In 2014, the online controversy known as “Gamergate” erupted. It started when a scorned ex boyfriend of a female gaming company executive wanted to exact revenge on his former significant other. In order to whip up a frenzy, he made up a bunch of fake outrages about “political correctness” and poor journalist ethics in the video game industry with his ex being his target. The controversy grew quickly from a group of loosely associated people using the Twitter hashtag #gamergate.
Eventually, the real intentions behind the controversy became clear as it turned into a harassment campaign against women video game executives, including the ex girlfriend. The harassment culminated in death threats, rape threats, disclosing personal information on the internet, and false claims about the women trading sex for favorable articles in gamer news outlets. In sum, it was a made up campaign of fantasies that attracted angry supporters from the internet, fueled by hate, in order to achieve a hidden agenda that would not have upset or outraged people enough on its own.
Sounds like the Donald Trump campaign? Maybe that’s because Mr. Trump’s chief strategist, Stephen Bannon, helped to fuel the #gamergate controversy through the website he ran before joining the Trump campaign. He saw how powerful fake made up outrages could be to achieve an unrelated goal, especially when disaffected white men were empowered and told to blame a scapegoat for their own failures–women, Mexicans, blacks, Muslims, etc.
The larger story here is not Mr. Bannon’s ability to whip people into a frenzy and play on their instincts or feelings of being “taken advantage of” by the “system” and “minorities.” It is instead the reality that some people are more than willing to completely disregard the truth if it helps them to express their anger and inner hatred of other people in a “safe” or “acceptable” way.
More intellectual or educated or less angry people can see through the scam when facts or evidence are presented. But their reaction, to challenge how the angry mob was seduced by fake bullshit, completely misses the mark. The truth has absolutely nothing to do with what Mr. Trump is really trying to do. The real problem is this: Mr. Trump and his supporters are not making fact assertions, instead they are telling themselves what they need to hear to excuse what they are going to do next.
When they tell us that 3 million people voted illegally in the election without any proof, what they are really saying is that they are looking for an excuse to prevent legitimate voters from voting in the future. When they tell us “bad people” are coming from Muslim countries, what they are really saying is they want to get rid of Muslims. When Mr. Trump says Terrorism
brought down an Egyptian airliner, a claim that is now proven to be false
, what he is really saying is “look at these Muslim animals, we need to put them in their place.”
History gives us many examples of this type of totalitarian scapegoating. But we need to look no further than 1930 Germany. Hannah Arendt, in her book The Origin of Totalitarianism
provides a helpful guide for interpreting the propaganda strategy of totalitarians. It goes like this:
- “Sane people” in 1930s Germany would “fact check” the Nazis’ bizarre claims about Jews as if the claims were meant to be factual.
- What the sane people failed to understand was that the Nazi Jew hating machine was not trying to make statements of fact, but was instead making a declaration of intent.
- For example, a Nazi would blame the Jews for Germany’s defeat in WW1, and the sane people would counter by saying “there’s no evidence of that.”
- That the Jews were responsible for this or that betrayal of the “real” Germans, however, really wasn’t the point. Instead, the claims were only what was “required” to be true for the Nazis to justify what they were going to do next.
This explains Mr. Trump’s wild made up claims. Did 3 million “illegals” cast votes in this election, as he asserted without any evidence? There is no evidence of that. But fact checking this lie is just a way of playing along with his game and ignoring the real message. It is a distraction.
What Mr. Trump is really saying is not that 3 million illegals voted, but that he is going to need to take away the voting rights of millions of Americans. He just can’t come out and say that last part directly–not yet, anyway. So he will instead make up lies, like the 3 million whopper, until people are so angry that they will decide that voting rights need to go in order to prevent elections from being “unfair” or “rigged” in the future.
Anything that relies on facts is utterly useless to Mr. Trump because the “truth” really isn’t the point. It’s really the ends, or the goal, we should be trying to figure out and combat, not the means Mr. Trump will use to get there. So stop trying to combat his lies with facts and instead figure out what he is really trying to do and fight against it.
Nobody is listening otherwise.