How Do We Tackle Disinformation And Deprogram The Trump Cult?

Trump has lost, but his base still exists within a false reality built on conspiracy theories. This is one of the greatest challenges we face.
Supporters of Donald Trump, one holding a sign that reads, “LOCK HER UP,” cheer during a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va – Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Supporters of Donald Trump, one holding a sign that reads, “LOCK HER UP,” cheer during a campaign rally in Leesburg, Va – Monday, Nov. 7, 2016 (AP Photo/ Evan Vucci)

Millions of Americans were worried that Donald Trump’s presidency would end in armed unrest on the streets of major cities, if not full-blown civil war, with corrupt judges and crony politicians eagerly overturning the results of any election in his favor, not with an increasingly pathetic and unstable Trump having a hysterical meltdown, snapping at reporters while sandwiched behind a tiny desk. Now, of course, the GOP absolutely did try to waive away the will of the people but its lawsuits are being thrown out as quickly as they’re being filed, and the transition to the incoming Biden administration has officially begun against a steady drumbeat of sabotage, both petty and on an international scale.

It may be tempting to relax, take a deep breath, and count down the days until the nightmare is officially over, but the truth of the matter is that we still have a lot of work to do and the past four years have been a massive setback. Normally, this is where we’d talk at length about well-worn topics like the ever-accelerating threat of automation, the fallout from runaway globalization and income inequality, and do-nothing lawmakers who pride themselves on gumming up the works for partisan gain. However, the biggest problem we’ll face is the spread of unhinged conspiracy theories set to undermine any corrective action virtually any government in the Western world is bound to take post-COVID.

While they may go by grandiose names like The Great Replacement, The Great Awakening, and The Great Reset, all these tall tales metastasizing across social media are mostly existing hoaxes and scams grafted onto recycled Red Scare conspiracies from the John Birch Society, a group convinced that teaching kids to share toys in kindergarten is just the first step to collective farming, gulags, and reeducation camps. No matter how many times they’re debunked, they rise from the grave like zombies whose heads we never manage to hit, and more worrying than their nonsensical premises are the self-destructive proscriptions they mandate to their ever-growing ranks of ardent adherents.

Western conservatism, or at least its core, has been marinating in these disturbing beliefs for 70 years now, and finally emerged hell-bent on returning us to a feudal society even as corporate deregulation and consolidation combined with trickle-down economics left the majority of those it claims to represent and protect from sinister forces with fewer rights, shorter lifespans, worse healthcare, stagnant wages, closed factories, and trapped in hollowed out small towns. Living in perpetual protest against modern society, it’s become a sort of Dadaist project: dead set against its own existence and survival while fighting change it loathes and refuses to understand tooth and nail, armed only with gut feelings and purposefully grotesque parodies of reality.

Why Red America Is Falling Behind

Just consider that in 2000, when Vice President Al Gore won the popular vote in 659 counties, those counties represented 54% of the nation’s total economic output. It was a slight edge but not exactly shocking. Fast forward to 2016 when Hillary Clinton carried 472 counties, nearly a third fewer, but now representing 64% of the GDP. This year, Joe Biden managed to win only five more counties than Clinton, yet captured the popular vote representing over 70% of the economy. And it’s not just Red America’s share of GDP that fell. As economic output grew by nearly $4 trillion, the contribution of red counties fell by nearly $300 billion while every other fiscal and quality of life metric plummeted.

This is not to mention the suicide and opiate epidemics, debt and poverty traps, and record farm bankruptcies. According to every pundit and political consultant, the Trump administration was supposed to really understand the woes of Red America and his voters in red countries kept on chanting that he’s the only one who truly makes them feel seen and heard in the endless parade of diner interviews shoved into our eyeballs since mid-2015. But as we can plainly see, he has objectively made things worse for his biggest and most devoted supporters. He even made their water and air easier to pollute, encouraged cancellations of popular green energy projects, and let the COVID-19 pandemic run unchecked in red states.

Now, we can’t necessarily fault Trump for creating the death spirals seen in thousands of red counties and countless small towns. Much larger and more complicated forces along with three decades of inaction and refusal to modernize have set all this in motion. As convenient as it would be to have a single villain to blame, Trump doesn’t fit the bill. He did, however, preside over the sharpest decline in Red America’s fortunes yet, and continued to make their situations worse while indulging their basest urges, fears, and grievances at his rallies. You’d think that failing to help his base would cost him politically, but said base loves him more than ever and refuses to believe he lost.

