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Is There HOPE for TRUTH?
An interview with Anthony DiMaggio.
“Right-wing forces have convinced Americans that scientists and medical researchers and academics and journalists are all corrupt liars—people are actually proud to be ignorant now because people think that any person can roll up their sleeves, rely on their own intuition, rely on their own ‘common sense’, and solve the nation’s problems.”
“So the danger is that demographics are inevitably shifting in America and that the American right—which increasingly embraces extremism—is willing to cross all sorts of lines in order to win this losing battle. And that situation is an absolute powder keg.”
Our world is on fire in many ways, but one of these ways is actually good—Noam Chomsky said the following about DiMaggio’s 2020 book Rebellion in America:
The world is aflame with popular uprisings, not least the United States. This careful study of the variety of recent movements, of how movements gain public support and the pitfalls and barriers they face, provides a very valuable guide to those committed to changing the world—a critical necessity today.
The phrase “critical necessity” is a huge understatement—we should light the world on fire in a positive way as fast as possible before the negative fires consume us and our families and our hopes and our dreams.
I was honored and thrilled to interview DiMaggio—see below my interview with him that I edited for flow, organized by topic, and added hyperlinks to.
1) What are the most exciting projects that you’re currently working on?
I’m finishing up my book Fake News in America: Contested Meanings in an Era of Post-Truth that Cambridge University Press will publish in 2023. Fake News in America arose from my struggling to answer the simple question of what “fake news” even means—the book looks at the problem of fake news and finds that the concept is used in so many different ways that it seems impossible to come up with a unified definition.
It was a good time to write this book because I’ve been researching propaganda and disinformation and misinformation for a long time and the idea of fake news has recently become highly salient. The US academy has long been hostile to recognizing that US officials—and the US media—practice propaganda, so it seems more important than ever to discuss fake news in an informed way and link fake news to propaganda studies.
The concept of fake news has gotten a lot of attention since Trump took office—Trump didn’t actually invent the word, contrary to his claims.
The definition varies—for Trump it means everything and anything under the sun that he wants it to mean as long as the thing he’s complaining about is someone offering a criticism of him and his presidency.
For journalists it means failing to report the news accurately and factually—of course, the mainstream media has all sorts of major flaws, so journalists shouldn’t be at all sanctimonious on this front.
For the mass public there are many definitions, including false stories from false news outlets; false stories from reputable and serious news outlets; comedy programming that covers political issues; stories with an alleged liberal bias; conspiracy theories masquerading as news; tabloid junk stories of the National Enquirer variety; and stories that people think defer to government officials too much or fail to challenge official spin and official distortions.
So with that many definitions, you can see why it’s so hard to come up with a coherent definition!
I say in the book that fake news as a concept is here to stay, that the language has been woven into our political discourse, and that we should use the concept in more productive ways than simply pointing at stories we dislike and saying “Fake!”.
The book examines various case studies of fake news:
the ways in which powerful political and business actors seek to manipulate public opinion on issues from the Iraq War to climate change
Ultimately the book focuses on (1) how “fake news” is very much a contested concept that means different things to different people and (2) how we need to do better than simply using the word as a catch-all way to dismiss things we disagree with.
2) What are the most exciting projects that you know of that others are working on?
There’s good work coming out of American fascism studies right now—Jason Stanley has a good book about how fascist ideology has become mainstream in the US:
How Fascism Works (2018)
How Democracies Die (2018)
Paul Street just came out with a good book about fascism under Trump and beyond—the book goes into detail regarding academics’ denialism about the rising crisis of fascist politics in the US:
This Happened Here (2022)
And there are other interesting works on inequality, social movements, and other topics.
But to be honest, I’ve noticed that the academic works that mostly define US academia these days (A) elicit very little engagement from the general public and (B) don’t have much practical value. Higher education has such a horrifically bad incentive structure that there’s really almost zero value attached to public-facing work—scholars are taught that “success” means getting a really prestigious Ivy League publisher to publish a book even if the book will only be published in hardcover and nobody will actually read the book.
I recently wrote a piece for Salon, which is an outlet that gets 100s of 1000s of readers a day:
And recently a profile about my research appeared in the Daily Mail, which is an outlet that gets millions of readers a day:
But nobody in academia notices stuff that appears in Salon or the Daily Mail.
