In the real world -- that is to say, the non-televised part of our lives remote from social media -- we would shun somebody who went around spreading ugly rumors about neighbors, relatives or co-workers. Not that it never happens. I have a friend who resigned from a local charity after a clique of rivals spread a false tale that she'd slipped into dementia, poor thing.
She decided that she wanted nothing more to do with them.
Alas, from the gossips' point of view, the smear campaign worked. Not that my friend isn't better off without them. More than anything, the pretense of compassion made her furious. In time, they'll probably turn against each another, because that's what such people do.
Indeed, something quite similar has been going on in the U.S. presidential campaign. With the help of Russia's infamous Internet Research Agency, based in St. Petersburg, the rumor's been spread that Democratic nominee Joe Biden, poor thing, scarcely knows his whereabouts, mistakes his wife for his sister, believes that he's running for the U.S. Senate and more.
For months, I've been getting emails from Trumpists claiming that Biden can't so much as speak in complete sentences or utter coherent thoughts at all. It's all over social media. Like my friend's phony consolers, some express empathy for poor Uncle Joe, cruelly tricked by ruthless Democrats into serving as a stalking horse for the so-called "Squad," four minority congresswomen with left-of-center views.
Smart and sassy as she is, it's amazing how much Rep. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez scares some Republicans.
Most of my correspondents appear to have been bamboozled by a doctored video making it appear that Biden, who has stuttered all his life due to a speech impediment having nothing to do with intellectual capacity, can scarcely speak. More recently, according to The Washington Post, White House social media director Dan Scavino shared a manipulated video that falsely showed Biden seeming to fall asleep during a television interview, complete with a fake TV headline.
In reality, a 2011 video of a confused interview with singer Harry Belafonte was intercut with a few seconds of Biden looking downward as he listened to another speaker at a 2020 town hall. Snoring sounds were added. The whole thing was entirely fictitious.
Readers may recall that, also with Russian help, Trump's 2016 campaign portrayed Hillary Clinton as virtually at death's door.
Boss Trump himself has been all over the Biden-as-dotard theme, taunting his rival as "Slow Joe," "Sleepy Joe" and the like, along with sneering remarks about him hiding in the basement, etc.
For those of us resident in the visible world, the most obvious question about such clumsy propaganda was: What would the Trumpists do/say after the Democratic convention, once Biden had spoken to millions on national TV and proved to be clear-spoken and damn near eloquent? As, indeed, he did during the Democrats' TV show and has continued to do in campaign appearances ever since.
Naive question. Trump turned on a dime, asserting that Biden was obviously hopped-up on some performance-enhancing drug. He demanded that drug tests be administered before the forthcoming candidate debates (always assuming that Trump himself shows up). Biden has ignored him, much as Clinton ignored the same demand in 2016.
It's all "kayfabe," a term of art for fictive storylines used to get professional wrestling fans worked up before pay-per-view grudge matches -- strictly part of the promotion. Also what Trump probably intended when he tweeted about "constant negative press covfefe" that time. As a veteran of WWE promotions, he knows all about it.
Meanwhile, it just may be significant that the Department of Homeland Security reportedly tried to hide a report documenting that the theme of Biden's impaired mental health came directly from the Kremlin. It cited numerous reports on Russian state media outlets Sputnik and RT (Russia Today) dating back to last September. DHS claimed it deep-sixed the document because it was "poorly written." Yeah, right.
The chicken-and-egg question of whether Putin or the Trump campaign invented the smear isn't worth pursuing. The purpose of such propaganda isn't to persuade; it's almost the opposite. If Trumpism, like its Russian cousin Putinism, has proved nothing else, it's that adepts believe whatever they need to believe.
Everybody else stays confused. Mere reality be damned. Indeed, the crazier the political conspiracy theory -- witness the QAnon superstition -- the more it excites some people. There's an element of psychological projection involved, too, because occasional verbal stumbles aside, it's not Biden who talks gibberish, gushes non sequiturs and contradicts himself daily.
In the final analysis, Kremlin-style propaganda doesn't have to make sense. Its ultimate goal isn't to establish what Trump aide Kellyanne Conway memorably called "alternative facts." It's to deny that there's a verifiable reality at all.
Because where there is no truth, there is only power.
Arkansas Times columnist Gene Lyons is a National Magazine Award winner and co-author of "The Hunting of the President" (St. Martin's Press, 2000). You can email Lyons at firstname.lastname@example.org
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