As the first Democratic presidential hopefuls declare their candidacy, right-wing media outlets are launching a campaign of their own. The goal? Planting seeds of doubt about each of the potential nominees so that by the time the Democratic National Convention in July 2020 rolls around, voters will harbor negative feelings toward whoever comes out on top.
The message in the 2016 presidential campaign was that Hillary Clinton was an extraordinarily corrupt, pay-to-play politician who felt she was above the law. It was specific enough to be an effective message but vague enough that its exact interpretation remained subjective. After all, terms like “corrupt” and “crooked” can mean pretty much whatever the person interpreting wants them to. In June 2016, Gallup asked people, “What comes to your mind when you think about Hillary Clinton?” Twenty-seven percent of respondents said they “don’t trust her” or found her “dishonest” or “unethical,” 13 percent said they “dislike /or “don’t care for her,” and 8 percent described her as a “crook,” a “criminal,” “corrupt,” or said she “should be in jail.”
When it comes to 2020 candidates, it’s clear that conservative media are simply throwing narratives around to see what sticks.
The early stages of a smear campaign can seem a bit absurd. Headlines will overpromise and underdeliver, messages won’t be consistent, and the purported scandals and gaffes will underwhelm.
“Elizabeth Warren’s first week on the stump filled with missteps” reads the headline of a recent article by The Daily Caller. Among the supposed flubs criticized in the piece:
- She said, “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer,” during an Instagram livestream.
- She lost her voice after one day of campaigning.
- Her excuse for losing her voice was “too much time with little people,” referring to her grandchildren. The article says this was “poorly-worded.”
- She “awkwardly ‘admitted’ to purchasing things on Amazon.”
“If her first campaign week is any indication, Warren could be in for a long and bumpy road ahead for 2020,” the article concludes.
It’s not really clear what the “missteps” mentioned in the headline were. Does “I’m gonna get me, um, a beer” come off like forced folksiness? Could her temporarily lost voice be used to paint her as “low stamina”? Will her saying “little people” be cited as insensitive toward people who have dwarfism or be divorced from context to seem like she’s smugly referring to people she met during her campaign stop as “little people”? Will her Amazon Prime Day purchases cost her regulatory credibility?
At this point in a smear campaign, the objective really is quantity over quality. Quality -- which is to say what message will stick with voters and sour their opinion of the candidates -- comes much later. The beer bit seemed to have legs. Fox News’ Outnumbered offered baffled criticism like, “Somebody tell me, why beer? Why that beverage? Is that to appeal to, like, male voters? I'm just wondering, because she's playing the gender card.” Also on Fox News, during an episode of The Five, co-host Greg Gutfeld said, “It's just obvious that she's inauthentic in everything she does.”
One of the first major policy positions Warren laid out at the beginning of her campaign was a 2 percent annual tax on wealth over $50 million. One can argue the pros and cons of any policy, but with a sprinkle of hyperbole and a dash of bad faith, anything can be turned into a smear narrative. For example, while reporting on Warren’s wealth-tax proposal, CNBC’s Joe Kernan claimed that Warren “wants billionaires to stop being freeloaders, stop creating jobs, stop creating wealth, stop succeeding.”
This narrative almost writes itself: Elizabeth Warren wants you to fail, America. While that’s a completely ridiculous reading of what she’s proposed, it certainly won't stop conservatives from running with it.
Similar smears and distortions are already being tested on Sens. Cory Booker (D-NJ), Kamala Harris (D-CA), and Kirsten Gillibrand (D-NY).
Other candidates found themselves at the center of outright lies and willful ignorance.
In early February, Booker gave an interview to VegNews, a news site aimed at vegetarians and vegans. Booker, who is a vegan, touched on the environmental sustainability of a world in which people get so much of their food in the form of meat. Booker discussed his own decision to go vegan, adding, “This is the United States of America, and I, for one, believe in our freedom to choose. So, I don’t want to preach to anybody about their diets; that’s just not how I live.”
Naturally, Booker’s words were twisted by right-wing media. He explicitly stated that he wasn’t advocating for the abolition of animal farming, but that didn’t stop Fox’s Lisa Kennedy Montgomery from claiming that Booker “wants to impose his meat rationing on the rest of us.” The Resurgent’s Erick Erickson made the odd claim that Booker was trying to carry out the supposed agenda of Pope Francis “to coerce farmers into abandoning animal populations in favor of vegetarian farming.” National Review claimed that “Cory Booker wants only the rich to eat meat,” another evidence-deficient claim.
Another line of attack right-wing media figures level against Booker includes accusations of religious bigotry. “Cory Booker is an anti-religious bigot and a disgrace to the Judiciary Committee,” tweeted The Daily Wire’s Ben Shapiro after Booker asked judicial nominee Neomi Rao if she thinks gay relationships are sinful. The Washington Examiner’s Becket Adams made a similar charge, accusing Booker of engaging in “gotcha” questions during Rao’s hearing. Booker is actually fairly well-known for his Christian beliefs and is a member of a National Baptist Convention church in Newark, NJ.
As for Harris, after an appearance on the radio show The Breakfast Club, she got slammed for, supposedly, lying about what music she listened to while she got high in college (seriously). A smile on his face, co-host Steve Doocy held her to account during Fox & Friends:
STEVE DOOCY (CO-HOST): She was listening to Snoop and Tupac when she was in college. We took a look at the record, and take a look at this. That was the appearance on the so-called world's most dangerous morning show, The Breakfast Club, here in New York. She graduated from college at Howard in 1986. She finished law school in 1989. She was admitted to the state bar of California in 1990 and then in 1991, Tupac's first album came out and in 1993, Snoop Dogg's first album was released. So there's a problem with the timeline.
