Bursting the Shadow Bubble

Blink O’Fanaye/Flickr

Governments have faced hundreds of insurrections over the centuries, but none have been as well-documented as last Wednesday’s MAGA mob. This is only partly because past rioters haven’t owned smart phones: one of the weirdest — and most revealing — quirks of the Capitol insurrection was how readily rioters were to document their crimes. Through their smiles and triumphal IG posts about “patriots,” we observe a body of people so trapped in a false narrative they literally can’t imagine an alternative one. These were evangelists of the “big lie” that Trump actually won the election, a belief that would only thrive in an enclosed bubble of fake news.

This bubble has been ably documented over the past five years, and periodic explorers to its inner depths have fed a steady stream of news about the outlandish beliefs held inside. We knew it existed, even if we didn’t understand its population or precise theology. Most of us didn’t understand how angry its members were, or how ready to commit violence, or how intent on overturning a democratic election. The mob was an abject demonstration of all of the above, but also a window into the guileless self-satisfaction that came from living in a reality where they were actually upholding rather than destroying the will of the people. In this bubble their beliefs were pure and unstained by doubt.

When blood and urine spilled on the Capitol floors, we began to understand more clearly how depraved those beliefs were. Perhaps equally as jarring, however, was the way in which the insurrection revealed a second bubble of reality that had grown as a protective shield against the first. In that reality, Republicans were just fighting the good fight, but still believed in American values of equality, democracy, and liberty for all. This second, shadow bubble is inhabited by most people not living in the first, hanging onto the increasingly crazy hope that the GOP was still a sane and normal party of good faith, if one willing to play hardball. A huge amount of effort went into maintaining this hope, because the alternative was too painful to consider.

Thus you had big portions of the media absurdly making excuses for racist, anti-democratic statements by the GOP, arguing they hadn’t really said what they’d just said. Or that those who said it were a crackpot fringe who didn’t understand when to use their inside voice instead of spouting Q-anon nonsense. It was a feint the GOP ruthlessly exploited, first breaking norms and then winking at sensible people as if it were all just normal political theater.

And so many Americans — and crucially Democrats and reporters — chose their own false reality because the alternative was to acknowledge that a powerful, frankly racist wing of American society was committed to end democracy. For many, that was literally unthinkable. They couldn’t imagine such a party existing — or more to the point, they could reconcile their own image of a moral America in which such a faction could thrive and win converts. The shadow bubble was one in which MLK wins and the Confederacy loses, where the sane judgment of upright citizens ultimately defeats demagogues like Joe McCarthy and fringe figures like Barry Goldwater. America, an ultimately moral place, was inconsistent with a party like that. So they didn’t believe such a party existed.

The shadow bubble actually enabled the primary bubble. It fostered inattention and inaction. It laundered every new transgression back into normalcy, so that no matter how extreme the GOP got, members of the second bubble forgave and recontextualized the acts of those in the first bubble. For radicals in the Republican Party, this was an excellent situation.

Last Wednesday’s mob was shocking in part because of the series of unlikely events it took to expose it. The GOP has been on this track a long time — twenty years at least. And yet it took a uniquely incompetent and mentally unwell president, an election close in a few key states but a near landslide in actual votes, and a two-month campaign to overturn a plainly fair and conclusive election to set the stage for that mob to form. Had Trump prevailed, had he not been so insane and begrudgingly admitted he lost (or allowed he wouldn’t be inaugurated in January), had a few GOP members of Congress acknowledged he won — any of these would have broken the chain of events leading to the riot. All these antecedents would still be present, and the actions of folks like Cruz and Hawley would be wholly unchanged, but the shadow bubble would have been working heroically to keep them concealed. We’re able to consider the danger to democracy not because it’s a new thing, but because an incredibly unlikely event forced us to accept it.

As the House begins its second (!) impeachment of Donald Trump, I am deeply uneasy. Republicans are instinctively trying to put the shadow bubble back together. The very members who last week were trying to subvert an election were this week calling for “healing,” understanding just what a powerful inducement that is for denizens of the shadow bubble. Americans of goodwill do want healing. We want back into that reality where democracy magically dispels all corruption, racism, and malice. That instinct is profound, and the GOP knows how to manipulate it.

No figure has been more adept at exploiting the shadow bubble than Mitch McConnell, whose political genius resides in breathtaking cynicism. Yesterday he publicly toyed with a vote to convict Trump in the Senate, despite spending the past two months refusing to acknowledge Trump’s loss. Having spent four years as his servile wingman, McConnell is happy to betray Trump at the moment it serves his purposes, understanding that he represents the perfect fall guy. If Trump can be sufficiently demonized, all the GOP’s public sins can die with him — even as McConnell will return to the very acts that subvert the democracy.

This is a dangerous moment in history, but also an opportunity. The insurrection that never should have happened did, in a context in which the instigators were unambiguous. There is a lot of hard, painful work ahead. Those of us who want live in a world in which lightness overcomes the dark,must now press for legal consequences. We must demand that anyone not committed to democracy be named and opposed, that illegal acts are punished. We have to shore up laws and fix the broken parts of our democracy that allow a majority to govern. It’s going to take a long time and the GOP will fight every step of the way. As bad as it will be, though, the alternative, which until a week ago I thought was inevitable, is so much worse. Real healing is often painful.

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Jeff Alworth

Jeff Alworth is the author of several books including The Beer Bible and Cider Made Simple, as well as the co-founder of the political website BlueOregon.