Media

Flat Earthers and Feedback Loops

How Trump, Murdoch, Breitbart & Co. drive reason toward the end of its tether.

Flat Earthers and Feedback Loops

Donald Trump participates in a debate sponsored by Fox News at the Fox Theatre on March 3, 2016 in Detroit. (Photo by Chip Somodevilla/Getty Images)

Don’t let it be said that Donald Trump is clueless. Mendacious, chaotic, vicious, disgusting and arguably psychopathic, yes. Supply your own examples from the past week. Say, bragging about crowd sizes and attacking Barack Obama at the Boy Scout jamboree; urging police not to “be too nice” when throwing thugs into paddy wagons, and later claiming he was kidding; tweeting Reince Priebus into oblivion…. From the trademark slogan “You’re fired” to “Please don’t be too nice” — is this progress in presidentiality? Only if the Marx Brothers had lived to write a sequel to Duck Soup starring John Belushi as Anthony Scaramucci.

But cluelessness doesn’t explain why truth reels in the United States. Trump gets all too many clues — from delusional sources. He rubber-stamps a mental agenda drawn up by Rupert Murdoch, Sean Hannity, Breitbart News, Alex Jones, Tucker Carlson, Mike Cernovich, et al., and the Republican politicians who share their wavelength. Trump sops up their horror stories, then barks, tweets, brays and pumps them back out to be amplified in turn on talk radio, Fox News and the other conduits of what I have been calling the VOices of RighT-wing EXtremism, aka the VORTEX. What happens next is a positive feedback loop — garbage begets garbage. The Birthers, Whitewater, “Travelgate” and Vince Foster conspiracy theorists, “death panel” enthusiasts, “Lock Her Up!” chanters, scientist-haters and other Flat Earth factions gulp down the Kool-Aid, panicking those Republican members of Congress who haven’t already swallowed.

Sometimes Trump reacts almost instantaneously, as with the Swedish riot that wasn’t, last February. You may recall that, having watched a Fox News documentary about immigrant violence in Sweden, he told an adoring rally the next day:  “…look at what’s happening last night in Sweden,” vaguely suggesting some dire incident, a riot or, perhaps a terror attack. There was no riot the previous night; there was the Fox News show. As the BBC commented:

The statement about a particular incident on Friday night baffled Swedes, including former [conservative] Prime Minister Carl Bildt, who tweeted: “Sweden? Terror attack? What has he been smoking?”

Do these spikes of hysteria matter? In a word, yes. As each panic wave subsides, it leaves a residue of delusion. Over time, the residue tends to acquire one stratum after another. Even refutations and denials can fuel the belief that there’s a “controversy,” an “issue.” Since the right’s paranoid system churns incessantly, a huge and well-represented public has crystallized over the decades. It’s not necessarily a majority on one issue or another, but it has hardened into a permanent critical mass that forces reason into a corner. The Flat Earthers set an agenda that often enough infects the mainstream media as well as the Vortex. What is ludicrously called “the debate” remains warped even if the scarred-up Party of Reason does, for a time, prevail — as when, last week, thanks to three defections, Mitch McConnell failed to bulldozer Obamacare into oblivion.

So as not to get lost in the particular lunacies of the last week (which by the time this piece appears will likely have been bumped aside in favor of the next round) let’s consider in some detail a single case study of a hoax with long legs, a continuing story, one that promises grave consequences for democracy — Trump’s claim that he would have won the popular vote had it not been for voter fraud.

so he tweeted on Nov. 27.

This was no idle and groundless boast; this was a fantasy with a history, and it’s nowhere near dead.  Trump guaranteed it a future when he set up a Republican-majority Presidential Advisory Commission on Election Integrity, nominally headed by Vice President Mike Pence (“no preconceived notions”), vice-chaired by the unflagging pursuer of fraudulent voters Kansas Secretary of State Kris Kobach (recently fined by a federal judge for a “pattern” of “misleading the court” in voter-ID matters), and including longtime voter fraud fanatic Hans von Spakovsky. The point, obviously, is to suppress the nonwhite vote. Kobach has been beating this drum for years.

Trump’s immediate source for his Roswell-New-Mexico-level claim about 3 million noncitizen votes (let alone God knows how many other cases of voter fraud) seems to have been an interview conducted by CNN’s Chris Cuomo on the day of Trump’s tweet with a gentleman named Gregg Phillips. Phillips is a longtime hunter for vote fraud in Texas, Alabama, and Mississippi. In 2016, he tweeted that

and that

Phillips works with an organization called “True the Vote,” which began as a tea party offshoot dispatching white poll watchers to mostly-black precincts in Houston. In 2010, as Mariah Blake wrote in The Atlantic, they deployed “hundreds of observers to minority neighborhoods in and around Houston, where they gathered more than 800 complaints of improper voting.” A complaint is not evidence, and 800 is not a huge number, not in the fourth-largest city in America, but the tea party offshoot parlayed this early success into a national recruitment drive. By 2012 they claimed to have trained a million poll watchers nationally, and von Spakovsky spoke at their convention. Abby Rapoport, a solid Texas reporter, thought their claims overblown and ineffective. The New York Times debunked many of them. But these folks never went away. They’re back.

On his CNN show, Cuomo cited a Phillips tweet 16 days earlier, which ran as follows:

But an hour after the Cuomo-Phillips piece aired, Trump credited Phillips and applauded his study:  “Gregg Phillips and crew say at least 3,000,000 votes were illegal.”

