The World Is Ending For Trump’s Supporters. So They’re Trying To Destroy Ours
The chain of events which led to yesterday’s attack on the Capitol began with the pettiest of lies. Donald Trump, his ego bruised by the fact that the crowds at his inauguration were (far) smaller than Barack Obama’s, encouraged the then press secretary, Sean Spicer, to say that Trump’s swearing-in, had drawn “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration.”
When reporters challenged this trivially falsifiable claim, Kellyanne Conway, Trump’s senior counsellor, argued that Spicer had merely presented “alternative facts”. Many commentators were quick to laugh at this ridiculous attack on our shared reality. But noted journalist, Dan Rather, saw things more clearly:
The press has never seen anything like this before. The public has never seen anything like this before. And the political leaders of both parties have never seen anything like this before. […] Facts and the truth are not partisan. They are the bedrock of our democracy.” [emphasis mine]
Yesterday we saw how right he was. The attack on the Capitol wasn’t the result of a single speech or ALL CAPS tweet or even one man. It was the result of a sustained attack on facts and truth. A deliberate, targeted, four-year campaign of brainwashing.
If you think the word “brainwashing” is melodramatic, consider the people who believe that Trump was “chosen by God” to lead them. Consider the thousands of people who believed Trump’s claims that COVID wasn’t real, even as it killed them. Consider the desperate men and women who are so convinced by Trump’s lies, that they tearfully proclaim their willingness to die to overturn the result of a legitimate election. Reality has been fractured into those who accept Trump’s view of it and those who don’t.
It’s worth pointing out that although this is Trump’s fault, the unprecedented scale of the brainwashing is a symptom of a different problem. Donald Trump isn’t the first politician to lie, he’s simply the first to weaponise the reality-bending machinery that social media gives him to such devastating effect.
In the first half of 2020, Trump shared unfiltered lies with his 88.7 million followers at a rate of over 33 tweets a day. Many of them, retweets from disreputable sources and conspiracy theorists. Twitter refused to take action. In a bid to keep its users’ eyeball on their ads, YouTube presents a wildly different version of the world to his supporters than they do to the rest of us. In the days after the election, Facebook bowed to pressure to give more weight to accurate, well-researched journalism to counteract the avalanche of misinformation that was flooding their users’ feeds.
They could do this at any time. But they don’t, because more truth equals less engagement.
In the early hours of this morning, Twitter finally decided to do what no other social network has dared (and what they should have done years ago) and locked Donald Trump’s Twitter account to prevent further lies and incitements to violence. Facebook followed suit a few hours later. Somebody finally did something. It’s a shame that it took something this appalling to get us there.
The lesson that Trump’s most ardent supporters have been absorbing for the past four years, and which Trump understood before anybody else, is that reality is optional. If a global pandemic is making you look bad, it’s fake. If you don’t like a ruling against your fraudulent university, the court system is rigged. If you lose an election by over seven million votes, it was stolen. While his critics pointed to his constant lies as a weakness, Trump understood that they were the source of his strength.
With every lie he told and every empty promise he made, Trump pulled more voters into his orbit. The more they listened, the greater his influence became. Eventually, his gravity was strong enough to pull the entire Republican Party in line. This is what it means to be a Trump supporter. It means cutting yourself adrift from reality and stepping into a world which Trump completely controls.
But this is also what made yesterday’s violence possible. As Trump’s lies collapsed, his supporters discovered that they didn’t win enough to get tired of it. They learned that Trump isn’t a billionaire. They learned that you can’t overturn democracy just because you feel like it. They’ve finally realised that they aren’t going to return to whatever version of America they thought was great. And they can’t handle it.
Yesterday’s attack on the Capitol was the inevitable result of drawing millions of people into a mass delusion and then confronting them with reality. When Conway introduced us to the idea four years ago, it was easy to miss its significance. Rioters storming the Capitol was much harder to overlook.
It’s probably no coincidence that many Republicans came to their senses once the mob’s actions brought the danger to their doorstep. Mitch McConnell, Lindsay Graham, Fox News, and even Mike Pence have all urged their colleagues and the American people, with varying degrees of conviction, to accept the election results. But perhaps the most telling statement was made by Mitt Romney:
…no congressional audit is ever gonna convince these voters. Particularly when the president will continue to say that the election was stolen. The best way we can show respect for the voters who are upset is by telling them the truth.[emphasis mine]
The fact that this needs to be said aloud or that it was met with applause instead of derision at its obviousness, says everything that needs to be said about how little Trump’s enablers value the truth. For the last four years, they’ve encouraged Trump’s supporters to believe in a world of Donald Trump’s creation. That world is now ending. So his supporters want to destroy ours too.
But as alarming as all of this is, there’s one truth everybody can still rely on. On the 20th of January, Joe Biden, not Donald Trump, will be President of the United States. In the weeks and months that follow, those who supported Trump will try to pretend that they weren’t complicit in this attack on democracy. They’ll do everything they can to minimise their involvement, and to shift the blame, and to deny reality. It’s on the American people to reject their alternative facts.