Tag Archives: Big Lie

How Propaganda Really Works

I subscribe to a Substack newsletter titled Persuasion. (I assume there’s a URL to link to, but I’m clearly too stupid to figure it out, so you’ll have to trust the accuracy of my quotations). Recently, that newsletter added to my understanding of how contemporary propaganda works.

I’m sure I’m not the only person who hears statements from the cult of Trump and thinks “No rational person would believe that!” or “That doesn’t even make sense!” (And I’m not even referring things like Marjorie Taylor Greene’s evident belief that using solar energy means the. lights go off after sundown….)

How does crazy spread?

The  Persuasion newsletter focused on the Kafka-esq experience of a Republican county recorder named Stephen Richer. After winning that post in what was described as a “razor-thin upset,”  he took charge of counting the vote in Maricopa County, Arizona,  the nation’s fourth-most-populous county—”a swing county in a battleground state, and thus a magnet for the angry eye of MAGA following the 2020 election.”

You can guess what came next. Accusations, challenges, recounts, threats…

In February of this year, multiple checks by county officials and outside auditors had confirmed Joe Biden’s solid win, but MAGA was having none of it. Conspiracy theories swirled around the election. On the evening of February 24, Richer drove to West Phoenix to meet with a grassroots Republican group that had stalwartly supported his candidacy. His staff thought attending might be unwise. “They knew, as I did, that it would be an uncomfortable situation. I would say 90-plus percent of the people who were there were of the mindset that the election was absolutely stolen.” Within the first minute, they were yelling. Chaos ensued as people interrupted, argued, and shouted at Richer. Every half minute or so he had to pause for order. When he left, attendees followed him with cellphone cameras, yelled imprecations, banged on his car. Recall that these people had been, a few months earlier, his supporters.

Given the incoherence and sheer lunacy of the accusations and the continued lack of anything that remotely resembled evidence, you have to wonder why belief in Trump’s “Big Lie” persists.

The proofs he had produced, the explanations he had given, the debunking of the lie—none mattered. It was “one of the most dystopian moments of my life,” an eye-opening demonstration of “the extent to which one can speak untruths without any support, and a sizable percentage of the population will believe it.”

By now, Richer could see he was fighting not just frivolous fabulism but the black-hole gravitational pull of a mass disinformation campaign, a version of the “firehose of falsehood” method perfected by Russian propagandists. Such campaigns spew lies, half-truths, exaggerations, and conspiracy theories through every available channel, heedless of consistency or logic or even plausibility. The goal is as much to disorient and demoralize the target population as to inculcate a specific deception. Amid the onrush of misinformation, victims lose any sense of what to believe and whom to trust. It’s no accident that two-thirds of Republicans believe the election was stolen.

The newsletter pointed to the likely outcome of Richer’s experience, which has been mirrored in numerous other states: what sane Republican (assuming  some remain) will run for a position overseeing elections if doing the job properly will subject them to threats and constant harassment? A quick survey of GOP nominees for these positions provides the answer: very few. Instead, most Republican candidates for electoral supervision positions are “Big Lie” proponents.

Clearly, we should all support Democrats running against these candidates. But we should also ask what would it take to disabuse these cultists of a clearly ridiculous lie.

In a famous 1951 experiment, the psychologist Solomon Asch showed how easily humans can be manipulated by social pressure to conform. If everyone else in the room affirms even the most blatant falsehood, we will very often affirm it ourselves, even denying the clear evidence of our own eyes.

But a variation of the Asch experiment gives hope. If only one other person in the room—a single reality ally—tells the truth, the pressure to conform drops sharply and we become much more willing to buck the lie. That is why authoritarian regimes work so furiously to stifle opposition voices, even seemingly weak ones. It is what the Soviet dissident Aleksandr Solzhenitsyn was getting at when he said, “The simple act of an ordinary brave man is not to participate in lies, not to support false actions! His rule: Let that [lie] come into the world, let it even reign supreme—only not through me.”

