How Our Politics Came Undone

Under Trump, our notion of shared truth has been shattered. In its place, monsters have swarmed.

Miles Kampf-Lassin

(Photo by Rick Loomis/Getty Images)

America’s frac­tured real­i­ties are now cen­ter stage. Just tour some of the major sto­ries being spun through groomed algo­rithms into news feeds across the country:

There’s the Tuck­er Carl­son-fueled scan­dal claim­ing the Covid-19 virus was actu­al­ly cre­at­ed in a lab­o­ra­to­ry in Wuhan, Chi­na, poten­tial­ly for use as a bioweapon.” Then there are tales of a com­ing coup” that Democ­rats are alleged­ly plan­ning after the elec­tion — a the­o­ry pushed by a for­mer Trump nation­al secu­ri­ty advis­er and cir­cu­lat­ed across extrem­ist online com­mu­ni­ties claim­ing a sea of har­vest­ed bal­lots” will be used to steal the pres­i­den­cy from Don­ald Trump. And, more dark­ly, there are charges that Hunter Biden, the for­mer vice president’s son, is some­how involved in a child sex tor­ture traf­fick­ing ring — a con­spir­a­cy the­o­ry that’s been spec­u­lat­ed upon not just by con­ser­v­a­tive pun­dits but also sit­ting Repub­li­can mem­bers of Congress.

Such is a sam­pling of the mes­sag­ing strat­e­gy being car­ried out by lack­eys of the Trump cam­paign ahead of Elec­tion Day 2020, a bar­rage of false accu­sa­tions that side­step the dis­as­trous record of the incum­bent pres­i­dent and instead seek to por­tray his Demo­c­ra­t­ic oppo­nent Joe Biden as both wicked and a threat to the Amer­i­can way of life. 

Nev­er mind that, under Trump, a rapid­ly surg­ing pan­dem­ic has already claimed over 225,000 Amer­i­can lives, with small busi­ness­es clos­ing en masse while tens of mil­lions sit out of work, fac­ing the threat of evic­tion. Pay no atten­tion to the mil­lions more who have been thrown off of their health insur­ance amid the cri­sis, or the fact that hunger — espe­cial­ly among chil­dren — has sky­rock­et­ed,” accord­ing to the Cen­ter on Bud­get and Pol­i­cy Pri­or­i­ties. The real issue fac­ing vot­ers this elec­tion, accord­ing to pro-Trump con­spir­a­cy hawk­ers, is a lap­top they claim belongs to Hunter Biden — and the QAnon-inspired the­o­ries that its con­tents avowed­ly bear out. 

While spu­ri­ous, these claims have cir­cu­lat­ed beyond just the right-wing media echo cham­ber and are now pen­e­trat­ing into tele­vi­sion sets and social media accounts nation­wide. While some con­sumers of this actu­al fake news will undoubt­ed­ly decide to cast a bal­lot for Trump, the true aim is arguably more sin­is­ter — to dis­ori­ent and upset poten­tial vot­ers, caus­ing them to dis­en­gage from pol­i­tics entire­ly, and to sim­ply turn away. 

In many ways, this strat­e­gy is mere­ly a con­tin­u­a­tion of what the Trump cam­paign pur­sued four years ago under the tute­lage of pro­pa­gan­dist extra­or­di­naire Stephen K. Ban­non. An archi­tect of polit­i­cal dis­in­for­ma­tion, Ban­non infa­mous­ly laid out his doc­trine in 2018, report­ed­ly stat­ing, The Democ­rats don’t mat­ter. The real oppo­si­tion is the media. And the way to deal with them is to flood the zone with shit.” 

As Trump’s 2016 cam­paign CEO and lat­er White House chief strate­gist, Ban­non brought with him lessons he gleaned as the for­mer exec­u­tive chair­man of Bre­it­bart News: make up sto­ries with explo­sive alle­ga­tions against polit­i­cal ene­mies, attempt to get them picked up by main­stream out­lets, and reap the prof­its. But par­ti­san­ship and per­son­al enrich­ment aren’t Bannon’s sole moti­va­tions — he also seeks to cre­ate chaos, so that fact and fic­tion are hard­er to differentiate. 

