Less than two weeks from Election Day, most talk of a political “bloodbath” remains metaphorical. A 59-year-old man was arrested in Wichita, Kansas, last week after threatening to slit the throat of the mayor, who led the city’s effort to pass a mask mandate. The week before in Michigan, 13 men were arrested on charges of conspiring to kidnap their state’s governor and “try” her for treason.
plots, while ghastly, made headlines because they are atypical. The warped
worldview that drives such plans, however, is growing alarmingly commonplace.
According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, half of Trump supporters claim to
believe in the mad ravings of the group that calls itself QAnon. Attacking the
roots of propaganda that feed such paranoia should be one of most urgent tasks
of a Joe Biden presidency.
asymmetry of the two major parties is driven in part by information asymmetries
that feed extremism. The decades-long project of Fox News and the conservative
movement to destroy shared truth has paved the way. Regular imbibers of Fox
News, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute,
occupy a climate more extreme than other Republicans, who tend to have more
varied and less dishonest information sources.
as Fox is, it appears almost benign compared with other feeders of fanaticism
around Trump. The conspiracy theories of QAnon are not a departure from
Trumpism; they are a subsidiary of it. Devotion to Trump requires not only
defying the facts revealed by journalism, history, science and lived
experience. It requires disbelieving the literally dozens of former Trump
loyalists who openly dispute MAGA fantasies and see the president as childish,
solipsistic, vindictive and uninterested in, or incapable of, doing his job.
Meanwhile, Trump’s baseless accusations against others routinely turn to dust.
Trump supporters willfully ignore these realities. Others don’t care or
perversely admire his corruption and incompetence. Both mindsets will persist even
if Trump is removed from office in January.
Donald Trump don’t prosper in a healthy political culture. The emergence of a
reality-based conservative information sphere — the Bulwark is a new example —
is a necessary but insufficient development. The alienation of the MAGA base
from realistic national narratives will continue to play out in criminal plots,
pizza obsessions and dangerously unhinged right-wing politics that enjoys the
imprimatur of leading Republicans. The U.S. won’t return to anything like
political health so long as tens of millions live in a dystopian triangle
bounded by MAGA, Facebook and Fox.
call for more aggressive actions by the news media and social media companies
to combat disinformation. Both have improved upon their abysmal 2016
performance, but it’s not enough.
amid acute polarization, the most effective alternative to mass disinformation
may be the White House. Trump has deployed it to spread countless lies. But his
success proves that no media source can compete with the White House in
establishing the flow and parameters of information. Even those who recognize
the Trump administration’s falsehoods and the damage they have done to
government credibility still bend to its gravity.
are limits, of course. All sorts of calumny spread through right-wing media
when Barack Obama was president. Moreover, there is little evidence that
Republican politicians not named Mitt Romney will denounce propaganda —
including Russian-sourced disinformation — if they think it provides a partisan
Obama largely refrained from directly attacking disinformation aimed at
undermining his presidency. That may or may not have been a partisan mistake.
But beyond partisan self-interest, the cost of his administration’s reticence
was high. With a more concerted effort, the presidency has the power to yoke
the misinformed more closely to fact, if only by degrees.
the most unhinged, such as the Michigan conspirators, would be undeterred by
pronouncements from a Biden White House. To the MAGA cohort, a Biden presidency
would represent an alternate reality that bears no resemblance to the magic
kingdom in which they prefer to reside.
the assault must be made. Breaking the hold of this collective delusion is a
national imperative. If there is one thing America has learned in 2020, it is
that defeating a virus — whether biological or informational — requires an
honest and engaged president.
column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or
Bloomberg LP and its owners.
Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg
Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for
Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.