Trump’s legacy isn’t just violence and QAnon. It’s a broken information system

Talking to voters across the US, from gentle MAGA moms to armed militias, it’s clear why Trumpism has taken a deep hold – and why Biden must now take on Big Tech.

Mary Fitzgerald headshot in circle, small
Mary Fitzgerald
19 January 2021, 1.55pm
The National Guard stands in front of the US Capitol Building, Washington DC, on 18 January 2021
Oliver Contreras/SIPA USA/PA Images

“Honestly? I think it was an ‘operation’,” my cousin told me on the phone from Seattle when I asked him about the storming of the Capitol Building.

“Look at the pictures. If you follow politics long enough, you know that things that are not planned and in the heat of the moment, the footage from it isn't all that great. [But] the photos of the people in the Capitol building are very, very clear... It felt very manufactured. Probably by the three-letter agencies [FBI, CIA]. Or maybe it was actually mostly done by the media itself under instructions.”

Since late October I’ve spent months travelling across the US, speaking with voters from all walks of life, from midwestern states like Ohio – the former ‘bellwether’ that resoundingly backed Donald Trump in November – to Georgia, the formerly ‘red’ state that just delivered the Democrats the keys to the US Congress.

Everywhere, I’ve found plenty of people keen to talk about conspiracy theories involving the ‘Deep State’ or the Washington establishment. Ex-marines who say Joe Biden’s a paedophile. ‘MAGA moms’ who just want the truth about all the voter fraud. Young fathers concerned about the human trafficking they’ve read about on Facebook.

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The conspiracies run along familiar, often predictable lines: the virus was manufactured by the Chinese; wearing masks only makes it more lethal. There’s a spectrum of beliefs, from full QAnon to the gently sceptical military officer who was concerned about voter fraud until he came across a CNN 60 Minutes episode debunking key claims on YouTube.

But talking to these mainly friendly, welcoming, ordinary people across the country has also helped me better understand why Trumpism has taken such a deep hold, why it took swift and violent form on 6 January – and why, even as a new president takes office, it will shape America’s future for many years to come.

Lies, more lies – and Big Tech

My Seattle cousin is college-educated. He’s ‘liberal’ in his views on abortion, climate, same-sex marriage and much more. He reads The New York Times, but also 4Chan. He was a fan of Bernie Sanders who then voted for Trump.

“Mostly I feel like I've been lied to about politics ever since it started,” he told me. “If you're wondering why I'm hitting all of the people that are against Trump, and why I think they're lying about this: it’s because they've already been caught lying about some equally awful, if not worse things, mostly regarding the Iraq war.” (He was 13 when the war began.)

“We, the American people, were lied to by the White House, our intelligence agencies and the media… And now, it's the same set of characters: the very same people still up to their old tricks.”

Trump supporters protest outside the Georgia State Capitol building
Trump supporters at a demo outside the Georgia State Capitol building, 6 January 2021
Mary Fitzgerald, openDemocracy

Across the country, many people I’ve spoken to have been on similar political journeys: after voting for Barack Obama twice, they switched to Trump. While their reasons have varied, a core assumption is a longer-held belief that establishment leaders are weak and untrustworthy – combined with new activism and energy around specific issues such as COVID denialism, resistance to Black Lives Matter or the ‘stolen’ election.

On 6 January, just hours before violence erupted at the Capitol in DC, I met Dana at a ‘Stop the Steal’ rally outside the state capitol building in Atlanta, Georgia. She told me she’d been a “non-partisan” most of her life, but was prompted to show up that day because “our leaders are too weak to stand up and do what’s right. They would rather pretend that they did their job properly than admit that there was fraud.”

For her, the backdrop was a “gradual losing of rights… I don't want to live in a country that is going as far Left as they're going. I'm not good with defunding the police, with killing babies at eight months in the womb, I'm not good with all of the radical programmes that they have. And I'm not willing to surrender my country to that.”

And yet, she added, guns make her feel uncomfortable. In the video below, right as Chester Doles, a former Ku Klux Klan leader, walked behind her with a small posse shouting “Stop the steal,” she was explaining to me how, in her view, openly carrying weapons “leads to nothing good”.

