The Trump era will be remembered as one of anti-rationalism and disinformation. But the right-wing assault on reason did not start with Trump.
It’s said you can’t reason a person out of a thing she or he was never reasoned into, which explains the dilemma America faces with its many millions of voters who believe Donald Trump won the 2020 election and should be kept in office by force if necessary.
Storming the US Capitol was the culmination of a collection of related American crises stacked one on top of the other like figures in a Russian nesting doll; a political crisis wrapped in an epistemic crisis inside a media crisis that, together, amounts to an assault on reason itself.
The path to the insurrection in Washington runs through the various earlier hoaxes and conspiracy theories promoted by Donald Trump – that Barack Obama was born in Kenya, that Bill and Hillary Clinton committed several dozen murders, that climate change is a ruse perpetrated by the Chinese, and so on. Believe those lies and you’ll have no trouble swallowing the canard that Democrats were somehow in cahoots with Republican governors and Republican-appointed judges to rig the 2020 election – and, conveniently, to rig it only in the swing states Trump lost, and only for the presidential race, not for the Senate and House elections.
Having travelled that far from reality, it’s only one small step for a gullible, MAGA-Trump mob to consider it their patriotic duty to storm the US Capitol, hang the vice-president and execute the House Speaker, thereby thwarting the confirmation of the president-elect, Joe Biden.
Though Trump’s lies triggered the assault, the current moment has been decades in the making. The political right’s descent into anti-enlightenment fabulism did not begin with him or with Facebook or the internet. It began in the last century, soon after the Reagan administration freed American broadcast media from their obligations under something called The Fairness Doctrine, which required holders of broadcast licenses to present honest, equitable and balanced programming. Repeal of the doctrine was consistent with then-president Ronald Reagan’s facile characterization that “government is not the solution to our problem, government is the problem.”
A hard-right media quickly sprang up on the freshly deregulated airwaves and separated itself from the mainstream. The most famous and influential pioneer on that new frontier was, and to many still is, radio’s Rush Limbaugh. He identified his enemies early: “government, academia, science and the media.” He called them “the four corners of deceit” and his America was not merely divided by politics, it was divided cosmically. He made that clear in a 2009 denial of climate change: “We live in two universes. One universe is a lie. One universe is an entire lie. Everything run, dominated and controlled by the left here and around the world is a lie. The other universe is where we are,” he said.
Millions feasted on Limbaugh’s decades of aggressive paranoia, particularly Trump, who last year awarded him The Presidential Medal of Freedom.
In their groundbreaking 2018 book Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation and Radicalization in American Politics, Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris and Hal Roberts find America’s epistemic crisis rooted in a right-wing media for which there is not, and never has been, a mainstream or centre-left analog. Though MSNBC is sometimes derided as the left’s equivalent of FOX News because its programs and hosts are progressive and pro-Democrat, it’s also pro-facts and pro-evidence. FOX News, once merely fanatically pro-Republican, was the propaganda arm and staffing bullpen for the Trump administration as well as frequently reality-agnostic.
In their research, the authors cite surveys showing that conservative respondents hold FOX News, and broadcast personalities Sean Hannity, Glenn Beck, and Limbaugh in the same high regard that liberal respondents do NPR, PBS, the BBC and The New York Times. That’s your epistemic crisis right there. The differences between the first group of media and the second are not just differences in perspective and quality, they are differences in kind. One group adheres to journalistic standards and practices, is rigorously accountable to its audiences, acknowledges and corrects mistakes, and seeks out the most accurate version of the truth. The other inflames passions with conspiracy theories, fear-mongering and frequent race-baiting.
A 2020 Pew Research survey measures consumers’ attitudes: Democrats trust most of the media, Republicans distrust most of the media. Trump has something to do with that. He knows where his self-interest lies and has repeatedly characterized mainstream media as enemies of the people, while extolling FOX, Hannity, Limbaugh and others who literally serve as his messengers and advisers.
A tragic irony of this epistemic/media/political crisis is that technology was expected to lead us in the opposite direction; make us all smarter. The promise of the internet was the democratization of the marketplace of ideas – power redistributed among the hoi polloi.
In the final days of the Trump administration, as the Republican party reeled from having lost the White House, the Senate and the House just four years after winning them all – an electoral disaster on a scale not seen since 1932, when Herbert Hoover led the Republicans into the wilderness – there was much talk about Trumpism, its future and what it even means. But after four years of it, the party hadn’t even defined itself with a coherent election platform. It knuckled under to Trump and accepted that the platform was whatever he might say on a given day. In the end he said it stands for working people – what party doesn’t claim that?
More likely Trumpism will be remembered as standing for an early 21st century era of anti-rationalism. Fact free, it defended the right of its disciples to believe whatever they want to believe regardless of evidence. It challenged the idea of a shared reality on which democracy rests, and on Jan. 6, it appeared to have eaten itself whole.
But Trumpism as a movement animated by an unhealthy degree of skepticism about government, academia, science and the media – Limbaugh’s four corners of deceit – seems destined to trouble American democracy for a while even as it fails electorally. If nothing else, there’s money in it, as Trump proved by raising hundreds of millions of dollars to overturn the election result. And he’s never been one to pass up a good grift.