GELFAND’S WORLD--At a recent meeting of a liberal coalition, one woman talked about a little experiment she had done at a congressman's town hall forum. She started a conversation with a couple of Trump supporters to see if there might be any political common ground. The discussion was cordial, but as she explained, the Trumpers spoke nothing but Fox News points.
For more than two decades, the right wing, first through talk radio, then through cable television, has accused the mainstream media -- and therefore by implication our society as a whole -- of being biased towards the left. This alt-media loves to pick up rumors and repeat them endlessly, whether it's lies about what Hillary Clinton did during the Benghazi attack or the claim that Barack Obama ordered Donald Trump's phone wiretapped.
When you look at the right wing approach, it becomes painfully obvious that we are looking at the big lie as practiced by Nazis in the old days and by national communist parties through most of the twentieth century. This technique has been summarized in the Joseph Goebbels description of telling a big lie and sticking to it. Eventually people come to believe the lie.
Can there be a countervailing approach that will pick off a few voters from the right wing electorate? Here are a few suggestions.
Don't ever concede any of the fraudulent points. When the NY Times published an op ed by its new columnist Bret Stephens, finding fault with the idea of global warming, that was a concession that should never have been made to the right wing. The piece was unadulterated propaganda that involved a major logical fallacy. If the Times wants to consider the state of scientific knowledge on global warming, then by all means do so. But apply the same level of journalistic integrity to climate science that you would to a story about governmental misconduct.
We've spent a couple of decades watching the right wing accuse the mainstream press of bias, and then watching the mainstream press respond with chronic cowardice. It's become the norm for newspapers to run right wing columnists as a sop to the Rush Limbaugh fans. It hasn't really helped, because the problem of left wing media bias was never the problem to begin with. The complaint that the press has a left wing bias is just a club to beat the rational thinkers over the head with. You're going to continue getting beaten, no matter how many Jonah Goldberg columns are run on the editorial page.
Apologizing to the right wing for faults that you don't actually have is not a useful approach for the media, and it does a disservice to our society. Since the mainstream media doesn't fight back, perhaps it's time that the rest of us led the media in responding to the right wing. Let's make clear that we will respond to right wing media bias because unlike the mythical left wing bias, we know that right wing media bias is real.
We must start by creating a wider societal understanding that Fox News and right wing talk radio are chronically lying to the public. Let the public hear the words right wing media lies every day.
An acquaintance recently finished a car trip across America's heartland, and mentioned that almost every hotel lobby and restaurant had Fox News running. We need a national movement to explain to the major hotel and motel chains that they are running right wing propaganda all the time, and many of us are tired of it. This approach worked against Rush Limbaugh (notice where he is on the dial around here?) and it could work against others in the alt-media. Use social pressure to encourage diners and hotels to run something besides Fox News on the tv sets in their lobbies. In this way, create the social pressure against the right wing big lie.
The idea is to make it less comfortable for people to indulge their right wing fantasies. We have a historical context, in that publicly recited racism was the norm well into the 1950s and early 1960s. Even determined racists were forced by evolving societal norms to pretend otherwise.
The conversion of societal norms away from the more pernicious right wing fantasies is a necessity. That means we have to continue to expose Trump's lies. May I suggest that it's important that many, many people keep repeating that he lies constantly and is not to be taken seriously.
I suspect that a lot of conservatives have figured out that Trump just makes things up, and are quietly grinding their teeth. But then there's that couple we spoke about in the first paragraph, the people who recite Fox News positions with monotonous regularity. We have to be equally persistent in exposing Fox News misrepresentations. And we have to talk back to people who repeat those misrepresentations.
Perhaps we are talking about using big truth in the service of public understanding in a way that is analogous to the technique of the big lie. Why not use persistence in telling the truth at a level that is comparable to the way that the right wing tells lies?
The thing is, you have to use the word lie when you talk about the latest Fox News talking point and somebody has to do it every day. The idea is to create a widespread public discussion about the Fox lack of realism. From that discussion will come widespread doubt about the trustworthiness of Fox News.
Pick a right wing lie and go after it repeatedly, even after the right wing has dropped it. That kind of repetition is what the Tea Party faction did over Benghazi and the Clinton emails. We could pick the Trump wiretap story as a good example that shows Trump to be a liar and implies how gullible right wingers can be.
The best approach might be mockery -- persistent mockery. Late night talk show hosts Steven Colbert and Seth Myers are turning this approach into career builders. We can in turn build on that.
Keep pointing out to people, "The right wing thinks you are gullible." Then tell them, "Don't fall for it."
Let me point out that we are pretty good (all of a sudden) at taking the argument to Republicans in congress, most notably attacking them when they claim that Obamacare is a terrible thing.
Thousands of people have shown up at congressional events to point out why they need coverage for their preexisting conditions. By doing so, we have made more possible the turnover of House control in the next election. Republicans from more centrist districts are in a damned if you do, damned if you don't situation, because they are being arm-twisted by their leadership to vote against guaranteed health insurance. At the end of this week, we should expect that moderate Republicans will be in even more trouble.
(Bob Gelfand writes on science, culture, and politics for CityWatch. He can be reached at [email protected])