With the US election night in immediate looming focus across the globe, and a prospective return to Democratic leadership impending given exit polls, join me in reflecting on the legacy of misinformation Trump has imprinted on the presidency during his term.
It is no exaggeration to cast Donald Trump as an enemy of democracy: never before in US history has a president ushered in their term with quite such a questionable basis for their leadership and lack of professionalism. From cut-throat disinformation and slander attempts, to dalliances with Russia and an endless “who’s who” of campaign managers and staff caught abusing their position, embroilled in legal issues to this day, Trump’s ascent to power has ran into a degree of controversy unlike any predecessor has generated prior.
If possible in this cursed timeline, cast your mind back to 2016. The announcement of Trump’s republican nomination was met with a variety of responses, particularly a sense of ludicrous insanity from many that recalled Home Alone cameos and tragic Apprentice spin-offs. His nomination provided ample meme content for various commentators, resulting in a huge influx of online content surrounding the bloated, orange figure.
A total of 17 major candidates entered the Republican nominee race in 2016. Prior to the 2020 Democratic Party presidential primaries, this was the largest presidential primary field for any political party in American history.
U.S. Senator Ted Cruz of Texas won the Iowa caucuses, and Trump won the New Hampshire primary and the South Carolina primary. From March 16, 2016, to May 3, 2016, only three candidates remained in the race: Trump, Cruz, and Ohio Governor John Kasich. Cruz won four Western contests and won in Wisconsin, keeping a credible path to denying Trump the nomination on first ballot with 1,237 delegates.
However, Trump scored landslide victories in New York and five northeastern states in April before taking every delegate in the Indiana primary of May 3. Without any further chances of forcing a contested convention, Cruz suspended his campaign and Trump was declared the presumptive Republican nominee by Republican National Committee chairman Reince Priebus on May 3, surprising many with his traction.
This was supposed to be a joke, right? Who would vote for Trump?
While many revelers inside and outside of America were laughing or stunned to an incredulous halt at the prospect of the reality star and businessman’s foray into politics, just as many people were casting Trump in a very different light: a story of a successful man, outside of the “swamp” of politics with populist ideas. A belief was forming that Trump could “make America great again.” Too caught up in the perceived ridiculousness of his victory to notice, and now too late to attempt to tackle the growing right wing populist movement at it’s roots.
Trump support had well and truly gained powerful traction on American soil and beyond.
Trump’s online popularity never surprised me. His brash and entirely without nuance way of operating appeals to the authoritarian personality crowd immensely, the same predominately young, white men that perpetuate the existence of 4chan and espouse a desire for strong traditional values, or claim to in a trolling manner. The crowd that takes little seriously, worshipping Trump through memes, reducing the real consequences of his actions to just a hilarious punchline on a messageboard, cast as a legend for insane manifesto promises like the wall. Detached from the implications of a Trump presidency as they know their rights and freedoms aren’t in immediate danger, allowing for endless comedy mock-ups that circulated throughout the internet in the run-up to the election results.
The online popularity never surprised me due to the detached jocular sphere of escapism the internet offers. The IRL popularity came as a shocking blow to those casting themselves as sensible, as now sensible people were declaring their support for the man en masse, coming out of the woodwork in droves, resonating with and relating to the anti-establishment sentiment, ready for someone entirely outwith the political sphere to totally change the American political landscape.
It shouldn’t have surprised us. The recognisable face of Trump shouldn’t have been underestimated. Despite his clear lack of qualifications and experience for the job, Trump had a populist, pacifying, lying manner that resulted in mass appeal very quickly among the disaffected, the traditional, those that felt “left behind” with modern egalitarian values: white supremacists, misogynists, and racists yes, but also average Joe’s and Jane’s dissatisfied with their lives believing promises of making America great again. Moderates, members of the LGBTQ+ community, women, and ethnic minorities alike voted for a man who, on paper and in policy, would seek to limit the rights of these groups if elected.
It is essential to understand that Trump, despite one’s better judgement screaming “as if” loudly at a big, ugly poster of him, had a strong basis of power centralised on his recognition amongst citizens, and his seemingly strong anti-establishment take in the face of a population then tired with politics and eager for change.
The actual factual presidency of Donald Trump began at noon EST (17:00 UTC) on January 20, 2017, when he was inaugurated as the 45th President of the United States, succeeding Barack Obama. As discussed, Trump was a businessman and reality television personality from New York City at the time of his 2016 presidential election victory over Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton.
While Trump lost the popular vote, he won the Electoral College vote, 304 to 227, in a presidential contest that American intelligence agencies concluded was targeted by a Russian interference campaign. Already off to a fantastic start. Controversy from the first day of office.
