These Trying Times
October 25, 2018
Words matter. Truth matters.
The president enjoys whipping up crowds, encouraging them to attack journalists, Democrats, and immigrants. He lies constantly. He has no time for anyone who isn’t loyal to him. He doesn’t care if he ends up killing people. He’s already said his supporters will love him even if he personally shoots someone on Fifth Avenue, and they laughed and agreed. That’s our guy.
Trump is our collective nightmare, the product of a media ecosystem that whips up crowds, encourages violence, and has no time for information that might challenge their assertions. He would never be president if it weren’t for Fox News (sic) and its right-wing conspiracy-theorizing cousins. Fox is not a news organization. It abandoned that identity long ago and is now has such power it has achieved the status of being an arm of state propaganda. It feeds on and nourishes a whole media system, entirely separate from other media, that encourages rage, incites hostility towards those who don’t agree with their positions, and spreads lies by drawing on and amplifying the radical right. People have died. They don’t care. The ratings are fine and their guy is in power.
In response to one of the most stunning acts of domestic political terrorism in my lifetime – pipe bombs sent to opposition political figures repeatedly demonized by a president at his vicious, hate-filled mass rallies – the president mocked his own lip-service denouncements of violence: “do you see how nice I’m being?” Knowing full well his crowd didn’t come for nice, doesn’t believe in nice, that they know as well as he does that he thinks nice is weakness. The next morning he blamed the press for the attempts to assassinate his enemies.
He’s almost right – but it’s not the mainstream media, it’s not what he calls fake news at fault. It’s the right-wing media ecosystem and the rage it has harnessed that anointed him president and nudged that bomber to action.
I’ve just started reading Network Propaganda: Manipulation, Disinformation, and Radicalization in American Politics by Yochai Benkler, Robert Faris, and Hal Roberts. (There’s an open access version; that’s what I’m reading while I wait for the copy I ordered.) It explains why so many people on the right could be persuaded that the Democratic candidate for the presidency was involved in a vast pedophile and why there isn’t a similar embrace of absurd conspiracy theories on the left. I doubt the authors could have predicted just how relevant this research is at our fraught moment. It explains a lot – except, perhaps, whether we will have the will and the strength to overcome the ingrown, self-referential propagation of lies, fear, and anger that is so intent on denying and even destroying truth-seeking institutions, including higher education, responsible journalism, and libraries.
We have work to do if we’re going to get out of this dark place we’re in. I’m worried it’s too late.