Donald Trump has pitted free speech versus democracy in hopes reckless mendacity will usher in authoritarian rule.
The midterm elections are over.
But, in a sense, it doesn’t matter—because the virulent, now-years-long epidemic afflicting American politics remains: cynical Republican mendacity, which is to say, purposeful lying and duplicity—spearheaded by former president Donald Trump.
And zero accountability so far for the merchants of this corrosive assault on the nation.
Make no mistake, this wholesale desecration of truth existentially threatens our republic, no matter which party is in power. That means lies can kill our democracy.
The question is, what can truth-abiding Americans do about it? More on that later.
‘The Big Lie’ continues
In the meantime, Donald Trump and his Republican allies, meaning most of the GOP, continue loudly insisting (with zero evidence and 60+ court-case rulings to the contrary) that rampant fraud allowed Democrats to “steal” the 2020 presidential election from Trump and corrupted the 2022 midterms.
Curiously, however, all races that other Republicans won in 2020 were apparently completely fair (presumably as were races they won this time around), since the GOP has been and is wholly accepting of those.
Moving forward, Trump’s GOP is already setting the table for the same spurious complaint in 2024, should they lose the presidency again. “Get ready,” Trump told the faithful at a rally before the midterms, signaling his intention to seek the presidency again and ramp-up sowing doubt in the electoral system.
It’s become a GOP oath signaling tribal authenticity that Democrats only win when they cheat. But, wither evidence of cheating? Two years out, there is still none, only empty accusations.
This continuing mendacity is not only corrosive, it’s potentially—if not inevitably, if left unchecked—lethal to our democracy.
Dispiritingly, left-leaning pols and pundits seem to believe there’s nothing to be done about it. Because, you know, free speech.
The issue is speech, in fact, but only narrowly—weaponized, corrosive speech—not “free speech,” which was enshrined in the US Constitution as a protected means of keeping Americans fully, uncensoriously, informed, not as a duplicitous tool to destabilize and topple the republic.
New York Times series: ‘The Danger Within’
Just before the midterms, the New York Times began a unique editorial series, titled “The Danger Within,” that urges readers “to understand the danger of extremist violence and possible solutions” in America. The first installment—“America Can Have Democracy or Political Violence. Not Both.”—investigates how extremist right-wing violence has soared in the US in the past five years and is seriously undermining democracy.
The Times debut editorial in the series pointed out:
Of the more than 440 extremism-related murders committed in the past decade, more than 75 percent were committed by right-wing extremists, white supremacists or anti-government extremists.
It’s only the iceberg tip of extremism’s damaging effect, overwhelmingly inflicted by the arch-conservative right, on the American republic’s political and social health. The editorial continued:
In addition to these high-profile events [e.g., the brutal recent attack of Paul Pelosi, husband of US House Speaker Nancy Pelosi (D-California), and the 2017 shooting of Minority Whip Rep. Steve Scalise (R-Louisiana) at a bipartisan softball game], the threat of violence has begun to have a corrosive effects on many aspects of public life: the hounding of election workers until they are forced into hiding, harassment of school board officials, threats to judges, armed demonstrations at multiple statehouses, attacks on abortion clinics and anti-abortion pregnancy centers, bomb threats against hospitals that offer care to transgender children, assaults on flight attendants who try to enforce Covid rules and even armed intimidation of librarians over the books and ideas they choose to share.
What’s causing all this violence in the first place?
Although the Times series is laser-focused on extremist violence, the bigger issue arguably might be what is fueling all this extremism that leads to violence in the first place?
The answer: calculated disinformation broadly and repeatedly disseminated by right-wing agents throughout the nation—bald-faced lies that are gullibly accepted as truth and widely shared and spread by the defeated, one-term, former president’s tens of millions of still-adoring devotees.
“Repeat a lie often enough and it becomes the truth,” is a propaganda principle—apocryphal or not—often attributed to Joseph Goebbels, Nazi strongman Adolf Hitler’s Minister of Propaganda before and during World War II.
Post-war contemporary research has shown that this is a true statement (whoever actually said it), its veracity underscored by the dangerous success of Trump’s gratuitous, years-long weaponization of a continuous swarm of lies—30,573 of them, rigorously fact-checked, during his presidency, according to a comprehensive 2021 report in the Washington Post.
The ‘illusion of truth’
A 2016 BBC article by Tom Stafford, “How liars create the ‘illusion of truth,’” noted that in contemporary studies of this propaganda phenomena,
“The key finding is that people tend to rate items they’ve seen before as more likely to be true, regardless of whether they are true or not, and seemingly for the sole reason that they are more familiar. … Repetition pushed the average item up the six-point scale [of believability], and increased the odds that a statement would be categorized as true. For statements that were actually fact or fiction, known or unknown, repetition made them all seem more believable.” [emphasis mine]
That’s bad for truth but not as bad as it might seem. Researchers also found that what people know to be true can inoculate them somewhat against flim-flam, but only in an environment where truth is repeated more than lies (the opposite of the current US political environment).
But what about right-wing extremists, including most if not all of the MAGA crowd, cocooned as they are in a tightly constricted information bubble—an environment where not only lies but blatant, easily debunked falsehoods are repeated far more often than truths.
