Trumpists live in an alternate reality — but they believe in it, and that's terrifying

Older white conservatives are barraged with intense propaganda. It has shaped their world, and it's killing America

By Chauncey DeVega

Senior Writer

Published August 27, 2021 9:03AM (EDT)

Donald Trump watching Fox News (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Fox News)
Donald Trump watching Fox News (Photo illustration by Salon/Getty Images/Fox News)

I had not seen my mother for two years, for reasons we all understand too well. Several weeks ago, I was finally able to journey home.

It was wonderful to see my mother again. Blessed are those who can experience unconditional love, even if for only a few days. As I sat in that old, crooked, comfortable lounge chair in the den I noticed all the friendly "ghosts," those memories that populate a home.

I was sure I saw the ghosts of our two dogs who passed away almost 10 years ago. I am even more sure I heard one of them bark in the middle of night. He always protected my mother. I'm sure he still is.

A home also consists of the objects that accumulate there. As I always do when I come back home, I hunted through the closets. I found a picture of my father, then 19 or 20-years-old, wearing his World War II U.S. Army service uniform.  

His Colt M1911 service pistol rests in a box nearby along with some ammunition. My father rarely talked about the war. But if prompted he would humbly brag that he was lethal with that pistol, an "A-plus" as he would explain it. Once I asked him to watch "Saving Private Ryan" with me. A few minutes into the film he said, "I saw stuff like this in person" and that there was no purpose in him watching it on TV. My father stood up and walked out of the room. I didn't bring up the war again. 

I am not sure if we have truly forgotten those things which we "find" in our childhood homes. It seems more likely that our minds "forget" so that we can have the joy of rediscovering those objects again.

After 40 years, my father's employer "advised" him to "retire." I told my father that he would be dead in a year from loneliness and boredom and that he should fight to keep his job. Better to die at work while feeling useful than lying in a hospital bed. Almost 80 at the time, my father was tired and convinced himself that "retirement" was a good thing. But I was right: He did not last a year after being forced out of his job.

One day, shortly after that "retirement", my father was in the kitchen having an enthusiastic conversation with someone on the phone. I thought it was his best friend. I watched until he acknowledged me. "Who was that?" I asked. He said it was a telemarketer and told me they are nice people who have interesting things to say. I realized my father had become one of those older folks who are so lonely they make friends with the telemarketers. I walked into the den, sat down in that old lounge chair and went to sleep.

There are many such people who instead of being "nice" are selling pain, anger, misery, rage, hate and fear to the lonely among us. These voices also promise "solutions," offering a life of meaning through feelings of community, loyalty and "patriotism".

I receive dozens of email newsletters and updates every day from right-wing news sources, political action committees, interest groups, think tanks and other parts of the right-wing propaganda machine. I seek out these sources and always make sure to subscribe.

In my public warnings about the Age of Trump and America's descent into fascism, I have often been far ahead of the hope-peddlers, stenographers and professional centrists of the mainstream news media. But I am no Cassandra or otherwise possess any preternatural gifts. I simply pay close attention to what the Jim Crow Republicans, Trumpists and other neofascists say and do — and I take them at their word.

As a black working-class person in America I do not have the privilege and luxury that many white folks do — especially those with money — of pretending that everything is going to magically be fine, that "the institutions are strong," that the "norms" of democracy will hold, or that "we are a good people." I know for certain that the Trumpists and other neofascists are not "exaggerating" or engaging in "hyperbole" in their threats to create a new American apartheid.

To deny reality and embrace such fictions is an example of a particular type of white freedom. On this James Baldwin wrote, "People who shut their eyes to reality simply invite their own destruction and anyone who insists on remaining in a state of innocence long after that innocence is dead turns himself into a monster."  

What have I "learned" from reading right-wing propaganda emails and other missives in recent weeks and months?

I have learned Joe Biden should be impeached because he is a traitor and perhaps mentally incompetent. Biden and Kamala Harris hate America and are responsible for every "crisis" from Afghanistan to "the border" and the overall downfall of American society. "Critical race theory" is the equivalent of the Taliban. "Liberals," Democrats and other "America-haters" should be dealt with by "patriots." 

Donald Trump is perfect and a great leader. America is perfect and divine and should never be criticized.

Trump had a plan to defeat the Taliban, but Biden, the Democrats and the liberal media stabbed our military in the back.

Evil socialists are everywhere. They are plotting and scheming against America and our freedom.

I have also learned, of course, that Democrats and their allies stole the 2020 election from Donald Trump. Black Lives Matter and antifa are terrorists working to destroy the country. Trump's followers who attacked the Capitol were originally said not to exist at all, but are now described as noble patriots being unjustly incarcerated as political prisoners.

There are also great schools I can enroll in online that will teach me the true history and facts of America and the Constitution from a patriotic perspective.

Through these emails I now know that there are Black conservatives who are not on the Democratic Party's "plantation." They love America and are smart enough to know that the Republican Party represents Abraham Lincoln while the Democrats are the party of the Ku Klux Klan and slavery.

COVID-19 is not really a danger to the country or the world — yet somehow Donald Trump also helped create vaccines to defeat the disease.

Donald Trump loves his followers and has issued membership cards that they should carry to prove their loyalty to him. Trump also needs true American patriots to give him their money to defend the country. 

In total, the right-wing echo chamber is a powerful reality-altering propaganda lying-machine for those who choose to live in it. It constitutes a lifeworld, existing in a state of epistemic closure where facts and reality are rejected in favor of lies and myths.

