Donald Trump’s entire career has been built on disinformation.
The celebrity real estate developer bullshitted his way into his early breakthrough deals in Manhattan. After his casino empire collapsed, he revived his fortunes with a reality-TV show that like all reality TV-shows manufactured and sold a fake reality. He became a conservative movement favorite—and created a foundation for his presidential bid—by championing the racist birther conspiracy theory about Barack Obama. For decades, he ran a non-stop PR campaign to gild his image and push the tale that he was wealthier than he probably was. And he won the 2016 election partly because of a secret Russian attack that weaponized a hack and that covertly flooded various social media platforms with disinformation designed to create discord, hurt Hillary Clinton, and boost Trump. (He and his campaign aided and abetted the Kremlin operation by falsely denying it was happening.) Disinformation is Trump’s lifeblood. And in this election, Trump is not relying on Vladimir Putin or anyone else for the disinformation he needs to possibly win. He and his crew have taken on this task. The disinformation in the 2020 campaign is coming from inside the house.
Though Trump will never acknowledge it publicly, Moscow’s clandestine assault on the 2016 race was a key component of his victory. Its cyber-theft and subsequent leaking of Clinton-related emails and documents shaped the last four weeks of the campaign and perfectly teed-up the last-minute announcement of a revived FBI investigation of Clinton’s use as secretary of state of a private email server. And the Kremlin’s undercover social media campaign spread messages that aimed at suppressing the Black vote and reducing enthusiasm for Clinton. There is no evidence that Trump and his minions directly conspired in this sabotage. But he and his aides engaged in a parallel disinformation campaign by repeatedly insisting in public there was no Russian attack underway—even though the Trump campaign had been informed the Kremlin had a secret plan to assist Trump and Trump, as the GOP nominee, was briefed by US intelligence that Putin was trying to subvert the election. In short, Putin did the dirty work, Trump covered for him, and, as a recently released Republican-endorsed Senate Intelligence Committee report noted, he and his campaign sought to benefit from the Kremlin plot.
In 2020, Trump’s disinformation scheme is out in the open, and he is at the center of it. In a way, his entire presidency has been one long disinformation crusade. As of the end of August, according to the Washington Post‘s “Fact Checker” database, Trump had made 22,247 false or misleading claims since entering the White House. And in the final stretch of the campaign, he has been averaging over 50 lies or falsehoods a day. Many of these are pillars of the false narrative he has been peddling for a while: the US economy on his watch was the best economy in the history of the nation, no president since perhaps Abraham Lincoln has done more for Black Americans, he has a health plan that will provide better and cheaper coverage to Americans who rely on Obamacare, his trade war with China was a rousing success, he has protected Americans from the violence of immigrants, Antifa, and others…and so on.
But it is within his presidential campaign that Trump has attempted to take control of and pump up the disinformation blitz—and he has done so unabashedly. In May 2019, Rudy Giuliani, Trump’s personal attorney, publicly said he was heading to Ukraine to search for dirt on Joe Biden and his son Hunter, who had been a board member for a Ukrainian energy company. He didn’t bother to hide this. He would spend over a year on this mission, hooking up with various right-wingers (remember Joe diGenova and Victoria Toensing?), conservative journalists, and shady overseas officials, as he looked for mud to throw at Biden. For his part, Trump, during a July 25, 2019, phone call that would lead to his impeachment, pressed the Ukrainian president to initiate investigations that would taint Biden and produce the derogatory information he and Giuliani yearned for. When news of this call emerged in September 2019, Trump hailed it as “beautiful” and “perfect.” The disinformation campaign was hiding in plain sight. No Russians needed.
Still, Russia was involved. In his pursuit of anti-Biden material, Giuliani collaborated with a Ukrainian parliamentarian who was pushing falsified evidence of Biden corruption in Ukraine and whom the US government would openly describe as an “active Russian agent” cooking up disinformation to influence the US election. (And Moscow was undoubtedly targeting the 2020 election in other ways.) Yet even after this Russia connection was exposed in September—and the former New York City mayor was cast as a useful idiot for Putin—Giuliani continued to hype wild accusations about Biden and Hunter and alleged (but unconfirmed) wrongdoing in Ukraine and also China. And so did former Trump White House strategist Steve Bannon and the entire Trump media machine (Fox News, Breitbart, the New York Post, OAN, and others). A laptop that supposedly belonged to Hunter Biden mysteriously emerged (with emails!). A former business partner of his came forward with allegations about a Chinese deal (which never materialized) that could not be substantiated. There was no clear evidence of any Joe Biden wrongdoing.
But as it had done throughout the campaign, this vast collection of Trumpers chugged along, generating headlines designed to raise suspicions and hoping to gin up a scandal that would destroy Biden’s candidacy. At the presidential debates, Trump, in less-than-effective fashion, echoed the crazy-quilt assortment of accusations. To the uninitiated, it all probably came across as incomprehensible. Trump’s major disinformation operation appeared to be failing. Huntergate did not become an October Surprise.
The Hunter stuff was only a piece of Trump’s disinformation effort. He and his crew endeavored to create and spread other phony story lines about Biden. They repeatedly claimed the former vice president was ailing and losing his cognitive abilities. They asserted that he had to rely on a teleprompter during interviews with reporters. (False.) They said he had referred to Black men as “super-predators” during the debate in the 1990s over a crime bill. (False.) In tweets and campaign speeches, Trump asserted Biden was part of the Obama administration effort to spy on him during the 2016 campaign. (False.) The entire so-called “Spygate” controversy—a disinformation effort developed to distract from Trump’s complicity in the Russia scandal—fizzled. The Trump campaign even courted a massive source of bizarre disinformation: the nutty QAnon conspiracy movement, which claims Trump is battling a global cabal of deep-state pedophiles and Satan-worshipers.
Trump, too, has repeatedly spread much disinformation about voting and about the horrific coronavirus pandemic. In fact, one study found Trump was the biggest driver of COVID-19 misinformation online. He has pushed false information about the danger of the virus, the value of mask-wearing, the efficacy of questionable treatments, the importance of testing, the availability of a vaccine, and much more. This past week he claimed COVID-19 deaths were “WAY DOWN” and that doctors pocket more money if they report COVID deaths—two outrageous lies. His voting and COVID untruths, of course, are designed to serve his own political interests: to undermine an election that might cast him out of office and to spare him accountability for a pandemic response that has resulted in the deaths of over 230,000 Americans.
In 2016, Trump needed the secret Russian disinformation campaign to help him reach the White House. He now seems to require a multi-level disinformation campaign to retain power. After all, without this flood of falsehoods, what narrative is Trump left with? An incumbent president who presided over widespread death and economic calamity in a national emergency he mishandled is up against a moderate, well-known, and competent long-time government official. He has had to wage a rampant disinformation effort to undermine this basic context of the race. The public won’t know if any of Trump’s propaganda ops have worked until the final results are in, but his systematic assaults on the truth have not produced an obvious game-changer.
In the 2020 presidential contest, Trump’s reliance on deception has been in full public view—and has even been called out on occasion by media outlets and social media platforms. After decades of Trump depending on disinformation for many of his successes, this election will determine if he has lost the power to exploit fabrications and has finally encountered a moment of truth.