When Delusions Become Dangerous

When conspiracy theorists believe the fate of the nation is at stake, rage and despair can lead to worse than threats.

At this moment in the presidential transition between Donald Trump and Joe Biden, two things are happening at once. First, Trump’s legal efforts to contest the results of the election are sputtering out. He and his allies have now lost 41 separate cases. They’ve never even brought a single case that had a ghost of chance of altering the outcome of the race.

At the same time, a core group of Trump’s supporters are doubling down on claims of fraud, spinning out ever-wilder tales of foreign interference and Democratic corruption. They’re not just convinced that the election was stolen; they’re convinced the very fate of the republic is at stake. The rhetoric is unreal.

Here’s Lin Wood, speaking yesterday in Georgia with Sidney Powell standing by his side:

Here’s the former national security adviser, recently pardoned Lieutenant General Michael Flynn, tweeting that “freedom never kneels except for God” and circulating a petition calling for Trump to invoke “limited martial law” to force a new election:

And then here’s my former debating partner Eric Metaxas telling the president in a call that he’d “be happy to die in this fight. This is a fight for everything.”

For sheer insanity, nothing quite matches retired Lt. Gen. Thomas McInerney’s claim that U.S. troops died raiding a CIA facility in Germany that’s allegedly hiding proof of a “massive, covert effort” to flip votes from Trump to Biden.

And I haven’t even mentioned the rhetoric from President Trump himself, who has repeatedly declared that the fate of the nation is at stake in this election and that it has been “rigged” against him. In fact, rather than answer the call to condemn threats of violence against public officials and innocent employees of voting systems contractors like Dominion, Trump directly doubled down on claims of corruption:

I could go on and on and on with Trump statements, claims from his supporters, and tweets from allies “just asking questions,” but the overall message is quite clear—American democracy is under attack, and the fate of the nation hangs in the balance.

Make no mistake: This message isn’t just deluded, it’s dangerous. While some of the individuals making these claims are engaged either in grift or political gamesmanship, others deeply believe what they’re saying. And an unknown number of Americans believe what they hear.

Yesterday I talked to a religion reporter about Eric Metaxas’s increasingly unhinged rhetoric. His Twitter feed is a clearinghouse for conspiracy theories. He has endorsed extraordinary invective against Christian Trump critics. The reporter’s question was simple—what is going on?

My answer is that Metaxas is a public figure who almost perfectly replicates the attitudes and beliefs of the core of Trump’s Christian base. He’s a true believer who maintains three incredible things:

1. If they attain power, Joe Biden and the Democrats will destroy our nation.

2. Donald Trump is the “great man” guarding our nation from destruction.

3. The Democrats are deposing the great man through lawless means.

It is unquestionably true that the vast majority of Americans who believe these three things will not lift one finger to do anything violent or dangerous. To the extent they inflict harm, they’ll mostly inflict it on themselves through needless worry, anger, and anguish.

The conspiracists’ second target and potential victim is the GOP itself. Yesterday Wood and Powell both asked Georgia Republicans to boycott the Senate runoff unless the Georgia governor meets their unattainable demands.

In that moment, key Republicans suddenly woke up to the monster they’ve created. After spending weeks hyping vote fraud claims (including promoting the very event where Wood and Powell made their boycott threats), Newt Gingrich tweeted this:

It was as if the signal flare was launched. Breitbart tore into Wood, attacking his past contributions to Democrats. MAGA Twitter piled on, and Trump himself reportedly called Powell and Wood to “convey his stated belief in the importance of Georgia Republicans getting out to vote for Sens. Kelly Loeffler and David Perdue.”

(Pardon me for a moment while I express my disgust at the ability of some members of the GOP to rouse themselves to protect the party’s electoral interests but not to condemn vicious and dangerous threats of violence against colleagues who’ve upheld election law or to condemn baseless conspiracy theories and frivolous lawsuits.)

But a third potential target is more ominous—some segment of true believers have already moved from tweets and rallies to intimidation and threats. I’m deeply concerned that a fringe will take the next step into violence. 

While the vast majority of Trump true believers will remain peaceful, we’d be foolish to assume that all of them will. The three claims above—that the country is at stake, that Trump is our only hope to save it, and that his victory was stolen—are so existential that it’s downright irresponsible to assume that folks who fashion themselves courageous patriots will merely tweet their objections to what they see as the fall of the republic.

In other words, if you argue that the very existence of the country is at stake, don’t be surprised if people start to act as if the very existence of the country is at stake.

This is the ninth presidential election of my adult life, and I have never seen the kind of rage and despair at a presidential loss that I’ve witnessed in my community in 2020. It’s not universal. I know that. But it’s prevalent enough that we should be concerned about threats far more concrete than the “continued loss of faith in institutions” that most pundits lament today.

I said this on the Advisory Opinions podcast yesterday, and I’ll say it again. Trump voters are right now in three general buckets of opinion. The first bucket is full of those voters who believe Trump lost fairly (even if they maintain there was some small amount of fraud on the edges). They’re upset about it, but they’re moving on. 

A second bucket can be summed up as the person who says, “Yeah, I think Trump was cheated. By the way, did you see the Alabama game this weekend?” Even if they don’t trust the process or the outcome, politics still isn’t that important. “Politics is corrupt. What else is new?” They’re moving on as well.

But there’s a third bucket. It’s full of people who are not moving on. They fully believe American democracy hangs in the balance, and they’re being constantly fueled and inflamed in that belief by public figures who are a mix of grifters and true believers—and all too many GOP politicians and conservative celebrities are doing exactly nothing to try to defuse their rage. 

These politicians and celebrities fear the consequences of confrontations, so they’re shrinking back, hoping their silence isn’t seen as assent to the rise of the worst and angriest voices on the right. We can hope and pray that delusion doesn’t turn deadly—that the avalanche of threats against innocent men and women remains so much internet bluster—but it’s foolish to assume peace will reign.

It’s hard to confront an angry mob. The angriest voices can make a person’s life miserable, online and off. But enough is enough. Trump has lost. It’s time for even his most stalwart supporters in the GOP to step forward and confront the agents of chaos. And we should all pray that their conspiracies don’t carry a bloody cost.

One more thing …

I don’t plug my podcast with the brilliant Sarah Isgur often, but there’s been an avalanche of legal news this week. I must confess that I’m proud of our pod, and if you haven’t listened, today is a good day to start.

In 87 glorious minutes, we cover the election conspiracies, important religious freedom developments at the Supreme Court, the sealed pardon bribery case and attorney-client privilege, the attorney general’s appointment of John Durham as a kinda-sorta special counsel, the Supreme Court’s census oral arguments, and the wild and crazy finale of HBO’s Undoing.

Listen to the whole thing here. You won’t regret it.

One last thing …

Late last night I took a break from leveling my new character in World of Warcraft: Shadowlands, and I promptly fell down a YouTube rabbit hole of animated charts. 

I must have watched bar graphs and maps move to music for a solid hour after midnight. Who knew they could be so fascinating?

Behold a territorial map of World War II in Europe, every day:

Discover the most popular sci-fi movies from 1968-2019:

Enjoy!