Disgraced, twice-impeached former President Donald Trump has a well-earned reputation for not just lying, but repeating outlandish, easily disproved untruths. For example, his assertion that his inauguration drew the largest crowd ever (it didn’t), or that millions of illegal votes caused his popular vote loss.
Like many, I’ve often wondered where Trump gets this from? Does he make it up as he goes along? Does he actually believe what he says?
The recent release of handwritten notes taken by an aide memorializing Trump’s conversations with acting attorney-general Jeffrey Rosen inadvertently answer some of these questions. After Rosen and his aide told Trump that his claims about voter fraud were false, Trump responded: “You guys may not be following the Internet the way I do.”
And there we have it. Instead of relying on conventional notions of what constitutes an authority to resolve a dispute (e.g., the many judges who reviewed Trump’s and his lawyers claims and rejected them, often incredulously), Trump goes to “the Internet” and finds that voter fraud claims are in fact “true.”
Recent studies in how easily we fall for fake news help explain Trump’s reliance on “the Internet” to validate his claims. It’s not so much a matter of confirmation bias (Trump is likely to believe something that fits with his previous beliefs) as bad reasoning and bad reading. If you scroll through quickly and don’t think hard about what you are reading you are likelier to believe such outlandish claims as Hillary Clinton runs a pedophile ring from the basement of a pizza parlor.
Trump, infamously, does not read. Not one-page memos, not the daily intelligence reports, not anything. His aides resorted to pictures to convey information, and appeals to Trump’s vanity. Reuters reported in 2017 that “National Security Council officials have strategically included Trump’s name in ‘as many paragraphs as we can because he keeps reading if he’s mentioned,’ according to one source, who relayed conversations he had with NSC officials.”
So you can imagine how a website asserting that Trump had the election stolen from him would capture Trump’s attention. Unlike a legal judgment, or a nuanced intelligence report, Trump could grasp the content in a second. His name appears every few lines, and best of all, the site says what Trump wants to hear. No wonder Trump “follows the Internet” as closely as he does.
But the problem isn’t that Trump is a-literate and can’t distinguish between a reliable and an unreliable source. It’s that millions of Americans can’t do the same. As recently as May, 2021, a Reuters/Ipsos poll revealed that a quarter of this country still believes that Donald Trump is the true president. Given that the population of the United States is roughly 328.2 million people, that means that about 82 million people are as deluded as Donald Trump.
How is this possible? Because most Americans, it seems, do not get their news from reading print, television, or radio, but from a digital device. The Internet, in other words. And the Internet discourages deep reading and encourages skimming. The Internet encourages exactly what leads Donald Trump, and millions of others, to believe conspiracy theories.
So the real lesson from the story about Trump pressuring the Justice Department to do his bidding isn’t so much how close we came to tyranny—there’s ample evidence already for that—it’s how the Internet has corrupted our ability to reason and distinguish fact from fiction. The Internet is responsible for what I like to call the “stupidification” of America.
How do we prevent another Donald Trump from taking power? How do we recover our ability to reason and call bullsh*t on fake news?
Pick up a book.
Peter C. Herman is professor of English literature at San Diego State University. He has published on Shakespeare, Milton and the literature of terrorism, and has published essays in Salon, Inside Higher Ed, as well as Times of San Diego. His most recent book is “Unspeakable: Literature and Terrorism from the Gunpowder Plot to 9/11” (Routledge, 2020).