There was one moment during former President Donald Trump’s most recent impeachment trial that can tell us a lot about the future of the conservative media ecosystem. During Trump attorney David Schoen’s February 12 arguments, he accused the Democratic House impeachment managers of selectively editing a video clip to promote what he called “the Charlottesville lie.”
Schoen’s argument wasn’t new, but it was possibly one of the highest-profile invocations of a conspiracy theory that began in fringe circles of the far-right but had slowly become part of Republican Party canon, the gist of which is a belief that Trump never claimed that there were “very fine people on both sides” during the deadly 2017 Unite the Right rally in Charlottesville, Virginia. Of course, Trump did say those words, even if he tried to draw a false distinction between the group of white supremacists at the center of the neo-Nazi-attended rally and the people who were there and on the same side as the white supremacists.
Trump’s comments were on video, and anybody with a few moments of free time can pull up a copy of the transcript and read for themselves. None of that matters, and that’s thanks in large part to right-wing media’s support for the “hoax-ification” of recent history.
These arguments were part of a larger propaganda campaign to declare unflattering aspects of reality as “hoaxes” concocted by political enemies.
On its own, Schoen’s argument falls flat and is easily exposed as a lie. It’s only because he knew he could count on the institutional support of the larger pro-Trump media infrastructure that he was able to confidently make outlandish claims. Thanks to the decadeslong push to delegitimize mainstream media outlets and fact-checkers, Schoen would be fine so long as those right-wing outlets had his back.
In a recent article, Washington Post reporter Aaron Blake highlighted this worrying trend in Republican politics. Just weeks after the attack on the U.S. Capitol, Republican politicians were already working to edit the historical record, either downplaying the event or buying into implausible conspiracy theories.
“This didn’t seem like an armed insurrection to me,” said Sen. Ron Johnson (R-WI) in an interview with WISN. “When you hear the word ‘armed,’ don’t you think of firearms? Here’s the questions I would have liked to ask: How many firearms were confiscated? How many shots were fired?”
Referring to Trump attorney Bruce Castor’s claims that “Clearly, there was no insurrection,” Blake highlighted the absurdity of such a statement:
There are myriad problems with all of these claims, the biggest being that five people died, including a police officer, and that two more officers have taken their own lives since then. Other police officers were so traumatized that they have reportedly contemplated self-harm, with one turning in her gun. Guns, bombs and stun guns were seized from members of the mob, while other rioters used wrenches, clubs and flagpoles as weapons. An officer has said that police “had been seizing guns all day.”
Blake’s excellent article puts a focus on how politicians like Johnson, Trump, and former Vice President Mike Pence have become brazen in their outright disregard for the concept of reality:
It’s also the kind of thing that will predictably catch on with people who are inclined to believe it, especially as time passes and memories fade. A huge proportion of the Republican Party came to believe Trump’s many debunked claims of a stolen election, after all, despite courts ruling against him over and over again. The idea of a Charlottesville hoax now permeates much of the GOP, with plenty of Republicans promoting it when Joe Biden made Trump’s comments about the tragedy a centerpiece of his campaign launch in 2019. (Pence even dabbled in a watered-down version of it.)
While Blake did discuss the role that Fox News’ Tucker Carlson Tonight and right-wing blogs like Townhall.com have played in amplifying reality-deficient versions of the Capitol attack, it’s worth taking a deeper look into how right-wing media make these lies effective.
“Hoax” is not a particularly difficult word to define, which makes the way right-wing media and politicians use it that much more baffling.
Though dictionary definitions vary slightly from Merriam-Webster to Oxford to Cambridge, it’s generally accepted that the word “hoax” refers to a deliberate attempt to mislead someone through trickery or deception. It’s a term that can be correctly used to describe things like a 2011 image of a shark swimming down a freeway or the 2009 “Balloon boy” saga. But in recent years, it seems as though the word has taken on a life of its own -- with some thanks to Trump and his right-wing media support system.
To enter the world of conservative media is to be bombarded with phrases like “the Russia hoax,” “the impeachment hoax,” and “the ‘very fine people’ hoax,” though none of these things actually meet the definition of the word. The investigation into Russian interference in the 2016 presidential election was justified, impeachment was something that absolutely happened (twice, even), and as has been established, Trump absolutely did refer to people who attended a 2017 white supremacist rally as “very fine people.”
It’s possible to take the position that whatever contacts Trump’s 2016 presidential campaign had with Russia weren’t as big a deal as it was being made out to be, or that Trump’s impeachments weren’t justified. But that doesn’t make these stories into hoaxes.
Just as “fake news” transformed, following a January 2017 Trump press conference, from being a legitimate term used to describe false information from websites that had been mocked-up to look like actual news sites into being a term that was essentially just thrown around to refer to anything conservatives and their media allies didn’t like, the rise of “hoax” as a way to handwave uncomfortable information followed a similar trajectory from Trump to right-wing media to Republicans as a whole.
