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The Michael Shermer Show

A series of conversations between Dr. Michael Shermer and leading scientists, philosophers, historians, scholars, writers and thinkers about the most important issues of our time.

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EPISODE # 152

Politics & Truth — Michael Shermer Responds to Critics of His Commentary “Trump & Truth”

Photo credit: Crowd of Trump supporters marching on the US Capitol on January 6, 2021 (photo by TapTheForwardAssist, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons).

Transcript

I have received a lot of interesting and constructive response to my commentary on the events of January 6, 2021—the storming of the Capitol by Trump supporters.

Let’s get one thing out of the way first: there seems to be a number of people who actually think that these were not Trump supporters at all, but rather Antifa activists dressed up as Trump supporters, in a form of “crisis actors,” ala the risibly ridiculous conspiracy theory promulgated by Alex Jones that the Sandy Hook school shooting was a “false flag” operation conducted by the Obama administration in order to enact gun laws to confiscate American’s firearms. Imagine if you were the parent of one of these slain children, crushed in emotional loss, grieving in existential agony, only to have some conspiratorial asshole scream in your face that your so-called “child” was actually just a “crisis actor” pretending to die. How any of these parents did not lose all control and go after these schmucks with extreme violence is beyond me. In the popular idiom, they showed the patience of Job. (I should note parenthetically that as a result of the Sandy Hook massacre and concomitant conspiracy theories about gun control, gun and ammunition sales skyrocketed to an all-time high after this event. So much for conspiracies.)

Just in case anyone thinks that there might be something to this conspiracy theory, hundreds of people who stormed the Capitol have now been arrested, and most of them have a long trail of social media posts confirming their allegiance to the 45th President of the United States, to the point that many of them are now begging Trump for a pardon, arguing that in charging the Capitol, breaking doors and windows, assaulting the Capitol police, and murdering several people in the process, they were doing the President’s bidding. At this point, anyone who would join a Fair Play for Trump Supporters Committee, has lost all touch with reality.

What happened on January 6, 2021 was unquestionably, undeniably, and dare I say unskeptically the result of Donald J. Trump. I realize that, legally, it might be difficult to prove in a trial that Trump should be held at least partially responsible for what unfolded from his words, but in so arguing people making this case, including some who have written me long emails explaining why my “counterfactual causality” argument—that is, but for Trump’s speech that morning, there would have been no storming of the capitol—wouldn’t stand in a court of law, misses the larger picture. No one who is not blind can fail to see that Trump had a role in what happened that day. Recall that Trump urged tens of thousands of his Sycophant followers to “be strong” and “show strength” in confronting Mike Pence and other politicians because “we want to get this right because we’re going to have somebody in there [Biden] that should not be in there and our country will be destroyed, and we’re not going to stand for that.” Oh really?

And: “we’re stuck with a president [Biden] who lost the election by a lot, and we have to live with that for four more years. We’re just not going to let that happen.” You don’t say?

And so they marched down Pennsylvania Ave. to the Capitol to “stop the steal”. This, after four years of Trump’s dissembling, duplicity, mendacity, and outright lying, orders of magnitude more lies than any President has ever told, possibly more lies than all other Presidents combined.

Let’s be clear, every Republican state and federal representative connected to the election, from city and county election official and politicians, up to the top cop Attorney General Bill Barr and Vice President Mike Pence, both of whom are devoted loyalists to Trump, and most of whom voted for Trump and would be, if so inclined, motivated to see Trump win, nonetheless say that the election was fair and that Trump lost. QED.

By the way, how did Trump reward Barr and Pence for their unwavering loyalty to him? Barr was forced to “resign” shortly after he declared the election fair, and Pence was given the choice by Trump to either be a “patriot or a pussy.” Was this just more locker-room talk, along the lines of Trump’s Hollywood Access tape boast that he’s so famous he can freely grab women by the pussy. I guess we’ve come full circle now. To his credit, Pence chose to be a patriot and not go against the Constitution to which he swore an oath to defend and protect, unlike his boss.

Despite what some of my correspondents think, I am not anti-conservative nor am I anti-Republican. I have my differences with them, which I will explicate in another commentary, and over the years I have also expressed my differences with liberals. But, frankly, at this moment in time, conservatives and Republicans have much to answer for. While the assault on the Capitol was unfolding, and contrary to his promise that he would march down Pennsylvania with them, Trump was, as he apparently spends most of his days doing, watching television, specifically the storming of the Capitol he was sworn to defend. Did he condemn the violence? No. He let it unfold until he saw the backlash against him by his own party loyalists—like when Goering and Himmler bailed on Hitler in the bunker in the final days of World War II—and out of desperation issued a scripted teleprompter speech that was indistinguishable from one of those hostage videos in which the captive reads a statement while blinking out a secret message “I don’t mean any of this.” In fact, the next day aids reported that he told them that he regretted making the video. What does that tell you about his character?

