During the 2006 White House Correspondents’ Association dinner, host and satirist Stephen Colbert said, “We know that polls are just a collection of statistics that reflect what people are thinking in ‘reality.’ And reality has a well-known liberal bias.” The tag line was part of Colbert’s ongoing mockery of conservative extremists, his facetious embodiment of a right-wing talking head. We can understand the remark on two levels.

Illustration: Michael Barnard

First, it is an in-character assertion that empirical reality is a lot more in line with modern liberal and progressive opinions than conservative leanings. This coincides with what many Republicans are saying today. For example, they attack organizations like Snopes, Media Bias/Fact Check, and Pew Research Center because these initiatives consistently reveal that conservatives believe false information.

Second, Colbert’s statement is an indictment of the willingness of the conservative right—then and now—to embrace and promote claims that are not even remotely true. Here is a brief list of these falsehoods: Barack Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Hillary Clinton was involved in a pedophilia ring in the basement of a pizza parlor that doesn’t have a basement. Climate change is a Chinese hoax. Unemployment rose under Obama. Evolution isn’t real but creationism is. Trickle-down economics works. Robert E. Lee was a patriotic American. A good guy with a gun is necessary to stop a bad guy with a gun. Mass murderers who are people of color are terrorists, while white mass murderers are uniquely stressed individuals.

Right now, conservatives have a reality problem. This is incredibly well-documented. The willingness of the right to eat up obviously fake news from Russia or 4Chan is an area of intensive academic study. The problem is one of the greatest facing a country that wants to continue to improve. How did we get to this point? There are multiple contributing factors—and four major ones.

The Southern Strategy

The Republican Party started to leave reality behind in the 1960s by adopting the Southern Strategy. This was an explicit, intentional appeal to Southern white voters by pandering to racism. Southern racism includes a despicable set of lies in which white people tell each other (and anyone else who will listen) that black slaves were treated well and were better off as slaves and that the treasonous War of Secession was noble. The Southern Strategy tied the party—and, hence, conservatives—to a false narrative of history.

When a large portion of your base has a belief system that is actively hostile to reality, you tend to drift further and further away from the truth.

Once you’ve started down the slippery slope of lies, it becomes easier to tell another. Republicans rode that wedge hard. They portrayed Democrats as abandoning the South when, in fact, the other party simply stopped pandering to racists (mostly).

The Moral Majority

In the 1980s, Ronald Reagan and the Republican Party made another strategic alliance that overlapped with the Southern Strategy. They got into bed with the Moral Majority, a group of Evangelical Protestants and Biblical literalists who made a lot of money peddling versions of Christianity that enriched them. This led to the rise of megachurches and so-called prosperity gospel during this era.

This group overwhelmingly comprises Young Earth creationists. These people disbelieve a massive swath of science because it contradicts their interpretation of many-times translated and interpreted holy texts written thousands of years ago. They deny the incredibly well-supported theory of evolution, which underpins so much of the biological sciences.

When a large portion of your base has a belief system that is actively hostile to reality, you tend to drift further and further away from the truth. There are few checks and balances on the drift.

Murdoch and Fox News

Fast-forward another 15 years. Rupert Murdoch, an Australian-born far-right media mogul decided to set up a propaganda arm of the U.S. conservative right. He realized he could make a great deal of money by telling people not what was true or challenging, but what they wanted to hear. He copied CNN’s format, but shunned the higher journalistic ideals. Since then, Fox News outlets have peddled nonsense in the guise of opinion over and over and over. They selectively cover stories, and they use heavily biased reporting.

Chart: ad fontes media

Fox and Murdoch represent the last nail in the coffin of the Republican grasp on reality. What started with peddling counterfactual racism and continued with pandering to creationists become a 24/7 denial of multiple forms of reality and projection of conspiracy ideation that speaks to the small-hearted fears of the U.S. right.

Few Consequences

There will always be bigots, although they are a diminishing force in the world. There will always be religious people with varying degrees of connection to observable reality. And there will always be bloviating talking heads shouting nonsense.

But conservatives, both voters and party, believe and assert so much that is disconnected from reality that it’s painful to listen to. These people hold so many incorrect claims to be true that I fear for their personal safety and the safety of those who depend on them. Yet they manage to make a living, get married, garner approval and status in society, buy nice things, and get ahead.

It’s hard to think of a time in history when such a large group has been so privileged for so long in their ability to be completely and absurdly wrong about so many things and yet succeed. They have so much power and influence globally, and they are squandering it because they have no adherence to empirical reality.

This is how the U.S. ended up with a political party and adherents so devoid of connection to reality that they are able to claim that empirical facts are biased, liberal fake news. The president of the United States has become its tweeter-in-chief, and he is so devoid of connection to reality that he has disappeared into his own navel.

The alt-right white supremacists and white nationalists are a symptom. Breitbart’s rise to media success is a symptom. They couldn’t exist if the Republican Party had not chosen to repeatedly divorce itself from reality and pander to the worst aspects of human nature.

It’s deeply unpleasant to watch. There are a handful of encouraging signs. But I’ll be damned if I know how the U.S. will get itself out of this mess.