The Dystopian Myths of Red America

Desensitization is an amazing thing. At this point most political observers simply accept it as a fact of life that an overwhelming majority of Republicans accept the Big Lie that the 2020 election was stolen — a claim with nothing to support it, not even plausible anecdotes.

What I don’t think is fully appreciated, however, is that the Big Lie is embedded in an even bigger lie: the claim that the Democratic Party is controlled by radical leftists aiming to destroy America as we know it. And this lie in turn derives a lot of its persuasiveness from a grotesquely distorted view of what life is like in blue America.

Urban elites are constantly accused of not understanding Real America™. And, to be fair, most big-city residents probably don’t have a good sense of what life is like in rural areas and small towns, although it’s doubtful whether this gap justified the immense number of news reports interviewing Trump voters sitting in diners.

But I’d argue that right-wing misperceptions of blue America run far deeper — and are far more dangerous.

Let’s start with the politics. The other day The Washington Post’s Dave Weigel, reporting from the campaign trail, noted that many Republican candidates are claiming that Democrats are deliberately undermining the nation and promoting violence against their opponents; some are even claiming that we’re already in a civil war.

Some (many?) of these candidates have been winning primaries, suggesting that the G.O.P. base agrees with them. Actually, I’d like to see some surveys along the lines of those showing that most Republicans accept the Big Lie. How many Republicans believe that President Biden and other leading Democrats are left-wing radicals, indeed Marxists?

Relatedly, I’d like to know how many Republicans believe that Black Lives Matter demonstrators looted and burned large parts of America’s major cities.

Now, the reality is that the modern Democratic Party is a mildly center-left coalition, consisting of what Europeans would call social democrats, and relatively conservative ones at that. To take one measure, I can’t think of any prominent Democrats — actually, any Democratic members of Congress — who have expressed admiration for any authoritarian foreign regime.

This is in contrast to widespread conservative admiration for Hungary’s Viktor Orban, who recently denounced other Europeans for “mixing with non-Europeans” and declared that he doesn’t want Hungary to become a “mixed-race” country.

On the domestic violence front, a study by the Anti-Defamation League found that 75 percent of extremist-related domestic killings from 2012 to 2021 were perpetrated by the right and only 4 percent by the left.

Finally, about B.L.M.: The protests were, in fact, overwhelmingly peaceful. Yes, there was some arson and looting, with total property damage typically estimated at $1 billion to $2 billion. That may sound like a lot, but America is a big country, so it needs to be put in perspective.

Here’s one point of comparison. Back in April, Greg Abbott, the governor of Texas, pulled a political stunt at the border with Mexico, temporarily imposing extra security checks that caused a major slowdown of traffic, disrupting business and leading to a lot of spoiled produce. Total economic losses have been estimated at around $4 billion; that is, a few days of border-security theater appear to have caused more economic damage than a hundred days of mass protests.

Yet pointing out these facts probably won’t change many minds. Nor does there seem to be any way to change the perception, also alluded to in that Post article, that a lax attitude toward law enforcement has turned America’s big cities into dangerous hellholes. It’s true that violent crime rose during the pandemic, but it rose about as much in rural America as it did in urban areas. And despite that recent rise, violence in many cities is far lower than it was not long ago.

In New York City, homicides so far this year are running a bit below their 2021 level, and in 2021 they were 78 percent lower than they were in 1990 and a quarter lower than they were in 2001. As Bloomberg’s Justin Fox has documented, New York is actually a lot safer than small-town America. Los Angeles has also seen a big long-term drop in homicides, as has California as a whole. Some cities, notably Philadelphia and Chicago, are back to or above early 1990s murder rates, but they’re not representative of the broader picture.

But who among the Republican base will acknowledge this reality? Whenever I mention New York’s relative safety, I get a wave of mail saying, in effect, “You can’t really believe that.”

The fact is that a large segment of the U.S. electorate has bought into an apocalyptic vision of America that bears no relationship to the reality of how the other half thinks, behaves or lives. We don’t have to speculate about whether this dystopian fantasy might lead to political violence and attempts to overthrow democracy; it already has. And it’s probably going to get worse.

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