As a result, a Washington Post-ABC News poll on January 15 found that 66% of Republicans believe that Trump behaved responsibly since the election, while 65% said that they believe there is “solid evidence” that the election was stolen. To date none have provided any evidence whatsoever, solid or not, because there is none. Nevertheless, as a result of this false belief, by a margin of 2 to 1 Republicans say they are no longer confident in the “integrity” of the electoral system overall. How that will play out in future elections is anyone’s guess.

You wouldn’t think it could get any worse for conservatives, but it can. A 2019 YouGov poll found that 56% of self-identified Republicans think that it’s “probably true” or “definitely true” that President Barack Obama—the first African American President—was illegitimate because he was born in Kenya. This is beyond delusional. Anyone who believes any of this codswallop has lost their minds. If you believe this, you’ve gone off the rails. You are no longer operating in the real world.

If you are a conservative or a Republican, please consider this thought experiment I proposed on Twitter on January 13:

If Obama lost to Mitt Romney in 2012 and refused to acknowledge the election as legitimate, then spent months promoting on Twitter and Facebook that he won the election in a landslide, and that Romney and the Republicans stole the election, and then on the day the electoral college votes were to be counted in Congress Obama held a mass rally near the Capitol and told a mob of Antifa hotheads to march down Pennsylvania Ave. and go to the Capitol and “be strong” with the “weak” Congressmen and Senators, and to “show strength,” and that “our country will be destroyed and we’re not going to stand for that” and that with Romney “we’re stuck with a president who lost the election by a lot and we have to live with that for four more years” and “we’re just not going to let that happen,” and this was followed by an Antifa storming of the Capitol resulting in five dead, do you think Fox News and right-wing media would be claiming that it wasn’t Obama’s fault, that he had nothing to do with the violence, and that the biggest story of the week is that Twitter and Facebook kicked him off their platforms?

As I am recording this on January 17, it has come to light that it appears the Capitol assault was much more organized and preplanned than it seemed that day, which in my causal analysis could reduce Trump’s complicity, unless he was behind what appears to be pre-planning for the assault, as many Trump supporters traveled great distances and brought with them weapons and other paraphernalia, such as zip ties used to subdue perpetrators of violence and/or hostages. One guy posted on his social media that he planned to subdue the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi, tie her up and then execute her on national television.

All year conservatives have been lambasting liberals for the extreme actions of Antifa in the rioting and looting of major cities like Portland and Seattle. Well, what goes around comes around, and now conservatives have to answer for these Trump extremists.

There is still much we don’t know about the events of January 6. It is disturbing to discover, for example, that the day before—January 5—there were some tours of the Capitol building, which because of COVID-19 had been shut down for months. What were those people doing there and who let them in? As I wrote in a tweet on January 14 when that story broke, “Wouldn’t it be conspiratorially wild if it turned out that 1/6 was an “inside job” that Trump either MIHOP (Made it Happen on Purpose) or LIHOP (Let it Happen on Purpose) pace the 9/11 ‘inside job’ conspiracy theories?”

We’ll see how that pans out. It’s too soon to tell and I don’t want to be conspiratorially paranoid. But if true it would increase Trump’s complicity, inasmuch as he swore an oath to protect and defend the Constitution of the United States, and as Commander-in-Chief if he knew about the mob’s plans for that day and merely let it happen, even sans his speech that morning, he would be in deep legal trouble.

One correspondent wrote to me to say that: “Your writings have always been interesting to me intellectually on most subjects and worthy of reading ‘for the progressive view’ on ideology subjects. The recent video/commentary was not in the same construct and very biased politically to my reading.”

Here is my response to this correspondent:

If you’re reading me for “the progressive view on ideology subjects” you’ve got the wrong guy. I am anything but progressive. I’m not even really a liberal, at least according to mainstream liberals. I’ve said in countless interviews, articles, OpEds, podcasts, and especially my books, that I’m a libertarian, or now a classical liberal (given how extreme some libertarians have become). I’ve been so publicly critical of progressives, leftists, the woke crowd, the BLM movement, etc. that most of my readers consider me to be anything but progressive. So I’m not sure how you got that impression. In the podcast episode I stated toward the end that we really need a good solid conservative candidate in 2024 so that the liberals don’t take the country too far left.