Their comments fill social media either alleging rampant voter fraud without a shred of proof or repeating absolutely insane conspiracy theories involving a company hired by now long dead Venezuelan dictator Hugo Chavez to stealthily fix elections and secret servers in Germany that show Trump winning with 410 electoral votes. All of this will supposedly be brought in front of the Supreme Court any minute now to “dispel the fake news media lies” and declare Trump the rightful president, then something something Q and Satanic pedophiles along with all those paid protesters for Soros in “Democrat cities” will be detained, then taken to Guantanamo Bay to be executed live on pay-per-view.

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Why The GOP Base Clings To A False Reality

An audience member holds a fake news sign during a President Donald Trump campaign rally in Washington Township, Mich., Saturday, April 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

An audience member holds a fake news sign during a President Donald Trump campaign rally in Washington Township, Mich., Saturday, April 28, 2018. (AP Photo/Paul Sancya)

Sounds utterly deranged? Well, those are the bloodthirsty, vivid fantasies tens of millions of Republicans are gleefully consuming on social media because their new motto is that reality is whatever they want it to be. Forget the vast parade of horribles in Red America we just covered in extensive detail. Tune into the right-wing internet and as if by magic, it’s the blue states that are in dire financial straits because they’ll have to repay large obligations over the next century as their economies prosper, and red states are the fiscally responsible economic engines of America despite contributing less than a third of the GDP and being overall net takers from the federal government.

Conservative groups on Facebook are still abuzz about “paid rioters” in Portland and D.C. even as law enforcement kept arresting members of neo-Nazi and white supremacist groups which deliberately caused unrest at protests to provoke violence, and as they warn about “leftist terror groups,” federal prosecutors are overwhelmed with right-wing terrorist threats. In other words, up is down, black is white, and if you’re being told otherwise, it’s a sinister conspiracy to silence you and you need to flee to platforms where you can safely re-enforce your echo chambers and write fiery screeds about the importance of absolute freedom of speech as you ban anyone who dares to poke holes in your desired narrative.

Even something that should be completely obvious, like infections and deaths from a brand new disease are subject to the right wing’s alternative universe treatment, as residents of red states and counties unleash abuse on public health officials for taking the pandemic seriously, and hurl insults, epithets, and conspiracy theories at doctors and nurses even as they’re dying of COVID in ICUs. And as Fox News, of all outlets, started backing away from their more destructive and asinine talking points, infuriated conservatives are fleeing in droves to Newsmax and OANN to get their fix of propaganda, demonstrating that far from being brainwashed victims, they happily brainwashed themselves.

It’s perfectly normal and expected for people to have different opinions in a functioning society and debate the merits of those different ideas on a regular basis. But what we’re seeing isn’t a healthy back and forth on important matters, we’re seeing an unraveling of national identity and a willful rejection of reality itself. Republican voters across the country are acting less like a party keeping their political opposites in check and more like paranoid schizophrenics obeying sinister voices in their heads, voices that keep telling them everyone who isn’t a 50-something lily-white conservative from a small town is trying to enslave them and must be opposed until one’s dying breath, especially if they try to offer what sounds like genuine help.

GOP Voters Allow Themselves To Be Exploited

With vaccines for COVID-19 on the way and the possibility of starting to return to normal in the second half of 2021, government officials around the world are busy trying to figure out how to prevent such devastating shocks to the system from another pandemic. Many of them have come around to incorporating ideas and criticisms voiced since the pandemic began, hoping to better define what the world after COVID should look like given what we’ve seen play out. But just as we’re getting the chance to build a more equitable, resilient, modern world, far-right conspiracy peddlers are weaponizing tens of millions against us with Bircherite Red Scare mad libs.

Anything even a tad kinder than Dickensian classism and robber barons doing as they please with the peons they see as infinitely replaceable bipedal cogs in enormous machines is an evil plot to undermine mom, baseball, and apple pie — or lumberjacks, hockey, and poutine — and everything good about the world, replacing it with the murderous totalitarianism of the Khmer Rouge. With just about every mechanism to meaningfully turn their fortunes around demonized as a conspiracy against them, their worldview has become diametrically opposed to civilized society, much less a functioning democracy with a strong rule of law. It’s Kafkaesque cruelty or nothing.

Oddly, it’s not as if Republican voters haven’t noticed that something is very wrong. On Parler, the far-right Twitter clone designed as a safe space for ardent Trump supporters and fascists, users lashed out at Georgia Senator Kelly Loeffler for soliciting campaign donations to “stop Antifa” despite her vast personal wealth. Most of their complaints hit the nail right on the head: the GOP has become a grift machine that relies on fear to bilk its voters and get them to the polls, and is then happy to let them fend for themselves. What they refused to do, however, is abandon the self-destructive philosophy that trapped them in the GOP’s claws and see those different as fellow Americans instead of monsters and traitors.

