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Trump could have eased election tensions – instead he enflamed them: OPINION

ABC News logo ABC News 6 days ago
Donald Trump et al. standing in front of a flag: A cutout of U.S. President Donald Trump is pictured as supporters take part in a protest against the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election in Atlanta, Nov. 21, 2020. © Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters A cutout of U.S. President Donald Trump is pictured as supporters take part in a protest against the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election in Atlanta, Nov. 21, 2020.

Leaders, no matter the position, have followers, fans and supporters. The connection between leaders is primarily based on a perceived set of shared values and usually a gut-level connection that bonds them together. Reason is not always the most important driver of this connection.

And that is why it is incumbent on responsible leaders to use this gut-level connection to move followers away from biases, prejudices and unreasonable positions in order to bring about the common good.

Today, we have too many "leaders" who not only aren't trying to move supporters from biases, but they are enflaming those biases in order to curry favor and additional support. And in this moment, those irresponsible leaders are contributing to a breakdown in our democracy.

Before Election Day I warned many people that polling showed a majority of Donald Trump's supporters believed he would win by a landslide. They thought this primarily because these voters consumed information in a closed ecosystem that wasn't giving them facts or an accurate assessment of the current political situation. The closed ecosystem included some conservative media they spent a lot of time watching and listening to, as well as a homogenous social media enclave that affirmed these biases.

MORE: How Latino voters became misinformation targets during election 2020

So, in aftermath of Election Day, many Trump supporters were confronted with a reality much different from what they thought was going to happen. Former Vice President Joe Biden won a solid Electoral College victory -- the same margin as Trump in 2016 -- and an overwhelming win in the national popular vote (a margin of about 6 million votes).

Trump, most in the GOP and conservative media could have acted like responsible leaders and confronted these existing biases, telling their supporters that Biden's win was accurate and we needed as a country to accept reality. Instead, they fostered and facilitated unfounded conspiracy theories.

Donald Trump wearing a suit and tie: President Donald Trump arrives to speak about prescription drug prices during an appearance in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2020. © Carlos Barria/Reuters President Donald Trump arrives to speak about prescription drug prices during an appearance in the Brady Press Briefing Room at the White House in Washington, D.C., Nov. 20, 2020.

Sociologists have studied why people believe conspiracy theories -- whether it be an election outcome, assassination or even the moon landing. The main reason sociologists say these folks believe in conspiracy theories is that the reality conflicts so much with an existing bias that it is easier to find comfort in a convoluted conspiracy than believe a simple explanation. Yes, Lee Harvey Oswald acted alone, and there was no one on the grassy knoll. James Earl Ray acted alone and out of racism. The Apollo astronauts landed on and walked on the moon. And Biden won.

Trump, and other leaders in politics and some conservative media, are doing incredible damage to our democracy and the bonds we share as Americans by pushing conspiracy theories instead of overcoming biases.

MORE: Eric Trump, Donald Trump Jr. amplified claims of election fraud, analysis shows

In 2017, I stated that Americans were the most divided we'd been since the Civil War, and America was in an incredibly dangerous situation. It was incumbent on all leaders to participate in healing our country and building up democratic institutions. The president and his enablers have done the exact opposite in the aftermath of the election. They have created an even deeper divide, and encouraged some voters' attachment to damaging biases and conspiracy theories.

As a key staffer to President George W. Bush in the 2000 election, I had a front-row seat for what might have happened if we questioned the legitimacy of an election. Instead, we had two major party candidates who sought to heal in the aftermath of 2000, when Bush who lost the popular vote and won the Electoral College with an assist from a partisan and divided U.S. Supreme Court. Al Gore, though upset by the outcome, acceded to the decisions of democratic institutions and sought to bring the country together. Bush knew many questioned his legitimacy, but tried to govern at the outset in a way that would bring in all voters, even if they voted against him.

Donald Trump et al. standing in front of a flag: A cutout of U.S. President Donald Trump is pictured as supporters take part in a protest against the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election in Atlanta, Nov. 21, 2020. © Christopher Aluka Berry/Reuters A cutout of U.S. President Donald Trump is pictured as supporters take part in a protest against the results of the 2020 U.S. presidential election in Atlanta, Nov. 21, 2020.

Both men were imperfect, but they were aware of their responsibility as leaders to speak truth to their supporters and put America first.

Unfortunately, we now have a president who is doing the exact opposite of what a leader should do in this dangerous time of tribalism. Trump is playing on the biases and fears of his supporters, not speaking truth about the election outcome and helping destructive conspiracies root ever deeper in our country. By doing so, he is undermining our Republic and its democratic institutions.

Yes, we will get through this moment, but we have much work to do in reforming and rebuilding the infrastructure of democracy and in choosing leaders at all levels and on all platforms who help people see their biases and help them overcome their prejudices. We can do this through hard work and healing.

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