The Post’s reporting on the Trump-Raffensperger chitchat was exactly as commentators have described many times over: shocking, but not surprising. Yes, there’s visceral alarm at a leader trying to steal a lost election by unleashing a logorrhea of lies. Yet we all knew precisely what to expect, not only because authoritarian tantrum-throwing is the president’s modus operandi but also because he told us this was his plan months before ballots were tallied. More importantly, he told his supporters what to expect. That’s how Trump media is made.
“The only way we’re gonna lose this election is if the election is rigged,” Trump said at an August rally. The right-wing propaganda apparatus received its instructions, and it executed on them. From “Fox & Friends” to Facebook clickbait farms, suspicion-stoking stories about the integrity of mail-in balloting began to emerge. These semiprofessional entities played the party press, as researchers have put it. The sincere supporters who make up their audience did their part, too: liking and tweeting and retweeting.
The efforts of those supporters are essential to the enterprise because, with the aid of platforms’ algorithms, they spread these tall tales and eventually create their own. The phenomenon might seem awfully democratic for a wishes-he-were-dictator. But it’s also awfully effective. Groomed for misgiving, the pro-Trump public started to read anodyne reports about irregularities and interpreted them as evidence of what their avatar in the Oval Office had been hammering into their heads.
Some campaign mailers discovered in a dumpster? Those were discarded ballot requests for the incumbent! A correction to a data-entry error that resulted in a big bump for Joe Biden? That’s a “dump” of fraudulent votes! Sharpie pens distributed at polling places because their ink dries fastest? Ah ha! A liberal scheme to invalidate the choices of conservatives by making their selections non-machine-readable! (#Sharpiegate, obviously.)
Trump media is self-contained and self-reinforcing. Facts from outside don’t matter: Just listen to Raffensperger rattle off real numbers or rehash real investigations or inhabit more generally the real world. “Mr. President, the challenge that you have is the data you have is wrong,” he said, but Mr. President doesn’t have to listen as long as enough people keep yelling that the data he has is right.
Dominion voting machines meddled with, ballots shredded, boxes stuffed. These imaginary incursions flooding forth from 1600 Pennsylvania Ave. are precisely the topics trending among misinformation mongers — the “hot items,” as the president put it during the call. “You know the Internet? You know what was trending on the Internet?” he asked, referring to a wild rumor about a woman stuffing ballot boxes. “’Where’s [name]?’ Because they thought she’d be in jail. ‘Where’s [name]?’ It’s crazy, it’s crazy.” This woman, he rants, is “known all over the Internet, Brad.”
The tactic is dastardly: Tell a lie from the bully pulpit to the entire nation, and when your most credulous sympathizers start repeating the lie, use the fact that they’re repeating it as a justification for treating it like the truth. Would so many Americans smell something fishy, the argument goes, if nothing really stank? The aim of spreading this propaganda is to win over the public, and when you win over the public, you also win over the elites whose electoral fortunes depend on their allegiance. Some of those elites, of course, started the whole thing, realizing that they could cite civilian concern as a reason to pay attention to a mirage of election-rigging that they themselves erected.
Everyone in Trump media is simultaneously a producer and a consumer, including Trump himself, who loves nothing more than to watch his own network. This is a ouroboros: the mythical image of a snake devouring its own tail. Sometimes, listening to the president’s ravings, it is difficult not to suspect that he really thinks those systems were meddled with, ballots shredded and boxes stuffed. He has told a lie, he has cultivated believers in the lie who tell it right back to him, and now he seems to believe the lie, too. The president is feasting, and he is being feasted upon.