Trump has made many false or misleading statements during his campaign and presidency. The statements have been documented by fact-checkers, with political scientists and historians widely describing the phenomenon as unprecedented in modern American politics, resulting in the increased study of misinformation in the modern era, facilitated by the web.
This is perhaps one of the most defining aspects of Trump’s legacy – “fake news”, which he ludicrously claims to have invented the term for, rather than being one of the fundamental reason for it’s increased usage. Trump’s presidency and campaign has impacted and will impact many referendums and elections subsequently afterwards, from fears of misinformation and Russian interference in the most recent UK election, to Brexit now being inexorably tied to targeted misinformation campaigns online. Trump and his ilk are of the Farage NHS bus school of philosophy.
Trump’s tactic of outright denial has flipped the political landscape on itself, creating a trend of refusals to resign, refusal to co-operate, and refusal to be held accoutable, an essential quality for a politics system to embody in a democratic world. His attitude has subverted the democratic process and brought intrinsic shame and disgrace to a political system that at least used to possess a veneer of decorum. The gloves are off, the veil parted, the trick exposed, the balance upset as the professionalism surrounding political manouvering all but evaporates, and any respect American has on the world stage diminishes with every egotistical, brash blunder. Or does it?
The world seemingly adapted pretty quickly to Trump’s way of doing things. Reports expressing shock and ridicule regarding Trump’s propensity to Tweet died down. We accepted it. Mad lies and incomprehensible speeches? We accepted it, got used to it after a while. Campaign managers and White House staff changes weekly? Team members arrested for fraud? Part and parcel. The media and commentators, initially so heated and dismayed by Trump’s actions and mannerisms, seemed to gradually acclimatise to the madness of Trump’s presidency with a certain ease that should terrify us all. Just how much can we get used to? To what extent can things fail to surprise us anymore? How do our own personal circumstances supersede national and international ones, facilitating our eventual ignorance or acceptance of potentially disastrous methods of operating?
Perhaps what is most horrifying when reflecting on Trump’s presidency is that acceptance, echoing populist movements of the past – have we really learned our lesson? Are we less likely to fight against and resist drastic policy and procedure changes despite our all time high awareness of what we should be looking for?
Four in ten voters believe that journalists are biased against Donald Trump, according to a new poll for the Independent taken three days ago. Trump’s claims of fake news are still working – because people WANT to believe. He is providing false information that aligns with the personal views of voters, compelling them to seize on this misinformation, and defend it voraciously. Telling them what they desire to hear.
In this vein of fake news, Trump, as recent as Monday, claimed the worsening coronavirus outbreak is a “Fake News Media Conspiracy,” saying the nation has the most cases in the world only because “we TEST, TEST, TEST.”
On Wednesday he tweeted: “Covid, Covid, Covid is the unified chant of the Fake News Lamestream Media. They will talk about nothing else until November 4th., when the Election will be (hopefully!) over. Then the talk will be how low the death rate is, plenty of hospital rooms, & many tests of young people.”
And who can forget that in January, 2018, he even staged the “Fake News Awards”, garlanding journalists from CNN, the New York Times, Washington Post and other outlets who he felt had published the most egregious falsehoods. In almost all cases, a retraction or clarification of the error was published shortly after.
Trump has been instrumental in fuelling this distrust for mainstream news outlets, almost sanctioning every conceivable conspiracy theory individuals could possibly possess, whether directly or indirectly. Distract, divide, and conquer.
Constant misinformation has lead to a climate of simple denial, while the public generally moves on to the next controversy, with most having a half-life of a day at most. The ease of which Trump can lie is amplified by a general distrust in mainstream media, resulting in a bonkers tendency to believe random blogs and YouTube videos over known outlets. People can choose to ignore facts and subscribe to alternative beliefs with considerable ease, all they need is a phone or a computer to plug in and tune out anything other than their echo chamber, perpetuating the success of President Trump through willful ignorance.
The desire to believe falsehoods about a group of people to increase feelings of superiority in oneself is nothing new, but the internet facilitates the same function on a much grander scale. Trump has normalised ignorance, normalised screeching “fake news” when you don’t like something or can’t tetris squeeze it into an existing worldview – it can simply be ignored.
There is no truth or singularity. Trump has successfully popularised a blueprint of abject denial and ignorance for subsequent populist leaders. We may yet bear even worst repercussions in the future as leaders unknown are inspired by Trump’s legacy.
One can only hope for a shift in the tectonic plates of politics once more – that people, starved of the truth will hunger for uniformity and cohesion after a lesson in disparate and confusing misinformation. How long will they prefer to live in echo chambers of their own making? Only time will tell.
Featured Image Credit: The Independent