The GOP’s Assault on Truth Is About Power, Not Persuasion

Republican Senator Ron Johnson’s hearing on ‘election security’ was a perfect example of this kind of propaganda.

On Wednesday, the Senate Homeland Security Committee held a hearing on election security. Senator Ron Johnson of Wisconsin, who chairs the committee, has previously held hearings on the unconscionable claim that Medicaid is responsible for fueling the opioid epidemic and the quackery that hydroxychloroquine cures the coronavirus. Johnson is also the Republican who turned a joke from FBI agent Lisa Page about “off-site meetings” into a claim that there was a “secret society” at the FBI plotting to destroy the Trump presidency. 

Reporting for the Associated Press, Christina Cassidy and Mary Clare Jalonick didn’t pull any punches when describing the point of Wednesday’s hearing.

The session, held by the Senate Homeland Security and Governmental Affairs Committee over Democratic protests, elevated the groundless claims of fraud to the highest levels of government and provided two of Trump’s lawyers with one more public opportunity to make the false assertions after repeatedly losing in court…

[Johnson], the committee chairman and one of Trump’s fiercest defenders, said his goal was to have a bipartisan hearing to examine the election. But he repeated Trump’s assertions without evidence and focused heavily on the claims being made by the president’s team.

Republican Senator Josh Hawley of Missouri identified the goal of the hearing when he claimed that about 30 of his constituents told him that they had been disenfranchised, their votes didn’t matter, and the election was rigged (even though Trump won Missouri by 15 points). Hawley suggested that the 74 million people who voted for Trump are now being told to “sit down and shut up” if they have concerns about election integrity. He used that claim to justify the need for a hearing.

This is a pattern we’ve witnessed from Trump and his defenders many times over the last four years. The president tells an outrageous lie. It is repeated endlessly by right-wing media. When his supporters believe and amplify the lie, it is put on equal footing with the truth as a matter for inquiry and debate. If mainstream media refuses to spread the lie, they are accused of engaging in censorship.

Four years ago, Christopher Paul and Miriam Matthews of the Rand Corporation described this pattern as a model of propaganda they called “firehose of falsehood.” Their interest was in pointing out how Vladimir Putin uses this deluge of lies as part of his information warfare both at home and abroad. They describe firehosing as having four key characteristics.

  1. High volume and multichannel
  2. Rapid, continuous, and repetitive
  3. Lacks commitment to objective reality
  4. Lacks commitment to consistency

Those living in the bubble created by right-wing news hear Trump’s lies repeatedly from multiple sources, making them appear credible. This is the underpinning of all propaganda. That firehosing lacks a commitment to consistency and objective reality can seem counterintuitive. But as Masha Gessen of the New Yorker explains, that is because the goal of firehosing is not persuasion, but power. 

The immediate reaction of the media and others to a firehose of lies is to fact-check. That turns the lies into a political fight. What shouldn’t be up for debate becomes a partisan tit for tat. As Peter Pomerantsev, a Soviet-born British journalist and author, wrote about Putin’s information warfare in 2014: “insisting on the lie, the Kremlin intimidates others by showing that it is in control of defining ‘reality.’ This is why it’s so important for Moscow to do away with truth. If nothing is true, then anything is possible.”

Wednesday’s hearing on “election security” was a perfect example of this method of propaganda. Lies about voter fraud have been broadcast continuously on the right. They have been fact-checked as false not only by the media but by Republican officials in the contested states and judges appointed by Democrats and Republicans. And yet, Senator Hawley suggested that because some of his constituents believe the lies, we must have a hearing that places those lies on an equal footing with the facts. That is precisely how truth is robbed of its power.

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