For a study in the dynamics of the Vortex feedback loop, watch closely the bouncing ball. Phillips said his group had collected evidence that millions of illegal votes had been cast in 2016, but refused Cuomo’s repeated attempts to elicit some evidence. He needed months to prepare a public report, he said. When Cuomo noted truthfully that he’d put out his numbers before the final vote results were in, Phillips, unfazed, said:  “We are as precise as we need to be.” When would he show his final results? “When the time’s right.”

Last week, by the way, claiming a shortage of funds, Phillips backed off the promised report, saying: “Next steps up are for us to sort of pull back on the national audit, and focus on targeted investigations.”

“Targeted investigations” has a sinister ring, but surely other fake think tanks will arise to pick up where Phillips left off—never mind that at least 20 studies since 2009, including one by the nonpartisan Government Accountability Office, found in-person voter fraud to be extremely uncommon. Never mind that when George W. Bush’s Justice Department tried to crack down on voter fraud over a five-year period, they achieved fewer than 100 convictions — mostly honest mistakes, not intentional fraud. In the words of NYU’s Brennan Center,
most reported incidents of voter fraud are actually traceable to other sources, such as clerical errors or bad data matching practices. The report [“The Truth About Voter Fraud”] reviewed elections that had been meticulously studied for voter fraud, and found incident rates between 0.0003 percent and 0.0025 percent. Given this tiny incident rate for voter impersonation fraud, it is more likely, the report noted, that an American “will be struck by lightning than that he will impersonate another voter at the polls.”

But in the looking-glass world of Vortex, lightning strikes do make news. Remember, this administration is run (if that is the right word) by a friend of the editor of the National Enquirer.

So unsurprisingly, the Republican crowd snaps to attention. When Trump declares himself the winner of a phantom popular vote, his voters are inclined to believe him: According to a Morning Consult/Politico poll, more believe that Trump won the popular vote (49 percent) than believe the truth—that Clinton won (40 percent). As one Trump surrogate put it, “Mr. Trump’s tweets, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth.”

The majority of Trump voters who think he won the popular vote may or may not be precisely the 51 percent of Republicans, or the 52 percent of Fox News viewers, who in 2015 believed that weapons of mass destruction had been found in Iraq. They may not include all the 41 percent of Republicans who affirmed last August that they did not believe Barack Obama was born in the United States, or some of the additional 31 percent who weren’t sure. But they give us a sense of the scale of the problem.

So the Party of Delusion and Panic rolls on, a cement mixer endlessly churning up new material. The echo chamber is never quiet. One propaganda blast fades (the murder of Seth Rich!) and another clangs in its place (Debbie Wasserman Schultz’s suspicious IT worker!)  Just the other day, Fox News touted a “bunker boom,” a spike in orders for —wait for it — underground shelters, now that “North Korea threat has Americans preparing to go underground.” The article cites two Bay Area sources, both anonymous, who say they’ve ordered shelters; the rest of the piece dwells on one company’s sales to Japan. Breitbart, for its part, front-paged “20-Time Deportee Moves to Sanctuary City, Allegedly Rapes 65-Year-Old Woman.” The din is constant. But this stuff is music to the ears of the true believers.

For in the words of political scientists Matt Grossman and David A. Hopkins,

…the conservative movement simultaneously undermined popular faith in both mainstream academe and journalism among its supporters, building and reinforcing Republican reliance on alternative ideological information sources Although conservative elites long viewed academe and journalism as hostile to their politics, it required a sustained effort to transmit that distrust to their public supporters and to promote their alternatives….Declining public approval of academics and journalists coincided with the rise of alternative sources on the right that popularized ideologically motivated criticisms of these professions. Previous research shows how distrust of the news media helped to fuel conservative alternatives, which in turn gave rise to more media distrust.

In their recent book, Asymmetric Politics, Grossmann and Hopkins point out that, by way of contrast, the left has huddled close to establishment media and “sources that often implicitly flatter the Democratic worldview but do not portray themselves or their consumers as engaged in an ideological conflict.” In other words, while the right was going full blast, the mainstream bent over backward to prove it was the last recourse of objectivity. It lamely played the game of both-sides-ism.

Now, at last, the best have joined “the resistance,” compelled by a commitment to truth and a sense of decency to look, at times, like Steve Bannon’s nightmare “opposition party.” But for all the fine investigative work now underway at The Washington Post, The New York Times, The Guardian, Reuters, The New Republic and USA Today, among others, the mainstream media have yet to face up to the part they’ve played over the years in lending credence to the pure products of the Vortex. As Paul Krugman reminds us unceasingly, they fail to challenge the transparently false notion that, in the 72 years since Harry Truman called for socialized medicine, the Republicans have ever offered a plan to improve health care. In the rush of hero worship and the traditional flood of both-sides-ism, they let pass John McCain’s ridiculous statement last week that after years of hearings, consultations and amendments, “the Obama administration and congressional Democrats…forced through Congress without any opposition support a social and economic change as massive as Obamacare.”

Reader, it’s time for a happy ending here, but it eludes me. Even if Trump falls from power, even if the Democrats bounce back in 2018 and 2020, even if the post-Ailes Murdoch empire decomposes once patriarch Rupert leaves the scene, the lust for untruth is a feature of the media landscape till kingdom come. The past cannot be unwritten, though Fox News will try. The Party of Delusion and Panic may be contained, but it is here to stay. Sad!

Todd Gitlin

Todd Gitlin is a professor of journalism and sociology and chair of the Ph.D. program in communications at Columbia University. He is the author of 16 books, including several on journalism and politics. His next book is a novel, The Opposition. Follow him on Twitter: @toddgitlin.

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