The rise of what may become a sustained right-wing resistance — a Tea Party armed with guns and brainwashed by QAnon —oiok pretty much guarantees that the media won’t be able to slide back into their old habits once Trump is gone.
Distrust of the media is nothing new. The percentage of Americans who say they have faith in news organizations has been falling for at least a generation. But the widening partisan nature of that distrust has left Republicans increasingly uninformed. And that, in turn, helps explain why the Trumpist right espouses conspiracy theories on topics ranging from COVID-19 to QAnon.
Over the weekend, the Pew Research Center published a roundup of “20 striking findings from 2020.” Checking in at No. 13 was a survey from earlier this year showing that Republicans lack faith in the media to a far greater extent than Democrats.
There are many layers to the survey, but here’s a particularly telling data point: 60% of Republican and Republican-leaning respondents cited a “desire to mislead” as one of the principal reasons that news outlets make mistakes, compared to just 32% of Democrats and Democratic leaners. Overall, 78% of Democrats and Democratic leaners who strongly disapprove of President Donald Trump “expect that the news they get will largely be accurate” compared to just 39% of strong Trump supporters on the Republican side.
Such findings have to be seen in the context of what media sources people rely on for their news and information. The evidence shows that Trump supporters have isolated themselves from mainstream discourse.
As far back as 2014, Pew found that “consistent conservatives” were “tightly clustered around a single news source,” with “47% citing Fox News as their main source for news about government and politics.” Other studies, such as a 2017 MIT-Harvard Law School effort, showed that liberals consumed a far more varied media diet than did conservatives. The power and influence of Fox News has only grown since then, notwithstanding the recent success of Newsmax and OANN, which are more willing to indulge Trump’s lies about the election.
Mainstream outlets such as The New York Times, The Washington Post and NPR are hardly perfect, of course. The Times and the Post, in particular, often cater more than they should to the liberal sensibilities of their subscribers. But, however flawed they may be, they are guided by journalistic principles such as truth-seeking and verification, whereas their counterparts on the right, such as Fox’s prime-time hosts, the Gateway Pundit and Rush Limbaugh, engage in little other than right-wing propaganda.
The effect of this asymmetric polarization in media consumption is clear enough in politics, as we are currently witnessing an unprecedented assault on the outcome of a presidential election that wasn’t even close. But it manifests itself in other ways as well.
Take, for instance, No. 19 on Pew’s list — a survey showing that 41% of Republicans and Republican leaners who’ve heard of the QAnon conspiracy theory believe that it’s either good or very good for the country, compared to just 7% on the Democratic side.
QAnon, in case you haven’t heard, is based on the belief that Hillary Clinton and other Democrats are involved in an international pedophile ring and that Trump is secretly working to defeat them. Pew notes that, incredibly, more than a dozen candidates for the House and Senate last fall, all Republicans, were QAnon supporters, or at least Q-curious. Two of them actually won election to the House.
Or consider Pew’s No. 1 finding, which is as unsurprising as it is enraging: “Since the very beginning of the U.S. coronavirus outbreak, Democrats have been far more likely than Republicans to see COVID-19 as a ‘major threat’ to public health.” How wide is the split? According to a November survey, 84% of Democrats and Democratic leaners see it was major threat but just 43% on the Republican side.
“The partisan gap on this measure,” Pew said, “remains about as wide as at any point during the outbreak and stands in contrast to the large shares of both Republicans (83%) and Democrats (86%) who say the outbreak is a major threat to the U.S. economy.”
Those two findings explain a lot. With the exception of a few GOP officials like Gov. Charlie Baker of Massachusetts and Gov. Mike DeWine of Ohio, Republicans — starting with Trump himself — have led the charge against shutdowns and mask-wearing. Though Democrats and Republicans are roughly equal in their view that COVID-19 threatens the economy, Democrats see those public-health measures as necessary for getting the pandemic under control while Republicans see them as assaults on freedom.
Which is why many Trump supporters are willing to engage in behavior that puts both themselves and the rest of us at risk. Or as Texas Lt. Gov. Dan Patrick told Fox News host Tucker Carlson last spring: “There are more important things than living, and that’s saving this country for our children and our grandchildren.” No wonder we’ve now lost more than 300,000 American lives to COVID-19.
Pew’s No. 20 could be a bad omen for Mark Zuckerberg. A majority of Democrats and Republicans said they believe social-media companies are censoring political views — although that belief was more pronounced among Republicans.
Many of Pew’s other findings documented the misery we’re all experiencing during this terrible year. International travel is down. For the first time since the Great Depression, a majority of young adults are living with their parents. Four in 10 people surveyed said either they or someone in their household had been laid off or taken a pay cut. More than half know someone who has died or been hospitalized because of COVID.
This past weekend, violence broke out as Trump supporters rallied in support of their false belief that President-elect Joe Biden stole the election. In Michigan, electors needed a police escort to the state capitol so that they could cast their ballots for Biden. A group of House Republicans are threatening chaos next month. Trump shows no signs of backing down, raising the prospect of unrest for months to come.
We all sense that the hyperpolarization that has torn the country apart in recent years and that has accelerated under Trump has reached a tipping point. What the Pew list shows more than anything is that this split is a consequence of the Republican Party becoming increasingly radical, violent and undemocratic.
A lot of that can be traced back to our media habits. Most of us rely on journalism to stay informed. And a sizable minority has gotten sucked down a bottomless hole of falsehoods and conspiracy theories.
We’re all looking forward to 2021. We’ll get vaccinated. COVID-19 will slowly begin to recede. The Biden White House will restore some sense of normality.
In the long run, though, we remain in a very dark place.
