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Protest, Violence, and the Distortion of Truth in Trump’s America

As demonstrations continue in cities across the country, the president uses Twitter to divide its citizens

AP Images/Ringer illustration

Last week—it seems like a long time ago now—Twitter finally decided to do something about its most dangerous user, who happens to be the president of the United States. On Tuesday, the social networking service added a fact-checking link to one of Donald Trump’s tweets criticizing mail-in voting, which it said violated its rules concerning voter suppression. On Friday, it added a warning to another of his tweets, in which he appeared to threaten to order the military to open fire on people who had broken into stores during the ongoing protests against police brutality in Minneapolis. “When the looting starts, the shooting starts,” Trump wrote, deploying a phrase used by Southern police chiefs and politicians in the 1960s, including segregationist presidential candidate George Wallace. Twitter said this second tweet violated its rules concerning the glorification of violence. Trump, as he often does when accused of using racist dog-whistle language, claimed he’d been misunderstood.

The most surprising thing about Twitter’s intervention in Trump’s account was, arguably, not the intervention itself; it was the timing. To say that requires us to overlook the basic how-did-we-get-here shock of seeing a social media company driven to classify the sitting American president as a problem user, but that surprise hinges only on the violation of political norms, a type of breach so familiar these days as to seem almost quaint. The timing was surprising because Trump has been exploiting Twitter to spread lies and glorify violence for years, without previously facing even the sort of theatrical and lukewarm consequences Twitter was now trying to impose. Since long before he became president, Trump has used social media to erect a furious, self-indulgent alternate reality, a world both consoling to his ego and jagged with his resentments, a mutable world whose constructive narratives are able to be changed at his whim.

A book published this week, Donald Trump and His Assault on Truth, compiled by the fact-checking staff at The Washington Post, offers a window into the tens of thousands of lies that hold up this alternate reality, where the president is spending more and more of his time. In 2017, according to the database kept by the Post’s team, Trump lied or otherwise misrepresented facts an average of six times per day. By 2019, that number had risen to 22. A large percentage of those distortions occurred via Twitter, and a large percentage of those distorted tweets either contained violent messaging or were proximate to tweets that did. Lies about national-security threats, like Trump’s repeated false claim that the Iran deal signed by President Obama gave Tehran $150 billion to fund terrorism, support fantasies of military violence, such as Trump’s threat to bomb Iranian cultural sites, a war crime. Lies about immigrants, like his repeated false claim that terrorists are flooding into the country through the southern border, are used to support pledges to unleash ICE violence on vulnerable communities, like his June 2019 promise to round up “millions” of undocumented immigrants—pledges that often, whether through legal enforcement or through violent actors inspired by the president’s messaging, make their way from his fantasies into the real world.

None of this, of course, is even remotely secret; that aggression and deceit are the essence of Trump’s Twitter feed is acknowledged even by many of the president’s supporters. Those same elements underlay Trump’s response to Twitter’s actions against his account, as he signed a legally tenuous executive order stripping social media companies of some legal protections. But now these were the very elements—aggression and deceit, violence and untruth—that Twitter was apparently promising, or at least gesturing toward the idea of promising, to keep in check.

Violence, truth, and the power to define each were also major themes in the protests that continued over the weekend and into this week. Beginning in Minneapolis in response to the unprovoked killing of George Floyd, an unarmed, 46-year-old black man, by Derek Chauvin, a white police officer, the demonstrations quickly spread across the country. Thousands of protestors turned out to express deep anger and sorrow over the widespread mistreatment of black people by law enforcement. And you know what happened after that. Militarized police departments around the nation turned out with overwhelming force to suppress demonstrations against the force used by the police. Some people at the protests clashed with law enforcement, smashed windows, burned buildings, and stole from stores. Our television screens and social media feeds filled up with images of city blocks in flames. People in homemade cloth masks—used to block the spread of the coronavirus—stood against armed officers in face shields. Police fired rubber bullets into crowds, arrested journalists, tear-gassed citizens, and drove vehicles into massed groups of demonstrators. Chauvin was charged with third-degree murder; the three officers with him during the killing have not been arrested or charged. And on social media, a furious battle raged, often fueled by Trump’s own tweets, over the nature of what we were witnessing. What was the real source of the violence breaking out in our midst, and who was responsible for it? What were the facts, and who was entitled to say what they meant?

The idea, and the ideal, of truth have always been vital to the vision of reform articulated by American civil rights movements. The identification and recognition of what is actually happening is the necessary first step in achieving change. In a country where it is simply far more convenient for white Americans not to identify and not to recognize the reality it has imposed on the rest—where to identify and recognize that reality would throw cherished cultural narratives into question and challenge the legitimacy of existing structures of power—any attempt to bring about change is attended by a hideous difficulty. The difficulty is hideous in part because of its magnitude and in part because of what it reveals about human nature: that your fellow citizens would, for the most part, rather lie to themselves, would rather drug themselves with easy fictions, than acknowledge the reality that confronts you every day.