In Arizona, Stephen Richer was that “ordinary brave man.” We need a lot more Republicans like him, but it doesn’t seem promising…..

 

How To Suppress The Vote

I recently moderated an online discussion about vote suppression; it followed the showing of “Suppressed and Sabotaged: The Fight to Vote,” a documentary that was eye-opening. It turns out there are lots of ways to suppress votes that most of us don’t think about. The documentary illustrated a number of ways in which vote suppression has become more sophisticated—and less visible—since Reconstruction.

There are two main methods of discouraging the vote. The first is primarily aimed at minorities and poor people, who tend to vote Democratic, and focuses on making it as inconvenient as possible for the targeted people to cast ballots. The second is gerrymandering, which—among other pernicious things—suppresses the votes cast for whichever party is in the minority in a particular district, by convincing people in that party that their votes won’t count, so why bother.

And recently, just in case those methods don’t work, Trump partisans have come up with another tactic, triggered by belief in the “Big Lie.”

The film focused primarily on the first method, just making it more difficult to vote. Some of those tactics included shortening the window for requesting absentee ballots, making it harder to remain on the voter rolls, not sending mail ballots unless people specifically requested them, limiting drop boxes and early voting, closing polling places in minority neighborhoods…and ensuring that the ones that do remain open will have interminable wait times by sending them an insufficient supply of voting machines. (The film showed the enormous disparity in the number of voting machines available at polling places in minority neighborhoods versus white suburban ones.)

There are also a wide number of bureaucratic moves and “inadvertent errors” that can make it more onerous to cast a ballot if you are in a targeted community.

The second method of vote suppression is gerrymandering, which is more destructive of democratic representation than even most of its critics seem to recognize.

Gerrymandering, as you undoubtedly know, is the process of creating as many districts as possible favoring the party that controls the state legislature during redistricting. In some states, that’s the Democrats; in Indiana, it’s Republicans, and they’ve done a very good job of it; Indiana has been identified as one of the five most gerrymandered states. Indiana doesn’t have “one person one vote” because our districts have been drawn so that the rural areas where  most Republican voters live are vastly overrepresented.

As a result, in a depressingly large number of statehouse districts, the incumbent or his chosen successor is unopposed even by a token candidate. If you don’t have a candidate to vote for, why go to the polls? Indiana isn’t unique; In 2021, the Cook Report calculated that only one out of twenty Americans lived in a competitive Congressional District.

If all that wasn’t enough, in several states, Republicans pushing the Big Lie have embarked on yet another method of ensuring the victory of their candidates—placing partisans in the offices responsible for counting the votes. The GOP argues that vote fraud is widespread, despite reliable data showing that it is in fact extremely rare– and that the few scattered incidents that do exist don’t change results. (We also know that, despite hysterical accusations, non-citizens aren’t descending on polling places and casting votes for “the other side.”)

The real danger isn’t coming from people casting improper votes. The threat is that the people controlling the voting rolls and counting those votes will be dishonest, which is why a recent report from the Brennan Center is so concerning. This year, races for Secretary of State—the offices charged with administering the vote– are attract­ing far more atten­tion than in recent memory. And in state after state, including Indiana, those campaigns are focusing on elec­tion denial—Trump’s “Big Lie” as a cent­ral issue.

Money is flow­ing into these races at a rate not seen in recent memory–more than two and a half times the amount raised by the analog­ous point in 2018, and more than five times that of 2014. Brennan reports that elec­tion deniers in Arizona, Geor­gia, and Nevada are currently either in the lead or running a close second in fundrais­ing. National groups and donors are spend­ing on these races, includ­ing Donald Trump’s lead­er­ship PAC and others with ties to efforts to chal­lenge the 2020 result. Donors who haven’t previously given to secret­ary of state candid­ates are suddenly making major contri­bu­tions.

All of this activity is inconsistent with the notion that “We the People” elect our representatives. Instead, partisans—who are mostly but not exclusively Republicans these days— decide which people deserve to have their registrations honored and their votes accurately counted.

Something to think about in the run-up to the midterms…..

