So I woke up this morning and thought, “You know… what this world really needs right now is another random guy sharing his thoughts on the internet…” After all, our country just watched as a sitting president and his cronies tried to usurp a foundational tenet of democracy, and saw our Capitol overrun by a deranged selfie-taking mob of enemies domestic. In the aftermath there’s been no shortage of questions, blame or opinion, but amidst the thunder of a billion keyboard clicks casting accusation, I have equal concern as to where we go from here.
That’s not to say we don’t need to identify who or what is to blame. The why is more complicated- and more troubling; but anyone with an honest inclination toward rationale or objectivity at this point knows that Donald J. Trump is a desperate conman reliant on divisiveness and lies. He’s leaned heavily on inflammatory rhetoric, propaganda and gas-lighting throughout his tenure, and the continuation of this in his last-ditch effort to hold power has manifested in profoundly ugly ways. At the center of this festers what I really want to draw attention to: the rampant spread of misinformation, and people’s insistence on only believing what they want to believe.
I wrote a piece (HERE) in the days following the election speaking on the important watchdog function of the press, and how one of Trump’s key strategies from the beginning was to sow distrust of the media. The outlandish rails against what he calls “Fake News” were nothing short of informational and psychological power grabs, and they’ve proven alarmingly effective. The rage and conviction demonstrated by those who attacked the Capitol last week is clear proof. The facts are out there, in abundance, to dispel any claim of widespread election fraud. Republican officials (some who have proven to be the true patriots here) in the states in question have risen above party loyalty and provided testimony to debunk conspiracy claims. They’ve refused to yield to pressure from the president himself. Over sixty lawsuits have been dismissed as frivolous, or have upheld the legality and integrity of the election- many of which were presided over by conservative judges. This has all been widely reported on by hundreds, if not thousands, of credible journalists and media outlets. We had a fair process and Biden won both the electoral and popular vote by wide margins. The truth is evident. But that truth, like so many others, is counter to Trump’s agenda. That truth isn’t what he or his supporters want to hear. So out came that dismissive old dog whistle as he decried “crooked media” and “fake news”, and his loyalists were whipped into frenzy. People literally donned helmets- from a variety of military eras and animal appendages- and stormed the halls of Congress seeking to halt certification of a free and fair election. This all in the fury Trump fomented by repeatedly insisting that the election was “rigged.”
It’s straight from the playbook of dictators, but it worked. Not in overturning the election, but at least in exposing the vulnerability of this nation to lies and propaganda; to the prospect of authoritarianism and so many things we wanted to believe could never happen here. And it wasn’t just among the ten thousand or so insurrectionists who swarmed to Washington D.C. last week. Over seventy four million people cast their support for Trump in this election- despite, or in accordance with, a presidency fueled by rampant disinformation. While of course this isn’t representative of the number of those who would actually condone these attacks now- many Trump voters have finally decided this to be the last straw- a significant number of people still question the election results and even seem willing to excuse these actions as warranted and legitimate protest. Some insist the raid devolved to chaos simply because well-intentioned citizens got carried away. Many feign calls for unity. Forgive and forget, they say.
But here’s the deal. Last week a mob of American terrorists invaded our Capitol building. Some wore body armor, some exhibited tactical expertise and intent, and some carried weapons and restraints. Pipe bombs and Molotov cocktails were found. A makeshift gallows was erected steps from Congress. There were calls for the hanging of Vice President Mike Pence. There was a calculated search for House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and other officials, by name. Some police officers were attacked and beaten. One was bludgeoned with a fire extinguisher and later died. Within those hallowed halls sacred to American democracy insurrectionists ransacked and looted offices, waved Nazi and Confederate flags, laughed, celebrated, and defecated in the middle of the floor. Congress- embarked in one of the most quintessential duties of our Republic- the certification of an election- was interrupted and evacuated or forced to shelter in place; just as it would under an imminent foreign attack.
This was an attempted coup. This was treason. These traitors turned to the violent use of force to try and keep Trump in power. They traveled from all corners of the country at Trump’s ongoing urge to do this. They marched toward the Capitol following his immediate instruction to “show strength” and “fight like hell.” It was far more nefarious than a few protestors getting out of hand.
Still, there is a contingency of U.S. citizens- however they may number, in the thousands, millions perhaps- that feel there are two sides to this. They argue, obviously incorrectly, that what happened last week was necessary and appropriate, because they believe the election was stolen. They believe this mob represents actual patriots who were defending our democracy. Asked how they could align themselves in this way, pointing to the derangement and hypocrisy when considering egregious vandalism, attacks on law enforcement and other atrocities, they recite another common refrain.
“Well,” they say to the otherwise indefensible, “I heard THAT was ANTIFA…”
Now where would they have gotten such an idea?