In sharp contrast, consider the book that we just talked about—Cambridge University Press will publish Fake News in America in hardcover next year, and the book will get a few citations over time, and the universities will think that that book is just spectacular.
College administrators celebrate books that get only a few dozen or a few hundred citations over time—my Google Scholar page shows that some of my newer books have a few dozen citations each and that some of my older books have over 100 citations each, and these books were my bread and butter for getting tenure at Lehigh University, and nobody at Lehigh challenged whether this sort of work was all that meaningful relative to my popular writing that reaches large numbers of people.
So it’s a deeply dysfunctional system that neuters academics; removes them from the real world; removes them from practical political engagement; and removes them from practical political questions.
And it’s hard to think it’s not by design, since college administrations have a history of trying to stifle critical intellectualism. There have been steadily increasing efforts over the last few decades to silence controversial and dissident voices in academia that might seek a public presence—we have so many examples where faculty engage in critical speech, the far right targets and harasses those faculty, and then university administrations don’t defend those faculty or fight back.
3) What books should people read to get up to speed on your work, and what are the main ideas in these books?
My work mostly analyzes US politics, the media, inequality, and rising social movements.
You can read my 2020 book for free:
Rebellion in America (2020)
The book looks at the last 10 years of US history and the fact that social movements have become increasingly popular in the US during this period—the book argues that social movements are central to driving democratic and progressive political change, but this isn’t a popular view among US political scientists, since US political scientists are completely out of touch with what’s going on in the real world and prefer to ignore social movements entirely.
My other recent books include:
The 2021 book looks at why Americans acknowledge—and don’t acknowledge—the inequality that we see in the US. I look at how the media and families and political parties socialize people to not care about inequality; how people’s level of affluence impacts their attitude toward the growing divide between the haves and have-nots; and how rising economic insecurity has caused Americans who struggle to become more and more concerned about inequality and more and more supportive of progressive economic policies.
And the 2022 book analyzes America’s denialist culture that irrationally assumes that right-wing extremism somehow can’t take over here because the US is some sort of exceptional democracy—I show that the dominant right-wing media are getting increasingly extreme and that the GOP is getting increasingly extreme, and I look at Trump’s base and the extent to which Trump’s base accepts Trump’s extremist values, and I argue that we need to develop a mass movement to combat this rising extremism before it’s too late.
There’s a risk that America will fall victim to a coup in the coming years—the GOP has a growing contempt for elections that don’t end “the right way”.
And the 2022 book also looks at the desperate and pathetic paralysis regarding the Democratic Party leadership—people like Hillary Clinton and Barack Obama and Madeleine Albright and Joe Biden pretty obviously recognize the threat, but these people are at the same time unwilling and unable to act because they’re hardcore exceptionalists who are in deep denial about how serious the threat really is.
4) How can we combat and defeat post-truth forces and create a society where truth isn’t a quaint concept?
Fake News in America ends with the point that we badly need better information literacy—falsehoods like Covid denial and election lies and climate denial are able to spread efficiently because 10s of millions of Americans lack basic information literacy and also because 55% of Americans can’t read at a sixth-grade level:
Right-wing forces have convinced Americans that scientists and medical researchers and academics and journalists are all corrupt liars—people are actually proud to be ignorant now because people think that any person can roll up their sleeves, rely on their own intuition, rely on their own “common sense”, and solve the nation’s problems.
We need K–12 and college courses that stress information literacy. And we need to make these courses a requirement for all students.
At the elementary and secondary and collegiate levels, we need to introduce students to the social sciences and to how the social sciences can be used to understand the world—this introduction usually doesn’t happen until college, and sometimes this introduction doesn’t even happen in college.
It’s no small task to promote information literacy—we need a mass movement that will:
push for education reform
roll back willful ignorance
stigmatize willful ignorance
roll back the phenomenon where people celebrate contempt for science
stigmatize the phenomenon where people celebrate contempt for science
We have to build this mass movement and achieve these things—if we don’t, we’ll continue to live in a nation where people construct their own “truths” in ways that often diverge very dramatically from reality.
5) What do you think about my 6 January 2022 piece “Quick Thoughts on Rationality”?
Your piece has a lot of really important points.
A big challenge is that you’ll hear the rhetoric of “fact” and “science” and “truth” from people who don’t understand what science is.
