The most tumultuous and divisive presidency in modern American history culminated in an insurrection that left global citizens in shock and historians racing to sound the alarms. What happened in Washington, DC on January 6th, 2021 was the inflection point of a crisis decades in the making, and democracies ignore the insidiously infectious ideology of far-right extremist nativism that propelled such an event at their own peril. While many factors have intertwined to manifest the threats democracies face today, it has been the exploitative force of psychological propaganda employed by both state and non-state actors that has catalyzed the radicalization that led to an insurrection at the U.S. Capitol.
Donald Trump may be rightfully viewed as the figure that metastasized the ideological illness engrained in his most extreme supporters, but it is important to acknowledge that the cancerous nature of his brand of far-right politics was a pre-existing condition in American politics well before he descended that infamous escalator in Trump Tower on June 16, 2015 to announce his candidacy for president. In “The Origins of Totalitarianism” Hannah Arendt explored the conditions that drove Nazism and Stalinism in the 1930s and warned, “the mob always will shout for ‘the strong man,’ the ‘great leader.’ For the mob hates the society from which it is excluded.” Written in 1973, Arendt’s words resonate deeply with the images of MAGA-hat-wearing, Confederate flag-bearing insurrections who the world watched desecrate a global symbol of democracy.
Though these images remain disturbing and have led the Biden administration to prioritize combatting nationalist threats from within, we must understand the sources driving a movement of mass radicalization. Throughout the 2016 presidential campaign talk of Russian interference in the American democratic process instilled anxiety across the political divide and laid a foundation for questioning the legitimacy of our electoral process, which Trump would lean on in 2020. Evidence provided of Russian troll farms operating out of Eastern Europe prove that Russia has the capacity to implement complex propagandist strategies to manipulate the American psyche by using its own history and popular culture against it in the development of social media-based propaganda that spreads like wildfire on platforms like Facebook.
Examples of Russian propaganda from the 2016 presidential election showcase the authoritarian government’s ability to employ psychological propaganda to drive wedges between already fractured constituencies in America. This propaganda denotes an evolution from the anti-Semitic caricatures spread throughout Germany on posters in the Nazi era to an increasingly invasive web-based dissemination toolkit in the hands of the far-right.
While Russian interference dominated the conversation surrounding the 2016 election in the U.S., by 2020 it was becoming increasingly clear that the greatest threat to American democracy was rapidly proliferating amongst its own citizens on Twitter. Delving deep into conspiracy theories at the direction of Trump, a significant number of Americans began to look towards “Q” as their Messiah-like savior awaiting them on the horizon of the November election.
QAnon is an elaborate conspiracy theory that has pulled together multiple fringe groups under its expansive umbrella. Popularized by the re-Tweeting habits of a power-hungry, fact-denying president, QAnon began to infiltrate mainstream politics and political media in the lead up to the November vote. It even became the focus of discussion in a CNN townhall during which Trump refused to denounced the conspiracy network, further fanning the flames of an increasingly hostile and radicalized base of supporters.
The exploitative nature of the conspiracy theory is perpetuated through the psychologically informed methods of propagandists. As we have seen throughout history, authoritarians have built cults of personality around themselves or have identified societal outgroups to blame for the misfortunes of the masses. Effective propaganda is psychologically exploitative in its nature due to the underlying requirement that those subjected to it must be willing to defy reason and embrace the absurd. It hinges the foundations of its claims on partial truths and strategic lies that lead even the most objective of its subjects into clouded conjecture and false reasoning.
In “Selling Hitler: Propaganda and the Nazi Brand” Nicholas O’Shaughnessy explains that propaganda exploits human psychological weaknesses as propagandists make claims with such confidence that it makes the rational-minded naysayers out to be the crazy and irrational; he concludes explaining that, “repetition is the precursor to success and simplicity is the key to the emotional and mental world of the masses.” In other words, when you say something enough, especially on major platforms such as Fox News, people will begin to accept a falsehood as fact. That helps to put Trump’s repetitive #StoptheSteal Tweets into perspective.
Donald Trump’s efforts to undermine American democracy through his constant delegitimizing of the electoral process and spreading of conspiracy theories served as a direct catalyst for mass far-right radicalization and the assault on the U.S. Capitol which left five Americans dead and a number of police officers permanently maimed.
Alarm bells having been blaring on seemingly deaf ears in the Republican Party for years. Following reports of increased hate crimes since Trump’s initial hate-fueled presidential campaign, news of foiled bombing plots against prominent Democrats, and the president’s failure to condemn far-right domestic terrorism after the Charlottesville attack, there is no credibility in any Republican’s claim that they could not foresee the terror that Trump was inspiring through his propaganda. The decision not to hold him accountable for an attempted coup which left U.S. lawmakers in fear for their lives marked a tipping point in the collapse of the modern GOP and amplified the very serious threats that domestic terrorism poses to the future security of the nation.
Conspiracy theories become dangerous when they cross into the realm of our mainstream reality as they did on January 6th. No longer is QAnon a fringe, radical element of a social media-driven conspiracy theory. It now represents a real and immediate threat to American democracy. The GOP’s embrace of “Q” and Trumpism have blurred the lines of what is true and what is false in the eyes of millions of Americans, and this is the primary objective of the propagandist.
The propagandist always has an end goal. Russia’s targeting of American democracy stems from its geopolitical interests in undermining Western democracy at-large. Putin wants his people to believe in his authoritarian-model of governance and he wants his nation’s geopolitical foes to be knocked down a peg. “Q” wants to instill division to manipulate the balance of power in American democracy. As a propagandist movement QAnon aims to disempower and eliminate the Democratic Party and uplift the most extreme adherents of the far-right, killing the moderate GOP in its path. “Q” is a clear and present danger to the preservation of American democracy.
Given the GOP’s tolerance for the seditionist behavior of Senator Ted Cruz and extremist rhetoric of newly elected congresspeople like Senator Josh Hawley, Representative Marjorie Taylor Greene, and Representative Lauren Boebert, it is clear that a decades-long realignment of the party towards the far-right has been actualized and expedited by the propaganda legitimized by Trump and his loyalists. Today, the future of American democracy rests in the masses ability to return to reality and condemn the extremist voices found everywhere from Twitter and Facebook to Fox News and the halls of Congress.