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Over the weekend, Donald Trump Jr. posted a shockingly offensive message on Instagram claiming that former Vice President Joe Biden is a child molester. Next to an image of Biden appeared the words “See you later, alligator!” Below was a photo of an alligator with the retort “In a while, pedophile!” (No, I won’t link to it.)
Outrage came swiftly. “The dangerous and untrue charge of pedophilia is the new marker — so far — of how low the Trump campaign will go to smear Biden,” wrote Chris Cillizza at CNN.com. Jonathan Martin of The New York Times called it “an incendiary and baseless charge.” In The Guardian, Martin Pengelly said “most observers” (was that qualifier really necessary?) regarded it as “beyond the pale even in America’s toxic political climate.”
What few analysts noticed, though, was that Trump Jr.’s vile accusation, which he later claimed was a joke, lined up perfectly with a conspiracy theory known as QAnon. Bubbling out of the darkest corners of the internet, the theory claims, in broad strokes, that President Donald Trump is secretly working to destroy a plot led by the Clintons — but of course! — and other Democrats who engage in child abuse and cannibalism. And in order to defeat these malign forces we must heed the cryptic messages of Q, an insider who is helping Trump rout the forces of evil and save the world.
QAnon, in effect, is the ur-theory connecting everything from Pizzagate to paranoia about the “deep state” to regarding impeachment as a “hoax,” as Trump has put it. The Trumps have dabbled in QAnon from time to time as a way of signaling their most wild-eyed supporters that they’re on board. But there’s no exaggerating how dangerous all of this is.
We are living, unfortunately, in a golden age of conspiracy theories. Some, like Alex Jones of Infowars infamy, claim that mass shootings are actually carried out by “crisis actors” in order to give the government a rationale to seize everyone’s guns. Then there’s the anti-vaccine movement, currently standing in the way of any rational response to the COVID-19 epidemic. Indeed, a widely watched video called “Plandemic” falsely claims, among other things, that face masks make you sick and that people who’ve had flu shots are more likely to get COVID.
There’s nothing new about conspiracy theories, just as there’s nothing new about so-called fake news. Never mind the assassination of John F. Kennedy, the subject of a new, weirdly compelling 17-minute song-poem by Bob Dylan called “Murder Most Foul.” A century earlier, there were those who blamed (take your pick) Confederate President Jefferson Davis or Pope Pius IX for the assassination of Abraham Lincoln.
But conspiracy theorizing in the 21st century is supercharged by the internet, with a significant assist from Trump. Trump has indulged not just QAnon but also Alex Jones, the anti-vaxxers and all manner of foolishness about the deep state — the belief that the U.S. government is run by a shadowy cabal of bureaucrats and military officials who are seeking to undermine the president. At its heart, that’s what Trump seems to be referring to when he tweets about “Obamagate!,” a scandalous crime lacking both a scandal and a crime. And let’s not forget that Trump began his political career with a conspiracy theory that he made his own: falsely claiming that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and was thus ineligible to serve as president.
In recent days, the media have converged in an attempt to explain and debunk these various conspiracy theories. Last week, public radio’s “On the Media” devoted a segment to QAnon and “Plandemic.” The investigative website ProPublica has published a guide on how to reason with believers. The American Press Institute has offered tips for reporters. The Conversation, which brings academic research to a wider public, has posted an article headlined “Coronavirus, ‘Plandemic’ and the seven traits of conspiratorial thinking.”
By far the most ambitious journalistic effort is a special project published by The Atlantic called “Shadowland.” And the heart of it is a nearly 10,000-word article by the executive editor, Adrienne LaFrance, profiling the QAnon phenomenon and how it has infected thousands of ordinary people.
“QAnon is emblematic of modern America’s susceptibility to conspiracy theories, and its enthusiasm for them,” LaFrance writes. “But it is also already much more than a loose collection of conspiracy-minded chat-room inhabitants. It is a movement united in mass rejection of reason, objectivity, and other Enlightenment values. And we are likely closer to the beginning of its story than the end.”
What makes QAnon, “Plandemic” and other conspiracies so powerful is that believers have an explanation for every countervailing truth. Experts and others in a position of authority are automatically cast as part of the conspiracy, whether you’re talking about Dr. Anthony Fauci, Hillary Clinton or Joe Biden.
“For QAnon, every contradiction can be explained away; no form of argument can prevail against it,” LaFrance writes. This type of belief system is sometimes referred to as “epistemic closure” — the idea is that believers live in a self-contained bubble that explains everything and that can’t be penetrated by contrary facts.
What can the media do in the face of such intense beliefs? In all likelihood, the answer is: not much. There is a school of thought among some press critics that if only news organizations would push harder, prevaricate less and devote themselves more fully to truth-telling rather than to reporting “both sides,” then a new dawn of rationality would surely follow. But that fundamentally misunderstands the problem, because the mainstream, reality-based media are regarded as part of the conspiracy. Journalism is grounded in the Enlightenment values that LaFrance invokes — the expectation that false beliefs will give way when confronted by facts and truth. Unfortunately, that’s not the world we live in today.
It should be noted that after Donald Trump Jr. posted his hideous attack on Joe Biden, Instagram neither deleted his post nor took down his account. Instagram, as you probably know, is owned by Facebook and is thus firmly ensconced within the Zuckerborg, which wants us all to believe that it is so very much concerned about truth and hate speech.
Thus does such garbage become normalized. You see a reference to Biden as a pedophile, and it seems off the wall. But then you remember he’s apologized for being handsy with women. And wasn’t he accused of sexual assault? And now look — there’s something on the internet about Democrats and pedophilia. Gosh, how are we supposed to know what to think?
Welcome to our nightmare.