Misinformation, while certainly not a new tactic in exploiting the trust of the populace, (the Iraq War, McCarthyism, pro-slavery secessionists, the portrayal of Indigenous People as ungodly savages… lying for manipulation and power is as old as the nation itself) looms as likely the greatest threat to the future of this country. It’s become increasingly prevalent and infuriating in science denial. Industry backed conservative think tanks have stunted progress on renewable energy and emission regulations with extensive efforts to perpetuate utter falsehoods and climate skepticism. In social justice we’ve seen it repeatedly used to vilify the Black Lives Matter movement. We’ve sold our soul as a nation- the same that once prided ourselves in calling for the tired, the weak, the huddled masses yearning to breathe free- by separating immigrant children from their parents and locking them in cages. The COVID-19 pandemic has again provided a fertile breeding ground for negligent dishonesty and disregard of facts, with something as benign as face coverings becoming a partisan issue.
Just yesterday in my home state of Iowa protestors at the capitol rallied against mask requirements- in a state where there are none, and Republican leadership has been dismissive of the clear need for such a mandate. At this point, the next logical step would be to actually call for facemasks to be outlawed (a move I suspect the governor would whole heartedly endorse.) It’s infuriating, with everything else going on in this country, and with our national death toll quickly approaching 400,000, that these people have nothing better to do than demonstrate their outrage at the nerve of being asked to help quell the spread of a deadly virus. I’m completely dumbfounded by this. The Iowa I grew up in raised me to believe we look out for each other. We celebrate and embody this in ways big and small- from shoveling a neighbor’s walk to collaborating to help with the harvest when a farmer has fallen ill. These folks should be ashamed. They protest for what? Not to be asked to wear a harmless piece of cloth over their face that can save lives? Because they find it inconvenient? Because they find it uncomfortable? Because it bothers them for the fifteen minutes they’re inside a grocery store? ...Haven’t any of these idiots ever scooped out a grain bin before?
These are just some of the latest examples of lies used by those in power to manipulate for profit and political posturing. Now, for the same motive, baseless and disproven claims of election fraud have pushed us horrifyingly close to the brink of Civil War. Trump is obviously the Commander-in-Chief when it comes to disinformation- the only place he has proven worthy of that title- but enabling snakes like Senators Ted Cruz and Josh Hawley, and the 145 other officeholders who attempted to overturn the election, play by the same rules. They hold no qualms when it comes to exploiting people for the ambitions of they and their donors. They shamelessly root themselves in the dark undercurrents of racism, nationalism, religious zealotry and xenophobia. They not only prey on ignorance and unfounded fear, they encourage it. Just as figureheads of all political ranks at local, state and federal levels do across this nation. As do the talking heads of hyper-partisan media. These people are rats. They drape themselves in the flag, but country means nothing to them. Their only ambition is wealth and power.
So where do we go from here? I’m not sure anybody knows. The coming days and weeks, as scary as they are shaping up to be, will also be a crucial crossroad for our nation. There must be accountability. Unity will be required as the dust settles and beyond, but that shouldn’t hinge on that notion of “forgive and forget.” Those who stormed the Capitol must be brought to justice. The President, who incited this insurrection, and continues to comment in vague threats, must be brought to justice. His children and minions who played a role are equally complicit, and must be brought to justice. Elected officials and public figures that continue to spread lies of election fraud must be held accountable. Truth has to mean something, especially when any remaining integrity in our democracy depends on it, and that precedent must be upheld. That, as hard as it may be to see in the circus of this moment, is larger than any individual person or event. Lack of consequence and accountability will only embolden them and those to come. The precedent must be set. We cannot continue with the hope of a free and just society without it.
After that proverbial dust settles though- assuming we still have this opportunity, and I pray that we do- it’s going to be time to take a deep look at the social environs that have brought us here. A culture that accepts the spread of disinformation as legitimate communications strategy, without repercussion. The internet echo chambers that feed off of willful ignorance and entice people to selectively consume news based not on fact, but on what they wish to believe. We must strengthen our institutions of information. Journalists need to do better. There are amazing talents out there, and I think the visible twilight of our current nightmare has brought renewed vigor across the profession as a whole, but there can be no more false neutrality. Media outlets, on both sides, must also better walk the lines between reporting and editorial; and editorial and propaganda. Public faith in journalistic integrity needs to be restored, and greater prominence of non-partisan impartial review boards could help educate where to find, or shine a spotlight on, credible sources. The past week has exemplified the absolutely essential role of journalism- The Fourth Estate- in informing the public and upholding democracy. And if this latest chapter in American history has shown us anything, it’s the danger we’d face in its absence.
As we move through this crisis, every bit as important as unity and accountability will be our collective soul searching. We must get a handle on the spread of disinformation. Our vulnerability has been exposed, and chances are the next aspiring dictator won’t be so incompetent.