 

Once A Grifter…

Whenever there is discussion on this blog about why thus-and-so happened, someone will inevitably post a comment containing “follow the money.” I wish I could say I disagree with the premise that–no matter what the subject is–money is a substantial part of the explanation, but I can’t. (The problem with dismissing adages of this sort is that, no matter how hackneyed, they tend to reflect reality.)

One of the most illuminating aspects of  the testimony that emerged from the June 13th hearing  of theJanuary 6th Committee was the obscene amount of money Trump raised in the run-up to January 6th–and the blatant dishonesty of the way he raised and distributed it. As the Daily Beast reported,

The committee also alleged that the Trump campaign and its allies used those false claims to exploit donors, to the tune of hundreds of millions of dollars. In perhaps the most egregious instance, multiple campaign officials told the committee that the “official election defense fund” mentioned in fundraising emails didn’t even exist. It was just a marketing ploy to extract money, which was then divvied up among a number of accounts.

And while Trump and GOP allies did end up igniting millions of dollars on the legal altar, most of the donations went elsewhere. A slide put together by congressional investigators pointed out that $5 million went to Event Strategies, which helped set up the rally at The Ellipse near the White House where Trump fired up an angry crowd that later attacked the Capitol building. They also noted that last year, $1 million went to the nonprofit that hired his chief of staff Mark Meadows, with another $1 million going to the America First Policy Institute, which backed the social media lawsuit Trump lost in April. Another $204,857 was funneled to the Trump Hotel Collection.

“The Big Lie was also a big rip off,” Lofgren said.

Co-chair Liz Cheney (R-WY) said the panel would explore that element in a future hearing.

I can hardly wait…

As Representative Lofgren pointed out, people making these small donations are entitled to know where their money is actually going. According to the findings of the investigation, however, funds were not only diverted from their purported purpose, it wasn’t inadvertence; that was pretty clearly the intent from the start.

As the Independent reported,

Donald Trump’s presidential campaign raised $250 million from supporters by telling them the money would be used to fight voter fraud, but the campaign knew those claims of fraud were bogus and instead diverted the money to his own political organisation, the House committee investigating the January 6 attacked claimed on Monday.

Mr Trump’s campaign sent millions of fundraising emails to supporters encouraging them to donate to help fight voter fraud between election day and January 6, the committee said. Many of those emails asked supporters to donate to an “election defense fund” for legal cases related to the election.

 However, an investigator for the committee said that fund did not exist, and most of that money went Mr Trump’s ‘Save America’ political action committee, not to election-related litigation.

“The evidence highlights how the Trump campaign pushed false election claims to fundraise, telling supporters it would be used to fight voter fraud that did not exist,” said Amanda Wick, senior investigative counsel for the House committee.

“The Trump campaign knew these claims of voter fraud were false yet they continued to barrage small-dollar donors with emails encouraging them to donate to something called the ‘Official Election Defense fund.’ The select committee discovered no such fund existed,” she added.

Everything this man ever touched was a grift–a con job. Trump steaks, vodka, University…the list goes on. Most sentient Americans concluded long ago that–in addition to his repellent personal characteristics–Trump was a petty crook, not a businessman.

The question we confront isn’t whether Trump himself was guilty of lies big and small, or whether he constantly engaged in unethical and illegal activities. We know the answer to that. The question–to which I have absolutely no answer–is why so many Americans see him as somehow admirable, as someone deserving of their loyalty and money.

The only answer that makes any sense is that these people–these members of the cult–live in an alternate reality, an information bubble in which Fox is actually a news organization, the My Pillow nutcase has access to classified information, Sidney Powell and Rudy Guliani are competent lawyers, and every “legacy” news source is part of a”deep state” conspiracy financed by George Soros that is lying to them.

There’s a diagnosis for people who believe those things…..

 

 

 

How To Rig The Vote

I want to follow up on yesterday’s extra post.

Psychiatrists have a word for it: projection. The “Big Lie” is a classic example–accuse the other team of doing what, in fact, your own guys are doing and/or attempting to do. 

