The thing that scares me most about the Trump cult is not just that they believe lies — it’s that they exist in an entirely alternate reality. The obvious is suspicious. The incredible is plausible. Scientific rigor is a farce. Educational institutions are operating with an agenda.
I’ve spoken with a few of these people online, trying to get a feel for where their heads are at, where they’re getting their information. In each case, when I asked where they heard a bit of information that sounded wrong to me, they either couldn’t provide a source, or they provided a screenshot of a meme or a link to an obscure website.
One woman, a friend of a friend, claimed on my friend’s page that the Trump administration had done “more for LGBT people than any other president.” I am queer myself, so I follow politics that affect queer people more than the average person. My friend has a transgender child and also follows this topic. When I disagreed with this woman and pressed her for specifics to back up her claim, she suggested I “do my own research.” I told her I had done my research, and she said I should “use a different search engine.” She added that “the media never covers what this administration actually does, all they do is vilify Trump.” I responded with links from the U.S. government’s website and the GOP platform’s website that clearly demonstrated active discrimination against the LGBTQ+ community.
I messaged my friend to ask her if this woman I had been talking to was a random internet troll that stumbled on her post, or someone she knows. She confirmed it was someone she knew, a person with whom she must regularly interact.
There is a massive segment of our population who not only don’t want to hear anything negative about Trump, but who have literally created an entirely separate and different reality in order to maintain their worship of him.
They did not do this independently, without prompting. Trump himself deliberately undermined the American public’s trust in the institutions upon which we traditionally rely. While making promises he could not keep (“Mexico will pay for the wall,” COVID will “disappear”), he planted seeds of doubt for every other source of information. This fomenting of distrust left an information vacuum — a trust vacuum. If his followers can’t trust the sources they’ve trusted all along, who should they then trust?
How Trump created an information vacuum
He started with journalism. Trump referred to the news outlets that disagreed with him collectively as the “lamestream media” in order to plant the seed of doubt in his followers’ minds that the news sources they normally trusted were no longer reliable. He had to do this if he wanted to maintain their loyalty, because news outlets that were ordinarily neutral with regards to political candidates — AP News, ABC News, NPR, BBC — had begun openly fact-checking and reporting on Trump’s lies.
Trump worked tirelessly to call into question the trustworthiness of any news organization that dared to contradict him. He has even had multiple squabbles with the ordinarily supportive Fox News, because their correspondents also eventually tire of his lies. In response, Trump has threatened to start his own alternative subscription-based news platform.
.@FoxNews daytime ratings have completely collapsed. Weekend daytime even WORSE. Very sad to watch this happen, but they forgot what made them successful, what got them there. They forgot the Golden Goose. The biggest difference between the 2016 Election, and 2020, was @FoxNews!
— Donald J. Trump (@realDonaldTrump) November 12, 2020
He similarly attacked the scientific community. Few things are more important to Trump than the stock market. Trump knows his followers equate the stock market to the economy even though the stock market is not a clear picture of how everyday middle class Americans are faring. And so, when COVID-19 hit and scientists and health experts recommended we go under a strict lockdown to stop its spread — which undoubtedly would cause a dip in the stock market — Trump called into question the expertise of some of the most trusted scientists in the world.
His followers believed him. While Trump obliquely implied the coronavirus was a hoax, some of his followers circulated videos that explicitly claimed the virus had been planned over 4 years for the express purpose of overthrowing the president. As healthcare experts and elected officials from countries across the globe mobilized and united to fight a virus that cared nothing for borders or nationalities, somehow Trump convinced his followers that the coronavirus was an attack on him personally.
Trump used the same doubt-casting techniques with the election process. He saw the unfavorable polls and then tweeted and spoke about how mail-in votes could be “manipulated” and that there would be “fraud like you’ve never seen.” But our mail-in voting system is not new. It was devised by officials on both sides of the aisle, with both sides concerned about election interference, and studies have shown it to be secure. There has been absolutely no evidence of voter fraud on a scale that could even hope to sway the outcome of the election.
The Trump-controlled government website compiled a list of what they appear to interpret as damning evidence of widespread voter fraud over many years, with the introduction on the site warning “The United States has a long and unfortunate history of election fraud.” But any person who takes 5 minutes to scroll through the list can quickly see that the instances are tiny and rare — only 1071 cases total, in fact, going back to 1997 (or earlier — the official-looking website does not establish a timeframe for the instances it references).
The only thing to do with an information vacuum is fill it.
If you can convince a person that journalism and science are part of a larger conspiracy, you can convince them of anything. Trump’s constant barrage on the “lamestream media,” science, policy experts, and long-trusted election systems left an information vacuum. It meant his supporters had nowhere to turn but to him and to themselves.
They’ve created their own Trump-aligned “news sources.” When social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter started slapping misinformation warnings on their incorrect posts, they fled to Parler, a new platform where they can spew any lie they want without challenge. They support each other’s baseless accusations with a Borg-like cohesion — a deeply ironic outcome given their accusations that those who rely on investigative journalism and science experts for their news are unthinking “sheep.”
They say “do your own research,” and yet their definition of research is very, very different from ours. “Research” consists of photoshopped images they unearthed from the dark corners of the internet and questions that pose as answers. “Explain to me how…” they say, but here the word “explain” is not an invitation to provide information — it’s an accusation. When they say, “explain to me,” what they really mean is, “I have decided and there is no way to dissuade me.”
The scary thing about this mentality is that once someone has convinced themselves that they can no longer rely on their usual trusted sources of information, they must then fill that vacuum with information from somewhere else. And, lacking the usual fact-checking safeguards and rigorous scientific inquiry of the sources they no longer trust, they turn to whatever entity will confirm what they already believe to be true.
The solution certainly cannot be to admit they’re wrong. Trump is the leader of this cult, and he never admits when he’s wrong — so why should any of his followers?