Unfortunately for Doocy and others eager to rip Harris for being inauthentic and untruthful over this trivial matter, this isn’t exactly how it happened. The Breakfast Club published a clip calling out Breitbart, Fox News, and The View’s Meghan McCain for taking Harris’ comments out of context. The question about whether she smoked marijuana in college was separate from the question of what music she likes. Even if the likes of Fox and Breitbart had offered a fair interpretation of events, this is hardly the scandal they were trying to make it out to be.
Harris was also the subject of a smear steeped in sexism. After former San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown wrote a short op-ed to say that he and Harris briefly dated “more than 20 years ago,” and that he had appointed Harris to two state commissions when he was speaker of the California State Assembly, conservative media jumped at the chance to baselessly accuse Harris of sleeping her way to the top and being some sort of #MeToo-era hypocrite. The story faded after a day or so; there wasn’t anything to suggest Harris did anything improper.
In Gillibrand’s case, one of the early narratives being used against her is centered on her decision to call for former Sen. Al Franken’s (D-MN) resignation after multiple women reported that he had touched them inappropriately. This isn’t a new attack on Gillibrand, but it does seem to be getting a bit more traction since she began hinting at a run. It’s most often used to paint her as opportunistic and power-hungry. Her evolving views on issues like immigration and guns have been cast in that same light. Like Warren, Gillibrand is framed as though her every action has been focus-grouped. The Washington Examiner’s Eddie Scarry asked whether she dyes her hair. Conservative radio host Mark Simone flipped out over news that Gillibrand seemed unsure whether to eat fried chicken with her hands or with silverware, tweeting, “Another example of phony, pay for play, politician Kirsten Gillibrand proving every move she makes is pandering and contrived.”
This collection offers just a small sampling of an untold number of attacks that conservative media will filter and refine for maximum political damage between now and Election Day. For the moment, these look more like hastily sketched prototypes of pointed political commentary than the works of rhetorical art they will most certainly become. One question worth asking -- for people inside and out of the media world -- is what makes a smear successful, and why do people believe things that are clearly untrue or exaggerated? Luckily, there is some insight to be had here.
Smear campaigns aren’t an exact science, but there are a few principles worth following if you want to understand them.
Not every smear is an all-out lie. Some, as mentioned above, are built around exaggerations or bad-faith interpretations of candidate actions. Both types can be effective, even if the claim is especially brazen.
A 2010 study published in the Journal of Experimental Psychology General examined two of the more omnipresent smears of the 2008 presidential campaign in an attempt to better understand why people believe even the most blatantly false accusations against some candidates. One part of the research looked at claims that Barack Obama was secretly Muslim and that John McCain was senile and unfit to lead the country. Another portion addressed a less blatant but just as ubiquitous smear post-election about whether Obama was a socialist. The authors explain their motivation behind these studies:
During election seasons, media bombardments by political propagandists are pervasive and difficult to avoid. Such extensive exposure might have the unsavory consequence of instilling implicit cognitive associations consistent with smear attacks in the minds of citizens. ... One measure of the success of smear campaigns might thus be the extent to which individuals exhibit strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label.
What researchers ultimately found was that there’s a link between whether someone believes a harmful rumor and whether they’re politically aligned with the candidate beforehand. That is, a Democrat is more likely to believe a negative rumor about a Republican than Republicans are -- and vice versa. This conclusion may seem somewhat obvious, but it’s helpful in understanding why otherwise intelligent people might genuinely believe Obama was born in Kenya or that Hillary Clinton runs a child sex ring out of a Washington, D.C., pizza restaurant. It’s a case study in confirmation bias.
The idea of creating “strong implicit associations between a candidate’s name and his or her smearing label” gets at why it’s important for successful attack campaigns to keep a singular focus. For the many attacks Hillary Clinton faced during the 2016 election, the common theme was clear: She was “crooked.” In Donald Trump’s case, his scandals included financial corruption and reports of sexual assault, racism, and sexism. There was no single coherent association to be made here, and it’s entirely possible that that worked to his advantage with voters. (This isn’t to say that those scandals were part of a smear campaign, just that his opposition maybe didn’t utilize those stories to their maximum political potential.)
“At its core is the need for the brain to receive confirming information that harmonizes with an individual’s existing views and beliefs,” says Mark Whitmore, an assistant professor of management and information systems at Kent State University in a press release from the American Psychological Association about “why we’re susceptible to fake news.” “In fact, one could say the brain is hardwired to accept, reject, misremember or distort information based on whether it is viewed as accepting of or threatening to existing beliefs.”
Whitmore notes that thanks to the ever-expanding list of places people go to get their news -- whether that’s somewhere online or on cable TV -- “the receiver is often faced with paradoxical and seemingly absurd messages. It becomes easier to cling to a simple fiction than a complicated reality.”
“Trump Derangement Syndrome” is a popular phrase within conservative media to describe people who reflexively disagree with anything Trump does. The term originated in a 2003 Charles Krauthammer column as “Bush Derangement Syndrome,” which some reappropriated as “Obama Derangement Syndrome” to describe anti-Obama mindsets. Aside from the irony in Krauthammer using this newly created term to roll his eyes at people opposed to the invasion of Iraq -- a decision that only looks worse with passing time -- he was also essentially making reference to confirmation bias.
As news consumers, we need to be aware of how personal biases guide our judgment when it comes to determining the validity of both praise and attacks on various candidates. Now is the perfect time to be on the lookout for these narratives, while they’re still sloppy and unrefined.