ON THE OTHER HAND | Curated contrary opinions
Adam Lee: In defense of free speech
If the research is sound, those people, who consume little else than repeated lies, instinctively dismissing any outside information as suspicious if not fraudulent, will mostly end up believing lies are true.
That’s the core problem and the danger for American democracy. The loudest, most aggressive and repetitive, least tolerant and rational voices win in such a deceitful free-for-all. To hell with veracity.
‘Intimidation, scare tactics’ have no place in Idaho
When some citizens of Idaho tried to have the state’s laws against paramilitary groups rescinded, Gov. Brad Little, a Republican who initially supported the effort later changed his mind as political violence in his state spiked sharply. At the time, he said,
Intimidation, scare tactics and violence has no place in our great state. All Americans should be able to peacefully express their constitutionally guaranteed right to free speech without the threat of violence. It is what has always set America apart from other nations.
But what if the inherent intent of speech is not to promote truth and rational public discourse but, rather, sectarian rage, hate, and violence? What if behind the message is the explicit or implicit threat of violence from well-armed extremist groups or lone-wolf zealots or crazies (like the one strange, angry man who attacked Paul Pelosi)?
The threat is particularly acute at this moment of heightened political violence in America. A recent online survey of more than 7,200 adults by researchers at the University of California, Davis, found that a third of respondents—but more Republicans than Democrats—believe political violence is “not only acceptable but perhaps necessary.”
What has led to this dangerous impasse: weaponized free speech used recklessly, and irresponsibly.
What is ‘free speech’?
What does “free speech” mean, anyway in this context? Some restrictions on it already exist, so American citizens long ago accepted that free speech is not absolutely unfettered. In any event, how we view and practice “free speech” at this historical moment isn’t working.
It’s not an accident that our democracy is now existentially at risk. Why? Free speech.
Tim Wu, a progressive Columbia law professor wrote in The Perilous Public Square: An Essay Collection that it is “very challenging for the First Amendment to deal with” the use of speech “as a tool to suppress speech,” which, in fact, is the Fox News business model. That cable “news” channel suppresses, ridicules or attacks everything left of right-wing—as policy, seemingly.
Wu added in his essay:
[P]erhaps our way of thinking about free speech is not the best way. At the very least, we should understand that it isn’t the only way. Other democracies, in Europe and elsewhere, have taken a different approach. Despite more regulations on speech, these countries remain democratic; in fact, they have created better conditions for their citizenry to sort what’s true from what’s not and to make informed decisions about what they want their societies to be. Here in the United States, meanwhile, we’re drowning in lies.
‘Information crisis’ wracks America
In an October 2020 piece in The New York Times Magazine, writer Emily Bazelon reported that the US was then in the midst of an information crisis caused by the spread of viral disinformation, “defined as falsehoods aimed at achieving a political goal.” She added that throughout the 2020 presidential campaign, Trump and his other Republicans spun a web of lies about alleged voter fraud and all manner of other supposed political shenanigans.
“The conspiracy theories, the lies, the distortions, the overwhelming amount of information, the anger encoded in it—these all serve to create chaos and confusion and make people, even nonpartisans, exhausted, skeptical and cynical about politics,” Bazelon wrote.
This social chaos and confusion have become the nation’s new normal. But it’s been imposed on the electorate by one party: the GOP, which has abdicated all responsibility to try and make the US a more perfect, more cooperative union.
When social media platforms like Facebook and Twitter employed targeted user bans during the 2020 and 2022 votes to weed out misinformation and disinformation clogging its circuits—overwhelmingly it was to stop right-wing mendacity—Republicans cried foul as if destructive lies—of course!—should be protected speech.
If the GOP were to take control of one or both branches of the U.S. Congress, they planned to target social media platforms to hobble their ability to police and control untruthfulness online (and allow right-wing wingnuts to resume waging unfettered mischief), Washington Post columnist Oliver Knox reported just before the midterms.
And that would just be the beginning of an overarching right-wing strategy to make lies seem like truth, to normalize intellectual deceit. This is why a third to a half of Americans still think Joe Biden was fraudulently elected (he verifiably wasn’t).
US on the precipice of political disaster
So, it’s now irrefutable that, since Donald Trump’s emergence as a political force in the US, weaponized speech that is false or purposely misleading—Trump’s and his devotees’ stock in trade—has led American democracy to a precipice looming over a black abyss.
“Free speech,” as we’ve long understood it, rather than protecting American democracy is putting it at grave risk. A radical re-imagining is required of what legally acceptable speech is, and isn’t.
I’ve long thought that political lie-makers should be viewed as the moral and legal equivalent of regular lawbreakers, due to the existential danger to the republic they pose if uncontrolled. For example, we don’t allow murderers free rein in society, even though their crimes are expressions of freedom.
In this context, what would be wrong with creating a new set of laws to deal with this threat, under the enforcement of a separate branch of the judiciary? What’s the moral difference between killing a person and killing a republic? They’re both unjustified, both destructive.
Don’t say, “But … free speech.”
As it stands, traditional American free speech is leading us nowhere but straight to perdition. Even if we somehow survive this risky era in American politics, sooner or later another fraudulent populist certainly will remember this dangerous weakness in our system—if it’s not remedied—and shamelessly exploit it as Donald Trump has.
Because, right now, there’s no political or legal accountability.
So we urgently need to try something completely different to protect the republic from political fraud, while continuing to protect robust public debate—the Constitution, in part, be damned.