The most obvious cases are the vanishingly few situations in which a particular voter is found to have committed vote fraud of some sort; in every news report of such behavior that I’ve seen, the culprit was Republican. Reliable research shows that individual voting misbehaviors are not only rare, they aren’t the problem. These scattered incidents don’t change results.

We also know that, despite hysterical accusations, non-citizens aren’t descending on polling places and casting votes for “the other side.”

As Paul Ogden has frequently reminded us, the real danger isn’t coming from people casting votes. The threat is that the people counting those votes will be dishonest. So we should all be concerned by that recent report from the Brennan Center.

Across the coun­try, races are well under­way for offices like state secret­ary of state that will play key roles in running the 2024 elec­tions. This year, these races are attract­ing far more atten­tion than in recent memory. Part of the reason for the increas­ing visib­il­ity of elec­tion offi­cials is the spread of the Big Lie that elec­tion fraud “stole” the 2020 race from Pres­id­ent Trump. In state after state, campaigns are focused on elec­tion denial as a cent­ral issue.

In this series, the Bren­nan Center exam­ines the finances and polit­ical messages in contests that are import­ant to the future of elec­tion admin­is­tra­tion. Through­out 2022, we are taking a regu­lar look at relev­ant contests in battle­ground states that had the closest results in the 2020 pres­id­en­tial elec­tion. As candid­ates file disclos­ure forms and inform­a­tion becomes avail­able, we will exam­ine ques­tions such as how much money is raised, who the biggest donors are, how much candid­ates rely on small donors, and how much outside spend­ers like super PACs and dark money groups spend.

After examining available data on races for secret­ary of state in the states in the states in the sample, the Center found some key trends. They are disturbing enough that I am quoting them in their entirety:

Money is flow­ing into secret­ary of state races at a rate not seen in recent memory. Across the six battle­ground states we are track­ing, candid­ates have collect­ively raised $13.3 million, more than two and a half times the $4.7 million raised by the analog­ous point in the 2018 cycle, and more than five times that of 2014.

New data in secret­ary of state contests reveals elec­tion deniers in Arizona, Geor­gia, and Nevada either in the lead or running a close second in fundrais­ing. On the other hand, candid­ates who have condemned elec­tion denial have over­whelm­ing fundrais­ing leads so far in Michigan and Minnesota.

Illus­trat­ing the nation­al­iz­a­tion of secret­ary of state races, national groups and donors are spend­ing to influ­ence them, includ­ing Donald Trump’s lead­er­ship PAC and others with ties to efforts to chal­lenge the 2020 result. On the other side, several national liberal groups are newly becom­ing active in secret­ary of state and local races to support oppon­ents of the Big Lie.

Donors who have not given to secret­ary of state candid­ates before are making major contri­bu­tions with a clear pattern of support for elec­tion denial candid­ates or for candid­ates who are running on the threat elec­tion denial poses to demo­cracy.

Elec­tion denial claims, as well as claims that it is an exist­en­tial threat to demo­cracy, are heat­ing up at the state level, and they are also show­ing up in more local elec­tion offi­cial contests, notably in Geor­gia and Nevada. Super PACs on both sides of the issue spent to influ­ence local races in Wiscon­sin in April. In those elec­tions, of the six candid­ates suppor­ted by outside messaging cast­ing doubt on the last elec­­tion, five won office, and three of those unseated incum­bents.

There is much more detail at the link. The report also collected campaign state­ments and ads premised on or supportive of the Big Lie in ten battleground states. And it identifies the national funders of those efforts. I encourage you to read the entire report.

As the January 6th Committee hearings get underway, we are learning that the insurrection on that date was only one manifestation of a concerted effort at a coup–a deliberate effort to overturn the will of the people that began almost immediately after the election. The Brennan report is evidence–if more evidence was needed–that January 6th was not a “one off” nor a spontaneous event.  The cabal plotting that coup and its fellow-travelers are nothing if not persistent. 

The people screaming “Stop the Steal” are precisely the people intent upon stealing the next election. They have to be stopped.

