The post-truth presidency

By Mike Gaughan

There lives a man for whom empirical truth does not exist; for whom reality is subjective. He deals solely in the currency of conspiracy. Twitter and Fox are the epistemic echo-chambers in which he resides, and yet his fingertips brush the very highest levers of power. He lives at 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Washington DC, and his name is Donald Trump.

Conspiracy thinking is not a new phenomenon, for it has long plagued American society. Indeed, before the eruption of the American Civil War, President Abraham Lincoln was accused of a deep hatred for the South, part of a larger plot to destroy American society through the emancipation of slaves. Over the last four years however, such thinking has flourished, and truth — that foundational building block in establishing a shared reality and maintaining a civil political discourse — seems to have collapsed under its own weight. President Trump, along with the asymmetrically polarised right-wing media universe, have exploited the paranoid desire we all have to make sense of the world around us, its contradictions and confusions, its mirages and mistruths. Out of this informational void a diabolical conspiracy has risen, one which President Trump has proved a capable super-spreader of. 

So far, 70 million Americans have voted. That’s around half the number of total votes cast in 2016.

It goes by the name of QAnon

The group, led by anonymous leader ‘Q’, believe with quasi-religious fervour that Democrats are part of a global cabal of Satan-worshipping paedophiles. President Trump is worshipped messianic-ally for waging a patriotic war against these so called “deep state” operatives. QAnon is rooted in the antisemitic conspiracy of the ‘Elders of Zion’, an early 20th century book that baselessly claims to expose a Jewish plot to dominate the globe. Echoing the books Jewish blood-libel conspiracy, QAnon prophesises that Democratic leaders practice mass infanticide, consuming infant blood to immortalise themselves.  

Frighteningly absurd, such conspiracies are usually reserved to the darkest corners of the internet, the echo-chambers of which truths penetrating light rarely, if ever, reaches. Yet Donald Trump has encouraged such thinking, preferring to remark on QAnon’s patriotism – “I heard these are people that love our country” – than recognise them as a domestic terror threat, which the FBI has designated them. In the fertile grounds of mistrust and division the President has laid down, QAnon looks set to infiltrate Washington this fall, with a number Republican congressional candidate’s followers of the conspiracy. Most notorious is Georgia’s congressional candidate Marjorie Taylor Greene. 

In many ways, QAnon is just the tip of an iceberg of lies and misinformation emanating from the Oval Office itself. Indeed, a study by Cornell University found that the single largest driver of Covid-19 misinformation the President Trump. Despite Coronavirus raging across America this week, record numbers of voters are turning out. So far, 70 million Americans have voted. That’s around half the number of total votes cast in 2016. Although these numbers are encouraging, Trump’s conspiracies and delegitimisation of the election remains deeply concerning. A palpable sense of anxiety exists among the American people, who fear the spectre of political violence may haunt this year’s election, particularly if the result is contested. Some even fear civil war.

The election is a “sham”, Trump says, “one of the greatest, most fraudulent elections ever”

Only weeks ago, a right-wing militia plot to kidnap Michigan’s Democratic Governor Gretchen Whitmer was foiled by police. In a year marked by protest, with social tensions at fever pitch, a suspected razor thin victory for either candidate could spell trouble for America. Trump has continually parroted the unfounded claim that his defeat will be the product of fraudulent mail-in-ballots, legitimising and enthusing his staunchest supporters to take to the streets, perhaps violently. After all, the President himself has given them perfect reason to. The election is a “sham”, Trump says, “one of the greatest, most fraudulent elections ever”. Trump’s conspiracy driven electoral strategy is nothing new, for his racist birth conspiracy against Obama helped propel him to the White House in 2020. This time around, his conspiracies threatens democracy itself.

There is also the possibility that President Trump will declare victory prematurely. Traditionally, mail-in ballots — preferred by Democrat voters — take longer to count than those cast in person, producing what political scientists have called a ‘red mirage’ which is an early lead for Republicans on election night. Trump exploiting such a mirage and declaring victory early on, cannot be ruled out. Even if Biden is victorious, he will inherit a nation on its knees; a nation so desperately divided he would need to practically reassemble reality after a post-truth presidency that has deformed it. On November 3rd, not only healthcare, gun reform and Coronavirus relief are on the ballot, but the concept of empirical truth — the foundation of our shared reality and a civil political discourse — is on the ballot too.  

For this reason, Novembers election is one of existential importance.

Image: Matt Johnson via Flickr

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