AT noon on January 20, as Joe Biden gazed out across the National Mall, he was surrounded by symbols of the harsh reality America was enduring.
Where hundreds of thousands of onlookers would gather to witness the swearing in of a new President, thousands of flags stood in their place. With Covid-19 running rampant throughout the country, the crowds were told to stay home. Enveloping the Capitol were 25,000 National Guardsmen, brought in as extra security following the attempted insurrection by a violent mob two weeks earlier.
Biden called for unity in his inauguration speech, critiquing the state of politics in the country: “Politics doesn’t have to be a raging fire, destroying everything in its path. Every disagreement doesn’t have to be a cause for total war.”
He also took aim at the toxic lies that have not only hindered government attempts to halt the spread of Covid-19, but also turned Americans against each other: “We must reject the culture in which facts themselves are manipulated and even manufactured”.
Though the concept of dishonesty in politics is not novel or new, the Trump presidency supercharged it to a point not seen before in America.
The Washington Post recently reported that Trump made 30,573 false or misleading claims as president.
From laughable lies about inauguration crowd sizes to more worrying lies relating to the landfall of Hurricane Dorian, Trump, and his political and media enablers, spent four years undermining concepts of truth and objectivity. Any person or organisation trying to counter his falsehoods was hounded and abused.
Trump regularly attacked the free press, describing them as “enemies of the people” (a term that has dark echoes of the fascist governments of the 1930s). His supporters have attempted to write off his falsehoods as mere hyperbole, but the past year has shown the devastating consequences his deceitful rhetoric has had on the nation.
Trump’s lies corrupted public perception of democracy itself.
With most polls showing he was trailing Joe Biden, he spent the months before the election seeding the idea that the entire process would be rigged. He wrongly claimed on Election Day that he had won; tweeting “They are trying to steal the election” mere hours into the vote count. But the simple fact is, he lost. Seven million more people voted for Biden and he won the majority of electoral college votes.
Aided by a Republican party that was unwilling to confront him, Trump spent the next two months repeating this lie. He sent teams of lawyers to local courts in a bid to overturn the election results. His allies in right-wing media outlets like Fox News, OAN and Newsmax brought this lie into millions of homes across the country. Far-right activists, inspired by claims of a stolen election, threatened the lives of election workers and officials.
As Trump’s lawyers lost case after case in courthouses across the land, the President’s supporters began to see the joint session of Congress on January 6 as a last roll of the dice.
That day, at a rally titled ‘Save America’, he addressed a crowd of thousands, urging them to march on the capital to protest the certification of the election votes; apocalyptically suggesting this was the last chance for America: “We fight like hell, and if you don’t fight like hell, you’re not going to have a country anymore”
Hours later, rioters stormed the capitol building, constructing gallows and calling for the deaths of Congress members.
The damage this disinformation campaign did to American democracy was immense, with millions of Americans now believing that the 2020 election was fraudulent.
Trump’s inability to tell the truth undoubtedly affected the government response to the Coronavirus pandemic.
He was so fearful the virus could negatively affect the economy and his chances of re-election that he downplayed its danger to the public. He retweeted anti-mask posts, presented untested chemicals as miracle cures and attacked Democratic governors for enforcing lockdowns. He mocked then-Presidential candidate Biden’s decision to wear a mask, turning a public health recommendation into a partisan political choice.
This became evident at his campaign rallies where tens of thousands of his supporters were packed together with no requirement to wear masks. When it became apparent the virus was out of control, Trump chose to ignore it, even going so far as to question the legitimacy of the data. His tweet on January 3 (one of his last before his account was deleted) highlights this dangerous dishonesty.
“The number of cases and deaths of the China Virus is far exaggerated in the United States because of @CDCgov’s ridiculous method of determination compared to other countries, many of whom report, purposely, very inaccurately and low. When in doubt, call it Covid.’ Fake News!”
Trump’s continual downplaying of the severity of the virus had the knock-on effect of reducing public vigilance, hindering public health efforts to reduce transmission.
The U.S now leads the world in deaths and infection rates. Over 400,00 Americans have died in the last year; 25 million have been infected.
The fall-out from Trump’s lies will last for many years. He undermined scientific advice and politicised the response to the pandemic. He emboldened the extremist forces who were previously on the fringes of American society, validating their conspiracy theorists with re-tweets and passivity. Trust in science and institutions of government has fallen, at the exact moment when they are needed the most.
Biden’s quest for unity will rest heavily on his capacity to align political debate with objective fact. Years of exposure to falsehoods and partisan media outlets has created an alternative reality for many Americans. For the Biden Administration, clearing this fog of disinformation will be central to its success.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR
Anthony Angelini is a part-time lecturer at UCC. He has a Master of Philosophy (MPhil), International Peace Studies.