Modern liberal democracy is understood to combine majoritarian decision making, respect for the rights of minorities and freedom of expression. In the context of what is happening today, we need to add another dimension: the capacity to resolve disagreement through appeals to objective facts. This is new. In the lifetime of my boomer generation, we have assumed that while liberal democracies would always contain extremists living in their own realities, these would be kept to a politically ineffective minority and the great majority would accept that “you are entitled to your own opinion, but not to your own facts.”
More concretely, the willingness and ability of most citizens in liberal democracies to make decisions based on objective facts has been an unstated assumption in the academic literature assessing and comparing levels and effects of political knowledge, to which I have contributed for the last two decades. The generally low level of political knowledge detected in this research in the United States – and, typically to a lesser extent, elsewhere – has generally thus been understood as a manifestation of low political interest and attentiveness.
Usually, we found that the many respondents who lacked basic political knowledge were also politically passive. While we were concerned about the negative effect on the quality of democracy of a large and apparently growing proportion of citizens deficient in what I termed “civic literacy,” and the tendency of these citizens to become “political dropouts,” we did not see this as a threat to democracy per se. It was assumed that when circumstances warranted, they would become more attentive, seeking out missing information via mass communications media that could be counted on, as long as freedom of expression and the press was guaranteed, to adequately provide the needed facts.
These assumptions allowed us to treat a wrong answer to a political knowledge question as equivalent to “don’t know.” In other words, we assumed that being misinformed was, for research purposes, no different from being uninformed. Recent developments force us to question these assumptions, something we are just beginning to do. As I have been closely following developments in the contemporary United States, I have concluded that we can no longer count on the large number of politically misinformed Americans to be open to becoming informed.
The academic literature has not yet caught up with these developments, however. I could find only one research paper investigating the distinction between uninformed and misinformed, and it uses European data. Three U.K.-based political scientists, Stijn van Kessel, Javier Sajuria and Steven M. Van Hauwaert, test “to what extent misinformation, i.e. the possession of erroneous political information, stimulates populist party support. Survey data from nine European democracies populist party supporters differ from abstainers and non-populist party supporters in terms of their political information and misinformation, … political misinformation relates positively to support for right-wing populist parties.”1
It’s time to build into our analysis and research the reality that for many Trump supporters, political ignorance is not a matter of being uninformed, but rather of being systematically misinformed. They are ignorant by the standards of our political knowledge tests, but they do not see themselves that way – quite the opposite. This reality requires rethinking the assumptions underlying an entire body of literature, addressing worrisome possibilities only now being perceived. As Jonathan Rauch and Benjamin Wittes put it in a 2017 Brookings Institution study:
The literature on voter ignorance is one of the oldest, best established, and most dismaying in all of political science … In recent years, however, a wave of research has shown ignorance and irrationality to be even bigger problems than previously believed … Neither theory nor practice supports the idea that in an environment dominated by extreme partisans and narrow interest groups.2
Recent findings substantiate these concerns. We begin with a 2018 online survey of 2,606 American adults online by Ian Anson of the University of Maryland as to their political knowledge.3 He found that those who performed worse were more likely to overestimate their performance. “When I asked partisans to ‘grade’ political knowledge quizzes filled out by fictional members of the other party, low-skilled respondents gave out scores that reflected party biases much more than actual knowledge.” This was especially the case among Republicans.
Similarly, in 2018, two political scientists at Brigham Young University, Michael Barber and Jeremy Pope, carried out online surveys of almost 1,600 respondents who completed a political knowledge quiz, which asked five questions. Group loyalty, they found, “is the stronger motivator of opinion than are any ideological principles.” Republicans use partisan cues to judge peers’ political knowledge to a greater extent than do Democrats, coinciding with the polarization in the American electorate: “Low-knowledge respondents, strong Republicans, Trump-approving respondents, and self-described conservatives are the most likely to behave like party loyalists by accepting the Trump cue.”4
Richard Fording of the University of Alabama and Sanford Schram of Hunter College in New York reported in 2017 on a study concluding that the Trump campaign exploited a void of facts and reasoning among “low information voters … that made them more vulnerable to relying on emotions about Mexican immigrants, Muslim refugees, and African-American citizens, as well as their disdain for the first African-American President, Barack Obama, … Trump supporters less in a position to want or be able to question Trump’s … campaign of misstatements, untruths, and lies.”5 They noted that in 2016 preference for Trump among those low in political knowledge was 20 per cent higher than among others, yet nothing similar had been found in 2012 about preferences for Republican nominee Mitt Romney.
What we are seeing thus is politically motivated ignorance: the misinformed not only assume that they are informed, but they dismiss anyone challenging their (mis)understanding as being politically motivated and, if anything, become even more convinced of the untruths they believe to be true. Hence Trump’s support has proven effectively unshakable despite revelations of the more than 17,000 false or misleading statements he has uttered in office at the time of this writing, according to fact-checkers (see box 1).