Even wealthy and powerful Republicans are no longer immune to the backlash of the cult they created. Georgia’s Secretary of State Brad Raffensperger bitterly complained that after voting for Trump, he found himself on the receiving end of vitriol and death threats when he refused to manipulate vote totals, vitriol and death threats fanned and encouraged by the man for whom he cast his ballot. The weirdest thing about this situation isn’t that Raffensperger found himself in the firing line and hung out to dry, it’s that he expected literally anything different from Trump, a man who views every relationship as a transaction, demanding undying loyalty while stabbing even his closest allies in the back when expedient.

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The Conservative Murder-Suicide Pact

Donald Trump waves as he leaves a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

Donald Trump waves as he leaves a campaign rally, Friday, Aug. 12, 2016, in Altoona, Pa. (AP Photo/Evan Vucci)

The end result of all this is a massive movement in a unique position to crush the country under minoritarian rule committing mass economic, and in some cases literal, suicide, dragging the rest of the nation with it whenever it can, and when given lifelines, spits in the faces of those who try to help, proudly flipping the bird while diving off the proverbial cliff. Over the long haul, this is a doomed strategy. Like Senator Lindsey Graham (R-SC) let slip after Mitt Romney’s defeat at the polls in 2012, there aren’t enough angry white guys to keep the scaremongering, exploitative philosophy of the American right in business, and they’re getting older and actively shortening their lives.

As unpleasant as this may be to admit, the unsustainable severity of the current political divide is largely a generational problem. This isn’t to say that no zoomer or millennial would never vote for an ultra-right party or fall for a hoax, but younger social media users are better at figuring out fact from partisan fiction, much less likely to share fake news, prefer social media platforms on which it’s far more difficult to create isolated echo chambers, and their future disagreements will at least be far more based in reality and a consensus that the passage of time is not a malicious conspiracy by the Jews and Satanic pedophile cannibals who like to hang out in basements of pizzerias.

We could say that given these facts, we may as well just wait it out. Why help people who’ll not only refuse a helping hand but might actually stab it in a fit of rage, eager to bring everyone else down with them? But the problem is that thanks to the Electoral College and gerrymandering, it’s these people who can easily and consistently hijack the course of the nation to destroy every trace of progress made in the previous electoral cycle. It would be nothing short of political and social malpractice to allow America’s attempt to modernize and innovate be derailed again and again by increasingly unhinged and rabid older, mostly white voters lashing out at the world for daring to change, and at younger voters for daring to grow up.

Sadly there’s no easy or obvious way to start what may well be the biggest cult deprogramming project in history. As long as there are politicians and peddlers of disinformation who profit from scaremongering and spreading conspiracy theories, there will always be millions of people more than eager to listen to them. Conspiracies offer an easy black and white, us vs. them worldview that’s much tidier than the messy realities with which facts deal. The only way forward may be to turn the right’s own conspiracy mindset against them, portraying their would-be GOP saviors as the sinister cabal eager to exploit them, spending its days creating imaginary enemies before asking for money to fight these invisible boogeymen.

How Do We Solve This?

It seems that even Parler’s denizens are more than open to this approach, and while it’s going to be an enormous challenge to get them to see their fellow Americans as something other than inhuman enemies, something like that is, unfortunately, a long ways away. Right now, our basic priority is to make sure they occupy the real world so we can work towards, well, anything in a constructive manner. Plus, it’s not like the conspiratorial approach in question is that far from the truth. After all, that’s exactly what’s happening in Republican think tanks and editorial meetings of right-wing outlets and activist groups. If Red America feels like it has to exist in opposition to something, why not point its fury at those actually destroying it?

Just imagine ad campaigns highlighting every damaging move Republican lawmakers voted into policy, every economic rescue program they killed, every pocket they stuffed at the expense of their voters. When conservative voters open YouTube, they should be bombarded with clips of GOP strategists brainstorming the evil Other of the electoral cycle mad libs style, laughing while crafting the next appeal for more donations. Attack ads rejected by OANN and Newsmax need to be trumpeted across social media as “the video Republican elites don’t you to see” with bold, flashy names like “The Pillaging of America” or “Florida’s Anchor Baby Farms,” designed to fuel outrage with surgical precision.

Sure, these tactics aren’t exactly the high brow, aspirational content with which we’d like to sway people’s minds. But the sad fact of the matter is that the voters we need to target subsist on a steady diet of fear and outrage. They want to be scared and angry. After decades of being glued to right-wing agitprop, they almost need to shake in anger on a regular basis. That’s their happy place. So, let’s give them exactly what they want in their exact language, harnessing their rage at being left behind for good: to hold those who keep sabotaging them with lies and dirty tricks accountable. It won’t be easy and the gut-level impact has to be just right, but since everything else has failed, we owe it to the future of the nation to get creative.

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Opinion // Conspiracy Theories / Disinformation / Donald Trump / Republican Party / Social Media