In this sense, Ban­non is fol­low­ing in the foot­steps of anoth­er polit­i­cal Sven­gali, Russia’s Vladislav Surkov. As a top aide to Russ­ian Pres­i­dent Vladimir Putin, over the 2000s, Surkov sought to cre­ate a sys­tem where, as film­mak­er Adam Cur­tis explained in his 2016 doc­u­men­tary Hyper­Nor­mal­i­sa­tion, no one was sure what was real or what was fake.” Surkov achieved this by spon­sor­ing all sorts of oppo­si­tion­al orga­ni­za­tions and cam­paigns in the coun­try — from neo-Nazi skin­heads to anti-fas­cist net­works — cre­at­ing an atmos­phere of bewil­der­ment among the pop­u­la­tion in order to push through author­i­tar­i­an aims. 

The intent of this strat­e­gy was to cre­ate a form of man­aged democ­ra­cy” where­in cit­i­zens have a right to express them­selves, but with­out real­ly being able to change — or even under­stand — polit­i­cal deci­sion-mak­ing, or outcomes. 

The premise stems in part from the con­cept of ket­tle log­ic” as laid out in the late 1990s by French the­o­rist Jacques Der­ri­da, ref­er­enc­ing Sig­mund Freud’s famous sto­ry from his book The Inter­pre­ta­tion of Dreams. As the sto­ry goes, in return­ing a dam­aged ket­tle to his neigh­bor, the wreck­er offers a series of con­flict­ing expla­na­tions: It’s not actu­al­ly dam­aged; it was already dam­aged when you offered it to me; I nev­er bor­rowed your ket­tle.” Freud called this a form of dream log­ic. And as Der­ri­da point­ed out, it’s also an effec­tive argu­men­ta­tive device, as the para­dox­i­cal accounts chip away at the notion of objec­tive truth, lead­ing to con­fu­sion and, ulti­mate­ly, acquiescence.

In Putin’s Rus­sia, Surkov helped move this con­cept from post-mod­ern the­o­ry into the real world of pol­i­tics. And through his efforts on the Trump cam­paign, Ban­non par­al­leled Surkov’s strat­e­gy in the Unit­ed States, unleash­ing a bar­rage of fal­la­cious and mis­lead­ing sto­ries into the media ecosys­tem. As Ned Resnikoff report­ed in 2016, the sheer vol­ume of these sto­ries had their intend­ed effect. When fake news becomes omnipresent, all news becomes sus­pect. Every­thing starts to look like a lie.”

Flash to today, and Ban­non is back at it. Though he may no longer be an offi­cial mem­ber of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion, he’s been hard at work push­ing out the same type of dis­in­for­ma­tion that helped ele­vate a swarm of white nation­al­ists into the White House four years ago. 

That dis­cred­it­ed report about coro­n­avirus orig­i­nat­ing in a Wuhan lab? Ban­non was one of the tac­ti­cians behind it, and on his pod­cast, he even (with­out evi­dence) sug­gest­ed that Chi­na inten­tion­al­ly infect­ed Pres­i­dent Trump with the dis­ease. It’s a sim­i­lar sto­ry with the lap­top child sex scan­dal which Ban­non has been pro­mot­ing since late Sep­tem­ber, telling a Dutch TV sta­tion at the time (again with­out evi­dence): I have the hard dri­ve of Hunter Biden.”

You don’t have to believe these sto­ries for them to have their intend­ed effect. Rather, by such mes­sages cas­cad­ing across our screens and inun­dat­ing our con­scious­ness, their man­u­fac­tur­ers have already suc­ceed­ed, build­ing a wall of decep­tions that leads audi­ences to retreat from the polit­i­cal are­na, see­ing all of its actors as lying cons. 