And you’ll also hear that rhetoric from people who have active contempt for science—people who manipulate science will gaslight their audience all the time, and the best example that I’m aware of is the famous interview where Kellyanne Conway referred to “alternative facts”:
Language like “alternative facts” is a dead giveaway that someone is operating in a post-truth framework—the person is using the language of “fact” and “science” and “truth”, but they’re evidently operating in a post-truth framework and evidently gaslighting their audience.
You discuss in the piece the problem where people will subject challenging information to extreme skepticism and will “swallow whole” agreeable information. Social scientists call this motivated reasoning—it’s a natural tendency, but the scientific method allows you to fight this natural tendency and study the world in a way that “bakes in” the possibility that your hypothesis is wrong and the possibility that a different hypothesis will be correct instead.
Many people are deeply uncomfortable with the possibility that they might be wrong, since they think that being exposed as being wrong will somehow undermine their credibility.
But there’s nothing wrong with being wrong—everyone will get things wrong, and the way in which a person reacts to their own mistakes is highly informative about how much integrity that person actually has.
I think that you’re engaged in scientific thinking if you’re open to the possibility that you might be wrong. And the problem is that people are completely bubbled off from any empirical evidence that might run contrary to their viewpoints—we have to overcome this bubbled situation if we want to actually embrace science and actually embrace rigorous and evidence-based ways of thinking about the world.
6) What are the best ways to combat misinformation? Dr. Dan Wilson told me—in my 7 November 2021 piece “What’s the ACTUAL Science on Covid?”—that science communicators should specifically address misinformation and properly explain why misinformation is wrong. On the other hand, you can understand the worry that direct engagement might inadvertently spread misinformation.
You and Wilson raise some important points here.
I document in Fake News in America that mainstream professional reporting takes aim at disinformation and misinformation in a way that makes consumers of traditional news reporting much less likely to accept things like QAnon, birtherism, “Big Lie” election propaganda, Covid misinformation, and Covid conspiracy theories.
These falsehoods that I just mentioned reached a critical mass of attention long ago and have consistently broken through to mass consciousness due to social media and right-wing media.
I’m extremely reluctant about direct engagement with bad-faith disinformation actors—it’s important to actively confront these actors’ lies and distortions and propaganda, but journalists and universities need to be really careful about giving these actors mass platforms to make their claims, since you’re talking about actively making the population dumber when you platform people like that.
I think the way forward is through outright dismissing conspiracy theorists and bad-faith disinformation actors and also actively ridiculing these people. And this message of dismissal and ridicule can’t be aimed at the bad-faith disinformation actors themselves, but instead must be aimed at the public at large in order to turn the public at large against the ignorance and actual celebration of ignorance that increasingly dominate US political culture.
7) What’s the biggest myth about the 2016 election, and how did that myth get cemented into the political discussion?
It’s true that Trump’s grandiose “Big Lie” claims radically increased in frequency as the 2020 election approached, but Trump claimed way back in November 2016 that mass voter fraud had taken place and that he hadn’t actually lost the popular vote:
“Trump claims millions voted illegally in presidential poll” (28 November 2016)
So people should remember that the grandiose “Big Lie” claims started all the way back in November 2016—people often forget that fact.
There’s a really incredible myth that Donald Trump won the 2016 election thanks to a financially insecure working-class base that was mad as hell about being left behind in the era of neoliberal globalization:
“Donald Trump and the Myth of Economic Populism” (16 August 2016)
“White Supremacist America” (16 September 2016)
Rising Fascism in America (2022)
As far as I can tell, this myth largely comes from reporters and pundits accepting the GOP’s propaganda about how the GOP is the party that actually represents the working class—I have a 2021 piece that discusses the GOP’s propaganda on this front:
“Rise of the Right” (23 July 2021)
There’s almost nothing to this idea that Trump won thanks to support from working-class voters—as far as I know, the only evidence that supports this idea is the fact that in 2016 and in 2020 white people without a college education were more likely to vote for Trump.
Education alone doesn’t tell you someone’s class identification—sociologists have recognized for a long time that class also has to do with income, wealth, and occupation.
I discuss in Rising Fascism in America the evidence showing that white Americans without a college degree were actually more likely—at least in 2018—to earn over the national median income of $65,000.
