt in a little heat, in some cases literally hiding from the people who elected them and pay their salaries. They’re canceling town hall meetings, shielding their official schedule and sending lowly staff out into the public to take the figurative slings and arrows.
They’re also doing something worse: They’re trying to strip those protesters of their legitimacy and thus of their voice. As many Republicans are telling it, the people showing up at town halls and protests aren’t citizens using their First Amendment rights to speak freely and petition their government, they are instead paid, professional protesters and thus not deserving of attention.
Where would they get that absurd idea? Oh, yeah…
In the past few weeks, the claim of professional protesters has been used to explain away any number of uncomfortable realities. The millions of people who showed up at the Women’s March on Washington, New York, Atlanta and other cities, in numbers far outnumbering the Trump inauguration crowd, were by some accounts paid to demonstrate by the dastardly George Soros, the right’s favorite go-to villain.
When tens of thousands of protesters rushed to airports around the country to protest Trump’s disastrous immigration order, succeeding in freeing hundreds of people who might otherwise have been deported, Rush Limbaugh claimed they had been “bought and paid for by George Soros, prearranged. … and waiting for the moment to be cued to action.” When U.S. Rep. Jason Chaffetz faced an angry crowd at his town hall meeting in Utah, he claimed they were paid protesters bused in from out of state, presumably California, which is some 600 miles away.
Right-wing media have also embraced the meme. When White House spokesman Sean Spicer appeared on Fox News, he was given the topic on a tee, and he took a mighty swing at it: “Oh, absolutely. I mean, protesting has become a profession now,” Spicer said. “This has become a very paid, ‘astroturf’ type movement.”
Let us pause to point out that there is absolutely zero evidence to support any of those claims. Let us further point out the sheer absurdity of it — imagine the money it would take, the scale of organizational skill and logistics, the discipline required to find and pay hundreds of thousands of actors while leaving behind absolutely no evidence. To even make the claim with a straight face is lunacy; to claim that Democrats are capable of pulling it off only compounds the comedy.
Yet many on the right accept it as gospel, as established fact. And it fits a common pattern. In this case, when major protests — almost all of them peaceful — pop up around the country, the myth of paid protesters is invented to explain it all away. When Trump loses the popular vote by almost three million votes — voila! — three-to-five million votes for Hillary Clinton are magically subtracted because they were allegedly cast by illegal immigrants. It’s astonishing how quickly any potential weak spot in the bubble can be patched with a story that fits the need perfectly.
None of these claims has the slightest foundation in fact. None is true, at least in the sense of “true” as based in reality. Yet millions of conservatives will insist they are true nonetheless.
How do we explain that? How can we reconcile these two very different versions of the truth?
In a way, we’ve answered our question by asking it: We have two very different versions of the truth because two very different versions of the truth are in operation here.
One is the concept of truth that grew out of the Enlightenment and the Age of Science and Reason, the idea that truth must be verifiable and that truth is independent, serving no purpose or cause other than itself. In that view of things, you can’t alter truth to make it conform to your world view, you must alter your world view to conform to the truth. That process can be a little unsettling, particularly in a world in which the facts change at a dizzying pace, requiring an equally fast readjustment of your understanding.
But there’s also a more ancient, less concrete concept of truth. In that approach, you begin with the acceptance of larger, more important truths that are immune to exposure to facts. Those larger truths provide a pre-existing understanding of the world that makes it comprehensible and non-threatening. For a long time in the Western world, the Roman Catholic Church provided and sternly enforced one such world view; the divine right of kings provided another.
Once you accept those larger truths, anything that reinforces them is deemed true, and those who speak them are your friends; whatever contradicts those truths is deemed false, and those who speak them are your enemies. Truth is defined by the function that it serves.
So when President Trump says that the mass media ignore terror incidents, under one concept of truth that is demonstrably false: It’s a lie, because the media in fact glory in covering such stories. But if you accept the larger notion that Muslims pose an existential threat, then Trump’s story becomes true even if it is wrong in its details. Likewise, if three to five million illegal immigrants didn’t really vote in our elections, it’s still true because it expresses the larger truth that those people have no business being here in the first place.
And when those two concepts of truth collide, as they often do on this blog, people end up talking past each other.
Traditionally, the “larger truths” in that more ancient approach are communicated through story. Myths and fables and origin tales aren’t usually offered as factually true, but they persist for millennia because they do somehow express a deeper, more emotionally resonant truth. Such stories have a power, in a sense an accuracy, that is independent of their factual basis. They explain not the outer world of reality; they explain what’s going on inside people, what they’re feeling.
So, if you don’t like the fact that millions of Americans are upset with what’s going on in Washington, if those protests make you feel uncomfortable, then you invent a story to explain it away. And you really don’t care if that story has facts to support it, because it serves its purpose.