Thousands of President Donald Trump’s supporters attempted a coup d’etat last week. Their actions led to the deaths of at least six people, two of whom were police officers. Even more tragic, if that’s possible, is the fact that one of the officers committed suicide three days after defending the Capitol from the rioters. (CBS News reported that several Capitol Police officers have indicated that they would harm themselves as a result of the riot.) Further, at least 50 officers were injured in the melee.
The above are statements of fact. Efforts to water them down, understate their implications or render them “fake news” are futile. Truth may need help to transmit itself to the masses, but it needs no assistance to validate itself. Truth is inherently self-validating.
Recognizing the abandonment of truth is central to understanding our nation’s current predicament. The lack of truth is at the core of the failed coup. Insurrections do not spring forth fully formed out of nowhere. They have antecedents. Idle talk comes long before decisive action. Ideas — even faulty ones — germinate in the mind before they culminate in the hand. Veracity is not a prerequisite.
The origins of this insurrection are clear. It is critically important to understand that most of these rioters converged on the Capitol because the “alt-right” has moved from the fringes of the Republican Party to become its corp. Steve Bannon, Richard Spencer, Rush Limbaugh, Glenn Beck, most of the major current and former personalities at Fox News, and an ever-growing shadow media embrace deceit as their stock-in-trade. Conspiracy theories, no matter how outlandish, become gospel. In short, the “big lie” is their drug and the Republican base is their junkie.
This cabal has fed white Americans — especially disaffected ones — a steady diet of exaggerations and outright lies about African Americans, Hispanic immigrants, the “mainstream media,” Democrats and even Republicans who refuse to ingest their poison. As Charlie Sykes, a former rightwing talk-show host explains in his book “How the Right Lost Its Mind,” there has been a decades-long effort to bring white grievance to a boiling point. What the world witnessed last week is the inevitable result.
And it’s only the beginning.
Recently, I listened to an NPR program that featured an interview with an intelligent, well-educated white woman who offered an intriguing perspective regarding how rightwing media have lulled her into believing various conspiracy theories — though she formerly rejected theories that her friends espoused. It was agonizing to listen to her struggle with her better judgment.
It is not hyperbolic to refer to such mental and emotional warfare as “psy-ops” (i.e., psychological operations) or “agit-prop” (i.e., agitation-propaganda). These are tactics that the military and the intelligence community — in America and elsewhere — have employed to indoctrinate people into believing whatever the perpetrators have wanted them to believe. Not to be outdone, corporate America quickly caught on. (The tobacco industry is the most persistent and successful copycat.) Political power and astronomical financial gain can be too attractive to resist.
Obviously, the obfuscation and commodification of truth is not new. (Remember “yellow journalism”?) However, the scale, speed and reach that technology allows misinformation to metastasize is unprecedented. There is a genuine existential threat to representative democracies throughout the world.
My intent in offering what might be considered mitigating factors is not to excuse the behavior of those who fall prey to such tactics. I am trying to explain, not to rationalize. Further, even if it is possible to undo this damage — and I’m not convinced that it is — it will take decades of concerted effort. Right-wing critics will raise the specter of totalitarian “reeducation camps,” but I’m not referring to government-run programs. There must be a mixture of interpersonal and institutional “carrots and sticks.” Admittedly, it’s very difficult to conceive of sticks that could pass constitutional muster if they are propagated by government (e.g., pulling FCC licenses). Thus, we likely will be left with voluntary (though often symbolic) actions from social media giants.
The stakes are high. Indeed, our children’s and grandchildren’s futures depend on our willingness to do what it takes to — in the words of Benjamin Franklin — keep our republic.
Larry Smith is a community leader. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.