After Trump's 'big lie,' half of U.S. lives in a fantasy world. This won't end well

Will Bunch
The Philadelphia Inquirer (TNS)
U.S. President Donald Trump speaks at a rally on the Ellipse on Wednesday, Jan. 6, 2021, near the White House in Washington, D.C., shortly before his supporters stormed the U.S. Capitol. (Yuri Gripas/Abaca Press/TNS)

For an embattled Donald Trump, the news that scrolled continuously this week across the bottom of America's most-watched cable news network — the Fox News Channel — could not have come at a more welcome time.

The 45th — and hopeful 47th — president had been battered in mainstream outlets over his habit of destroying government documents and the hasty retreat of his business empire's longtime accounting firm. But those stories weren't airing on Fox, because its prime-time hosts were pushing what they saw as a much bigger scoop.

Calling it "the biggest election and presidential spying scandal in the history of this great country," Fox News veteran host Sean Hannity went large with a claim that the 2016 Democratic presidential campaign of Hillary Clinton had paid operatives to spy on rival Trump by "infiltrating" his computers at Trump Tower and even at the White House.

Hannity's breathless report on the alleged scandal was backdropped by a graphic calling it "Worse Than Watergate," while his higher-rated colleague Tucker Carlson went with "Clinton campaign paid to 'infiltrate' Trump orbit."

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But these claims were 99% adulterated baloney. The so-called "Hillary spied on Trump" storyline was based on a new court filing by federal prosecutor John Durham, who was tasked by then-Attorney General William Barr during the Trump years to investigate their theory that the Trump-Russia probe was rife with official misconduct — and who has little to show for his work so far.

Not even close to 'truthiness': To get deep into the weeds of what is so off base about the Fox News reporting, you should read thorough debunkings by journalist Aaron Rupar and by Charlie Savage in The New York Times. But here are a few salient points: The tech executive whose very real concerns about possible computer hacking by, or hookups with, Russia was lawfully tracking domain name server (DNS) data; he wasn't spying and wasn't paid by the Clinton campaign. The White House data in question concerned a Russian smartphone attempting access to the FBI when Barack Obama was president, not Trump. The word "infiltrate" — uttered 47 times on Fox News or Fox Business reports — was never used by prosecutor Durham, but instead came from a hyperbolic quote by a longtime Team Trump insider, Kash Patel.

It was only about 16 years ago that comedian Stephen Colbert coined the term "truthiness" to describe the rise of political content that maybe felt real to the pundit telling the story, but wasn't really accurate. Today, the "truthiness" era seems quaint. There was nothing even close to "truthy" about the Hillary-spying-on-Trump fabrication. And, incredibly, it came just a couple of days after another made-up story — that the Biden administration was flooding urban neighborhoods with free "crack pipes" — dominated the right-wing news cycle. (Read my colleague Abraham Gutman for the full debunking and a look at a lie's real-world consequences.)

It's no accident that these big lies thrive in the 16-month shadow of the "big lie" — Trump's myth that only massive amounts of voter fraud handed President Joe Biden the 2020 election that the Democrat won by about 7 million popular votes and 306-232 in the Electoral College.

The repeated hammering of this utterly baseless claim — rejected by judges and secretaries of state, including Republicans, from coast to coast — has become a loyalty test for GOP officials and an article of faith for true believers among the 74 million who pulled the Trump lever.

Little more than a year later, these lies have provided tainted oxygen for an almost impenetrable bubble — inflated for ratings and profit by a media company, but breathed by an entire political party that amplifies the toxicity on Facebook and other social media — well beyond the probably apocryphal Winston Churchill line, that a lie makes it halfway around the world before the truth puts its pants on.

Alternate reality loyalty test: Ruth Ben-Ghiat, the New York University historian who studies authoritarian movements and recently authored "Strongmen: Mussolini to the Present," told me that the "big lie" and the subsequent shower of falsehoods is critical to Trump's rise as a leader of an authoritarian movement, "when you have a leader turning his party into his own personal cult."

"A leader wants to create an alternative reality that rearranges the facts in ways that are beneficial to him," Ben-Ghiat said, noting the parallels between Trump's Republican Party and Vladimir Putin's success in steering Russia away from its all-too-brief flirtation with democracy. In Trump's case, that ability to spin a different universe not only helps divert attention from his bad news, including the tightening vise of investigations into the attempted coup on Jan. 6 and his family's tangled finances. It also becomes a loyalty test for members of the party — thus, elected officials like Sen. Marco Rubio or Ohio Rep. Jim Jordan tripping over each other to embrace the latest falsehood — and a way to demonize the Democrats as an evil "Other."

So far, America's saving grace as a democracy has been that Trump's "big lie" may have corrupted one of our two political parties but not the majority of the public, which is why Biden and a just-barely-Democratic Congress took tenuous control in January 2021. The danger is that a Trump-led GOP is working hard to extend the bubble of unreality to the places where it could exert the most control, especially the infrastructure of counting the votes.

In the reality-based world, a much more alarming story this week than the trumped-up Hillary nothing-burger is news that the former elections clerk of Mesa County, Colorado — a woman named Tina Peters who was ousted from the job after embracing Trump's "big lie" about the 2020 election to the point where she's suspected of leaking data from her state's voting hard drives — is now running to become secretary of state in the Centennial State, which would put her in charge of counting all votes. In the past, a campaign from a woman with Peters' recent record would be dismissed as a joke. In 2022, with voters seemed poised to deliver a midterm election whupping to Democrats over inflation or "wokeness" or whatever, she's a serious threat.

This week, The Guardian reported that as many as 15 people who voiced support for some or all of Trump's "big lie" are running for these critical secretary of state positions in key battleground states — and that eight of them have formed an informal network of sharing strategy. Many of these candidates also have expressed support in some fashion for QAnon, the expansive fact-free conspiracy theory centered on child sex trafficking by high-ranking government officials or Hollywood celebrities.

In Pennsylvania, the winner of the 2022 governor's race will appoint a secretary of state, and a front-runner on the GOP side, state Sen. Doug Mastriano, was just subpoenaed by the House Jan. 6 committee looking at his role in Trump's election shenanigans. In 2024, it would only take one or two rogue secretaries of state or state legislatures — in thrall to Trump and the "big lie" — to achieve the goal of overturning an election that fell short in 2020.

Reality vs. fantasy: Ben-Ghiat told me that the failure of the Jan. 6 insurrection only forced the GOP to double down on embracing alternate realities, because "they have to reckon with the fact that [Trump] lost, that he's no longer the leader." In other words, Trump's ability to maintain his personality cult seems to depend on the lies getting bigger and bigger. No wonder that it's not enough for Republicans to simply blame Biden for historically high inflation — which at least is actually happening, whether or not it's the president's fault — but to wildly accuse him of doling out crack pipes.

I agree with Ben-Ghiat that it's getting harder and harder to counteract these growing lies, although she suggested that the network's evening newscasts — which reach far more voters, especially in the persuadable middle, than Fox News — could do a lot more fact-checking.

But in the end, the only real way to preserve truth — a necessary ingredient for a functioning democracy — is for the reality-based electorate that put Biden in office to understand that the threat is even greater now than in 2020, and to vote accordingly. That would require a mass mobilization and — in sharp contrast to the Russia-Ukraine border — there's no satellite image that shows that, not yet.

Trumpism's big lies have circumnavigated the globe again and again. It's way past time for the truth to start putting its pants on.

— Will Bunch is national columnist for the Philadelphia Inquirer.