And in that book I present a small mountain of evidence demonstrating that financially insecure Americans weren’t actually more likely to support Trump—I go through polling question after polling question and financial metric after financial metric, and I find that there’s absolutely no basis to this myth.
I found instead that reactionary sociocultural attitudes—and reactionary political attitudes—were associated with Trumpism. And that finding won’t surprise anybody who’s been paying attention to Trump’s rhetoric over the past half-decade—Trump’s rhetoric going back to the Obama years has primarily focused on various reactionary sociocultural positions.
Trump’s base is primarily interested in:
the alleged dangers of Muslims and Mexicans
denying that racial inequality is a real thing
various sexist attitudes
This shouldn’t be that controversial—many academics have pointed all of this out, so this isn’t just me saying this. But the media system has unfortunately shown little interest in academics’ research on this topic, so the public doesn’t know about this finding.
8) Why isn’t the 2020 paper “The Roots of Right-Wing Populism” correct that economic issues were important regarding the 2016 presidential election?
Like I said, I’ve accumulated a small mountain of data on this—Chapter 4 in my 2022 book discusses the evidence regarding Trump’s base and responds in detail to the 2020 paper that you cite:
Rising Fascism in America (2022)
I’ve spent the greater part of the last five years collecting and analyzing a massive amount of data on this issue. And based on my research, I can say with confidence that it’s not primarily about economics and that it’s instead primarily about reactionary cultural values.
Scholars who think that it’s primarily about economics should engage seriously and thoroughly with the data that I present in my 2022 book.
A lot of research shows that Trump did better than Clinton in poorer congressional districts. But districts don’t vote. And the evidence in my 2022 book shows that relatively affluent people in those poor congressional districts were more likely to support Trump.
Take a look at the data in this 2017 article:
I also have unpublished research that looks at white Americans who were making less than the national median income and living in areas where good-paying jobs were hard to find—I show that these people were more likely to support Trump than Clinton during the 2016 primaries, but I also show that these people were no more likely to support Trump than Clinton during the 2016 general election. And even regarding the 2016 primaries, it’s important to remember that these people were only 7% of the total US adult population.
In my 2021 piece “Rise of the Right”, I point out that the Democrats have lost working-class voters and that the GOP didn’t actually gain those voters:
If Sanders wants to learn more about pain on “Main Street” America, he should start by talking to people in the rustbelt and elsewhere that the Democratic Party has spent the last few decades demobilizing via its plutocratic policies, which resulted in millions of former supporters flocking from the party and migrating toward non-voting. This was the primary lesson of the 2016 election, with evidence from rustbelt states demonstrating that the Democratic Party lost 3.5 times more votes from 2012 to 2016, when looking at turnout for Clinton compared to Obama, than the Republican Party gained, comparing votes cast for Romney and Trump. As recent evidence has shown (see here and here), voting in economically depressed regions of the U.S. tends to favor Trump, not because the “white working class” gravitates toward Trump, but because relatively privileged people in these areas are more likely to vote Republican (as they always do). This outcome should shock no one, considering that affluent Americans are more likely to vote, translating into a serious advantage in favor of Trump in depressed areas, since economic depression is associated with depressed voter turnout among poorer Americans. These poorer Americans are more likely to identify with the Democratic Party, but are less likely to turn out to vote, and as a result, less likely to turn out in depressed regions.
But the issue is that her interesting work consists of interviews and observational research—you need national survey data in order to generalize to the whole population and look for connections on a national scale.
And once you look at the national survey data, you find little connection between financial insecurity and support for Trump—there aren’t any compelling data indicating that Trump supporters nationwide tend to be financially insecure.
And in fact, take a look at this interview where Hochschild herself says what I’ve been arguing the whole time:
So it’s not true that Trump supporters are desperate and suffering—this myth is very useful for GOP propaganda, but it’s not accurate.
10) What’s the biggest myth about the 2020 election, and how did that myth get cemented into the political discussion?
Regarding the 2020 election, the biggest myth is Trump’s “Big Lie” claim that there was mass mail-in voter fraud—Trump managed to convince his base that this fraud was systemic.
In Fake News in America, I look closely at recent polling and find that Americans who buy into Trump’s “Big Lie” election propaganda are very confident that their own in-person votes were counted properly in 2020. And this is actually an incredibly narcissistic and dangerous and authoritarian thing when you think about it: “The election worked fine when I voted and when people who vote like me voted, but there must have been fraud when those other people who don’t vote like me voted.”
