Why misinformation is so powerful over delusional Republican voters

Why misinformation is so powerful over delusional Republican voters
President Donald J. Trump participates in a town hall interview taping with Sean Hannity of Fox News Thursday, June 25, 2020, at Green Bay-Austin Struble International Airport in Green Bay, Wis. (Official White House Photo by Tia Dufour)

Perhaps it was inevitable, but now it's certain: Three months out from the violent insurrection Donald Trump incited at the U.S. Capitol, the majority of Republican voters have settled on a story that they can use to justify supporting what Trump and the rioters did. According to a poll released this week by Reuters and Ipsos, belief in conspiracy theories about the insurrection is widespread among Republican voters, with 55% claiming to "agree" or "somewhat agree" that the rioters were really "antifa" in disguise. Another 51% of Republican respondents agree or somewhat agree that the rioters — who look to have killed one police officer, violently assaulted hundreds of others, and were chanting "hang Mike Pence" as they ransacked the Capitol — "were mostly peaceful, law-abiding Americans." And a full 60% agree or somewhat agree with Trump's utterly false claim that Joe Biden stole the 2020 election.

These numbers are, needless to say, terrifying, precisely because they capture a level of delusion that is truly hard to imagine.

It's not clear how much overlap there is among adherents to the various conspiracy theories. It could be a situation where half of Republicans have thrown in with the "antifa hoax" lie and another half with the "not that violent" lie. Or it could be that a lot of Republicans believe both at the same time, even though the conspiracy theories contradict each other, as there's no point in screaming that "antifa did it" if you're also denying the well-documented violence of the insurrection. But research has long shown that conspiracy theorists don't care if their theories contradict each other. For instance, people who believe Princess Diana was murdered are also more likely to believe that she's still secretly alive. Conspiracy theories are rarely about a literal, sincere understanding of the facts, but closer to religious fables or myths — comforting narratives that a person tells themselves in order to justify an underlying belief system.

In this case, the underlying belief being rationalized is the Republican turn against democracy itself. Republican voters understand their ideology and party are both unpopular. They know that maintaining power means overruling the wishes of the majority of Americans. But rather than admit out loud — or possibly even to themselves — that they would rather end American democracy, they cling to these comforting conspiracy theories that let them tell a story where they're the heroes, not the villains trying to strip rights away from other Americans.

The reaction to the poll has largely been focused on the role right-wing disinformation campaigns run by major outlets like Fox News and Breitbart play in making Republican voters so delusional.

There is no doubt that the firehose of lies coming from Trump and his media supporters matter. Still, it's important to understand that Republican voters have autonomy here. They aren't mindless ciphers, helpless to resist the allure of Fox News propaganda. They actively choose to watch Fox News and to reject truthful information. Anyone who has tried to correct a Republican friend or relative who is sharing misinformation can attest to this grim reality. They almost never thank you for setting them straight or get angry at Tucker Carlson for lying to them. They get defensive and double down on the lies. They prefer lies over truth.

In a sense, then, it's questionable whether Republican voters really "believe" that Trump really won the election, or that antifa was behind the insurrection, or that the insurrection wasn't really violent. At least, they may not believe it in the usual sense that we use the word "believe" to mean a conviction that a thing is true, such as believing the sun will rise in the east or that Prince wrote "When Doves Cry" in one night. Many of them likely are asserting it more as a show of tribal loyalty and, of course, as cover for their more unspeakable but truer beliefs, like the belief that white people are the only people whose votes should really count. As David Graham argued in February at the Atlantic, "Republicans are backing Trump not in spite of the insurrection but because of it." But they know that saying out loud that they want to overthrow democracy is bad. Instead, they cling to conspiracy theories, many of which contradict each other, that are proxies for their real but unspeakable anti-democratic beliefs.

Evidence that tribal loyalty and emotional desires trump empirical evidence with Republican voters was neatly demonstrated by the reaction, in the early days of Trump's presidency, to Trump's insistence that his inauguration crowd was bigger than Barack Obama's. Anyone could see that it was only a fraction of the size, but when researchers asked Republican voters about this in the days after the inauguration, over 40% were willing to make fools of themselves to insist that Trump's crowd was bigger.

Since then, the defiance and defensiveness of Trump voters has only ratcheted up, to the point where many, if not most, will deny the sky is blue if Trump asked them to. It's not because they "believe" the lies, so much as they believe in their own hatred of liberals, and will say or do anything in order to perform a rejection of what liberals believe. That's how so many Trump voters talked themselves into treating the pandemic, which was obviously real, as a hoax. And why they can look at a howling mob of violent insurrectionists waving Trump flags, and deny the evidence of their own eyes.

Misinformation is absolutely one of the worst problems in our country. The steady stream of right-wing lies is tearing this country apart. But it's critical to understand why misinformation is so powerful. Most Republican voters believe that their rapidly shrinking tribe should hold all the power, and are willing to sacrifice democracy itself to hang onto power.

What misinformation from Fox News and other outlets does is give Republicans excuses and rationalizations for continuing to hold repulsive beliefs that they know full well can't be justified on the merits. Fox News shamelessly pumps out lies on a nightly basis, and it's a threat to our democracy. But what's even scarier is that they have an audience so hungry for the lies that they would turn on even Fox News if the network ever stopped lying.

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