Groupthink, Echo Chambers, and Republican Extremism: Difference in Degree is Difference in Kind

[Note to readers: This morning, the Supreme Court handed down a decision in Moore v. US, a case that had the potential to upend the entire American tax system and thus to create an economic disaster.  I published Dorf on Law columns discussing Moore six months ago, four months ago, and three months ago.  The Court's decision was a pleasant surprise, but it includes some potential time bombs that are worth considering in detail.  I will turn to that case next week.]

What do I think about Issue X, Y, or Z?  More to the point, how do I come to think about X, Y, or Z in the way that I do?  Because I am not a hermit and thus value the thoughts of other human beings, I do what most people do: take as much time and effort as seems appropriate under the circumstances to study the facts and others' arguments, allowing me at least to come to a tentative conclusion after considering the issue's complexity, importance, transparency, and so on.

Do I listen to everyone?  Of course not.  One of the necessities of consuming information in a high-volume environment is to know who is generally worth reading and who is not.  In the latter category, there would be no point in reading anything on any issue by, say, Glenn Beck or George Will.  In the former category, Paul Krugman has a high batting average (though nowhere near 1.000), as do Mark Joseph Stern of Slate and (a little further down the list) Jennifer Rubin.  New writers come along, and I then need to form opinions about who among them is worth reading and who is not.  More immediately, I also have conversations with some family members and trusted friends.

In some form or another, I suspect that this is how pretty much everyone forms opinions.  This means that, in a simplistic and literal sense, everyone is in "an information bubble" of some kind.  We do not read what we do not read, and we confer with trusted sources but do not find the time to track down every challenging new take on a given issue.

Openness to new ideas, evidence, and conclusions is thus a continuum, not a binary choice.  And what we now know as the Trump-era Republican Party has moved so far down that continuum toward monolithic closed thinking that terms like groupthink and echo chamber are too weak to describe what is happening.  It is perversely fascinating to watch this work in at least two forms: following the leader, and egging each other on.

Following the leader means, of course, mindlessly adopting as one's own opinion whatever the cult leader tells the followers to think.  That is not always as heavy-handed as it might sound.  In a 2017 column, I noted how Trump's followers were in some sense blank slates, waiting to be told what they believe -- and then fiercely believing whatever it was that they had not previously known they believed.  Describing a Trump rally after he had been named 2016's Time "Person of the Year," I wrote:

Trump veered into a stream of consciousness and mentioned that Time had changed the name of its annual award from "Man of the Year" some years before.  Without telling his adoring crowd which he preferred, he asked people to applaud if they preferred "Person of the Year" versus "Man of the Year."

Without knowing what answer was expected of them, Trump's crowd was split, with roughly equal amounts of tepid applause for both choices.  Only when Trump told them that he liked "Man of the Year" did they realize what answer he wanted from them.

I saw a version of this more recently during the now-infamous Trump speech last week in which he spun a weird hypothetical about being on a sinking electric boat while a shark swam ten yards away.  While there was much to mock about that moment, I focused not on the bizarro story but on the Trump fans standing behind him.  Unlike the 2017 rant about Time, even the people who can be seen behind Trump were clearly no longer paying attention.  After he had meandered for a long while, he suddenly asked his audience whether they would prefer to die by electrocution or by shark.

Again, almost no one was listening, so most of the faces behind him betrayed how checked out everyone was.  Even so, there was one particular guy who was visibly confused by what we might call Trump's zap-or-jaws choice.  He looked uncertain and waited for Trump to tell him what to think.  When Trump went with electrocution, the guy immediately nodded knowingly and enthusiastically.  A cartoon bubble might as well have appeared above the listener's head:  Of course electrocution over shark.  Duh.  Trump said so, but I knew it all along!

Both of those examples are amusing precisely because they do not involve matters of any import.  Who cares, after all, whether Trump's supporters have their own opinions about Time and sharks or simply adopt Trump's opinions as their own?  The problem, of course, is that they also accept his views about substantive matters, such as his 2017 claim that the US intelligence community was all wrong and Vladimir Putin was right about Russian (non)interference in the 2016 election.  Or Trump's assertion that he has done more for black people than anyone else.  Or his claim that he won the 2020 election.

All of that, however, can be viewed a bit differently than the simplest "I have no idea, please tell me what I think" kind of cultish behavior.  For almost all of the important matters, we can observe a process by which Republicans do not merely look at Trump and say that they believe what he believes, but rather they look at each other and see whether it is safe to agree with Trump.  Even after all these years, the "whatever Trump thinks" herd behavior is not immediate, and they feed off of each other's reactions to decide what is thinkable.

Consider a recent example that is not directly about Trump at all.  In the 2020 national reckoning after a Minneapolis police officer murdered George Floyd, a lot of institutions finally took the names of Confederate traitors off of public and private facilities.  One could imagine (though never approve of) the path dependence that had led us not even to notice that, say, many US military facilities were named after generals who had tried to defeat the US military and who orchestrated the killings of thousands of its members.  When a big enough social moment arrived, however, such mindless inertia was interrupted.