Another part of the “Big Lie” election propaganda was bald-faced attacks on people of color. Trump and his supporters wanted to disenfranchise entire counties, and these counties had disproportionately large Black populations—for example, Trump and his supporters targeted Wayne County and Philadelphia County.
There’s a rising anxiety in the GOP that the GOP can’t win presidential elections anymore—the GOP has lost the popular vote in five of the last six presidential elections.
And there’s also a rising anxiety among the GOP’s base about becoming a minority “in their own country”—I’ve written about the finding that more than half of Republicans pretty openly embrace tropes and beliefs that are white supremacist or white nationalist even as these Republicans refuse to call themselves white supremacists or white nationalists:
“Rise of the Right” (23 July 2021)
I have another recent piece that makes the point that the GOP’s “increasingly fanatical reactionary white minority” base has become “more and more desperate to hold onto power in a country that’s steadily changing demographically”:
“Orwellian Hellscape v. Neoliberal Caretakers” (25 June 2021)
Here’s an excerpt from the piece:
For the Republican base, and as I’ve documented in previous writing, white identity politics became their primary political currency under Trump. The prospect of a white minority for the first time in U.S. history apparently scares the hell out of them. Especially as it becomes clearer that white Republicans can no longer win elections based on their numbers alone. This, of course, is a dangerous situation, since the party’s base is willing to rationalize all sorts of crazy authoritarian acts from their leaders that are geared toward stopping whites from being cast into permanent minority status. Like supporting a white nationalist President who promises to “Make America Great Again” by stomping out immigration, illegal and legal alike. Or who seeks to mainstream insane conspiracies about mass election theft, in the process working to overthrow republican government and impose a de facto one-party state.
So the danger is that demographics are inevitably shifting in America and that the American right—which increasingly embraces extremism—is willing to cross all sorts of lines in order to win this losing battle. And that situation is an absolute powder keg.
11) What do you think about my 14 January 2022 piece “Can We Heal America?”? The piece discusses dangerous tendencies in the GOP, right-wing grievances, and how to reach right-wingers.
I enjoyed the interview with Ornstein.
And I agree with Ornstein’s warnings in the interview—we’re at a crisis moment and a crossroads, and we need to decide as a nation which of these paths we want to take:
survive as a democratically functional republic
allow ourselves to fall into fascist dictatorship
allow our country to disintegrate due to polarization and violence
The final option isn’t hyperbole when 10s of millions of Americans are saying that they support the use of violence to achieve their political goals.
The Democrats have a great many flaws, but they aren’t fascists and they do respect elections and the rule of law, so there’s a huge difference between the Democrats and the GOP.
Ornstein has been sounding the alarm bell about rising right-wing extremism for many years now—his 2012 book got a fair amount of buzz in the early 2010s, but apparently it didn’t catch on enough.
Right-wing extremism is such a huge part of what’s happening in Western democracies, which increasingly are nominal democracies, so extremism studies should be a large subfield in my discipline and should be getting lots of attention and making lots of noise.
But instead political science has failed badly when it comes to studying and exposing right-wing extremism.
The right-wing noise machine stokes a ton of faux outrage, so scholars are afraid to speak out and get noticed—nobody wants to show up on right-wing media and then face death threats from the GOP base as a result, especially since the administration at your institution will throw you under the bus because the administrators are essentially politicians posing as academic professionals.
But the deeper issue is that most scholars are hardcore exceptionalists who deny that we’ve entered into a crisis and who deny that we face real threats regarding fascism and dictatorship.
We live in dangerous times—Ornstein is right to talk about how the GOP is increasingly intransigent and fanatical.
In a 2019 poll, 62% of Trump supporters said that there was nothing that Trump could do that would make them not support him, which is an incredible result to think about the implications of:
“Poll: 62 percent of Trump fans say they support him no matter what” (5 November 2019)
That’s the blind obedience of a cult, so it’s an accurate factual assessment to say that the GOP increasingly resembles a cult. And with this sort of cultism, his supporters will find a way to justify anything that he does, including things that go way beyond the violence that we’ve seen so far and including things that go way beyond the assault on our institutions that we’ve seen so far.