Trump and his supporters claimed that his opponents are seeking to deceive and subdue Americans. It’s a dangerous path.
https://www.newyorker.com-By Amy Davidson Sorkin-Illustration by João Fazenda
Tiffany Trump is not the most prominent or politically adept of the President’s children, but her speech at the Republican National Convention last week served as a succinct summation of the event’s key messages. Donald Trump is a giant among Presidents, protecting the country and keeping his promises. His reëlection is a contest between freedom and oppression. Yet he’s subject to hatred, Tiffany said, because so many people have been “manipulated and visibly coerced” by the media and tech companies that present a “biased and fabricated” version of reality. “Ask yourselves, why are we prevented from seeing certain information?” she urged viewers. The answer is “control.”
She was far from the only speaker to have discerned a connection between attempts to deceive the American people and efforts to subdue them. On Thursday night, when her father accepted his party’s nomination, he did the same, saying, “They are coming after me, because I am fighting for you!” Kimberly Guilfoyle, a former Fox News journalist who is Donald Trump, Jr.,’s partner, loudly warned about “cosmopolitan élites” who “want to control what you see and think and believe so that they can control how you live.” Richard Grenell, the former acting director of National Intelligence, said that Trump’s opponents “never want the American people to know who’s actually calling the shots.”
Claims that the media act in bad faith are a commonplace of electoral politics. Senator Mitch McConnell, in his address on Thursday, said that, “like President Trump, we won’t be bullied by a liberal media intent on destroying America’s institutions.” But the thesis of the Republican Convention was more extreme. Forces larger than the media, variously identified as socialists, anarchists, “wild-eyed Marxists,” “woketopians,” and “globalization fanatics,” are gathering to bring down the country. Journalists may not even know who manages the levers. “Nobody really knows who’s controlling who,” Trump said on Monday, musing on what he calls “MSDNC.”
This was the conspiratorial Convention. Speaker after speaker said that Trump is definitely not a racist, that he is a defender of people with preëxisting health conditions, and that he has single-handedly defeated the coronavirus. Accepting such statements almost requires believing that his opponents are masterly practitioners of deception, with a hidden agenda, and that their grievances are a sham. Thus Black Lives Matter marchers and Democratic mayors were said to want protests to descend into violence. “It isn’t an unintended side effect—it’s actually the goal,” Patrick Lynch, the head of New York City’s Police Benevolent Association, said.
Representative Matt Gaetz, of Florida, claimed that “the dangerous left needs America to be weaker in order to accomplish their goal of replacing her.” (The notion that white Americans are in danger of being “replaced” is a trope of the far right.) Gaetz, who grew up in the house where “The Truman Show” was filmed, promoted the idea that almost nothing is as it seems, calling Joe Biden an extra in a “horror movie” directed by unnamed figures on the left. Like all good conspiracy theories, the plot is as capacious as it is fearsome. An R.N.C.-produced video claims that Biden has been bought by Beijing; it shows the Statue of Liberty fracturing. Vice-President Mike Pence said that the election will decide “whether America remains America.”
Public-health imperatives were suspect, too. Senator Marsha Blackburn, of Tennessee, said that, “if the Democrats had their way, they would keep you locked in your house until you became dependent on the government for everything. That sounds a lot like Communist China to me!” Social-distancing measures weren’t just misguided; the coronavirus was a convenient excuse to promote socialism. (Similarly, Rebecca Friedrichs, a school-choice advocate, noted that “unsuspecting teachers” are being played by radical unions, whose true aim is “subverting our republic.”) And there are few clearer measures of how Trumpism, with its promise of an alternate reality, has captivated the G.O.P. than the sight, on Thursday night, of fifteen hundred mostly maskless people sitting close together for hours on the South Lawn of the White House to hear the President’s acceptance speech. Meanwhile, COVID-19 is killing a thousand Americans a day.
In a video shown during the Convention, a self-proclaimed former Democratic Socialist who converted to Trumpism advises that, to understand what is happening, “you have to look deeper.” To illustrate what this means, she is shown scrolling intensely on her mobile phone. The image is appropriate; an increasing number of the President’s supporters are spending time in online forums reading up on QAnon, a family of conspiracy theories centered on Trump’s supposed struggle against the deep state. It has different, often contradictory strands, at times involving tales of a secret military cabal, the Protocols of the Elders of Zion, and a coming apocalypse. Recently, in a press conference, Trump claimed not to know much about QAnon, other than that “they do, supposedly, like me.” Told that the crux of QAnon is the belief that he is “secretly saving the world from this satanic cult of pedophiles and cannibals,” he asked, “Is that supposed to be a bad thing or a good thing?” He added that he’d be glad to save the world.
According to Media Matters for America, about twenty candidates on the ballot for the Senate or the House this fall have expressed an affinity for QAnon. One of them, Marjorie Taylor Greene, the Republican candidate for a House seat in Georgia, has speculated that the 2017 mass shooting in Las Vegas was a false-flag operation. (She now says that she is moving on.) After her primary win, Trump tweeted that she is “strong on everything.” She was invited to attend his acceptance speech.
This is a dangerous path. The country is facing challenges that demand a modicum of trust, from the counting of ballots to the equitable distribution of a COVID-19 vaccine. “Nobody will be safe in a Biden America,” Trump said. He and his party are telling their supporters that, if he loses the election, everything will be gone—the country, the borders, the suburbs, their guns. A St. Louis couple who pointed firearms at Black Lives Matter marchers were rewarded with a speaking spot at the Convention. Another supporter of the President, in Kenosha, was allegedly all too ready to bring out his gun, with fatal results. But fear and suspicion cannot be the means by which this country is controlled. That isn’t how America remains America. ♦
Published in the print edition of the September 7, 2020, issue, with the headline “Out of Control.”
Amy Davidson Sorkin has been a staff writer at The New Yorker since 2014. She has been at the magazine since 1995, and, as a senior editor for many years, focussed on national security, international reporting, and features.