Digital Foreign Editor
November 27, 2020 — 8.13am
November 27, 2020 — 8.13am
Reality appeared to hit US President Donald Trump this week when the General Services Administration gave approval for the transfer of presidential power to President-elect Joe Biden to begin. But don’t be fooled: reality will not be where Trump wages a long campaign against Biden.
The assault will be conducted in the realm of unreality, as Trump’s Twitter account shows. “Our case STRONGLY continues, we will keep up the good fight, and I believe we will prevail!” “RIGGED ELECTION!” “2020 is a long way from over.” Trump even participated by phone in hearings in the Pennsylvania state Senate on the issue of “massive voter fraud” on Thursday.
Supporters of President Donald Trump rallying for an unreal event: the theft of an election.Credit:AP
The disconnect with the facts on the ground recalls how Trump questioned then president Barack Obama’s citizenship during his terms in office. Now Trump is again trying to create something – the perception of a “stolen” election, charges of illegitimate power, Biden “voter fraud” claims – from nothing.
It appears to be effective, too. While a third of US voters believe Biden won because of voter fraud, 77 per cent of Republicans believe it’s the reason for his victory, according to a Monmouth University poll.
History will be clear that Biden won. But the problem for him isn’t history: it’s the present. And the risk today is that Biden chooses the same course that Obama did.
Because even though Trump’s claims are untrue, they will flourish online and in the minds of his supporters. The meaning of every event will be reverse-engineered through a polarised pro-Trump alternative-media ecosystem. This unreality is not simply lies but a skewed interpretation of reality that is completely immersive. It will prompt actions in real life: rallies, protests, motions in government, public statements and, possibly, violence.
In this way, Trump’s undermining of Biden parallels not just the Obama “birtherism” promoted by the former reality-TV star as far back as 2011, but another event: Operation Jade Helm.
In 2015, during the Obama administration, the US Defence Department conducted an eight-week joint military inter-agency exercise from Texas to California, including Arizona, New Mexico, Colorado and Utah.
For reasons still unclear, rumours began to spread on the internet that Operation Jade Helm 2015 wasn’t a routine military training exercise but something much more menacing: the Obama administration imposing martial law, testing plans to seize the guns of locals, and using “recently closed Walmart stores to stockpile supplies for Chinese troops who would be arriving to disarm Americans”.
As word spread, the Department of Defence pushed back with transparency, offering explanations, reassurances and clarity. The US government even published a map of the planned exercise, which was seized on as more evidence of a malign plot.
Local residents were alarmed enough that the Governor of Texas dispatched observers to a town where the military operation would pass through to ensure that US troops were following the law, and not, um, imposing martial law.
Obama later said Jade Helm was his “favourite” conspiracy theory – perhaps not realising that Jade Helm, like the other conspiracy theories aimed at his presidency, further corroded faith in him and the US political system.
Conspiracy theories’ primary function is “to promote a political or ideological agenda rather than to tell the truth”, University of Warwick Professor Quassim Cassam says. Trump’s strategy since the November 3 election backs that hypothesis.
Real supporters of President Donald Trump gather in Pennsylvania around a fake cause: the theft of the 2020 election. Credit:AP
Three years ago, The Atlantic published an article that underscores this. In 2016, the Twitter account for WikiLeaks (the same one we keep hearing about as an exemplar of media freedom) messaged Trump’s son, Donald jnr, with some advice about a potential election loss: “Hi Don if your father ‘loses’ we think it is much more interesting if he DOES NOT conceed [sic] and spends time CHALLENGING the media and other types of rigging that occurred — as he has implied that he might do. He is also much more likely to keep his base alive and energised this way … “
Whether Trump took this specific advice is unknown, but the message highlights the political dimension to election denialism.
The alternate reality promoted by Trump, his “Jade Helming” of the 2020 election result, will not fade away on its own. Rather, it will fester and intrude on real-world politics. The Biden administration should reckon with the issue now and pursue a strategy to shrink the unreality being brought to life before our eyes.
If not, this upside-down world cultivated by Trump will shape the terrain for Biden and, by extension, lawful democracies everywhere in the years ahead.
Trump Biden 2020
Understand the election result and its aftermath with expert analysis from US correspondent Matthew Knott. Sign up to The Sydney Morning Herald‘s newsletter here, The Age‘s here, Brisbane Times‘ here and WAtoday‘s here.
Chris is Digital Foreign Editor.