One county in Virginia thus joined hundreds of others and removed the names of Robert E. Lee and Stonewall Jackson (along with lesser-known Turner Ashby) from its local schools.  Last month, however, a new school board there voted 4-1 to undo the change.  Why?  We know why, but the real question is how that happened, and why it took nearly four years to happen.  The short answer to that was that enough of the people involved looked around at each other and said, "Can we do this?  I want to do it, but do you?  What do the Republicans who we listen to think about this?  Will they be mad at us?  No?  Cool, let's do it!"  If the Republican governor of Virginia, or the local Republican US congressman, or the Republican National Committee, or Trump himself had said not to go forward, this would not have happened.

Again, when these people get each other all lathered up and frothing, it seems at that moment as if it was all inevitable.  But it is never so simple.  Bringing Trump back from near-banishment in early 2021 took some doing, and it only publicly began with Kevin McCarthy posing with Trump in a photo.  McCarthy would not, however, have done that without having looked around furtively and asking, "Will this fly?  Hmm, yeah, I guess it'll fly."  People who were excited about running for the Republican presidential nomination were surely shocked, but they then took their own furtive glances around the room and had to decide whether to stay in the race, to criticize Trump, and so on.  It might have gone in a different direction, but dissent was quickly shut down.

Again, those decisions were in no way inevitable.  Perhaps more importantly, the speed with which such sea changes have been happening puts the Trumpist Republican Party in a category of its own -- so different as a matter of degree that they are no longer merely another political party hashing out consensus views along the way.  Calling insurrectionists heroes, patriots, political prisoners, and so on did not happen immediately, and none of those things happened without Republicans figuratively taking each other's temperature.  Wait, we're in favor of Russia?  Really?  Give me a moment to get my head around that.

In a recent column, I noted that one feature of the Trumpian cult of personality is that people do more than simply agree with the leader.  They also start to make the same insane statements that he makes, using identical phrasing.  Trump says that "everyone knows" that his New York criminal case was directed by Biden, and the Republican Speaker of the House says: "Everybody knows what's going on.  Everybody!"  Trump says that "every legal expert" agrees with him, and the Speaker gleefully announces that "[t]he case is patently absurd.  You've had every legal analyst across the board acknowledge as much."  Trump calls his insurrectionists "hostages," and the third-ranking House Republican starts to call them hostages -- a word that does not even make sense in the context that Trump tries to use it.

While there is much to the theory that these people are doing all of this to please Dear Leader, the process of getting there still necessarily involves finding out whether it will be OK to say something that only a few weeks, days, or even minutes before would have been out of bounds.  They are still groping their way toward groupthink about issues like IVF, and some are not even on board with the whole Russophilia thing.  But again, the speed and near-universality of the phenomenon is unique.

And the utterly transgressive nature of the insta-conventional wisdom -- Republicans are now booing and walking out on Capitol Police officers who saved Republican lives on January 6, for chrissakes -- provides an insight into how accustomed Republicans have become to convincing themselves that we have always been at war with Eurasia and that Eastasia has always been our friend.

But again, is that not what all parties do -- indeed, is it not what social creatures like humans have always done?  Not at all.  Consider how the Democratic Party came to support same-sex marriage over the past few decades.  When someone in a hard-right political operation first tried to introduce that culture-war issue into the mix, Democrats were understandably nervous.  Beyond politicians, however, many people -- including me -- were initially tepid at best.  I recall saying at the time that there was no reason for anyone to feel the need to get married, and even people who could marry were choosing in large numbers not to bother.

Were those of us who later changed our minds looking nervously around us to see whether we could get away with saying that same-sex marriage was good?  No, we were honestly uncertain whether it was good or not; and because we knew that it was at the time a political loser, why embrace it?  The answers came when we started to listen to each other and think through what was truly at stake.  For me, the breakthrough moment was when I read an article explaining the countless legal rights and privileges that one can only enjoy by being married, the most heartbreaking among them being the right to be at your partner's deathbed.

That transition, then, was not like the bigots who were looking for their moment to put Lee's name back on that Virginia school.  We were educating each other and ourselves, and what had initially seemed an unclear and possibly even unimportant matter emerged as a fundamental issue of civil rights.  Then-Vice President Biden even leapt ahead of the curve by endorsing same-sex marriage before it was politically safe to do so, and he did so simply by saying that he had learned about it and reached the only decent conclusion.

This is not, therefore, merely a matter of saying that groups of people with some preexisting affinity can talk to each other and reach a new consensus.  It is a matter of the most retrograde consensus quickly emerging among today's Republicans when people with those biases incite their fellow cultists into adopting public positions that would have otherwise been unthinkable -- unthinkable not because the cultists needed to be convinced by a terrible new argument but because they initially feared that what they were thinking was too extreme.  Once the Two Minutes Hate begins, however, everyone knows that they are free to be themselves, and they egg each other on to do their worst.