US is paying for letting dark money and disinformation run riot
Billionaires such as Charles Koch spent a fortune convincing ordinary Americans to doubt everything - they shouldn't be surprised that violence and division has followed
The scenes in Washington a few days ago were shocking but, at least for me, oddly familiar.
On the night that Donald Trump was elected president in November 2016, I was reporting from New York, where I met a group of extreme Trump supporters. Decked out in red MAGA hats and with wild, hate-filled eyes they told me that their man was going to “kick out the immigrants” and “make America great again.”
The faces that stormed Capitol Hill on Wednesday looked very like the men – they were almost all men – I met more than four years ago. This time around, however, a new president elect was on hand to appeal for calm. “Let me be very clear,” Joe Biden declared in a live address to the nation. “The scenes of chaos at the Capitol do not reflect the true America.”
Biden’s speech was everything Trump and his motley crew was not: solemn, dignified, hopeful. But, sadly, the man who will be the 46th president of the United States was also wrong: far from an aberration, the insurgents that stormed Capitol Hill are now firmly stitched into the fabric of American life.
We’ve just won a three-year transparency battle against Michael Gove’s department.
Can you help us keep fighting government secrecy?
America is paying the price for decades of dark money and disinformation that has undermined trust in facts and reason - and which now threatens American democracy itself.
The ‘true America’ that Biden inherits in less than two weeks’ time is a country in which vast swathes of the population have become unmoored from reality. Forty-five per cent of Republican voters approved of the protestors waving Confederate flags that stormed the Capitol.
A majority of Republicans believe November’s election – which Trump lost by more than seven million votes - was stolen. The far-right attack on the Capitol came on the same day that congressional Republicans tried to block certifying Biden’s election victory, citing Trump’s baseless claims of voter fraud.
How did America reach such a dark, dystopian place, where millions believe what is demonstrably false? It is easy to blame everything on Trump and his immediate enablers – men such as his would-be successor, oleaginous Texan senator Ted Cruz - but the death of truth in American politics has not happened overnight, or by accident.
For decades, plutocrats have spent a fortune trying to convince ordinary Americans that black is white. Billionaires such as oil magnates the Koch Brothers pumped vast sums into anonymously-fund pressure groups and political campaigns that encouraged Americans to doubt everything.
This ‘dark money’ worked. Back in the 1980s, roughly equal numbers of Republicans and Democrats believed that climate change was real. Now, America has the highest level of climate change denial in the Western world. When Donald Trump declared global warming a “hoax” many senior Republicans nodded along.
It’s not just climate change. After Barack Obama was elected president, the Kochs and other major Republican donors bankrolled the ‘Tea Party’ insurgency that pushed the baseless, racist allegation that Obama was not born in the United States. The most famous ‘birther’ of all? One Donald J. Trump.
But now the money men have lost control. Their vast fortunes could easily buy lobbyists and talking heads to undermine Americans’ faith in science but controlling the spread of falsehoods on social media is almost impossible.
The end of Trump’s presidency will not bring the end of Trumpism and the disinformation that undergirds it.
QAnon – which holds, amongst other things, that Trump is leading a one-man crusade against a global network of Satanic child abusers – has grown into a cult-like movement followed by millions. Its radicalised adherents cannot be bought or even centrally controlled. In October, Facebook belatedly banned QAnon but the genie is already out of the bottle.
On Wednesday, Ashli Babbitt was shot and killed by police while attempting to enter the Speaker’s Lobby in the Capitol. The 35-year-old San Diego army veteran had been transformed from an Obama voter to a QAnon devotee online.
Dark money has greased the wheels of online radicalisation. The rally that preceded the deadly insurrection on Capitol Hill last week was organised by a shady pro-Trump group that does not disclose its donors.
Social media firms had been painfully slow to act. Sure, Facebook and Twitter censored Trump’s deranged outbursts on Wednesday and subsequently banned him from their platforms, but what about the past four years?
Executives in Silicon Valley have enabled conspiracy theories and hate to run free – while earning billions from it. Attempts to stem the flow of disinformation have been piecemeal and half-hearted.
Now, with the prospect of a Democratic-controlled Congress and White House talking of breaking up tech monopolies, Zuckerberg and his pals have finally acted to rein in Trump’s lies. It is hard to see their decision as purely altruistic.
Slowly some of those who spent decades pumping dark money and disinformation into American politics are waking up to the monster they have created. Shortly after November’s presidential election, billionaire Republican donor Charles Koch bemoaned Trump’s refusal to accept defeat in an interview with the Wall Street Journal.
The 85-year-old said he regretted the partisanship that has money had done so much to produce and hoped that Americans would “all use this post-election period to find a better way”. Instead, Trump whipped up the mob and set it loose on Capitol Hill.
Perhaps, when you spend a fortune undermining democracy, you shouldn’t be too surprised when you succeed.
This piece originally appeared in the Sunday Independent. An updated paperback edition of Peter Geoghegan’s latest book 'Democracy for Sale: Dark Money and Dirty Politics' is out now, published by Head of Zeus.
Get our weekly email