Of course, some of these stories are proxies for existing beliefs. Birtherism was a roundabout way of saying a Black man could not possibly be a legitimate president; the ruckus about critical race theory is wrong that it’s actually being taught in schools but right in that how we think and talk and teach about race has shifted from when whiteness was unquestionably supreme. Issues from climate to Covid are anathema to the right because solving them would require large-scale cooperation, in conflict with the idea that individual rights should be paramount. That may be why conservatives framed all Covid precautionary measures as violations of individual freedom. Dying for your beliefs has taken on grim new meaning: Since vaccines became widely available, counties that voted heavily for Donald Trump have had nearly three times the Covid-19 death rate as counties that voted for Joe Biden.
Quite a lot of these stories, about everything from elections to epidemiology, are as dangerous as they are false. Beyond the violence at the Capitol on Jan. 6 are numerous incidents of true believers in Mr. Trump’s big lie threatening and assaulting election workers. In one case in Houston in October, a former police captain, who had been hired by a wealthy Trump supporter, allegedly ran a repairman off the road and held him at gunpoint, claiming, falsely, that he had as many as 750,000 fake ballots in his vehicle. Reuters reported in June, “Election officials and their families are living with threats of hanging, firing squads, torture and bomb blasts.” It’s as though Mr. Trump’s supporters believe they can bully truth itself into submission.
Democracy is premised on the belief that we can trust ordinary people to make consequential decisions. It’s in some ways an enlightenment ideal premised on another enlightenment ideal: the triumph of reason and the capacities of ordinary people. To buy into it, you have to believe that people will be more loyal to principles and discernment than to leaders and groups, and in that sense, democracy has always been a risky project. If democracy requires independent-minded people who can reason well, autocracy requires the opposite, people who will obey orders about what to think as well as do.
While Republicans assault voting rights and the integrity of our elections, what fuels their advances is the rise of a gullible sector of the public ready to follow their leaders wherever they go. What’s often described as a weakness of the Democratic Party — the existence of a variety of views and positions, freely debated or even fought over, and a restless, questioning electorate — is a strength of democracy. The Republicans remain committed to punishing and casting out dissenters — such as Representative Liz Cheney who has been ostracized since she accurately recognized the criminality of Jan. 6 — only further inhibiting open debate and, these days, inconvenient facts.
Authoritarians don’t just want to control the government, the economy and the military. They want to control the truth. Truth has its own authority, an authority a strongman must defeat at least in the minds of his followers, convincing them to abandon fact, the standards of verification, critical thinking and all the rest. Such people become a standing army awaiting their next command.