Lies, conspiracy theories and the Republican Party
In a major address at Stanford University, former President Barack Obama warned that the proliferation of disinformation poses a serious threat to our democratic institutions. Today, Obama cautioned, it is insufficient to refute false information with facts: “People like [Russian President Vladimir] Putin and Steve Bannon, for that matter, understand it’s not necessary for people to believe this information in order to weaken democratic institutions. You just have to flood a country’s public square with enough raw sewage. You just have to raise enough questions, spread enough dirt, plant enough conspiracy theorizing that citizens no longer know what to believe.”
Obama speaks from experience. As president, he was subjected to lies that he was born in Kenya; that he was a Muslim; and, in the words of Sarah Palin, that he “pals around with terrorists.” After sending an attorney to Hawaii to retrieve the long form of his birth certificate, an annoyed Obama told reporters, “We do not have time for this kind of silliness.”
But factually refuting the falsehoods made little difference. In 2016, Donald Trump repeatedly claimed that Obama was an illegitimate president, posting on Twitter that “an ‘extremely credible source’ has called my office and told me that @BarackObama’s birth certificate is a fraud.” When Trump finally conceded the obvious, he immediately regretted it, telling a source he would have done better in the polls if he had continued to promote the lie. Trump likewise sowed skepticism about Obama’s religious identity, suggesting there was something on his birth certificate, “maybe religion, maybe it says he is a Muslim.”
That strategy worked: 72 percent of Republicans doubted Obama’s citizenship, with 41 percent saying he was not born in the U.S. Although 28 percent of Republicans correctly stated Obama was a Christian, 43 percent were sure he was a Muslim. These lies had one important aim: to present Obama as a symbol of “the other,” an illegitimate occupier of the White House whose race and perceived religious identity were a threat. As one 2016 Trump rally-goer put it: “We have a problem in this country. It’s called Muslims. You know our current president is one. You know he’s not even an American.”
Infusing our politics with misinformation and “raw sewage” has long been a strain in Republican politics. During Franklin Roosevelt’s presidency, Republicans charged that Roosevelt allied himself with communists to steal elections and keep himself in power. After Pearl Harbor, the whispered conspiracy theories became a crescendo. Rep. Clare Boothe Luce (R-Conn.) claimed that Roosevelt was “the only American President who ever lied us into a war because he did not have the courage to lead us into it.” Thomas E. Dewey falsely charged that Roosevelt knew “what was happening before Pearl Harbor, and instead of being reelected he ought to be impeached.”
During the 1950s, Sen. Joseph R. McCarthy (R-Wis.) rose to power based on false facts. McCarthy claimed the Truman administration was infiltrated with communists. The doubts he sowed had their desired effect: 81 percent of Americans believed there were “communists or disloyal people” working in the State Department, and 58 percent thought they had done “serious harm” to national security. Susan Eisenhower, the granddaughter of Dwight D. Eisenhower, wrote that McCarthy had an instinct for innuendo and “what is now called ‘fake news’ [which] strengthened the senator’s power and influence.”
In 1953, Eisenhower’s attorney general accused former President Truman of appointing a known communist as assistant Treasury secretary and later naming him to a position at the International Monetary Fund. In an extraordinary address broadcast live on radio and television, Truman said these wild accusations signaled “the use of the big lie and the unfounded accusation against any citizen in the name of Americanism and security.” The result, he claimed, was “the rise to power of the demagogue who lives on untruth; it is the spread of fear and the destruction of faith in every level of society.”
Donald Trump’s remaking of the Republican Party was enabled by an internet that promotes lies, conspiracies and falsehoods. Armed with $44 billion, Elon Musk is the latest entry into this 21st century version of the Wild West. Musk’s purchase of Twitter makes this “digital public square” his personal playground without the encumbrance of professional editorial standards. Musk was critical of the permanent ban imposed on Trump by Twitter, Facebook, Instagram and YouTube after the Jan. 6 insurrection, saying he prefers “time outs.”
An unregulated digital public square amplifies conspiracy theories designed to sow doubt and undermine democracy. Thanks to Trump’s repeated lies that the 2020 election was stolen, the aim of those who spread them has been achieved. Today, just 21 percent of Republicans say Joe Biden’s election was “legitimate” or “probably legitimate,” while 71 percent say Biden is either “probably not legitimate” or “definitely not” a legitimate president. As Obama put it, “That’s a lot of people.” No factual refutation can eliminate the stain that has been cast on the Biden presidency.
Today’s GOP conspiracy believers have been given access to an unregulated digital public square that is a powerful tool from which to spread disinformation. And thanks to the vast number of internet websites, surfers find comfort in forums that ratify what they already believe. Facts are unwelcome, but doubt is. As Harry Truman warned so long ago, demagogues who promote the “big lie” are a “horrible cancer” that is “eating at the vitals of America, and it can destroy the great edifice of freedom.” Until public debates are based on honest, truthful disagreements, a day of reckoning is coming.
John Kenneth White is a professor of politics at the Catholic University of America. His latest book is “What Happened to the Republican Party?”
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