In 2016, it was common for everyone watching the presidential campaign — operatives, pundits, journalists, voters — to remark that the whole thing was just crazy. Donald Trump had smashed all the spoken and unspoken rules about how a mature democracy was supposed to conduct an election, leaving much of the country shaking their heads in wonder, alternately amused and bemused, when perhaps more of us should have reacted with horror and panic.
But that was nothing. For his 2020 reelection campaign, Trump is building an engine of chaos. That engine has the president at its head but will also rely on the efforts of his allies, the media outlets that have devoted themselves to his cause, and in all likelihood more help from abroad, especially the Russian government.
All these participants will try to convince voters that Trump has been an excellent president who deserves reelection, but alongside that straightforward attempt at persuasion will be a comprehensive and far-reaching effort to sow mayhem and madness across the entire political landscape so that lies swallow truth and nobody has any idea what to think.
That effort is just beginning to roll, but we can already see it at work in the political story of the moment.
Right now Trump is whipping up racist animosity against four Democratic congresswomen while simultaneously arguing that his attacks have nothing to do with race. When, for instance, he argues that he never spoke about them with the aid of talking points, though there are photographs of him holding the talking points, it’s hard not to think he’s trying to send the media chasing one bizarre lie after another, to drive us all mad.
He’s also fabricating and distorting quotes the congresswomen allegedly said, and those are being repeated and magnified on the news outlets that have devoted themselves to Trump’s service.
You know about Fox News, and you may know about the Sinclair Broadcast Group, a conservative company that requires many of its stations to air pro-Trump commentary. But there’s also the One America News Network, a more recent addition to the cable dial that is almost comically pro-Trump, which he has repeatedly promoted on Twitter.
Kevin Poulsen of the Daily Beast reports on this colorful aspect of OANN’s coverage:
If the stories broadcast by the Trump-endorsed One America News Network sometimes look like outtakes from a Kremlin trolling operation, there may be a reason. One of the on-air reporters at the 24-hour network is a Russian national on the payroll of the Kremlin’s official propaganda outlet, Sputnik.
That’s right, a “reporter” who is literally on the Kremlin payroll works at a news network endorsed by Trump, where he airs stories alleging bizarre conspiracy theories, including one claiming that “Hillary Clinton is secretly bankrolling antifa through her political action committee.”
Meanwhile, BuzzFeed reports that major Republican donors with ties to Ukraine are still working with Rudolph W. Giuliani in an effort to convince that country to help dig up dirt on Joe Biden.
Now let’s step back for a moment. One of the things that emerged from the Mueller investigation was that the joint effort by the Russian government and the Trump campaign was not a “conspiracy” in the way the movies have taught us to think about it, a tightly choreographed and highly efficient operation. They both pursued the same goal, but in many ways it was haphazard and ad hoc, involving a lot of people of varying levels of knowledge and competence.
If anything, the 2020 Trump reelection effort will likely be even more randomly organized, a seething carbuncle of misinformation oozing out in all directions. Some of it will come directly from Trump himself, some will come from his campaign, some will come from the army of trolls and bots that Russia will likely employ on his behalf once again. At times it will seem formless and random, with no clear intent other than the creation of mass confusion and uncertainty.
Much of it will be directed at the Democratic nominee, whoever it is, a cloud of conspiracy theories and ludicrous allegations intended to follow them wherever they go. And while I’m sure the Trump campaign will be happy if it can create a new version of But Her Emails, a single unifying attack that the mainstream media enthusiastically amplify, the Trump campaign may be almost as happy just to create that cloud.
As of yet we’ve seen no evidence that either the Democratic Party or the media themselves have any idea how to to deal with that kind of campaign. They’re both still built for a more “normal” affair, in which the two sides offer biographical stories and policy arguments, and yes, there is deception and demagoguery from time to time, but it’s kept within reasonable limits and we’re able to maintain something resembling an agreement on what’s true and what isn’t.
Now imagine it’s October of 2020. Every day, Trump comes out with some preposterous new lie about the Democratic nominee, making up things they supposedly said and did. As soon as he does so, the lies are pushed through every arm of the conservative media and repeated by Republican politicians. And while news organizations are dutifully writing their factual rebuttals, Trump debuts another, even more preposterous lie a day later.
Meanwhile, voters’ social media feeds are inundated with fake organizations and fake people offering a dizzying array of misinformation, leaving them stumbling from one supposed blockbuster revelation to the next and utterly unable to figure out what is real. The whole thing begins to take on a feeling of madness, where the only safe harbor lies is in the tribe that offers you belonging and the conviction that the people you hate are even worse than you thought.
That’s what’s coming. And it hasn’t even begun.