What Trump Really Means When He Cries 'Fake News!'
One of the distinguishing traits of the troll-style politics that dominates Trump-era conservatism is the utter disregard for any values outside of winning at all costs and, perhaps even more importantly, defeating liberals. Decency, political norms and truth itself are all treated as acceptable casualties in the endless quest to fuck with the left.
But while many of the excesses of the right seem new, the reality is that the Trumpian right is just the outgrowth from roots laid years, even decades ago, in the American right. The racism and sexism, the conspiracy theories, the harping about political correctness? All of it goes back decades and is only exploding out of control now because the right wing political infrastructure has let these foul ideologies and stupid ideas flourish for so long.
Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to Donald Trump’s war on the media. All his lies and outrageous accusations can be traced directly back to decades of right-wing pundits and politicians encouraging conservative voters to believe that mainstream media sources have a “liberal bias” and are not to be trusted. Trump simply takes it to the next level, dispensing with the notion that truth and facts themselves are relevant and insisting that the validity of a news report depends entirely on how flattering he finds it.
“Fake news” started as a banal term, invented by Buzzfeed reporters, to describe fabricated stories that were being passed off by hoaxsters as real news reports. Soon, however, Trump, whose ego was bruised by hearing that fake news had helped elect him, started aggressively using the term “fake news” to demonize any news he disapproves of. Soon, the usage was picked up across the right, and now the term is almost exclusively used to mean news that is actually true, but which conservatives reject for ideological reasons.
It’s particularly disconcerting to witness the way conservatives yell “fake news” at every unfavorable news story with an unmitigated glee. They know that cavalierly dismissing obviously factual stories as “fake” really aggravates liberals, and trolling the left is, for right-wingers circa 2018, an activity more pleasurable than sex.
Calling obviously true news “fake news” is gaslighting, a form of manipulation where the manipulator tells blatant lies to the victim and, when called out, stands by the lies, often blaming the target’s supposed mental damage if the target insists that the truth is true.
Gaslighting people, especially women, by calling them “crazy” for rejecting his lies is a favorite practice of Trump’s. He’s questioned the sanity of Mika Brzezinski, Megyn Kelly, Maureen Dowd and Bernie Sanders, among others, for the high crime of saying things about him that happened to be true.
“In authoritarian governments,” Brian Klaas writes in "The Despot’s Apprentice," gaslighting “aims to force citizens to question their own sanity, rather than the government’s narrative. Winston’s experience in '1984' was an example of systematic gaslighting.”
Most authoritarian governments go about gaslighting with the utmost seriousness, using the power of the state and social pressure to get citizens to agree, like Winston in "1984," that 2+2=5. The “fake news” gambit, however, is something different and possibly new. Rather than trying to induce insanity by making liberals question reality itself, conservatives are trying to make liberals go crazy by trolling them. All conservatives need to do is keep a straight face while insisting that they believe that 2+2=5, and liberals will exhaust all their mental and emotional reserves trying to explain that no, really, 2+2=4. Eventually, conservatives will point to the frazzled, distraught state of liberals begging people to believe that 2+2=4 and laugh and say, “What a nutjob!”
What are conservatives thinking when they call something “fake news”? What is Trump thinking? It’s hard to imagine conservatives literally believe that the media is making stories up about the Trump-Russia investigation or that Trump had smaller inauguration crowds than Obama. Instead, the Republican war on media needs to be understood more as a rejection of truth as a value. To call something “fake news” isn’t to say that it’s real or not real, but a way of indicating that truth itself doesn’t matter — that the only thing that matters is loyalty to Trump and the right-wing tribe. Telling lies, in fact, is recast as a fun, sporting way to annoy liberals, and to punish liberals for their goody-two-shoes politically correct insistence that facts matter.
Dan Kahan, a Yale professor of law and psychology, runs the Cultural Cognition Project, a research project dedicated to studying how things like identity and social values shape people’s understanding of facts. When I interviewed him in 2016 about the tendency of Trump supporters to proudly declare their allegiance to false, often plainly ridiculous beliefs, he explained that, for many conservatives, saying these kinds of things is a “kind of middle finger” to liberals and less an expression of their real-world understanding of empirical fact.
For instance, a 2014 study published in Public Opinion Quarterly found that a conservative’s answer to questions about Obama’s birthplace was heavily shaped by what he thought the purpose of the question was. If the researchers presented the question as a quiz about how knowledgeable the subjects were of political facts, and the subjects felt they were being judged based on the accuracy of the answers, conservatives were more likely to give the correct answer (Hawaii). But when, the researchers wrote, the question was framed in political terms, more conservatives saw it as “an opportunity to express anti-Obama sentiment by challenging the legitimacy of his presidency.”
Claiming Obama was born in Kenya isn’t experienced by a lot of conservatives as a direct statement of belief about the material facts. It’s that espousing birtherism satisfies the emotional desire to undermine a black man’s legitimate claim to the Oval Office, without having to come out and plainly state that the birther doesn’t believe black people should be eligible to hold office.
“People have a stake in some position being true,” Kahan told me, “because the status of their group or their standing in it depends on that answer.”
“Part of the reason they might be doing it is because they know it’s really going to get an aversive response from people who have an alternative identity and who know that’s the true answer,” he added.
In other words, they’re trolling.
Everyone does this, it must be said, to some degree. We all, liberal or conservative, sometimes say things because that’s what’s expected of us and not because it’s what we really think or believe. But the gap between left and right has widened dramatically in recent years, to the point where conservatives, particularly Trump loyalists, flatly reject the idea that truth even matters.
