Sacramento, Ca. (Special to Informed Comment) – No American president in memory has pursued his personal and public ambitions largely by willfully misinforming the American public on a daily, sometimes hourly, basis with his tweets and speeches. Indeed, Trump’s singular achievement has been his relentless effort to usurp and fill the void of political ignorance among Americans with misinformation and expedient conspiracy theories that propagate his dark vision for America.
Trump has had enormous help in his disinformation campaign. Joseph Goebbels, Hitler’s propaganda chief, famously remarked: “Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth.” In carrying out his agenda, the propaganda machine known better as the “Fox News” has played a pivotal role repeating, disseminating, and marketing Trump’s lies and misinformation to millions of vulnerable Americans.
The totality of what we know consists of three elements cohabiting in our mind: knowledge, misinformation, and ignorance. The first occupant, knowledge, is evidence-based information. Because evidence can change with time and place, knowledge is always tentative and fallible; never certain and absolute.
The second occupant, misinformation, consists of false beliefs and misperceptions. Many of them are easily correctable with little or no resistance. But some we hold on to dearly even when faced with an overwhelming evidence discrediting them as untrue. These false beliefs usually are emotionally invested in the mind of the misinformed. This protects them against potential ravages by the truth. As we shall see, the fervently held misinformation is the juggernaut that can wreak havoc on human society.
Finally, the third occupant, ignorance, is what we don’t know, whether we are aware of it or not. Strictly speaking, it is not an element but a void, a space that the other two occupants– knowledge and/or misinformation– could occupy. The difference between these two occupiers is, of course, critical—it affects the balance of the mind.
Focusing on the cognitive dimension as distinct from the affective one, human behavior is in large measure a result of the relative proportions of these three elements and how they interact. All else being equal, human beings are better off remaining ignorant than misinformed.
In the remainder of this brief commentary, I shall focus on the role of the last two occupants of the mind– misinformation and ignorance–in American politics.
To be politically uninformed (ignorant) is vastly different than being misinformed (holding false beliefs and perceptions). As a rule, it is much easier to inform an uninformed individual than the misinformed one. Uninformed individuals have little reason wanting to remain in the dark about politics. They are usually receptive to fact-based information and are willing to exchange their void of ignorance with political knowledge they can put to good use, such as voting for a better party or candidates.
Not so with the politically misinformed, especially those who have powerful stakes in perpetuating and propagating their false beliefs and slanted perceptions. Confronting them with even powerful evidence that debunks their views hardly would move them. It may even backfire and lead them to double down their commitment to their false beliefs.
This brings me to the extraordinary times a deeply divided America finds itself in since Trump became president. It is hard to find a comparable period in our history when so many politically uninformed citizens became profoundly misinformed ones. More alarmingly, at no time in our history so many misinformed citizens have become as organized, mobilized, and self-assured as they are today. Their impact on America’s political scene has given rise to the epithet “Post-truth.”
The term captures the disoriented outlook pushed by the misinformed supporters of Trump. Their agenda is to displace fact-based political narratives with self-serving falsehood and distortions and present them to the credulous Americans as “alternative facts.” In their hands, truth becomes the handmaiden of politics.
As noted above, Fox News is a giant corporation; it has the largest daytime viewership of any cable news channel. But it has also evolved into arguably the most important institution engaged in disinformation in America. It performs two key roles for Trump and his right-wing allies. First, it repeats and embellishes his lies and conspiracy theories to enthrall its viewers and keep them mobilized; second, it routinely attacks and disparages the real news deemed as inconvenient by relabeling them as “fake news.” They are uniquely effective at these tasks because most of its viewers tend to see Fox News as a “legitimate” news outlet rather than as a rightwing partisan organization masquerading as “cable news.”
These are deeply troubling developments. They pose a serious, if not a lethal, threat to our battered democracy. As we approach the 2020 elections, the gravity of the moment brings to mind Marx’s famous remark on history repeating itself, the first time as a tragedy, the second time as a farce. This time around, it is playing out in reverse: Trump’s election was a farce; if re-elected, it will be a global tragedy.
Bonus Video added by Informed Comment: