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.
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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