In this most recent iteration, the right-wing echo chamber is now TrumpWorld, revolving around its high priest and cult leader. Its doctrines include fascism, authoritarianism, white supremacy, Christian nationalism, ignorance, misogyny, a veneration of violence and other antisocial beliefs and values.

Liberals, progressives, Democrats and other rational thinkers must accept one crucial reality if they are to save America's democracy (and themselves): Those who live in the right-wing echo chamber really do believe what they are being told. Those beliefs are now extensions of their core identities.

On the question of such society-wide collective madness, psychologist Erich Fromm warned in his 1955 book "The Sane Society": "Just as there is a folie à deux there is a folie à millions — the fact that millions of people share the same mental pathology does not make these people sane."

In a new essay for Mother Jones, Kevin Drum explores the extreme political polarization in America and the role played by Trump's Republican Party and the right-wing hate media in creating it. He points first of all at Fox News:

And as anyone who's watched Fox knows, its fundamental message is rage at what liberals are doing to our country. Over the years the specific message has changed with the times — from terrorism to open borders to Benghazi to Christian cake bakers to critical race theory — but it's always about what liberal politicians are doing to cripple America, usually with a large dose of thinly veiled racism to give it emotional heft. ...

Drum observes that the "Fox effect" is real, and that "rage toward Democrats means more votes for Republicans":

As far back as 2007 researchers learned that the mere presence of Fox News on a cable system increased Republican vote share by nearly 1 percent. A more recent study estimates that a minuscule 150 seconds per week of watching Fox News can increase the Republican vote share. In a study of real-life impact, researchers found that this means the mere existence of Fox News on a cable system induced somewhere between 3 and 8 percent of non-Republicans to vote for the Republican Party in the 2000 presidential election.

The Fox pipeline is pretty simple. Fox News stokes a constant sense of outrage among its base of viewers, largely by highlighting narratives of white resentment and threats to Christianity. This in turn forces Republican politicians to follow suit. It's a positive feedback loop that has no obvious braking system, and it's already radicalized the conservative base so much that most Republicans literally believe that elections are being stolen and democracy is all but dead if they don't take extreme action.

Drum observes that "this is not an exciting conclusion" and that it may sound "more interesting to go after something new, like social media or lunatic conspiracy theories." But Fox News is the No. 1 perpetrator in stoking discord, division and far-right ideology. 

Tens of millions of Americans are now lost to the right-wing cult. As repeatedly shown throughout the Age of Trump and beyond many of those people are willing to kill or die for a man who in fact despises them. (That is only one of the important facts they do not understand, but a highly salient one.) In that way, Trumpism is a license for a particular type of white rage, directed toward nonwhite people in particular and the other more generally.

Trumpism and other forms of fascism are not abstractions of political theory and philosophy. In practice, they are a force that lives through, by and against actual human beings. As I navigate and document the right-wing echo chamber (and the larger political madhouse of which it is a part), I repeatedly return to the human costs.

In a 2018 interview with Salon, Jen Senko, director of the documentary "The Brainwashing of My Dad" discussed this with me in a conversation that merits extensive quotation. My comment is in bold. We discussed the fact that in Fox News programming, everything is presented as "breaking news" or some kind of "alert."

This is exciting for older people and it can actually become addictive. Young people are watching Fox News too of course, but it really is targeted at older people. Just think about it. You are an older person, you don't have that much of a social life and you're at home. Fox News provides excitement. It provides a purpose. Fox News viewers are on a team. They feel special. There's like an in-group. Fox News is also like a cult because it's exclusive and the other side isn't just wrong, they're evil. That's what they have going for them.

After making the documentary you have likely had many people reach out to you. They see their relatives acting like your father.

Every day I get emails from people who want to help their parents or grandparents and other relatives. It is really heartbreaking. People reach out to me after watching my documentary, because for them it was like watching their own family. Most people are relieved that they're not alone. They tell me, "Now I understand why they're so angry." Now these people who have relatives addicted to Fox News know that they don't have the problem, they are not crazy. It's like when you're sick and you have a diagnosis and it makes you feel better. The same applies here.

An acquaintance told me about how when Obama first got in office she went to her uncle and aunt's house on Thanksgiving. She thought she could talk about the economy, because obviously Obama had just gotten in and he couldn't have had anything to do with the state of the economy at that point. Her uncle got so mad. He said, "Don't you talk about that man in my house. Get out!" She said, "No. I'm not leaving." He goes upstairs, gets a pistol, comes down, points it at her. She's scared to death. He lowers the gun and then shoots the floor.

Donald Trump's followers are no longer content with shooting the floor. 

Law enforcement and other experts have warned that the United States is likely to experience a violent right-wing insurgency that could last for years. The FBI and Department of Homeland Security have warned that white supremacists are now a greater threat to the U.S. than Islamic terrorists.

There will be blood. There has already been much blood spilled.

American democracy is facing an existential threat, as seen on Jan. 6, in Trump's extended coup attempt and in the nationwide campaign by Republicans and the larger white right to restrict the voting rights of Black and brown people. Almost none of this is happening in secret. It is announced and loudly promoted almost every second of every day across the right-wing propaganda echo chamber. You can look away, but you do so at your own peril.

By Chauncey DeVega

Chauncey DeVega is a senior politics writer for Salon. His essays can also be found at He also hosts a weekly podcast, The Chauncey DeVega Show. Chauncey can be followed on Twitter and Facebook.

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