When Martin Luther King Jr. said that “a riot is the language of the unheard”—to take a quote that was widely shared this weekend—he was talking about the truth: who is oblivious to it and how they can be made aware. When James Baldwin said that “whatever white people do not know about Negroes reveals, precisely and inexorably, what they do not know about themselves,” he was talking about the truth: what has been erased from the consciousness of the powerful in order to justify the historical maintenance of their power. Baldwin again, from the same essay, “Down at the Cross—Letter From a Region in My Mind,” which appeared in The Fire Next Time: “The person who distrusts himself has no touchstone for reality—for this touchstone can be only oneself. Such a person interposes between himself and reality nothing less than a labyrinth of attitudes.” I sometimes think Baldwin’s role, for many people, as the essential critic of this moment has to do with the frank strength of his connection to his own touchstone of reality, at a time when so many of us seem lost within that “labyrinth of attitudes.”

In this sense, the impulse behind the protests that followed the killing of George Floyd can be understood as the opposite of the impulse animating Trump’s Twitter feed. One is trying to force a reckoning with reality: the reality that black people and white people are policed differently in this country, that police are trained to protect whites while often operating as something like an occupying military force within minority communities. The other is trying to escape such a reckoning in a kind of superheated dreamscape of conspiracy theories, aggressionist chest-pounding, redirection of blame, and sheer, relentless noise. Look at us, the protestors were saying; what is happening to us is real. Look away, Trump’s dark fictions are forever saying; isn’t it nicer, isn’t it easier, to be told you’re the good guy, you’re the victim, you’re the last true defender of virtue, just as you’ve always known you were in your heart?

For several years now, analysts of social media have wondered whether the medium should be understood as a tool of liberation or as one of control. After the Arab Spring which lasted from 2010 to 2012, Twitter seemed capable of overthrowing autocracies; a few years later, after the explosion of Macedonian fake news farms, after Russian election meddling, after Trump, social media seemed more oriented toward enabling them. Probably the question itself is impossibly broad. Social media incorporates billions of people, and anything that involves so much human activity can’t help but bring about a wide and tangled range of consequences. Still, as millions of people watched the protests play out online on Friday and Saturday and Sunday nights, it was hard not to think about the systems organizing their experience, and to wonder whether tendencies latent in the systems themselves might not be shaping their understanding of it.

At first, it seemed that the terms of that understanding were about what you would expect. America is a country divided by a common history; even a shared set of facts will always be subjected to wildly different interpretations, some of which may barely seem to relate to the facts themselves. The further right you looked on the political spectrum, the more likely you were to see the protests described as riots, the protestors described as violent thugs (Trump used this word for them in his “when the looting starts, the shooting starts” tweet), looting described as a grave crime, and the police urged to defend property. The further left you went, the more likely you were to see tweets noting that the police had instigated much of the violence, and arguing that property is trivial compared to human life.

Then, at some point on Saturday, Twitter feeds started to fill up with claims that what looked like violence on the demonstrators’ side was really the work of outside agitators—people who had infiltrated the protest movement in order to sow chaos for their own purposes. Outside agitators—another concept with roots in the civil rights era—are commonly invoked to discredit the legitimacy of protest movements by assigning their actions to nefarious conspirators, rather than viewing them as expressions of internal dissent. But what was striking about the narratives that now began to emerge was how many different types of outside agitators there seemed to be, how varied their motives were, and how little direct evidence there was to support any of the claims that were being widely made about them. A chunk of liberal Twitter instantly adjusted to a world in which all the looting had been carried out by covert white supremacists. A good chunk of conservative Twitter knew in its bones that the culprits were antifa activists. A mild moral panic formed around an online subculture of men in aloha shirts who wanted to provoke a second Civil War. These weren’t entirely baseless claims—people on the ground at the protests reported destructive acts being carried out by groups of suspiciously organized young white people. But they were accepted, repeated, and shared to a degree of specificity utterly out of keeping with anything that was concretely known. A gloss of easy fiction appeared over the tragic reality that the protests had been trying to expose: I now had the option of choosing to believe that whatever made me uncomfortable had been carried out by forces aligned with my enemies, that it was all a kind of cryptic puppet show that my own worldview had a unique power to decode.

Politicians took up the narrative. The governor of Minnesota and the mayor of Minneapolis stated, without much obvious evidence, that the protests were the work of outside forces, white supremacists or, perhaps, even drug cartels. Trump blamed antifa, which he said he would designate as a terrorist organization, something he does not have the power to do. A gap of liquid uncertainty, a familiar feature of crises in the Trump era, opened around not only the meaning of events but the question of what the events were. And that gap was capable of being filled by anything: vanity as well as patience, preference as well as a commitment to the truth.

The urgency of these demonstrations, and the importance of standing against police brutality, are absolutely clear, whatever the discourse is doing at their edges. But the dismal irony of Twitter beginning to police Trump’s feed is that Twitter, in some essential way, is Trump’s feed. It’s a cacophony whose cluttered, brief, contradictory, and frequently cynical marketplace of narratives makes it almost singularly unsuited to serve the facts of any case. (I say “almost” because, of course, Facebook is worse.) Social media has done so much good during these protests. It’s helped funnel money to organizations that can make good use of it; it’s helped spread messages that ought to be heard. But I worry that it’s always working to erode our touchstones of reality—that it’s working, as the president and his supporters surely want, to raise the walls of our labyrinth of attitudes.