The Firehose Of Falsehood
How the hell did Hitler ever become the head of Germany's government? Were the Germans that stupid-- or evil? I frequently ask people in position to know if Trump supporters have below average IQs. The only Trump supporter I know-- and I've know him since we were both in elementary school-- is dysfunctionally stupid, a moron with a 2-digit IQ. He's one of the least intelligent people I've ever interacted with, but I've learned that not all Trump supporters are that dumb and that not all people that dumb are Trump supporters.
Jonathan Rauch-- more on him below-- noted that viral disinformation (think QAnon) has been so successful because Americans are "epidemiologically naive, meaning, it's not that we don't get it or can't get it. It's we've never confronted tactics like this waged against Americans by Americans. It never occurred to us this could even happen... This country is under major information warfare attack from one of its two political parties, which is now, institutionally, a propaganda organ."
A few days ago I spoke with a brilliant filmmaker, Karim Hajj, who has been up close and personal with Trump supporting domestic terrorists for the American Insurrection documentary he made for ProPublica and PBS. He was far less pejorative and condemnatory towards this people than I am and insists that their intelligence spans the entire range-- not all stupid and not all insane. He blames their behavior-- and we're talking about violent extremists, not just average Trump voters-- on sources of information they trust. "When you have elected officials and members of law enforcement," he told me, "consistently saying that an election has been stolen and democracy has been subverted, you can begin to understand why people might act this way. It doesn't excuse the behavior, but it's important to recognize the role that people with power have played in all of this."
This morning, the L.A. Times published an insightful piece by Doyle McManus, Trump’s still waging a war on truth-- and it’s still bad for democracy. And that war on truth he's waging... it really isn't all that different from what Trump learned by reading works by Hitler and Goebbels.
McManus' point is that, though Biden beat Trump 81,268,924 (51.3%) to 74,216,154 (46.9%) and with 306 electoral votes to 232, Trump still maintains he won "by a landslide" and his supporters say they believe him-- the "Big Lie." Many are willing to kill or die for this fiction-- or "alternative reality"-- that Trump has had remarkable success in keeping alive!
"Almost two-thirds of GOP voters told pollsters in one recent survey that they’re still convinced the election was stolen-- a number that hasn’t changed much since November," wrote McManus. "This isn’t a harmless exercise in political puffery; it deepens the polarization of American politics and weakens democracy. The charge that the election was stolen doesn’t merely flatter Trump; it’s also an attempt to delegitimize Biden."
It makes it politically dangerous for Republicans in Congress to collaborate with the administration-- for why would anyone loyal to Trump negotiate with a usurper?
The falsehood persists even though Republican officeholders have run investigations that debunk it.
Last month, a GOP-led probe in Michigan found that the Trump camp’s charges of voting irregularities there were nothing more than “blatherskite.”
Former Atty. Gen. William Barr, a Trump appointee, gave ABC News his pithy judgment of the president’s charges: “It was all bullshit.”
But many of the GOP faithful appear virtually immune to evidence.
The fantasy hasn’t stayed alive on its own; Trump has spent much of his time since leaving office stoking his claims and warning Republican politicians that he will torpedo their careers if they don’t back him up.
“If they don’t, I have little doubt that they will be primaried and quickly run out of office,” he said in a written statement last month.
GOP politicians, fearful of Trump’s wrath, either tiptoe around the fantasy or join in promoting it.
...There’s no mystery why Trump wants to keep his baseless narrative alive. The fiction transforms him from a loser to, if not a winner, at least a victim.
It maintains his presumptive claim on his party’s 2024 presidential nomination if he decides to seek it and gives him a cause around which he can raise money.
The consequences go well beyond Trump’s political future. As Jonathan Rauch of the Brookings Institution writes in his important new book, The Constitution of Knowledge: A Defense of Truth: “When compromise fails, ungovernability sets in.”
Rauch argues that one root of our current political crisis is an “epistemic war,” a battle over whether such a thing as objective truth exists-- or whether politicians should be free, as one Trump aide argued, to invent “alternative facts.”
“Epistemic warfare is now the modus operandi of the Republican Party,” Rauch told me last week. “It’s become a substitute for ideology or policy.”
He said he considers Trump “the greatest innovator in disinformation since the 1930s.” (And yes, he means since Adolf Hitler and Josef Stalin.)
Rauch’s title, The Constitution of Knowledge, refers to his argument that Americans with differing beliefs need to agree on basic principles about truth, just as politicians with differing views adhere to the same Constitution.
“People need not and cannot all agree that the same things are true, but a critical mass needs to … support norms like freedom of expression, intellectual pluralism, commitment to learning and respect for factuality and truthfulness,” he writes.
Is there a way out of this crisis?
There is, Rauch argues-- but it’s going to take time and effort from a lot of people.
Media organizations have stopped mindlessly spreading Trump’s most egregious lies, as some did in his first presidential campaign in 2016. Now they need to reinvest in fact-based journalism and in more and better fact-checking.
Social media networks like Facebook, Twitter and YouTube still struggle to find workable rules to curb disinformation-- but at least they’ve mostly recognized that spreading falsehoods is a bug, not a feature.
And individual citizens need to join the battle by looking for better sources of information than their Facebook feeds and rewarding politicians who stand up for the truth.
“It’s going to take all of society,” Rauch said. That’s daunting, but history offers grounds for hope, he added-- again recalling the 1930s. “The reality-based community has withstood much worse.”
But, but, but... Tucker Carlson. How does American society protect itself from a Tucker Carlson? Fox News may be on unregulated cable but Fox, the parent company, owns broadcast licenses across the country and a more vigorous president would probably invite Rupert Murdock in for a little conversation about the renewal schedules for those licenses and the kind of harm Carlson is doing to the solidarity and integrity of our nation.