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Biden’s First War Would Have to Be Against Propaganda

(Bloomberg Opinion) -- Less than two weeks from Election Day, most talk of a political “bloodbath” remains metaphorical. A 59-year-old man was arrested in Wichita, Kansas, last week after threatening to slit the throat of the mayor, who led the city’s effort to pass a mask mandate. The week before in Michigan, 13 men were arrested on charges of conspiring to kidnap their state’s governor and “try” her for treason.

Both plots, while ghastly, made headlines because they are atypical. The warped worldview that drives such plans, however, is growing alarmingly commonplace. According to a Yahoo News/YouGov poll, half of Trump supporters claim to believe in the mad ravings of the group that calls itself QAnon. Attacking the roots of propaganda that feed such paranoia should be one of most urgent tasks of a Joe Biden presidency.

The asymmetry of the two major parties is driven in part by information asymmetries that feed extremism. The decades-long project of Fox News and the conservative movement to destroy shared truth has paved the way. Regular imbibers of Fox News, according to a new survey from the Public Religion Research Institute, occupy a climate more extreme than other Republicans, who tend to have more varied and less dishonest information sources.

As insidious as Fox is, it appears almost benign compared with other feeders of fanaticism around Trump. The conspiracy theories of QAnon are not a departure from Trumpism; they are a subsidiary of it. Devotion to Trump requires not only defying the facts revealed by journalism, history, science and lived experience. It requires disbelieving the literally dozens of former Trump loyalists who openly dispute MAGA fantasies and see the president as childish, solipsistic, vindictive and uninterested in, or incapable of, doing his job. Meanwhile, Trump’s baseless accusations against others routinely turn to dust.

Some Trump supporters willfully ignore these realities. Others don’t care or perversely admire his corruption and incompetence. Both mindsets will persist even if Trump is removed from office in January.

Men like Donald Trump don’t prosper in a healthy political culture. The emergence of a reality-based conservative information sphere — the Bulwark is a new example — is a necessary but insufficient development. The alienation of the MAGA base from realistic national narratives will continue to play out in criminal plots, pizza obsessions and dangerously unhinged right-wing politics that enjoys the imprimatur of leading Republicans. The U.S. won’t return to anything like political health so long as tens of millions live in a dystopian triangle bounded by MAGA, Facebook and Fox.

Experts call for more aggressive actions by the news media and social media companies to combat disinformation. Both have improved upon their abysmal 2016 performance, but it’s not enough.

Even amid acute polarization, the most effective alternative to mass disinformation may be the White House. Trump has deployed it to spread countless lies. But his success proves that no media source can compete with the White House in establishing the flow and parameters of information. Even those who recognize the Trump administration’s falsehoods and the damage they have done to government credibility still bend to its gravity.

There are limits, of course. All sorts of calumny spread through right-wing media when Barack Obama was president. Moreover, there is little evidence that Republican politicians not named Mitt Romney will denounce propaganda — including Russian-sourced disinformation — if they think it provides a partisan advantage.

Yet Obama largely refrained from directly attacking disinformation aimed at undermining his presidency. That may or may not have been a partisan mistake. But beyond partisan self-interest, the cost of his administration’s reticence was high. With a more concerted effort, the presidency has the power to yoke the misinformed more closely to fact, if only by degrees.

No doubt the most unhinged, such as the Michigan conspirators, would be undeterred by pronouncements from a Biden White House. To the MAGA cohort, a Biden presidency would represent an alternate reality that bears no resemblance to the magic kingdom in which they prefer to reside.

Still, the assault must be made. Breaking the hold of this collective delusion is a national imperative. If there is one thing America has learned in 2020, it is that defeating a virus — whether biological or informational — requires an honest and engaged president.

This column does not necessarily reflect the opinion of the editorial board or Bloomberg LP and its owners.

Francis Wilkinson writes editorials on politics and U.S. domestic policy for Bloomberg Opinion. He was executive editor of the Week. He was previously a writer for Rolling Stone, a communications consultant and a political media strategist.

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