It is day 100000 of the US Election and the hotly contested Presidential race between Joe Biden and Donald Trump has reached a fever pitch of such balmy and grandiose proportions that, quite frankly, you couldn’t make it up.
Or could you?
Yesterday, President Donald Trump told the White House briefing room that he was winning. He is not. He told them that votes are being counted illegally. They are not. He said the election results are not showing Joe Biden winning (they are) but of the Democrats stealing the election through a nefarious scheme of voter fraud. They are not.
He stood at the podium spooling out endless conspiracy theories; much like he had been, on Twitter, since election day. He began a theory about “sharpie” pens spoiling ballots, of Trump votes being burnt (a theory his children are pushing hard on social media) of a large scheme between “Big tech and the liberal media” to rig the election. Of ballots being duplicated, fabricated or destroyed.
The fact is, Trump has been peddling his conspiracy theory about voter fraud ever since the polling showed he was facing a defeat in the election. He told his supporters not to vote by mail, so they evidently did not. Democrats voted by mail in droves. In person votes were counted first (hence an initial Trump lead) then mail votes (resoundingly votes for Biden) began to be counted and Trump’s lead disappeared.
The grand mystery behind the disappearance of his lead is simply this. There is no great insidious scheme. It is merely counting.
Trump’s words are the sad flailing of a losing man; a narcissist whose perception of his place in the world is so absolute that he cannot conceive of losing. Instead, he must reshape the narrative as one where he is having his victory stolen from him. In Trump’s world, it is simply unfathomable that he could lose.
If he wasn’t the President of the United States, this would be incredibly sad, maybe even a bit funny. But he is, and the platform from which he spews his falsehoods is mammoth. He has the ear of the world, he has millions listening to his lies. US Today show anchor Susannah Guthrie, voiced this brilliantly when, interviewing him weeks ago, she challenged him for retweeting mad conspiracy theories about Osama Bin Laden on social media.
“You’re the president,” she said, “You’re not someone’s crazy uncle who can retweet whatever.”
Unfortunately, Trump is America’s crazy uncle. He is the ultimate conspiracy theorist and always has been. He has form for this. He was the main instigator of the “birther” theory about Barack Obama (that Obama was born outside of the States and therefore is not a US citizen-which is false), over a decade ago. In the 2016 election he said he would only accept the results “if I win.” Even then, when he did win, he challenged the fact that, though he won through the electoral college system, he lost the popular vote. At the time, he spouted theories of vote rigging too.
Hillary Clinton even called him out on his propensity towards lying when things don’t go his way, back in the presidential debates of 2016.
“Every time Donald thinks something is not going his direction,” she said, “He claims whatever it is, is rigged against him.” She then listed the primary elections he hadn’t won – and his assertion that the Republican Party was rigged against him- even the time he didn’t win an Emmy and he claimed the Emmys were rigged.
If in doubt, all Trump has to do is create a false narrative. He has done this repeatedly from the advent of his presidency to now, the dying embers of it. After his claim that his inauguration crowds were “the biggest ever” was disputed by- well, logic and truth (remember them?) his former advisor Kellyanne Conway explained this blatant lie with the euphemistic phrase that would come to typify his presidency: “alternative facts.”
Conspiracy theories are simply part of who Trump is; a man who sees truth as an obstacle to getting what he wants. But what is so pernicious about him is that, as a global leader, he has been afforded the platform to manifest these lies. The responsibility of his office is that his words have meaning, they have a real impact, they have real consequences and- not just for Donald Trump- but for the world.
His conspiracies and lies have allowed white supremacy to flourish in America, emboldened by what they see as Presidential endorsement. Hate crimes and domestic terrorism- frequently racially motivated- have risen under his watch. Violence has erupted even now, with pro-Trump protesters trying to storm ballot counting centres, convinced that their election is being stolen.
But perhaps his most dangerous legacy is the systematic erosion of public trust in fact, truth and science. He has made wearing masks a “liberal conspiracy,” he even tried to convince the country that Coronavirus was a hoax from China, or the Democrats (depending which tweet you read) and has made a rallying cry out of his desire to fire Dr Fauci, America’s lead expert on the virus. Meanwhile, America’s deaths from the pandemic are at an all-time high. This is the price they paid, for Trump’s lies.
The truth is just an inconvenience for Trump, it too frequently proves him wrong or unpopular, or shows that he is losing. So he simply disavows it, and makes the millions of people who hang on his word believe he is right. Because conspiracy theories are funny and ridiculous when no one is listening, when everyone laughs, rolls their eyes, and knows they are the ramblings of a madman. But when the world is listening, and that mad man is the president? It is catastrophic.
Twitter has begun adding caveats to his tweets- perhaps out of a belated, desperate attempt to preserve truth, to remind people that what Trump is tweeting, is not necessarily gospel. Maybe this is the beginning of a new age- potentially with a Biden presidency- in which we make a valiant attempt to reclaim truth and restore faith in fact.
Hopefully, conspiracy theories, with the Conspiracy-Theorist-in-Chief out of the Oval Office, will begin to crawl back into the shadows. But let us never forget the power of these lies to shape global narratives. Let the true legacy of the Trump years be our renewed fidelity to truth, and our awareness of the real threat posed by disinformation. Because as Mark Twain said, centuries before the invention of Twitter and the birth of Trump: “A lie can travel half-way around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes.”