A few weeks ago I ran into an old friend, a salt-of-the-earth Christian conservative I’ve known for almost 30 years. He’s a lifelong Republican and quite possibly the nicest person you’ll ever meet, a Trump voter who’s about as different from Trump as day is from night. After we caught up on our lives and careers, he asked how I handle covering modern politics, where “so many people lie.” He specifically brought up Joe Biden and Nancy Pelosi.
I joined him in lamenting general political deception, and then asked him what he thought of Trump’s lies. “What do you mean?” he responded, in all sincerity. He genuinely did not perceive Trump as dishonest. Even now. In 2022.
I’ve had a version of that exact conversation over and over again for more than six years. I live in a deep-red part of America. According to the New York Times neighborhood political calculator, only 15 percent of my neighbors are Democrats. That’s one reason why I laugh when Beltway Republicans and Acela-corridor conservatives purport to explain Trump’s appeal to me. They’re “explaining” the actions of my best friends, my neighbors, and many, many members of my family.
I understand it all. Perfectly well. But understanding does not necessitate agreement.
Here’s one thing I understand—one thing that’s directly relevant to the prime-time hearings about January 6: Rank-and-file Republicans are shockingly ignorant of Trump’s misdeeds. It is simply not the case that they understand everything that Trump has done and support him anyway. They have far, far more knowledge of Democratic misconduct and media malfeasance than they have of anything Trump has done.
This truth applies to every single one of the worst moments of Trump’s campaigns and his presidency. The average Republican has a completely different knowledge base about Special Counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation, the Ukraine impeachment, the election contest, and January 6, and while there are some people (especially on Twitter) who do know everything and either love Trump anyway or love Trump because of his misdeeds, that is not the dominant mindset.
As I’ve told countless progressive friends, if you trust or use mainly right-leaning media, you’d have a different view of Trump as well. You’d live with a perpetual, exaggerated view of the threat from the left at the same time that you’d be bombarded with the extended, passionate defenses of Trump and his supporters. Taken together, that means your average Republican believes that Democrats are worse than they really are, and that Trump is better than he really is.
In fact, the “perception gap” between belief and reality is a bipartisan phenomenon. In 2020 the group Beyond Conflict released a study called “America’s Divided Mind,” which studied what Americans think about each other. Here’s a key finding:
Large majorities of both Democrats and Republicans substantially exaggerate the extent to which members of the other party dehumanize, dislike, and disagree with them—creating a significant divide between perception and reality.
This finding supplements and complements the findings of the group More in Common’s 2019 report on Americans’ mistaken views of each other:
Overall, Democrats and Republicans imagine almost twice as many of their political opponents as reality hold views they consider “extreme”. Even on the most controversial issues in our national debates, Americans are less divided than most of us think.
If you have an exaggerated view of your political opponents’ hatred and extremism, you’re far more likely not just to believe the worst reports about them, but to disbelieve their critiques of your tribe and your movement, too.
Let’s put this all together and apply it to ordinary Republican views of January 6. First, they’re going to know a lot less about the Trump team’s misconduct than you might think. Mention the John Eastman memos that urged Vice President Pence to reject Joe Biden’s electoral-vote majority, and many will shake their heads. Never heard of it.
Bring up Trump’s infamous phone call with Georgia Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger and they’re mystified. They simply don’t know that the president threatened Georgia’s top election official with criminal prosecution and demanded that he “find” the votes necessary to change the outcome of the state’s presidential election.
I could go on and on. They don’t know about Trump’s effort to create a slate of shadow electors. They don’t know anything about Steve Bannon’s “Operation Green Bay Sweep,” the plan he developed with Peter Navarro to leverage the objections of more than 100 GOP members of Congress to delay election certification.
Instead, the narrative runs something like this: The election had lots of problems, and it was legitimate for Trump to bring his multiple legal challenges to the outcome. There was no reason to trust the reported vote totals from heavily Democratic counties. The riot on January 6 was wrong, but the reaction to it has been extreme. The riot never presented a real threat to the election outcome, and the government is treating January 6 protesters far worse than it treated violent Black Lives Matter protesters after the wave of riots that swept American cities in 2020.
Yesterday, Washington Commanders defensive coordinator Jack Del Rio made a version of an argument I’ve heard many, many times:
“I see the images on TV. People’s livelihoods are being destroyed, businesses are being burned down—no problem … And then we have a dust-up at the Capitol, nothing burned down ... and we're going to make that a major deal.”
Again, if you consume mainly right-wing media, you’ve seen countless images of the (very real) urban violence that swept America in 2020, and you’ve likely never seen the worst images of January 6.
This perception gap is precisely why Fox News’s decision not to carry the January 6 hearings live is so pernicious. It relegated the coverage to Fox Business, a network that has a fraction of the prime-time viewers. This means that the community of Americans who most need to learn the facts about January 6 will once again be protected from the truth.
But it’s worse than that. Through the mockery and spin of the prime-time Fox voices they trust, they’ll become even more immune to legitimate concerns about threats to the American republic, and they’ll remain open to the idea that Donald Trump should once again occupy the Oval Office.
I share these realities not to excuse ordinary Republicans, but to help us understand what they know and how they think. Of course a citizen in a constitutional republic has an obligation to hear from both sides and not wall themselves off in their own partisan cocoon (this applies to both left and right). How can a good, sensible person have a casual attitude toward January 6? When they don’t know what happened.
While the path past Trump requires patient persuasion, I fear that we’re in a race against the clock. He may announce his 2024 run very soon, and if he does, it might clear the field of potential opponents and cause Republicans to once again rally around the flag. We’d be fools to presume Trump won’t win again.
The Trump coalition is broadly built on two categories of Republican voters—those who know exactly who Trump is and either don’t care about his flaws or love him precisely because he’s so pugilistic and cruel, and those who even now don’t know who he is and would very much care if they know the whole truth. It’s the latter group that can deny him a second bite at the presidential apple, and it’s the latter group that most needs to watch the January 6 hearings in prime time.
For our nation’s sake, we can only hope that some do watch, absorb those facts that are new to them, and reach the conclusion that Republicans have to move on from a man who’d rather plunge the nation into a constitutional crisis than relinquish his hold on the presidency. When it comes to January 6 and Trump’s effort to steal an American election, casual concern simply isn’t enough. Good Republicans have to understand the true scale of the crisis we faced.