Dana, like so many ‘Make America Great Again’ (MAGA) moms and grandmas I’ve met across the US, quite evidently holds different views from many of the armed militia members she was joining that day. But their common cause, living in an impoverished, warped information ecosystem, is a shared belief in a conspiracy theory about a stolen election.

And now, there’s a danger that instead of addressing the deep, systemic failings which have brought women like Dana closer to people like former klansman Doles, the incoming Biden administration and Democratic lawmakers will pocket their electoral victory – and duck the thorny issue of our toxic, hyper-partisan, corroded information system.

“Remember: it is very profitable to lie to women [like Dana],” said Brian Hughes, an expert in far-Right militia groups at American University in Washington DC.

“It's very profitable to immerse her in a disinformation echo chamber… If Facebook and Twitter had taken action against each other QAnon faster, there would have been far fewer people recruited into this conspiracy cult. If Twitter had applied its own terms of service consistently and appropriately, and banned Donald Trump years ago, the events of 6 January might never have happened.”

These have, of course, been talking points among US progressives for years. Ever since Trump was elected, and long before conspiracy theories about election fraud or COVID denialism ran riot, there were calls on the Left for the regulation of Big Tech.

The proliferation of racist ‘birther’ conspiracies about President Obama for instance, fuelled by Trump and many Republican leaders, clearly demonstrated how sensationalist, baseless claims, amplified by algorithms, can have profound and long-lasting consequences.

What’s striking, though, is how swiftly those on the other side of the fence are now taking up the cause. Repealing ‘section 230’ – the US law which frees social media companies from having to moderate content – became a big Trump talking point after the platforms (belatedly) started censuring him.

“Standing up to China and Big Tech is actually a huge part of my current political thinking,” my cousin in Seattle told me.

“They are number one. Both of those institutions currently hold way too much influence in American politics. All the warning signs of the last decade of this continued media conglomeration – this continued control of information into fewer and fewer hands – is now really starting to bear fruit. [They] completely removed President Trump’s ability to talk to his people… Private companies shouldn't have that kind of power, frankly.”

Craig doesn’t fit neatly into a political box. He often checks his facts and is open to persuasion. And yet he repeated a baseless allegation, which he later corrected, that Biden has been accused of child abuse.

Another voter who’s hard to categorise is Craig, who is registered to vote in Florida. I’ve known him since 2006. He voted for Obama twice, then Trump, then abstained, after much deliberation.

He told me he couldn’t believe that, as a conservative, he was also now backing “regulation of anything”, but that he didn’t think the platforms should be the “arbiters of right and wrong”, adding: “Do we really want [Twitter CEO] Jack Dorsey and Mark Zuckerberg to be in control of all of the information we have on the web? Should they be able to completely impose their political ‘woke brigade’ bias on everyone?”

Craig, like so many one-time Trump voters – from the reluctant to the more committed, and particularly the under-40s – doesn’t fit neatly into a political box. He backs ambitious action on climate change and wants to see “forward-thinking policies on the environment” from the new Biden administration. He often checks his facts and is open to persuasion. And yet – in a telling sign of just how far QAnon tropes have travelled – he also repeated a baseless allegation, which he later corrected, that Biden has been accused of child abuse.

‘Why didn’t you revolt sooner?’

The violence at the Capitol on 6 January will be Trump’s enduring legacy. It has pushed conservative-leaning voters like Craig away from Trump and his wing of the Republican party, yet it has also spawned hatred for the GOP leadership, among others. Trump diehards think Mitch McConnell, Mike Pence and other Republicans betrayed their leader. This has prised open deep rifts within the Republican base which are likely to cost the party electorally for years to come.

While Trump loyalists shun the establishment GOP and moderates find a new home in the centrist Democratic Party under Biden, Democrats have a rare opportunity to consolidate power, widen their base and reset the conversation.

A key part of this will be grappling with the spaces in which conversations take place. For the first time, there is bipartisan momentum to take action on Big Tech. But, just as with health reform under President Obama, there’s every chance the opportunity gets bogged down or fatally undermined – with the possibility of key roles in the Biden justice department going to Big Tech Tech advocates, and intensive lobbying from platforms likely to stymie any legislative efforts.

