A Muddying Maelstrom of Misinformation

The storm of disinformation coming out of the Trump White House is so thoroughly disorienting that I’m afraid we’re already losing track of where we’re heading, how quickly things are devolving, and how serious is the threat to our democracy.

National news spent most of yesterday engaged with President Trump’s latest absurd conspiracy theory: that somewhere between 3,000,000-5,000,000 people voted illegally in the 2016 election. (He took the claim one step further in his interview with ABC News last night, saying that not only did that many people vote illegally, but ALL of them voted for his opponent.)

We can dispense with Trump’s lie with extreme prejudice: it is bullshit. A recent study looked at over a billion ballots cast, and found just 31 examples of voter fraud. That’s three-millionths of one percent (0.000003%) of ballots cast. Journalists keep conservatively saying that there’s no evidence of “widespread” voter fraud. But in terms of statistical significance, there’s basically no fraud at all. 

There is no shortage of speculation about why Trump lies so frequently and so bigly. Maybe it’s a loyalty test. Maybe he’s just unhinged.

Maybe he is, but the people around him aren’t, and the impact of this emerging cycle of lies, which leaves reporters flailing to drink from a fire hose of liquefied bullshit, is becoming clearer.

The constant vortex of misinformation pummels honest journalism and principled resistance through sheer force of obstinance, paving the way for truly terrifying actions from Trump, Bannon, Sessions, and company (TrumpCo).

Here’s how I see it working.

First, TrumpCo flummoxes the media by breaking the typical structure of Lies and the Public Response. Tyically, after someone says something outrageous, there’s alarm in the media, outcry in the public, and derision online. The offending person, in possession of a human sense of shame and self-respect, sheepishly backs down and apologies to "anyone they might have offended."

But not Trump. He doesn’t comport with standard expectations of human shame, which befuddles pundits and reporters. He lies, journalists and the internet call him on it, but instead of backing down, Trump just blinks and restates the lie. No, really, 3,000,000-5,000,000 people voted illegally. No, really, Obama wasn’t born here. Trump’s repetition slowly but surely lowers the shock value of the lie each time he repeats it.

The media, needing a constant stream of content to fill time and links, don’t know how to handle this. After several news cycles of calling Trump’s claims of voter fraud lies yesterday, some cable news had been worn down to the point of asking “well what about these claims? Is there anything to this?” What days earlier had been a claim dismissed out of hand was suddenly being treated to lots of free air time. Trump’s stubborn persistence leads to resistance fatigue.

Meanwhile, while Trump is spewing pure, unadulterated bullshit, surrogates like Sean Spicer are spouting bullshit that’s been cut with small amounts of truth, to a proportion of approximately 5% truth by volume (TBV). No, they insist, we’re not just talking about outright voter fraud, we’re talking about things like accurate voter registration rolls. You don’t want inaccurate voter rolls, do you?

Trump keeps right on saying “it’s fraud,” but Spicer is saying something more nuanced, and reporters can't help but consider the nuance. Suddenly we go from "Trump is lying" to journalists dissembling about arcane voter registration protocol. "Trump is lying" becomes "Is Trump Lying?" becomes "Trump targets fraud and also dated voter rolls" becomes "well the voter rolls actually are imperfect" becomes "wait, was Trump right all along?"

Meanwhile, Trump, Bannon, and Sessions use this "debate" as a pretext to clamp the ef down on voting rights for people of color. They bring a vote to the floor that’s framed as cleaning up our voter registration processes and fortifying the integrity of our elections, the very foundation of our democracy! You don’t want to oppose democracy, do you??

Whether Trump’s an evil genius, a hapless stooge controlled by Bannon, or somewhere in between doesn’t, in the end, matter. The outcome is a march toward an oppressive, authoritarian, fascist America.

This pattern of scandalous lie from Trump, followed by obfuscation by surrogates, reinforced with continued lies from Trump, will impact issue after issue. We’ve already seen it with our southern border. Trump starts with the racist lie that “Mexicans are rapists;” his surrogates obfuscate to make it about economic protection for the American worker; Trump keeps railing about “illegals” and insisting Mexico will pay for the wall; the media call out Trump’s offensive "falsehood," but can’t help but also enter the nuance of border security; and on and on. And suddenly—poof!—we have executive orders to start building a financially devastating, practically infeasible concrete wall and the commitment of allegedly conservative Republican congressional leaders to fund it.

