The first few days of the 45th US presidency have been mired in much the same debates as the weeks and months that preceded them. Namely a ceaseless struggle for the ownership of truth or objective reality in hyper partisan political environment.
We casually attribute this struggle to the advent of social media, which provides a ladder over traditional information gatekeepers for the purveyors of ‘alternative facts.’ But this ignores the pre-existing conditions of collapsing faith in institutions (including the mainstream media) as well as the media’s own long standing struggles with objectivity or balance in reporting. Moreover, it suggests that Trump’s victory is more an accident of history than an overt, and successful instrumentalisation of modern angst at an opportune moment to attain power. Simply blaming Russia for spreading fake news doesn’t account for how these narratives gained traction within the electorate. Failure to appreciate this leaves us confused as to how we got here, and ill-prepared for what to expect in the months and years to come.
While much is made of the post-truth moment, the idea of political bias in reporting is hardly a novelty. The deep unease regarding ‘fake news’ is unsurprising when seen in a historical context. After all, similar concerns arose around the early print media, and indeed the mass production of that most basic of mobile communication devices; the book. At the onset of the information technology revolution, one of the promises of techno-utopians was that popular consciousness would be freed from the yoke of an increasingly oligarchic corporate media structure. As it transpires, they were entirely right about the process, and potentially catastrophically wrong about the consequences.
The levelling effect of social media has given amplification to groups using long established propaganda tactics to new effect. From the early days of crude 9/11 conspiracy videos, to tales of FEMA’s role in the coming apocalypse, or the YouTube pastors preaching on the creeping takeover of the state by the Rothschilds, or Sharia, or both. The pubescent web has provided purchase for this heady brew of racist rhetoric and apocalyptic paranoia. That these narratives developed in a broader political context that saw the US carry out all manner of major state criminality in its prosecution of the war on terror should surprise no-one.
This primordial soup bubbled away through financial crisis, Wall Street regeneration and main street stagnation under 8 years of the Obama presidency. In that time the narratives of the right libertarian and fascistic politics of ‘the alt right’ have distilled into a slick, sophisticated online political movement. A movement that sees in every feminist a traitor, in every Muslim an extremist and in Planned Parenthood a holocaust. That its activist base is relatively small matters little as time and again they demonstrate their ability to run rings around their ‘liberal’ mainstream counterparts, much to the chagrin of the establishment media. The Clinton campaign was an almost perfect foil in this regard.
Their savviness in adopting Donald Trump as a vessel for increasing their political power proved most of us were several steps behind in identifying both their talent and ambition. We should understand that Trump’s political success owes a great deal to their development, and not the other way around.
What should worry us now is that the leading figures in this amorphous grouping the ‘alt right’ are now claiming the due reward of political appointments that either put them, or people who are willing to parrot their narratives, in a position to influence executive policy. Earlier concerns about National Security Advisor Mike Flynn’s retweeting of the bizarre Clinton ‘pizzagate’ odyssey gained a tangible malevolence when it became clear that alt right figurehead Steve Bannon had a hand in authoring Trump’s inaugural address- a jaw droppingly ungracious ode to the fatherland, and an appeal to the red blood of the citizenry therein to allow for its return to former glory. The president’s voice has an alt-right twang.
We are about to live an experiment. What happens when people who peddle in conspiracy theories take control of the most powerful military in human history? Usually American foreign policy is the subject of conspiratorial narratives, for obvious reasons. It has the power to shape and destroy entire regions. It has done so on the basis ‘alternative facts’ before, and we are still dealing with the consequences.
What happens when the people who direct that machine believe (or purport to believe) that the world is in governed by shadowy cabals that aim to destroy America, that see young Muslims in the west as ticking time bombs or see fascism in anti-facism? If everywhere they look they see enemies plotting against them, how easy will it be to justify more adventures in pre-emptive self-defence?
Will that justification come in the aftermath, as seems all but inevitable on Trump’s watch, of another major terrorist attack? Who will the administration seek to blame and will any amount of evidence be enough to balance against the prejudices of the nascent Trump national security team. They have demonstrated a fixation with Iran; will we now see the Revolutionary Guard’s fingerprints on plots against America or its allies in the coming years?
And what of ISIS, the current mascot for the ill-defined macro phenomenon of ‘radical Islamic terrorism’ that the President has vowed to destroy. As they have been pushed closer to military defeat in Iraq and Syria, they have vowed to maintain their campaign through the continued proliferation of their ideology online, using conspiracy and half-fact to recruit the angry and the disillusioned to their war ‘against tyranny and injustice’. Like the Neo-cons and Al-Qaeda before them, Trump and ISIS will cling to each other for legitimation in the eyes of their followers. It would almost be romantic if it wasn’t so terrifying.
Previous presidential administrations have invited the production of conspiratorial narratives, due to their participation in things that look very much like criminal conspiracy. Many are betting that Trump’s administration will itself excel in this regard. But the President has already demonstrated an all too predictable willingness to fall back on accusations of conspiracy to distract either from his innate unpopularity, questions of his legitimacy or his basic suitability for the role. It will be Trump’s prerogative to continue this distraction. The greater danger lies in the ‘alternative facts’ of those with his ear creeping into policy areas with potential global impact. The world needs to be ready to do a better job of guarding against the American executive if it again uses lies to justify war.