 

 

Remembering Margaret Chase Smith–And More

A recent post from Heather Cox Richardson reminded me that–despite my personal experience with a once-responsible Republican Party–this isn’t the first time the GOP has gone off the rails. In my defense, I was very young when the United States went through the period known as MCarthyism.

As Richardson reminds us, the Republican response to FDR’s New Deal was divided between those who understood the new approach as a “proper adjustment to the modern world” and those who were determined to destroy that adjustment.

Those who wanted to slash the government back to the form it had in the 1920s, when businessmen ran it, had a problem. American voters liked the business regulation, basic social safety net, and infrastructure construction of the new system. To combat that popularity, the anti–New Deal Republicans insisted that the U.S. government was sliding toward communism. With the success of the People’s Liberation Army and the declaration of the People’s Republic of China in October 1949, Americans were willing to entertain the idea that communism was spreading across the globe and would soon take over the U.S.

One of those who wanted to return to the “good old days” (aka “Make America Great Again”…) was an “undistinguished senator from Wisconsin named Joe McCarthy.” McCarthy famously proclaimed that he had “a list” of communists working for the State Department,  and that the Democrats–“fellow travelers”– refused to investigate these traitors in the government.

It was a previous version of the Big Lie.

The anti–New Deal faction of the party jumped on board. Sympathetic newspapers trumpeted McCarthy’s charges—which kept changing, and for which he never offered proof—and his colleagues cheered him on while congress members from the Republican faction that had signed onto the liberal consensus kept their heads down to avoid becoming the target of his attacks.

These forerunners to today’s spineless Republican officeholders weren’t willing to speak up about the damage being done to American principles. One who did speak up–memorably, and on the Senate floor–was Margaret Chase Smith.

Referring to Senator McCarthy, who was sitting two rows behind her, Senator Smith condemned the leaders in her party who were destroying lives with wild accusations. “Those of us who shout the loudest about Americanism in making character assassinations are all too frequently those who, by our own words and acts, ignore some of the basic principles of Americanism,” she pointed out. Americans have the right to criticize, to hold unpopular beliefs, to protest, and to think for themselves. But attacks that cost people their reputations and jobs were stifling these basic American principles. “Freedom of speech is not what it used to be in America,” Senator Smith said. “It has been so abused by some that it is not exercised by others.”

Senator Smith wanted a Republican victory in the upcoming elections, she explained, but to replace President Harry Truman’s Democratic administration—for which she had plenty of harsh words—with a Republican regime “that lacks political integrity or intellectual honesty would prove equally disastrous to this nation.”

“I do not want to see the Republican Party ride to political victory on the Four Horsemen of Calumny—Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear.”

The parallels to our current situation are blindingly obvious, and those of us (me very much included) who had forgotten this dangerous time from America’s past should recall Santayana’s admonition that “those who cannot remember the past are doomed to repeat it.”

Today’s GOP is using the McCarthy playbook–repeating Smith’s all-too-accurate appraisal. They are appealing to fear and ignorance with bigotry and smear. And with exception of a very few like Liz Cheney and Adam Kitzinger, elected Republicans who know better, who understand the threat posed by these tactics, remain silent.

That silence is acquiescence.

Smith’s attack on Fear, Ignorance, Bigotry and Smear has often been quoted (although it would be inaccurate to say it remains well-known), but America would do well to ponder another part of her speech, which Richardson quotes.

“As an American, I condemn a Republican Fascist just as much as I condemn a Democrat Communist,” she said. “They are equally dangerous to you and me and to our country. As an American, I want to see our nation recapture the strength and unity it once had when we fought the enemy instead of ourselves.”

Smith authored a “Declaration of Conscience,” enumerating five principles she hoped (vainly) that her party would adopt. That declaration ended with a warning:

“It is high time that we all stopped being tools and victims of totalitarian techniques—techniques that, if continued here unchecked, will surely end what we have come to cherish as the American way of life.”

History may not repeat itself, but as Twain observed, it often rhymes.