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…..