Thousands of demonstrators rallied at Michigan’s Capitol in Lansing Wednesday to protest Governor Gretchen Whitmer’s stay-at-home order. Michigan’s order does appear to be rather strict.

The evidence? Here’s the Washington Post, explaining the Michigan rules.

“Confused shoppers found they could buy liquor and lottery tickets … but couldn’t visit the vegetable seed aisle … The order required large stores to shut down plant nurseries and rope off sections where carpet, flooring, and paint were sold, provisions that conservatives found both arbitrary and harmful to business owners.”

But let’s not give these protestors too much benefit of the doubt, shall we?

Most people most of the time are willing to temporarily tolerate bureaucratic oddities—like not being able to purchase paint—in the name of public health and the greater good.

Some people, however, will not recognize their civic duties. They will exploit oddities to grind yet another ax.

I agree with Charlie Sykes, who said Thursday that protest, even mindless protest, is embedded in our nation’s psyche. “The Michigan protest had a sort of Zombie Tea Party vibe, a grassroots-like movement complete with a full-throated Don’t Tread On Me ethos,” he said. “And that ethos has deep roots, not just in conservative politics, but also in the national character, so don’t be too quick to simply dismiss it.”

I’m guessing most Michiganders get it. Michigan has the third-highest death toll in the US right now from a viral pandemic that has killed more than 28,500 Americans in just over a month. The death toll itself is proof they can trust their governor to act in their best interest.

Some minds, however, are hardwired to distrust the evidence of their eyes. For some people, it’s just not possible to trust anything—or anyone—that’s not on their side. They can’t, because, to them, there is no such thing as truth independent of self-interest. They can’t believe anyone would act in the interest of the common good, so when someone does, it’s cause for deep suspicion.

More significantly, some people will never recognize good faith in their political enemies even when good faith can be measured in bodies. Whitmer isn’t ordering people to stay home to violate lives and liberty. She’s ordering them to stay home to protect lives and liberty.

The paranoid mind tends to express itself with a kind of chronic intellectual dishonesty. If demonstrators were truly protesting overreach or unfair rules, they wouldn’t also be flying Confederate flags and chanting “Lock her up!” If they were honest about protesting Whitmer—because they don’t like her, which is totally fair—they wouldn’t bother rationalizing their grievance with absurd anecdotes about confused shopping.

The paranoid mind is socially aware enough to know it can’t attack the enemy for no good reason. So it invents one, regardless of whether it has bearing in reality. The flip-side of intellectual dishonesty is anti-intellectualism, which was the beating heart of Wednesday’s protest. Whitmer and her public-health managerial elite can’t possibly know what they say they know about the coronavirus for reasons that don’t matter because those reasons have no bearing in real reality. What matters, to the paranoid, is that Whitmer is a Democrat acting in service of the common good, something they are hardwired to misunderstand as dispossession and tyranny.

There is a simple way to test whether Gretchen Whitmer is trustworthy—if protesters get sick after getting out of their cars, shaking bands, hugging and (for God’s sake!) handing out candy to kids. If none of them dies, she’s wrong. It’s one dies, she’s right. The ultimate truth—death—won’t change the paranoid’s mind, though. There is no such thing as truth independent of self-interest. We shouldn’t dismiss paranoids. But, again, we shouldn’t give them too much benefit of the doubt, either.

John Stoehr is a journalist and a fellow at the Yale University Journalism Initiative. This essay was originally published on April 15, 2020, at his Substack, The Editorial Board.

2 thoughts on “Don’t Give Paranoids Too Much Credit

  1. Much like Fox News, not one liberal media outlet questioned the severity or logic behind Whitmer’s expanded restrictions. They did not point out that even in New York State (the leader in cases and deaths), commercial landscaping is still permitted for maintenance. People in NY State are allowed to paint (inside or outside) their houses or plant their backyard gardens while sheltering in place. So what is her justification for even stricter measures than those in the Covid19 epicenter? Not one person bothered to ask.

    While most of the protestors in Lansing were those in the camp of exploiting a situation for their own political ends, there are MANY liberals in Michigan who ALSO believe Whitmer overstepped and that her reaction to the blowback is a major misstep. However, I have neither heard nor seen any reporting of what I am hearing from these democrats in several parts of the state.

    Perhaps this is not a matter of paranoids, but rather a matter of the tone-deaf Left using the paranoids as blinders. I suppose that might explain Whitmer’s lack of common sense and lack of a Cuomoesqe emotional intelligence in helping people come to terms with very difficult circumstances regardless of their political affiliation.

    So, unless you can tell Michiganders that New York is wrong and Michigan is right and why, don’t blame any of them — Democrat or Republican — for questioning authority. At this point, we really need to ignore the crazies who showed up in Lansing. There is no point to the endless profiles of people who can’t be reached. So let’s stay focused so we can win in November.

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