The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion The Republican propaganda machine kicks into high gear

Special counsel John Durham. (U.S. Department of Justice via AP) (AP)

Those of us in the media who worry about misinformation regularly face a dilemma: When some appalling new story emerges of political actors lying to the public, should you confront it? Or will the attempt to debunk the story only draw more attention to it, spreading the lies further?

There’s no perfect answer that fits every situation. But at the very least, it’s important to understand how systems of propaganda operate, so we can try to minimize the damage they do. And never in our history has there been a propaganda system that operates with the skill, enthusiasm and outright shamelessness of the one conservatives have working for them right now.

That’s depressingly evident in the latest “blockbuster” story gripping the right, a story built on a grab bag of misleading assertions, misinterpretations and outright lies. It forces us to ask yet again: Is it possible to have a healthy democracy when so much of it is soaking in misinformation?

The current story concerns John Durham, the special counsel who has spent almost three years investigating the investigation into Russia’s attempts to subvert the 2016 election. You can read a comprehensive rundown of the facts here or here.

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Durham has indicted Democratic lawyer Michael Sussmann for allegedly lying to the FBI, which Sussmann denies. In 2016, Sussmann, whose firm was doing legal work for Hillary Clinton’s campaign, gave the FBI a tip involving supposedly suspicious internet traffic between servers in Trump buildings and a Russian bank; it turned out to be nothing nefarious.

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Sussman got the information through another client of his, Rodney Joffe, a technology executive with government cybersecurity contracts, including one that involved protecting the White House from cyber attacks.

In a court filing last week, Durham alleged that Joffe “exploited” his arrangement with the White House to obtain the data in question “for the purpose of gathering derogatory information about Donald Trump."

Joffe vigorously denies this. His spokesperson says examining such data was par for the course, as he was doing cybersecurity work for the government, and in late 2016, everyone was appropriately concerned about Russian hacking. Durham has not indicted Joffe for anything.

But this is where the propaganda machine goes nuclear.

Fox News is treating this like a stunning revelation (“Worse than Watergate” trumpeted Sean Hannity), dramatically amping up the story with each retelling. After all, it isn’t good enough to say a lawyer with a second-order connection to the Clinton campaign got information from another client with legitimate access to White House internet traffic data; that’s not nearly scandalous enough.

So Fox published a headline reading “Clinton campaign paid to ‘infiltrate’ Trump Tower, White House servers to link Trump to Russia, Durham finds.” The Washington Examiner claimed Sussmann “spied on Trump’s White House office” — even though the internet data came from 2016, when Barack Obama was president.

“Hillary broke into a presidential candidate’s computer server and a sitting president’s computer server,” claimed Fox host Jesse Watters ludicrously. “There, her hackers planted evidence, fabricated evidence connecting Trump to Russia.”

Tucker Carlson added that Clinton’s campaign stole “presumably text messages,” which not even Durham alleges.

These are all lies. This is not about “hacking,” no evidence was planted and the data on White House traffic came from when Obama was president. You can argue that Durham’s filing was itself misleading and tendentious, but even if every word of it was true, what they were saying on Fox was outrageously false.

But the propaganda machine doesn’t stop there. Republican politicians — even those who know better — see their constituents being fed this line, so they rush to get in on the act:

The coverage has gone meta; Fox is now angrily asking why other news outlets are not matching their breathless coverage of this nothingburger, feeding their viewers’ paranoid fantasies about cover-ups and conspiracies.

So in no time, we move from questionable claims to obviously false allegations to demands for legal retaliation against political opponents to whining about their own victimhood, with the enthusiastic participation of GOP officeholders, none of whom has the courage to say, “Hey guys, I hate Hillary as much as anyone, but it seems like we’re running out ahead of the facts here.”

That’s because every Republican relies on the propaganda machine. It helps their own campaigns. It keeps the base in a state of perpetual anger. And if you question it, you will become its enemy.

This is happening while there’s an entire trial going on in New York about a single inaccurate word in a New York Times editorial about Sarah Palin — an editorial that was quickly corrected. The Times is falling all over itself to explain how it got something wrong, and no one on the left is defending the paper. Meanwhile, Fox programming contains extraordinary amounts of factual errors, misleading assertions and outright lies, almost none of which ever get corrected.

So where does that leave us? The unfortunate answer is that when a propaganda apparatus such as this one is so deeply embedded within one of our parties, it becomes almost impossible to puncture. Fantasies are accepted as fact, lies become immune to refutation and anyone who displays even a modicum of honesty is denounced as a traitor.

There may be a solution out there, a strategy to pull our politics back to reality. But if there is, we haven’t found it yet.

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