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Opinion >  Column

Shawn Vestal: Gianforte comments just a drop in Trump’s dizzying flood of misinformation

President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Minuteman Aviation Hangar, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in Missoula, Mont. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)
President Donald Trump speaks at a campaign rally at Minuteman Aviation Hangar, Thursday, Oct. 18, 2018, in Missoula, Mont. (Carolyn Kaster / AP)

I was standing about 60 feet from the president of the United States last week when he began boisterously celebrating the attack of a journalist by a Montana Republican congressman.

He smiled and laughed and mimicked a body-slam – praising the crime for which Greg Gianforte pleaded guilty, paid a fine and issued an apology, however sincere – and the crowd cheered lustily.

Like so many others, I found the comments ignorant, infuriating, and gallingly un-American, especially in light of the fact that the president now appears to be pretty cool with the murder of a Washington Post journalist who was likely dismembered in the Saudi Arabian consulate in Turkey.

But my experience at the Trump rally in Missoula last Thursday did not leave me feeling that the Gianforte remarks were a particularly new low in the lexicon of Trump bullying, given how low it has already sunk. Standing there, having listened to him speak for more than an hour, I absorbed the Gianforte comments as one thin stream in a massive flood of disinformation, conspiracy, insults, lies and boasting.

The stream was worth attention.

But so was the rest of the Missoula Flood.

Another stream was the manipulative, conspiratorial story of “the caravan,” and what it reveals about the Trump movement. His caravan tale – and the manner in which it was peddled to those prepared to believe it by distortion in right-wing echo chambers – drew on every tool in the propagandists’ playbook, from racist dog-whistling to conspiratorial insinuations to the demonization of political opponents to whispers, winks and nods.

The Gianforte comments were dumb and simple.

The caravan story was a masterpiece of sculpted manure.

You likely know that a caravan of thousands of migrants from Central American countries seeking asylum arrived at the Guatemalan border with Mexico last week. There are some serious problems with that caravan, and it’s something that officials in the countries along the route, as well as America, have to figure out how to deal with.

Trump’s response to this large group of asylum seekers has been to threaten to cut off aid to Honduras and Guatemala if they don’t somehow retrieve the migrants.

He also threatened to send in the military, and close the U.S.-Mexico border to prevent them from entering. (Something he seems not to have the authority to unilaterally do, but such factual quibbles feel truly preposterous when the flood is raging.)

So, it’s a crisis. A humanitarian crisis.

This is not, naturally, the way Trump and other anti-immigration extremists have painted it. A Florida Republican, Rep. Matt Gaetz, has peddled the unsupported claim that a video showing people in a line being handed money were members of the caravan being paid by some lefty. Trump has insisted that there are lots of criminals in this group, though that’s just his natural assumption about immigrants.

The lack of evidence doesn’t matter in the least. The caravan story has been distorted into a paranoid myth, an example of a plot against decent white MAGA-hatted Americans by all of its enemies: Democrats, refugees, people of color, the fake news, Maxine Waters…

The idea goes like this: Some liberal, probably George Soros, is paying a horde of bad Hondurans and El Salvadorans to pretend to be a horde of desperate asylum-seekers and flood into America before Election Day, where they will illegally vote for Democrats.

Manchurian voters.

Trump didn’t put it so clearly, of course. He didn’t have to. Speaking inside the bubble of shared misinformation, all he had to do was hint and insinuate.

It started with the general assessment of incoming waves of bad people, an article of faith: “You have some hardened, bad people coming in.”

It veered into boasting. Why are they coming? “Because I have created such an incredible economy, I have created so many jobs,” he said. “I have made this country with you so great that everybody wants to come in.”

And so, the caravan. But the caravan didn’t just form out of nothing.

“The one thing, they stick together, but they wanted that caravan and there are those that say that caravan didn’t just happen. It didn’t just happen,” he said.

Who is they? Democrats, obviously. Who says? Some people. What’s bringing this conspiratorial caravan here? Money, and probably the same money that was – as he claimed at another point – paying for the signs of protesters.

“But a lot of money has been passing to people to come up and try and get to the border by Election Day, because they think that’s a negative for us,” he said. “Number one, they’re being stopped. And number two, regardless, that’s our issue.”

He didn’t always make sense. But his meaning was clear.

This continual fictionalizing of world events to appeal to the worst instincts of the poorly informed – whether it’s on climate change or immigration or the Saudis’ explanation for the murder of Jamal Khashoggi – represents the insidious assault on factuality that is a hallmark of Trump politics. It is the destructive, manipulative approach of a cult leader, and it is one that is now employed broadly in our politics even by those with a smidgen more shame than Trump.

The way that Republicans like Rep. Cathy McMorris Rodgers have now recrafted the story of their attempts to erode health care coverage for people with pre-existing conditions is a cleaned-up, normalized version of the same ploy: A story told repeatedly, with the idea that repetition drowns facts.

Or, worse, with the idea that listeners simply won’t know or care about facts, or won’t be able to distinguish between fact and lies.

It’s being done deliberately, and it’s terrible for the country.

And it was, like the Gianforte disgrace, just one thin stream of water in the Great Missoula Flood.

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