Last week, we were shocked and horrified as a violent mob of the President’s supporters descended on the Capitol, killing a police officer, injuring dozens more, swarming the House and Senate chamber on the hunt for lawmakers, and generally defiling the People’s House. Shocked and horrified, but not surprised.
This malignant coup attempt, fueled by the worst elements of American society — hate, lies, and social media algorithms, forcefully outlined the dire threat white supremacists pose to our nation. We’ve long known what the consequences of post-truth rhetoric are; we were only wondering when they’d catch up with us. Thanks to eye-opening interviews we conducted in 2020 with several experts on white supremacy and post-truth, we knew something like this was coming.
For our final blog post of the Trump presidency, we’re looking at what we learned about his most ardent supporters in the hopes we can all use this information to ensure another white nationalist never again sullies our highest office.
Lies are the political hallmark of the last four years. Since Trump’s rise, the right has fallen deeper and deeper into the pit of falsity, and this is not an accident. Lee C. McIntyre is the author of Post Truth, which he defines as the political subordination of reality.
“Post truth is pre-fascism,” he told Mila during his interview, quoting the historian Tim Snyder. “When you have control over the information stream, you begin to have control over the populace.”
Trump’s post-truth strategy is precisely the reason American traitors stormed the Capitol last week. What started as lies about inauguration crowd-size became ever more malicious. Those willing to disbelieve their eyes then were the same people willing to look at a free, fair, and secure election and see only massive voter fraud. Once a section of the population believes one lie, they are primed to believe all lies. Trump knew this and used it in a shameful attempt to subvert democracy through white nationalist violence. In hindsight, what are the other logical outcomes of four years of continuous lying?
Post-truth aside, why did right-wing voters fall so hard for such apparent lies, over and over and over? How could it be that two parallel America’s could exist so at odds with one another? According to scholar Nicole Hemmer, our problems today are the culmination of over a half-century of conservative media slowly poisoning their audience’s minds.
The problem, according to Hemmer, is two-pronged. First, conservative media outlets spent decades ensuring their listeners only trusted them.
“One of the ideas was, ‘Believe us, not only because we’re right–like we’re factually right–but because we’re right-wing. We hold the true political position,'” Hemmer said. Conservative media personalities and outlets cultivated the idea that only they spoke the truth, and their audience could trust only them. Over the decades, this idea took hold in their audience.
The second problem was that conservative media values faith-based arguments over facts.
“We’re speaking across an epistemological divide,” she told Mila. “It, I think, is often more useful to think of what’s happening in conservative media as making arguments based on faith claims.” The combination of only trusting right-wing news sources and right-wing news sources using faith-based arguments instead of facts created the modern Republican Party, the Donald Trump Presidency, and the lynch-mob that descended on Washington, D.C. They listened to one source, and that one source preached of a stolen election and to “stop the steal.”
A new generation of genuinely bizarre conspiracy theories have arisen without any theory or any basis in reality. Usually, as Harvard professor Nancy Rosenblum explained to us, conspiracy theories mirror reality in a few key ways. They use evidence and logic to create a new narrative, often correctly.
“[A conspiracy theory] says that something’s happening not as it seems. And it produces all kinds of evidence and arguments for why that’s the case,” Rosenblum said. In the last few years, however, conspiracy theories and the idea of post-truth had a baby called conspiracism.
“It’s conspiracy without the theory,” she explained. “That is, it says the election is rigged. No evidence that the election is rigged. No evidence of fraudulent voters. There’s no evidence, and there are no arguments. It’s a sheer bold assertion of a conspiracy claim.”
The culmination of the right’s flirtation with conspiracism was “Stop the Steal” and the insurrection that followed. The conspiracy that Democrats stole the election became widely disseminated without any factual backing. Parroted by a conservative media with a captive base, the lie was amplified.
According to alt-right expert Alexandra Minna Stern, the alt-right and far-right are a conglomeration of undesirables. “You had white supremacists, white separatists, different types of misogynists, anti-feminists, and those associated with xenophobia and immigration restriction,” she said. “That term [alt-right] really then is utilized by many of these actors and allows them to come together in social media. The term itself becomes a glue that helps them band together.”
For white nationalists, Trump was one of them, and his ascendancy to the White House was a victory. Suddenly validated, these hate groups wanted to expand their power. “I would say that for white nationalists, they would view this as an opportunity to seize the moment and to seize the future, which is very much part of the rhetoric,” Stern explained. The outcome of the 2020 election, which they widely disbelieved, signaled the end of their hold on power.
It’s now painfully clear that Donald Trump is an unbridled fascist, happy to lie, coerce, and violently destroy his political enemies. Fascism has a long and sordid history we can examine. Historian Nathan Stoltzfus, an eminent scholar of Germany’s Third Reich, sat down with Mila last year to explain how Hitler gained and kept his power.
“It’s about belief and maintaining belief,” he told Mila. “People buy into it. It becomes very difficult for them to shake that belief.” He cited cases of Germans committing suicide at the news of Hitler’s death because their cultivated belief in him as their savior was overpowering.
Hitler’s power came from the German people, many of whom adored him thanks to an aggressive propaganda campaign and an assault on truth. They believed he was right, and nothing could shake that belief, even as their world exploded before their eyes.
Stoltzfus noted something similar is afoot in our era. “We can’t have a discussion with people whose main empiricism is belief. The more you undermine it, the more they insist that they have to believe,” he said. “And this is what our president is counting on. This has been his tactic since his inaugural address.”
Trump lost the election, but the beliefs he sowed are less likely to disappear on January 20. A new administration will undoubtedly endeavor to unite the country and bring America back into an era where facts matter and government officials tell the truth, but the damage is done. If we are to move past this dark chapter in our history, we need to combat the beliefs and lies that got us here, not just those telling them and the platforms they use to spread misinformation.
Though the Trump presidency may be over, the fight for the future of our country lays before us.