Amazingly, after all we’ve seen, there’s still a tendency in some quarters to treat the falsehoods regularly told by President Trump, and echoed by his media allies, as a somewhat exaggerated but basically conventional form of political dishonesty.
But Trump and certain of his media partisans have long been engaged in something altogether different — something that can only be described as concerted and deliberate disinformation.
Two new televised attacks on House Speaker Nancy Pelosi — Trump’s interview with Laura Ingraham, and Sean Hannity’s follow-up broadcast, both of which aired on Thursday night — provide an occasion to underscore the point.
In his interview with Ingraham, Trump ripped into Pelosi for privately saying she wants to see Trump “in prison.” He blasted Pelosi as a “nasty, vindictive, horrible person” and claimed special counsel Robert S. Mueller III’s report was a “disaster” that produced “nothing” (an incalculable absurdity, given its incredibly damning revelations).
Trump also insisted that Mueller produced a letter to “straighten out” his recent public remarks, which were “wrong” (as Steve Benen shows, Mueller in no way backed off his devastating core assertions). And Trump called the investigation a “phony witch hunt,” absurdly suggesting the Russian attack on our political system, which Mueller extensively documented, was a big nothing never worth investigating.
“I think they’re in big trouble,” Trump said of Pelosi and Democrats, “when you look at the kind of crimes that were committed.”
This echoed Trump’s long-running argument that the only corruption that occurred was the Russia investigation itself, perpetrated by law enforcement and Democrats, an absurd rewriting of basic history that has generated one buffoonish pratfall after another.
Naturally, Hannity picked up this baton, tearing into Pelosi for wanting “a political opponent locked up in prison,” which “happens in banana republics":
Hannity also claimed it’s an “irrefutable fact that there was no collusion.” This is a severe distortion: Mueller said “collusion” isn’t a legally meaningful term and documented extensive efforts by Trump World to encourage, profit off, and, yes, conspire with the Russian attack. Hannity suggested Democrats “don’t state” what they believe Trump has done wrong — a ridiculous lie, since this is amply laid out in Democratic documents.
It’s the disinformation, stupid
It should be impossible to watch these diatribes in full without quickly realizing that this isn’t ordinary political dishonesty — some level of artifice is an inevitable feature of politics — but rather is something much more insidious. What’s notable is the sheer comprehensiveness of the effort to create an alternate set of realities whose departure from the known facts seemingly aims to be absolute and unbridgeable.
As many have noted, it’s richly absurd that Hannity is claiming Pelosi is engaging in “banana republic” stuff, given that Trump has called for investigations into his political opponents for years. Indeed, in the Ingraham interview, Trump blasted Pelosi over this, then immediately segued into suggesting that Democrats will soon be held accountable for imagined crimes.
But this absurd duality should be understood as a feature of this kind of Trumpian disinformation. It won’t do to note its self-contradictory nature. The whole point is to wield this kind of absurdity as an instrument of power. It’s to use an alternate reality to supplant and extinguish good faith efforts to discern actual reality — to blot out the possibility of shared agreement on facts that are in front of all our noses through the sheer insistence that the alternate reality is supreme. The alt-reality doesn’t have to be proved as the true one; just established as the dominant one.
Disinformation and ‘constitutional rot’
Don’t take my word for it. With Trump’s lies and distortions now numbering over 10,000, serious political theorists have noted this aspect of Trumpian disinformation. See this Jacob Levy essay, which argues that Trump’s autocratic reshaping of reality on multiple fronts depends on the delegitimization of other institutional authority.
Or see this Jack Balkin essay on “constitutional rot.” One key sign of our breakdown, Balkin argues, is the fact that Trump has the backing of what can only be understood as “domestic propaganda machines."
Such propaganda, Balkin notes, “undermines the crucial role of deliberation and the search for truth in a democracy. Propaganda attempts to put everything in dispute, so that nothing can be established as true.” It “undermines shared criteria of reasoning, good faith attempts at deliberation, and mutual accommodation between political opponents in democracies.”
It’s impossible to watch Trump’s Fox interview and not come away convinced that, by instinct or design, this is what Trump is up to.
Pelosi shouldn’t be talking about Trump going to prison (though her rhetorical point, made privately, was that the only way to hold Trump accountable is to beat him in 2020), and surely all this will be portrayed by some as an equivalent erosion of norms on both sides.
But as Brian Beutler notes, the equivalence is false: Trump actually does face the real possibility of prosecution for campaign finance crimes after he leaves office. He did engage in extensive, documented wrongdoing and (but for Justice Department policy) likely criminal obstruction of justice. The Trump/Hannity narrative seeks to expunge these facts precisely through the act of trying to overwhelm reality with falsehoods.
Yet little of this understanding of Trumpian disinformation, or the deep asymmetries created by it, has penetrated to the broader media. As The Post’s Paul Farhi aptly reports, many in the media are still shy about accurately characterizing Trump’s serial lying. Read press critic Jay Rosen’s acid thread in response, which argues that false balance in the face of this deep disinformation-driven imbalance is itself profoundly distortive.
Indeed, it’s a particularly galling irony that the refusal to treat this disinformation for what it is itself helps contribute to a badly misleading picture of one of the most basic realities about our current political moment. We are still not reckoning adequately with what’s happening.