Other readers accused me of ignoring what they saw as the big story of the week: that Twitter kicked Trump off their platform. If you think that is the biggest story of the week, again, your vision is out of focus. That is most assuredly NOT the story of the week. The storming of the Capitol is the story. In fact, as Jack Dorsey said in a statement made on January 16, Trump was banned because of the violence he incited on January 6th. If the banning were purely politically motivated, Dorsey went on to say, they would have banned Trump long before. In fact, social media has bent over backward to enable Trump to exercise his free speech rights and privileges on their platform. It was only when Trump’s followers, charged with riotous emotions and filled with anger believing that the election was stolen and that the United States itself was about to be destroyed if they didn’t do something today, charged into the Capitol and started rampaging, looting, rioting, and murdering people, that Twitter finally and at long last said “enough.”

I understand their decision, although as for censorship in principle, I am against it, and that day I made the point that I disagreed with Twitter’s decision to ban Trump, and I tweeted about it several times. My latest book, Giving the Devil His Due, is a vigorous defense of free speech, and not just against government censorship but private censoriousness as well. That said, if I were the CEO of a major social media tech company responsible for the communications of billions of people, one of whom was using my platform to publish provable lies about the 2020 election that led, at least indirectly, to violence at the heart of our nation’s democracy, I can’t say that I wouldn’t have made the same decision.

Quite a few people who are long-time readers of Skeptic magazine and supporters of the Skeptics Society, were concerned that I had used this platform to promote my personal political beliefs and that this has nothing to do with science, critical thinking, and skepticism.

I beg to differ. If, for example, my commentary defended a flat tax instead of a progressive tax, or some specific immigration policy, or a foreign relations policy issue, that would be purely political and not appropriate for what we do at Skeptic. There is no way for science to adjudicate what, precisely, is the “right” tax rate or the “correct” immigration policy. Should the upper bracket income tax be 37% as it is today or 77% as it was nearly a century ago? I don’t know. There is no “correct” answer to that question. Naturally, like most people, I would personally prefer to pay lower taxes. But I recognize the necessity of funding government to solve collection action problems, like interstate highways, infrastructure, the military, police, courts, legislation, and especially to help people who cannot help themselves, like the unemployed, homeless, and mentally ill. But these issues are hashed out not in peer-reviewed scientific journals, but by interested parties at election time and then sorted out in debates and votes in congress. 

What my commentary was about was truth, specifically the verisimilitude of the conspiracy theory that the 2020 election was “rigged” “fraudulent” or “stolen”. Conspiracy theories are very much in the wheelhouse of Skeptic magazine, and whether a particular conspiracy theory is true or false very much matters, as we saw on January 6, and as we’ve seen throughout 2020 as BLM activists protested and then rioted in major cities like Seattle and Portland.

Finally, I would like to comment on what it means to “believe” something. If you truly believe that the election was stolen, or that America is a racist cesspool with cops driving around targeting African Americans, then it is understandable why people would protest, and unfortunately peaceful protests can easily morph into violent rioting when emotions wrest control from reason. As I wrote in a tweet on January 16:

If you came home and saw strangers in your house stealing your stuff, you would of course want to do something about it—call the police, get a gun, or get friends to storm your home to stop the steal. This is why the “stolen election” conspiracy theory must be debunked again and again.

Thus, the truth or falsity of a claim of any kind that can be adjudicated by science and reason applies not just to astrologers, psychics, UFO proponents, and Big Foot hunters (all of which we cover in Skeptic magazine), but to conspiracy theories, including and especially those in the realm of politics, economics, and ideology, which as we’ve seen matters very much to the stability of our democracy and trust in the institutions that keep society stable.

Allow me to end this commentary with a quote from one of my intellectual heroes, Thomas Jefferson, from his First Inaugural Address, on March 4, 1801, which followed a bitter and rancorous election against the incumbent President John Adams who, by the way, did not attend Jefferson’s inauguration:

All too will bear in mind this sacred principle, that though the will of the majority is in all cases to prevail, that will, to be rightful, must be reasonable; that the minority possess their equal rights, which equal laws must protect, and to violate would be oppression. Let us then, fellow citizens, unite with one heart and one mind, let us restore to social intercourse that harmony and affection without which liberty, and even life itself, are but dreary things. And let us reflect that having banished from our land that religious intolerance under which mankind so long bled and suffered, we have yet gained little if we countenance a political intolerance, as despotic, as wicked, and capable of as bitter and bloody persecutions.

Here’s hoping for a smooth and peaceful transition of power on January 20, 2021.

Thanks for listening.

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