A Carnival of Propaganda
Americans who tuned in to this week’s Republican National Convention were treated to a slickly produced, four-day dispatch from an alternate reality—one in which the president has defeated the pandemic, healed America’s racial wounds, and ushered in a booming economy. In this carnival of propaganda, Donald Trump was presented not just as a great president, but as a quasi-messianic figure who was single-handedly preventing the nation’s slide into anarchy.
Every presidential-nominating convention is, to a certain extent, an exercise in hype and whitewashing. But Trump’s 2020 convention went further—rewriting the history of his first term with such brazenness that it seemed designed to disorient. The setting of the convention’s final night reinforced the surreality: the made-for-TV stage on the White House’s South Lawn; the cheering, unmasked audience of more than 1,000 standing shoulder to shoulder; the speakers blaring Lee Greenwood’s “God Bless the U.S.A.” loud enough to drown out protesters at the gate.
“This election will decide whether we will defend the American way of life, or whether we allow a radical movement to completely dismantle it,” the president declared in his speech formally accepting the Republican nomination. “That won’t happen.” By one count, the address contained at least 20 false or misleading claims.
Many of the Republican strategists I spoke with this week flatly acknowledged that their party was presenting a version of recent events that veered toward fan fiction. But given the bitter mood of the country and the dire state of the race, they said, the campaign’s desperation was understandable.
“In some ways, the speeches are reminiscent of the speeches one hears at a memorial service, where … everyone stretches the truth to say nice things,” A. J. Delgado, who worked for Trump’s 2016 campaign, told me. “And we’re all in the audience muttering, ‘Well, that’s not true, but I get it—what else can you say?’”
The rat-a-tat of distortions and conspiracy theories began with Trump’s address to delegates on Monday, when he accused Democrats of trying to rig the election with universal mail-in voting, which he called “the greatest scam in the history of politics.” (It is not.) Later, Representative Steve Scalise of Louisiana claimed that Joe Biden had “embraced the insane mission to defund” the police. (He has not.) Representative Matt Gaetz of Florida warned that Democrats would “disarm you, empty the prisons, lock you in your home, and invite MS-13 to live next door.” (They will not.) And Senator Marsha Blackburn of Tennessee said Democrats wanted to “keep you locked in your house until you become dependent on the government for everything.” (They do not.)
When the coronavirus—which has so far killed more than 180,000 Americans—came up during the convention, it was in service of Trumpian revisionism. “From the very beginning, Democrats, the media, and the World Health Organization got the coronavirus wrong,” the narrator said in a video that aired Monday night. But “one leader took decisive action to save lives: President Donald Trump.”
That this narrative was untethered from reality—Trump’s early refusal to take the virus seriously is well documented—didn’t stop his lib-owning fans from exchanging high fives on social media. “That video is going to make all the right heads explode,” tweeted the conservative talk-radio host Erick Erickson.
The myth that Trump has already beaten the virus pervaded the convention. As my colleague Russell Berman has noted, the pandemic was repeatedly referred to in the past tense. “It was awful,” Trump economic adviser Larry Kudlow said in his speech on Tuesday.
Bryan Lanza, a former Trump adviser, defended this warped account as simply a “glass-half-full” version of the president’s record. When I challenged him on that, he countered, “What do you view as defeating the coronavirus? Because I know this administration is measuring by the death count.”
I pointed out that more than 1,000 Americans are dying every day from the virus.
“Every death is a tragedy,” Lanza replied. “But remember where we were in March, when people were estimating 3–5 million deaths? Three hundred thousand is a fraction of that.”
Much of the Republican convention seemed to be organized around erasing the national memory of Trump’s bigotry. He presided over a naturalization ceremony. He surprised an ex-felon with a presidential pardon. A slate of Black speakers was invited to say nice things about the president, defend him against accusations of racism, and tout his role in passing a criminal-justice-reform bill.
Of course, in between these feel-good stunts and testimonials were bleak warnings about the “Marxist revolutionary” forces that are wreaking havoc in American cities—and could be coming for you next. The most potent of these segments featured the McCloskeys, an affluent Missouri couple who went viral after pointing guns at Black Lives Matter protesters outside their house in June. “Make no mistake,” Patricia McCloskey told viewers, “no matter where you live, your family will not be safe in the radical Democrats’ America.” Protesters, she said, are “not satisfied with spreading chaos and violence into our communities. They want to abolish the suburbs altogether.” Police brutality—the issue at the heart of this summer’s unrest—received only glancing mentions during the convention.
Sarah Isgur, a former spokesperson for the Trump Justice Department, told me she didn’t believe the convention’s goal was to lure shaky Biden supporters into the president’s unreality. Instead, the campaign was targeting people who wanted an excuse to vote for Trump, but felt uneasy about it. Hence, the dual-message broadcast: “Reminding his voters why a Biden presidency should scare them,” and also “giving Trump-sympathetic voters permission to vote for Trump.”
Last fall, I created a fake Facebook account because I wanted to immerse myself in the MAGA information ecosystem. I wanted to witness the onslaught of pro-Trump propaganda firsthand, to see the president’s sophisticated disinformation campaign at work. In the months since I first wrote about my experiment for The Atlantic, I’ve periodically been asked by wide-eyed liberals to recount my journey into the fever swamps.
The truth is that anyone who watched this week’s convention has a pretty good idea of what it’s like. The programming may have been glossier, softer, more savvily pitched to certain demographics. But the goal seemed the same—not to persuade or convert, but to disorient and demoralize. Americans have spent the past four years watching the Trump presidency unfold, and they are not overwhelmingly impressed by what they’ve seen. His campaign appears determined to make voters second-guess themselves. As the political theorist Hannah Arendt once wrote, the purpose of propaganda “has never been to instill convictions, but to destroy the capacity to form any.”