Hence the negative portrayal of Trump in the media has, if anything, bolstered his supporters in their views: the more strongly his statements – however distant from the facts – attack the “elitist liberals” or “the Democrats,” the more fervent their support appears to be. As one supporter told conservative commentator David Brooks, “This is war and he is our leader” – a war against, notably, the “lamestream” news organizations, the “enemies of the American people.”
Politically the priority for Trump is to mobilize his hard-core base, composed primarily of older, white, less educated, more rural males in the “red” states, which are overrepresented in the Senate and Electoral College. He seeks to train their attention away from his own policies and toward opposing an unpatriotic, overeducated, out-of-touch urban elite.
At this writing, this base remains large enough to effectively keep Republican legislators, who fear defeat in the primaries more than in the general election, in line. Hence the solid congressional support for Trump during impeachment, even though, as Alex Carp notes in the January 6 issue of New York magazine, “some of Trump’s most loyal supporters in Congress despise him in private.” Carp explains why with a quote from veteran Republican strategist Rick Wilson:
A friend of mine, a member of Congress, went home to a town-hall meeting, and a guy asks him, “Are you going to be with Mr. Trump 100 percent of the time?” And he goes, “Well, look, I support Donald Trump and I want to help him, and we agree on many things. But I represent this district. If there’s something the president wants to do and it’s good for us, we’re absolutely going to do it. If it’s something that’s bad for our district, I’m going to oppose it.” By the time he left the stage, his wife had death threats. His kids had death threats.
Most Republican elites who are appalled by Trump as a person are, it would appear, still more appalled by policies seeking to redistribute wealth. They continue to support him, just as their libertarian views have not impeded them from supporting social-conservative causes opposed to the rise of secularism and seeking to maintain traditional gender relations in order to attract votes to the Republican side.
Seeing the mainstream media as the enemy, the Trumpites look elsewhere for information. As a result, they seldom need to reject information contesting their understanding, since it doesn’t reach them in the first place. Indeed, less and less communication crosses the political divide. Here exceptional American institutions play a key part, beginning with the media environment. The Trumpites get their information from Fox News and other pro-Trump electronic media sources like Breitbart, Sinclair, Trinity Broadcasting Network and Nexstar.
One study analyzing millions of American news stories concluded that, unlike most news outlets that seek to adhere to facts and run corrections of false reports, conservative media are more concerned with confirming their audience’s biases, fearing angry reactions to exposures of falsehoods from core viewers.6 Moreover, as Jane Mayer noted in the New Yorker on March 11, 2019, on Fox News when falsehoods are exposed, core viewers often react angrily, noting that after Fox News anchor Shepard Smith contradicted Trump’s scaremongering about immigrants, viewers lashed out at him on social media.
Beneath the surface, added to the one-sided information Trumpites get from the pro-Trump media, are their links to social media that render them prey to “deep fakes.” Christopher Wylie, the whistleblower about Cambridge Analytica, has explained how this was done in an important new book (reviewed by Arthur Milner elsewhere in this issue).7 Box 2 gives a taste of Wylie’s revelations.
As Aaron Rupar reported on March 3,
According to data compiled by CrowdTangle, the most total interactions on Facebook came on a Fox News article about a federal judge granting a request from a right-wing group named Judicial Watch to make Clinton sit for a sworn deposition about her use of a private email server when she was secretary of state.
In fact, as this is written early Tuesday afternoon, stories from right-wing sources about Clinton’s emails represent three of the top 10 and five of the 20 top-performing news stories on Facebook over the past 24 hours …
What you won’t find in Facebook’s top 20 news stories, however, is Super Tuesday coverage, anything published by a left-of-center outlet, or anything that’s critical of President Donald Trump or his administration …
What explains the predominance of right-wing outlets on Facebook? According to Judd Legum, who reports extensively on Facebook in his Popular Information newsletter …
“Facebook is optimized for Trump supporters … It rewards engagement, which mostly reflects an emotional reaction to things. Support for Trump is largely emotional, not factual. So pro-Trump content does very very well.” …
Legum has detailed how Ben Shapiro’s Daily Wire spreads its content around Facebook with help from “a clandestine network of 14 large Facebook pages that purport to be independent but exclusively promote content from The Daily Wire in a coordinated fashion.”8
As a result, conservatives’ voices are the loudest on Facebook. According to an investigation put together last year by David Uberti for Vice, the Fox News Facebook page had a higher engagement rate (the average number of engagements per post per follower) than that of any other major news organization over the same period, and some five times that of the New York Times.
Along with the uninformed and the misinformed, we thus have, among the latter, the disinformed – a word that should exist if it doesn’t yet. According to McKay Coppins in a recent article in the Atlantic,
In conversations with political strategists and other experts, a dystopian picture of the general election comes into view – one shaped by coordinated bot attacks, Potemkin local-news sites, micro-targeted fearmongering, and anonymous mass texting … The Trump campaign is planning to spend more than $1 billion, and it will be aided by a vast coalition of partisan media, outside political groups, and enterprising freelance operatives. These pro-Trump forces are poised to wage what could be the most extensive disinformation campaign in U.S. history … The wreckage it leaves behind could be irreparable.
