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January 17, 2021

Failure of the marketplace of ideas

Opinion

January 17, 2021

Last week saw a mob of armed insurrectionists, numbering in the thousands, storm Capitol Hill and burst into the halls and offices of the Senate and Congress.

Trump-friendly media outlets (Fox News, Newsmax, One America News Network) and online groups and fora (QAnon, Parler, conservative Twitter) had been feeding them a steady diet of a single message since before the first vote was cast for the 2020 presidential election: Democrats would rig / did rig the election. This repetitive messaging, this brainwashing, had not let-up even after the election was called for Joe Biden.

The Trump campaign filed dozens of legal challenges across multiple states, but nothing came of any of them. Still, Trump refused to concede and, in typical fashion, doubled down on his claims of election fraud and rigging.

Egged on by Donald Trump, the final push that whipped his supporters into a frenzy came at the ‘Save America’ rally at the Ellipse park on the National Mall earlier that morning on January 6. At the rally, Trump repeated his claims of the election being stolen from him and said he would walk to Capitol Hill with them. His son, Donald Trump Jr, threatened lawmakers of his own party unwilling to challenge the certification of Electoral College votes in Congress that day that they would be “coming for [them]”, and Trump’s lawyer Rudy Giuliani went so far as to demand “combat justice.”

The live coverage we saw that day was bad, the details of pipe bombs discovered afterwards and video footage that emerged in the following days were hair-raising, and now there are reports of chatter about further terror attacks. Trump has now also become the only president in US history to be impeached twice. The pending Senate trial could make him the first president to ever be convicted.

By one perspective, the circumstances that culminated in the assault on Capitol Hill in Washington DC began with the birther claims during the 2008 presidential election campaign, the conspiracy theory that Barack Obama was not born in the US. While serious candidates skirted the issue, Trump, who was not yet a candidate himself, was one of its most prominent proponents.

On May 1, 2011, at the White House Correspondents dinner while Operation Neptune Spear (the operation to catch or kill Osama bin Laden) was underway, President Obama publicly eviscerated Trump, who was among the attendees, for his continued dogged support of this conspiracy theory. That humiliation would prove pivotal in pushing Trump into running for the 2016 Republican presidential nomination.

Trump’s 2016 Make America Great Again (MAGA) juggernaut of a presidential campaign ran on what mainstream media would politely describe as ‘inaccurate’ and ‘exaggerated’ claims in the initial days. In later years, these descriptors would be replaced with more accurate terms like ‘falsehoods’ and ‘lies’. One by one, the MAGA train swept aside Republican primary candidates and, later, in the general elections, Democratic candidate Hillary Clinton.

The quintessential American approach to solving problems, particularly on the conservative side of the political spectrum, is to default to a free-market based approach, to ‘let the free market sort it out.’ The encumbrance that fact checking might place on the limits of the First Amendment right to free speech is not deemed worth the dangerous precedent that might set. Instead, America relied on the free-market to weed out Trump and his fringe claims.

And so it was that instead of challenging and confronting Trump on his birther and other lies, Trump kept repeating them often enough for his supporters to accept them as facts. So, what went wrong? Why did the free marketplace of ideas not mark Trump for the charlatan with autocratic tendencies he has now exposed himself to be?

Fredrick Siebert explained the self-correcting nature of this marketplace in his 1952 book ‘Four Theories of the Press’: "Let all with something to say be free to express themselves. The true and sound will survive. The false and unsound will be vanquished. Government should keep out of the battle and not weigh the odds in favor of one side or the other". This perspective which treats ideas as goods is adopted from the economics’ model of an ideal free market.

While in earlier decades a proponent of crackpot theories would probably have been weeded out of politics, 2016 was not like those earlier times. One of the necessary ingredients for a free market to function correctly is the free and open access to information to make decisions by all market participants. In the context of ideas, that means an agreement on facts, but that agreement no longer exists.

The 1990s in the US saw the rise of conservative talk radio – a format of radio programs that draws in listeners not for playing music, but for speeches, debates, conversations propagating the conservative ideology. Conservative talk radio was further fueled by fierce opposition to President Bill Clinton who was elected in ‘92. Thus, began the culture wars and the gradual stretching and bifurcation of the news media ecosystem into separate ideological spheres.

By the time Trump came to power, left and right-wing media were so polarized and had drifted so far apart that there was little agreement on facts anymore. The truth value of ‘facts’ was no longer rooted in reality but depended on the ideology of the media ecosystem. Add to that the propagation of internet media platforms like Facebook, Instagram, Twitter, TikTok, Parler, blogs and vlogs where, unlike traditional media, there is no fact checking at all.

Outrage generates views, and views generate money, the facts be damned. Underneath it all, outside of public view, closed groups, forums and group messenger apps like WhatsApp are still adding fuel to this fire by spreading the most outrageous claims even further.

Conventionally, political parties cannot drop support for a lame-duck president fast enough, even if he is one of their own. What is it about Trump that lets him command so much power after losing his re-election bid just 14 days before a new president is sworn in? The cynical explanation is that Republicans planning for their own future White House runs that have seen the loyalty of Trump’s base are making a play to become the standard bearer for that block of voters. Foremost among them is Missouri Senator Josh Hawley, who is the key enabler of the challenge to the certification of the vote in the Senate.

The absence of a shared reality with agreed-upon facts led people on one side to believe they are modern-day American revolutionaries akin to those of 1776. The fallout from the attack on the Capitol – five dead, two planted IEDs found, and hours of ground level video footage documenting the attack – are realities that are hard to deny, regardless of what media outlet reports them. Nevertheless, even after the assault on Capitol Hill, a survey of Republican voters (who made up a little less than half the voters in the last elections) shows 45 percent support the storming of the Capitol. No doubt, these are the same people Jeff Daniels’ character Will McAvoy in ‘The Newsroom’ referred to as the American Taliban.

Since last week, one by one, corporate America has started publicly coming out announcing they would no longer donate to any (Republican) candidates that challenged certification of the election results. The Lincoln Project, a conservative super-Political Action Committee that has been releasing ads against Trump on a daily basis during this past election cycle, has announced it would name and shame corporations that continue to support such politicians. Even Facebook and Twitter, after years of milking the cow dry, faced public pressure for enabling Trump and had to suspend his accounts and block his posts.

And so, while there are calls for Donald Trump’s resignation, talk of invoking the 25th Amendment declaring Trump unfit to serve in office, and talk of impeachment, after nearly going over the edge of the cliff, after much delay America is leaving the correction to the political marketplace and voters in the next election.

The world is still reeling from news of the first attempted overthrow of the duly elected incoming government in the US. It is worth contemplating where we are headed in Pakistan, with four coups already in only 74 years, a society that is more prone to violence, just as politically polarized, fond of fact-free arguing, home to many former (and present?) sympathizers of the original Taliban and subject to the same global influences in terms of social media platforms.

The writer is an independent education researcher and consultant. She has a PhD in Education from Michigan State University.