To be sure, Trump wasn’t the first person on the right to use the word “hoax.” It’s something that has come up frequently in right-wing arguments against climate change, for instance. While those arguments tended to rely on a flimsy argument with bogus evidence -- for instance, picture Sen. Jim Inhofe (R-OK) and his snowball on the Senate floor -- the Trump era brought with it a level of arrogance that dispensed with the idea that evidence and arguments were necessary at all.
In April 2020, PolitiFact published an article about Trump’s fondness for the word “hoax.” To that point, Trump had used the term more than 600 times in public.
PolitiFact noted that “Trump’s reliance on the word took off once he became president. For years, Trump denounced former special counsel Robert Mueller’s investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 election as a ‘hoax,’ all the while offering no credible evidence in support of his claim.”
Trump’s lack of evidence to support his claim that Russian interference in the 2016 was a hoax was par for the course. Rather than offering a competing theory, Trump would simply toss a baseless claim into the public discourse, expecting it to stand on its own. For the most part, it did. Mainstream media outlets struggled for years to come up with a set of rules to apply to fact-free claims made by Trump, often privileging the lie over the truth and merely adding “without evidence” to a statement that helped advance his own messaging, even if it was false.
During a February 2020 rally, Trump mocked Democrats’ concern about the threat posed by the novel coronavirus that would eventually go on to become a global pandemic with a death toll in the hundreds of thousands in the U.S. alone. He called this concern “their new hoax.”
PRESIDENT DONALD TRUMP: Now the Democrats are politicizing the coronavirus, you know that, right? Coronavirus, they’re politicizing it. We did one of the great jobs. You say, “How’s President Trump doing?” They go, “Oh, not good, not good.” They have no clue. They don’t have any clue. They can’t even count their votes in Iowa. They can’t even count. No, they can’t. They can’t count their votes.
One of my people came up to me and said, “Mr. President, they tried to beat you on Russia, Russia, Russia.” That didn’t work out too well. They couldn’t do it. They tried the impeachment hoax. That was on a perfect conversation. They tried anything. They tried it over and over. They’d been doing it since you got in. It’s all turning. They lost. It’s all turning. Think of it. Think of it. And this is their new hoax.
Because the way Trump used the word doesn’t make any sense linguistically to refer to someone’s concern about a deadly virus, many people reasonably concluded that he was calling the coronavirus itself a “hoax.” While fact-checkers came down on the side of Trump, the bizarre statement (among others made early in the pandemic by Trump and the likes of Fox News) likely resulted in some of his supporters simply not believing that the virus was an actual threat -- even after Trump himself contracted the disease.
It’s that total detachment from the rules of the English language and reality itself that allowed Trump and his media allies to rewrite history whenever truth wasn’t to their liking.
Fox News has adopted Trump’s evidence- and argument-free use of “hoax” for its own propagandistic purposes.
It’s worrying how effective instructions not to believe our own eyes can be.
In March 2020, Fox host Sean Hannity claimed that people were faking concern about the novel coronavirus to “bludgeon Trump with this new hoax.” During a May episode of Outnumbered Overtime, former White House press secretary Sarah Sanders cited “the whole illusion of the Russia hoax” as a justification for opposing mail-in ballots. In August, Fox host Tucker Carlson applied the “hoax” label to the idea that white supremacy was a problem facing the U.S., and would add a few weeks later that “it’s a total hoax” that people were protesting police brutality and racism during the summer’s Black Lives Matter marches. In September, a number of Fox hosts responded to a story published by The Atlantic about then-President Trump making disparaging remarks about fallen troops by suggesting it was simply another “hoax,” even after Fox News was able to independently verify it.
During a November 2015 campaign rally, Trump mocked New York Times reporter Serge Kovaleski, who has arthrogryposis, a condition that affects his joint movement. On stage, Trump tried to mockingly mimic Kovaleski’s arm movements while demanding that he retract past reports refuting Trump’s false claim that he witnessed “thousands” of Muslims dancing on rooftops in New Jersey on 9/11. While Trump’s claim about 9/11 was pure fiction, his on-stage flailing was very real.
Less than a year later, during the third presidential debate, Trump accused Democratic nominee Hillary Clinton of lying about his mocking of Kovaleski. Trump told the world not to believe our own eyes, something his media allies had been doing for some time up to that point.
Trump campaigned by gaslight and it worked in 2016 thanks to a loyal right-wing media. Sure, he lost the 2020 election, but his supporters remain energized and engaged. With Trump out of the political picture (at least for the time being), Fox News and others on the right will surely test whether they can recycle the Trump playbook to rewrite history in support of other political causes. Their emerging narrative whitewashing the violent insurrection at the Capitol on January 6 offers a glimpse of what that strategy may look like in practice, and it should have us all worried for what outrage they will try it on next.