Georgia State Capitol.jpg
The Georgia State Capitol building, boarded up, to protect it from any protesters on 6 January 2021
Aaron White, openDemocracy

Meanwhile many of the extremist groups that fuelled the attack on the Capitol have been driven underground by Twitter and Facebook bans, and the de-platforming of favoured channels like Parler. But this hasn’t shut them down.

“There's already been a migration off of Twitter and Facebook, certainly off Parler, to Telegram [an encrypted channel],” says Brian Hughes, the expert on far-Right militias.

“These MAGA voters who are leaving mainstream social media platforms and logging onto Telegram are coming into contact with very serious extremists and terrorist groups – and these groups understand the opportunity that they have here. They're passing around guides for how to radicalise people, how to incrementally move people further and further to the extremes. That's a really serious business.”

Hughes believes that, on balance, the social platforms’ de-platforming of extremists (including Trump) is long overdue. Researchers and law enforcement can still track them on more obscure channels, he says, and the removal of their broadcasting power does significantly impact their ability to recruit.

A poster on an empty highway in front of the Georgia State Capitol building, ahead of the state's runoff elections
Mary Fitzgerald/openDemocracy

Looking ahead, the splintering of the Republican coalition will make it harder for the GOP to regain national office, too. But, with a majority of Republican voters believing the 2020 result was illegitimate, “you're going to see [more] local politicians being elected on Trumpist platforms,” says Hughes.

“There's going to be [more] members of the House of Representatives who believe in QAnon, who are white supremacists, white nationalists, whether explicit or secret…. You're going to see things like city councils, school boards, that are taken over by this conspiratorial way of thinking. It's going to be a big problem.”

Meanwhile, he adds, “it’s a given that there will be more acts of political violence in the next few years – potentially serious ones”. Whereas during the Trump era, such violence tended to be directed towards racial minorities, “I think we’ll see it more politically directed: at politicians, at groups that have a more liberal reputation and at locations like cities that have a reputation for being more liberal”.

Citing a long tradition of domestic terrorism in the US, from the Oklahoma bombing in the 1990s to the brutal killing sprees of radicalised ‘lone shooters’ like Dylann Roof, Hughes says: “It ebbs and flows – and at the moment, it’s flowing”.

I don't think storming the Capitol building is the end of the world... Technically, it’s our building. And if a political leader is afraid of their people, they should ask themselves why they're afraid.

Already, Trump loyalists are reframing their narratives about what happened on 6 January. “Personally, I don't think storming the Capitol building is the end of the world; it’s not like Pearl Harbor or anything,” my cousin in Seattle told me. “Technically, it’s our building. And if a political leader is afraid of their people, they should ask themselves why they're afraid of their people.”

As Aaron Johnsen, a former cop based in Ohio, put it to me on the phone on Monday: “Why waste taxpayers’ money on impeaching a guy that is already on his way out? Why? They drum up this impeachment in a week – but it takes them eight months to come together to figure out a spending bill for the American people to try to help them out? And then it's 600 bucks? You've been out of work for months: here's 600 bucks that's gonna float you for nothing... That’s only half of my mortgage a month.”

Biden's immediate plans include an additional $1400 stimulus and a raft of other COVID measures; the previous gridlock in Washington serving as yet another example of why trust in political leaders has ebbed so low. But, with a striking 73% of Republicans still believing there was widespread voter fraud in November’s election, far more ambition is needed still.

The new president has promised to revive America's flagging democracy. Swift action on economic relief, justice and the public health catastrophe which has claimed 400,000 lives will help – but it will not be enough. The new administration must also urgently take on the powerful gatekeepers who have made billions from allowing lies, conspiracies and manipulation to flourish unchecked for more than a decade.

“Honestly, [the Capitol protests] in a sense is kind of how the US was founded. We rebelled against the British, we wanted our own country, we wanted our own set of rules. We were told no – and it escalated and, you know, the shot around the world: the Boston Tea Party,” Aaron told me.

“If they saw what was going on now, if they [believed it was] a false election, I'm pretty sure they would probably have been like: why didn't you revolt sooner?”

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