In the academic literature, three concepts have emerged seeking to make sense of the Trumpite phenomenon. The most common is populism, which is in fact not an “ism,” since it has no programmatic content beyond seeking to keep outsiders out of the country and identifying with the interests of the native-born and against elites siding with outsiders against “the people.” There has been a significant recent increase in interest among academics in the spread of populism. Below is an excerpt from the call for papers to the September 2019 American Political Science Association meeting, a call which drew scores of papers, something inconceivable at earlier similar meetings:
No recent political development has been more striking than the rise to power of self-identified populist movements around the globe, whose main unifying trait is their claim to champion “the people” against entrenched selfish “elites.” These movements display differences that have sparked debates over which, if any, should be called “populist”; how they compare with past “populisms”; and what “populism” is. The current partisans, often labeled populist, have more often been on the right than the left, including anti-immigrant, anti-globalization, ardently nationalist parties such as Fidesz in Hungary; the Law and Justice Party in Poland; and the Trump Republicans in the United States.
While in most democratic countries populists have formed new parties, in the context of the rigid U.S. two-party system, they instead moved to take over the Republican Party, mobilizing enough registered Republicans to deny renomination to insufficiently loyal legislators.
The term populist does not fully capture this intensity of feeling and one-sided perception of reality. An alternative that has been suggested is tribalism. This is a form of emotional identification that transcends ideology, which the Trumpites have manifested in casually jettisoning Republican orthodoxy on trade, entitlements, international alliances, the FBI and other matters. The attitude of dedicated followers of sports teams, for whom all calls by the referee not favouring their team are evidence of bias, is often described as tribal. In such cases, tribalism is usually – though not always – harmless. Tribalism in politics, however, is not harmless. In a 2019 article, Jonathan Rauch analyzed the changing nature of American partisanship:
What we fear, we tend also to hate … Partisans are not so much rallying for a cause or party they believe in as banding together to fight a collective enemy — psychologically and politically a very different kind of proposition … Fans of opposing political parties perceive different facts and take different policy views depending on which party lines up on which side. Presenting people with facts that challenge an identity- or group-defining opinion does not work … Both academic research and real-world politics over the past few years suggest that a purely political or ideological account of polarization is incomplete. We are up against a kind of tribalism here that is deeper and tougher than we had imagined.9
Another relevant concept is that of cult. Congressman Joe Walsh was quoted by Guardian reporter David Smith at the Iowa caucuses on February 2:
My party is a cult. I’m a conservative Republican; Fox News won’t have me on. Conservative media will ignore me because they’re a cult with Trump. The Republican parties in each state: they are a cult for Trump … Every time I’m out there talking primarily to Republican voters, because that’s what I’m trying to do, there are a lot of Republicans that get angry at me and we get threats every day and it can get ugly.
Similarly, in a column on January 10 in the Los Angeles Times, Virginia Heffernan concluded that “the Trump cult will define American politics for decades to come, even after its dear leader is gone.” She cited “Steven Hassan, an expert in cults and an ex-Moonie published ‘The Cult of Trump’ … When polled, far too many Republicans come across as lost to paranoia and factually unmoored talking points, just the way Hassan was lost to Sun Myung Moon a ‘radical personal change.’” Heffernan added,
Journalists Luke O’Neil and Edwin Lyngar, as well as Jen Senko in “The Brainwashing of My Dad,” have compiled stories of Americans who have gone over. O’Neil summarized the transformation this way: “A loved one … sat down in front of Fox News, found some kind of deep, addictive comfort in the anger and paranoia, and became a different person.”
To sum up, there is something new and disquieting taking place in modern Western democratic societies, especially the United States. To what extent this is reminiscent of Germany, Italy and Spain in the 1930s, I will leave to historians. But having watched Republican legislators succumb to threats from the Trumpite cult, one needs to be concerned. It is fair to expect that were Trump to be reelected, he would use every bit of his power to wreak vengeance on his opponents, unleashing his supporters to report insufficiently loyal government employees and attack his critics in the media – hopefully only online.
As of this writing, the effective nomination of Joe Biden and the economic effects of the coronavirus have reduced the chances of Trump winning the presidency and Republicans controlling Congress. Yet this will be an election like no other. Trump knows that it is only the presidency that is keeping him from bankruptcy – his hotels no longer propped up by courtiers – and probably jail.
Yet nothing is certain. How, if one is used to waging a campaign against another party, does one wage a campaign against a cult?
The best prospect is that Trump will lose the election decisively and leave the scene without shouting too loud about having been cheated and thus giving rise to violent reactions among the Trumpites. But even so, given the skewed American political institutions and polarized media, the Trumpian world will remain after he is gone.
But the longer term is cloudier. While in the current medical emergency the populist attack on expertise has lost some of its appeal even in the United States, the Trumpite base isn’t going anywhere. In power, Democrats will be saddled with a huge national and international economic challenge, with levels of debt higher than anyone can remember. And they will have to make hard choices in the face of inevitable hardships. Unless the emerging generation has learned its lessons, we can expect that, probably sooner rather than later, the next wave of Trumpites will sweep our neighbours to the south.