Repressive regimes don’t tell the truth, and, if they do, it’s because the truth works to their advantage. Truth, for undemocratic regimes, is malleable. And they’ve no shame. Look at China’s attempt to blame America for the coronavirus pandemic. Iran has gone a step further and is blaming Israel and America for Covid-19. The Soviet Union and Nazi Germany made propaganda – in other words, lies – a feature of their regimes. Hitler wrote the “broad masses…readily fall victims to the big lie rather than the small lie”. There is another way, though, to achieve the same result and it’s to tell so many small lies that they become a big lie.
This has been the establishment’s way of undermining the Trump presidency. The technique has a precursor – the Gish Gallop, which is a logical fallacy named after the creationist Duane Gish. The technique is simple, but effective. Bombard people with negative stories, each of which is plausible at face value, but which contains a small untruth that would require too much effort to refute. Over time a picture forms in people’s minds of the antagonist, which is overwhelmingly negative. And when finally you tell the big lie, it’s believable. This is the democratic way of lying. You don’t need a Ministry of Propaganda and Public Enlightenment. You don’t need Pravda. You don’t need to control the media. You just need a media that shares the same ideology.
The Pew Research Center reported, in 2017, that only five per cent of news stories published during Trump’s first 60 days in office were positive. This is an extraordinary finding because, excluding independent voters, there is roughly the same number of liberals and conservatives in America. The numbers are similar in other democratic countries: there’s an almost equal split between people who are left-wing and those who are right-wing. And this split is good for democracy. It means that democracies are continually having a Socratic dialogue at a national level. But news is mediated, by definition, through the media — and if people are not getting objective news then they cannot make informed decisions about politics.
This is what has happened to Trump. It is easy to construct a narrative if you have an intellectually dishonest media – take a sentence or a statement out of context and you can make the most negative thing sound positive and make the most positive thing sound negative. You can even create something out of nothing. Even Jimmy Carter, no fan of the Republican Party or Trump, said “I think the media has been harder on Trump than any other president certainly that I’ve known about. I think they feel free to claim that Trump is mentally deranged and everything else without hesitation”. In contrast, the halo that surrounds Barack Obama is not because he was a brilliant president, but because his media coverage was almost overwhelmingly positive. Most people who love Obama know nothing about the dark side of his presidency, because the media never told them. And if they did, the coverage was muted, fleeting, or whitewashed.
Obama’s scandals didn’t merit the wall-to-wall coverage that follows every Trump tweet. Imagine if Trump, rather than Obama, had done any of the following. Given 2,000 guns to Mexican drug cartels that led to the deaths of hundreds of Mexicans. Eric Holder is the only Attorney General in American history to be held in contempt by Congress due to his lying over the affair. How about Obama paying $1.7 billion in cash to Iran, with funds that, by law, were not to be given to Iran unless they paid compensation to American victims of Iran’s terrorism. This money helped fund Iranian terrorism in the Middle East. Don’t know anything about that, no? Remember when Obama’s Department of Justice wiretapped the Associated Press? No, I didn’t think so. What about the Internal Revenue Service targeting conservative activist groups? You haven’t heard about that either. Or what about Obama and Hillary Clinton orchestrating a cover-up over their response to the attack on the American Embassy in Benghazi, where the ambassador and staff were tortured and murdered by Islamic terrorists? Let me guess, zilch. Amazing, isn’t it? And you think you’re politically sophisticated because you laugh at a meme of Trump holding a bottle of Lysol.
Which brings me to the most disheartening aspect of modern politics –- the inability of people to understand information. Ever since the ancient Greeks there’s been a discussion about the average person’s ability to be an informed and intelligent citizen. I’m a committed democrat but sometimes I despair at what passes for intelligent political debate. Whatever the merits of democracy, which outweigh the positives of every other political system human beings have ever tried, it’s hard to be optimistic for the world after a few days on social media. People either don’t understand information – in other words, they’re stupid. They don’t care whether the information they post online is untrue. In other words, they’re amoral. Or, they’re deliberately posting information that they know is untrue, in other words – they’re malicious.
The controversy about Trump, bleach and disinfectant, in the words of two American journalists, is a case in point. One tweeted that Trump said, “drink bleach”. The other tweeted that Trump “urged Americans to inject themselves with disinfectant”. Both of these statements are untrue. Yet people from all walks of life, including the so-called intelligentsia – journalists, artists, librarians, politicians, writers, – the people who are supposed to understand information, and who are expected to be honest in how they use information, have repeated this falsehood.
As the Meme Policeman wrote: “The irony of the whole thing is the people dunking with the Lysol comments think they’re on the side of science and level-headedness when they are actually demonstrating they are unable to view things with objectivity“. My suspicion is that there are many people who have been educated beyond their intelligence. Either that, or some people are so wedded to a political ideology that the truth is simply a tool to further their ambitions.
Whichever of these two things are correct, it was the cumulative effect of a multitude of lies that led people to believe that Trump said drink bleach and inject disinfectant.
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