It’s not hard to begin to imagine some of the terrifying places this cycle could take us.

  • Trump lies about the millions of people protesting him, calling them violent thugs who hate America. Spicer says, no, the president respects free speech, but some people are violent and that’s a problem. The media, after initially dismissing Trump’s attacks on free speech, start to say, “well, yes, I guess some are violent” while showing the same video on endless loop of one dude in a Guy Fawkes mask smashing an Audi window in Seattle. Trump trots out the grandmother of someone injured in a protest, Spicer talks about balancing free speech and safety. Voila, protesting is restricted.
  •  Trump says he hears that American media is funneling critical information to the Russians (because why not turn that one on its head) and maybe we shouldn’t have such a free press. Spicer says, no, no, President Trump understands the importance of a free press, but there have been reports that information in the American media is being used by the Russians and we need to protect national security. You don’t want to endanger national security, do you? The media, after initially decrying Trump’s attack on the first amendment, start bringing on guests to discuss whether, in fact, the Russians are using the American media for strategic gain. Trump keeps railing about fake news, Spicer obfuscates and says most news is trustworthy and we just need to be sure the untrustworthy ones don’t have access to important information. Presto, only InfoWars, Breitbart, and Fox News are granted interviews with the executive branch.
  • Trump declares that Democrats who are obstructing his agenda or opposing torture are allies of ISIS, whom he is valiantly trying to crush. He accuses them of treason. No, no, not treason, says Spicer, but they are politicizing national security. No, it’s treason, insists Trump. Well, it could be treason says Spicer. After initially bristling at the word treason, the media eventually start bringing on retired generals to discuss how political actions at home might, regardless of intention, have the effect of supporting ISIS abroad. Abracadabra, security clearances get revoked and intelligence briefings are limited to Republicans only.
  • Trump proclaims that “radical Islamic terror” has become such a clear and present threat to America and that we must cull through all Muslims already in our country.  No, no, says Spicer. The president loves American Muslims, but we do have to admit we do have a problem with radicalization. The media, after an initial focus on religious freedom, slowly slides into discussions of radicalization. Suddenly, Trump is “requesting” all Muslims to submit to a “voluntary” radicalization assessment, and for those who don’t volunteer, well, the government has some questions. And maybe John Adams was onto something with those Alien and Sedition Acts…

The potential scope of these scenarios are limited only by the depravity of the imaginer. If you think these examples are hyperbolic, you’re really not paying attention to how rapidly things are moving and how dramatically norms are collapsing. It is past time that we eliminate from our lexicon any sentence that begins with the clause “there’s no way.”  There’s no way Trump will win the primary. There’s no way Trump will win the general. There’s no way Trump will have a White supremacist as a senior advisor. There’s no way Trump will keep all his business holdings and still be president. There’s no way Trump will actually try to build a wall.

There was “no way” any of these things could happen, but they all did. We delude ourselves when we continue to think "there’s no way” any longer.

One of the biggest challenges with these cycles of lies and disinformation is that there's not just one, single cycle of one, single lie. There are myriad cycles, all happening simultaneously, with different lies at different stages of absurdity, obfuscation, and normalization, so that we end up in a dizzying maelstrom of misinformation.

I don’t know the answers, but I do know we need to name this problem, and work to find ways to anchor ourselves to firm ground amidst the squalls of bullshit.

And I certainly don’t think the media is solely to blame, though they will have an outsize responsibility going forward. We can all suffer from resistance fatigue, but as the media gets jostled about, and slide from firm stand, into nuanced discussion, and finally to normalized exposition, public discourse goes with them.

We’re going to need a strong, principled media more than ever in the hours, days, weeks, months, and years ahead. And they are going to need the support of principled citizens. We need to keep up not just with the immediate scandal of the day, but also with the metanarrative of TrumpCo’s continuous perpetuation of norm-crushing lies on a path toward fascism.

We have to help the media and ourselves to recognize the pattern and work to disrupt it, to name where we are in the cycle of various lies, and to fight to batten down the principles that are under assault, and the once firmly established truths that have become suddenly unmoored.

Because this shit storm is just getting warmed up.