“If Jesus Christ gets down off the cross and told me Trump is with Russia,” one Trump supporter told CNN a year after the election, “I would tell him, ‘Hold on a second. I need to check with the President if it’s true.’”
Of course, your average secularist liberal might quibble with the idea that Jesus Christ has some special access to the empirical truth, but let’s just glide past that to look at what this man’s metaphor is conveying: He’s basically admitting that he values Trump’s instructions on what to believe over what a god who is forbidden to lie is telling him. His expression is a fanciful way of saying that he simply doesn’t care what is true. All he cares about is believing what Trump tells him to believe.
Reading the quote on the page is one thing, but watching the video really shows how clever this man thought this line was. It felt like a practiced line, a joke he trotted out for the knowing chuckles of his fellow Trump lovers. The anchor who asked the question hadn’t even mentioned Russia, but the Trump supporter just knew he had this killer line and goddammit, he was going to say it on live TV. It worked as hoped on his fellow panelists, most of whom smiled in shared satisfaction.
And why shouldn’t they? Liberals were bound to hear that line and go absolutely bonkers. Every time a liberal works himself into an outrage, right-wingers count that as a win, even if the cost of provoking that reaction is playing a chucklehead on national television.
Against this backdrop, mainstream media doesn’t even have a chance. Journalists can carefully double check all their facts and gather multiple reliable sources for any report, but if the story is ideologically inconvenient for conservatives, it will be dismissed as “fake news.” Truth is something those liberals care about, and refusing to care about anything liberals care about is a point of pride for troll nation.
The utter shamelessness of conservatives on this front can be breathtaking, but this contempt for truth was not a trait that was formed overnight. Instead, it took years of careful propaganda, geared at provoking conservative insecurities and resentments, to get right-wingers to the point where they care less about facts than they care about sticking it to those liberals.
Complaints about mainstream media bias against conservatives have been aired on the right for decades. Historian Nicole Hemmer traced the narrative back to the 1940s, when a nascent conservative media emerged in publishing and radio, fueled by arguments that it was necessary to have this right wing media to balance against a mainstream media hopelessly distorted by liberal bias.
In the 1960s, Hemmer argued in the Atlantic, conservatives decided, in addition to having a media of their own, they “would also have to discredit existing media.”
At stake was the Fairness Doctrine, which the FCC adopted in 1949 to encourage political debate on TV and radio. The rule was fairly straightforward: If a show or station had a conservative viewpoint, equal time was to be offered to a liberal viewpoint. (Or vice versa.) But, as Hemmer explained, conservatives “viewed objectivity as a mask concealing entrenched liberal bias, hiding the slanted reporting that dominated American media. Because of this, the right believed fairness did not require a response to conservative broadcasts; conservative broadcasts were the response.”
This belief, that any view not explicitly conservative must be liberal, has become the first station of the right wing cross of victimhood. Mainstream media sources have, in the decades since, bent over backwards to assure conservative audiences that it isn’t true, to no avail.
Trying to convince the right that mainstream media isn’t biased towards the left has often reached levels of absurdity. The New York Times repeatedly fell into this trap during the 2016 campaign, running stories on Hillary Clinton that were poorly sourced, speculative or based on rumor — usually pitched to them by right wing sources. Shoddy stories about her health, her emails and the Clinton Foundation that would have never passed the pitch meeting if they were about a Republican instead of a Democratic candidate routinely made it to the front page of the New York Times.
It’s likely not because the newspaper is secretly conservative, but because The New York Times editors are so overeager to disprove accusations of liberal bias that they give conservative-friendly stories a handicap that would never be given to any other kind of story.
Fox News, still the country’s most popular propaganda outlet, built its entire brand on this notion that any media that doesn’t have an explicitly conservative viewpoint is inherently liberal. The network’s motto for decades, “fair and balanced,” intrinsically accused other media sources of being anything but fair and balanced.
It was a nifty little trick. A motto like that not only demonizes more even-handed media sources, but it implies that there’s something more trustworthy about the information Fox News is handing out. Repeated studies, however, show that Fox News viewers are less informed about the news than other news consumers. A 2016 study from Fairleigh Dickinson University actually demonstrated that people who took in no news at all were better informed about current events than Fox News viewers. (NPR listeners were the best informed.)
Fox News works primarily as a propaganda outlet whose viewers have an almost cult-like loyalty. Anyone who has conservative friends or relatives over the age of 50 has probably witnessed the way that Fox News has become the wallpaper of red state life, turned on all day to pipe out a steady stream of balderdash. The ratings bear this impression out. For 16 years now, Fox News has been the number one cable news network.
But Fox News does more than indoctrinate elderly white people day in and out. Even though it’s dropped it’s provocative “fair and balanced” slogan, the existence of the channel helps feed this narrative that all other media is hopelessly biased towards the left. That narrative, in turn, is used to guilt-trip mainstream media into publishing or broadcasting conservative misinformation in a fruitless bid to seem more fair and balanced themselves.
And yet, the fact that the Trump coalition (Fox News included) has no real views beyond wanting to damage liberals doesn’t mean they don’t present a very serious threat. It’s clear that it’s led the country to this point where our free press is being regularly threatened by the president and his supporters, who have convinced themselves that responsible journalism is just one more annoying liberal affectation that needs to be destroyed. Their anger is ridiculous, but they still have the power to turn their silly bigotries into real life attacks on the journalistic institutions that protect our democracy.