Regard­less of what hap­pens on Elec­tion Day, this attack on our notion of shared real­i­ty will stand — along­side a suite of racist, anti-work­er actions and judi­cial appoint­ments — as a stark lega­cy of the Trump admin­is­tra­tion. In truth, the polit­i­cal strat­e­gy is tied direct­ly to the con­tent of pol­i­cy. After all, Ban­non was an engi­neer of Trump’s xeno­pho­bic Mus­lim trav­el ban, a vocal pro­po­nent of build­ing a mas­sive wall on the South­ern bor­der and a defend­er of exit­ing the Paris Cli­mate Accord. Now, Bannon’s for­mer pro­tégé and cur­rent Trump advis­er Stephen Miller report­ed­ly plans a blitz” of anti-immi­grant exec­u­tive orders — includ­ing end­ing birthright cit­i­zen­ship and slash­ing refugee admis­sions to zero — if the pres­i­dent wins reelection. 

With polls show­ing Biden lead­ing both nation­al­ly and in bat­tle­ground states, that out­come appears in doubt. But Ban­non has a plan for that, too. 

At an Octo­ber 10 forum host­ed by the Young Repub­li­can Fed­er­a­tion of Vir­ginia, Ban­non stat­ed: At 10 o’clock or 11 o’clock… on Novem­ber 3, Don­ald J. Trump is going to walk into the Oval Office, and he may hit a tweet before he goes in there… and he’s going to sit there, hav­ing won Ohio, and being up in Penn­syl­va­nia and Flori­da, and he’s going to say, Hey, game’s over.’ ”

The pos­si­bil­i­ty of Trump declar­ing vic­to­ry before all of the votes are count­ed in an anti-demo­c­ra­t­ic pow­er grab has been a con­cern in Demo­c­ra­t­ic cir­cles for months, but the president’s for­mer chief strate­gist pre­view­ing such an out­come gives it fresh cre­dence. And, Ban­non con­tin­ued, Once we set that pred­i­cate that Trump’s the win­ner on Elec­tion Day, that is mighty hard to unwind… He [Trump] is not going to go qui­et­ly into that good night, trust me.”

Is this pre­dic­tion a promise, or just more dis­in­for­ma­tion meant to gum up the elec­toral process and turn poten­tial vot­ers away from the polls, believ­ing it all to be a big fraud? 

Pathol­o­giz­ing Ban­non may be a fool’s errand, but one thing’s for sure: He stands to ben­e­fit enor­mous­ly from Trump’s reelec­tion. With the far-right mas­ter­mind fac­ing counts of fraud for alleged­ly siphon­ing off hun­dreds of thou­sands of dol­lars from donors to the We Build the Wall” online fundrais­ing cam­paign — charges that car­ry a lengthy prison term — Ban­non is like­ly hop­ing for a pres­i­den­tial par­don of the type received by fel­low MAGA spin­meis­ter Roger Stone. 

In 2019, Surkov wrote an arti­cle in a Russ­ian news­pa­per claim­ing that, as a result of years of fraud­u­lent media and polit­i­cal tumult, those of us in the West don’t know how to deal with their own altered con­scious­ness.” That’s cer­tain­ly the hope of Ban­non and oth­er devo­tees of Trump­ism. It’s up to us to learn how to deal with this new unwieldy ter­rain, and take con­trol of our pol­i­tics — before we’re lost in the flood. 

As a 501©3 non­prof­it pub­li­ca­tion, In These Times does not oppose or endorse can­di­dates for polit­i­cal office.

Miles Kampf-Lassin, a grad­u­ate of New York Uni­ver­si­ty’s Gal­latin School in Delib­er­a­tive Democ­ra­cy and Glob­al­iza­tion, is a Web Edi­tor at In These Times. Fol­low him on Twit­ter @MilesKLassin

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