By Grace Rozembajgier (’23)
2,343 times. From his 2016 election to his last political rally before the 2021 Capitol storming, that is how many times President Trump has publicly used the term “fake news” (1). From laying claim to the phrase when directly telling a reporter “you’re fake news,” to blaming the media preceding the Capitol riot, the term “fake news” was a trademark of the Trump presidency (2). As a result, the threat of “fake news” persuaded the large group of Trump supporters to accept conspiracy theories supported by the term. Exactly what role did the phrase “fake news” play in creating political distrust? By examining both public statements made by Trump and scholarship discussing the political rhetoric of “fake news,” this paper argues that, through divisive and accusatory rhetoric, the consistency of Trumpian attacks on “fake news” during his presidency created a common enemy. This enemy aided the spread of conspiracy theories regarding the 2016 and 2020 elections and Covid-19 and fueled a paranoid outlook on the current political landscape. While these theories certainly spur partisan skepticism, perhaps even more dangerously, Trump increased public distrust in the media through his public endorsement of his battle against “fake news,” thereby authoring a conspiracy theory against professional journalism.
This paper draws upon several scholarly sources to fully comprehend the effects of the term “fake news” on society today. First, When Words Trump Politics: Resisting a Hostile Regime of Language establishes “fake news” as a form of propaganda, as employment of the term by Trump “spread[s] disinformation and sow[s] ignorance, division, doubt, and fear” (3). Through the power of the presidential office, his once unconventional tweets became legitimate, and his breed of “fake news” was domesticated as mainstream dialogue. This evolution allowed his tweets to “authenticate fringe conspiracy theories” (3). Hodges compares what American historian Richard Hofstadter deemed the “paranoid style” of American politics and how Trump characterized corporate news as “fake news” by examining how the Trump administration denied climate change. The Trump paranoid style of attacking mainstream media “destroy[ed] confidence in science as a tool for guiding thoughtful responses to issues like climate change,” or in the context of this paper, the coronavirus pandemic (3).
Scholar Daniel Hellinger also draws on Hofstadter and the paranoid style in Conspiracies and Conspiracy Theories in the Age of Trump. While he agrees that conspiracy theories spread by Trump follow the “paranoid style,” he clarifies that this did not “single-handedly restore” its presence in American politics (4). Instead, claims of “fake news” allowed conspiracy culture to grow in a way that attacked positive elements of political discourse, such as freedom of the press. This, Hellinger argues, is dangerous to American democracy.
A study conducted by Cambridge professor Sander van der Linden – “You are Fake News: Political Bias in Perceptions of Fake News” – concluded that conservatives are the most likely political party to associate the mainstream media with “fake news.” This trait increased distrust in the media and belief in conspiracy theories (5). This study, therefore, supports Hellinger’s argument of the “fake news” culture disrupting American democracy, as it is proven to circulate distrust in the press. As the study displays, “liberals associated ‘fake news’ more with politics,…whereas conservatives associated the term more with media,” mainstream media, to be exact (5). While both parties recognize the significance of the term, their difference in associations conveys the root of their distrust.
Professional journalists strive to ensure truth by including accurate attributions to sources, fact-checking, and timely corrections. For example, the ethical guidelines of the Associated Press demand journalists “abhor inaccuracies, carelessness, bias or distortions” through not knowingly distributing false information, identifying all sources possible, and avoiding conflicts of interest (6). The New York Times follows similar standards, requiring direct, unedited quotations; prefers original reporting that verifies instead of retells stories; and corrects all errors, “large and small” (7). Scholarly critiques of the “corporate voice” and broad influence of mainstream media argue that financial barriers to the mass-media market exclude alternative narratives from entering the discussion. In an argument echoing the early fears of Alexis de Tocqueville – that the free press would invoke a “tyranny of majority” (8) – scholar James Lull discusses the mainstream media with Antonio Gramsci and his theory of cultural hegemony. As the “dominant” voice, the “‘spontaneous’ consent given by the great masses,” or acceptance of the mainstream media narrative as truth, generates a sometimes “undetected” hegemony (Lull 40). When Trump cried “fake news,” he effectively called attention to the hegemony of mainstream media, acting perhaps as a Gramscian “organic intellectual” (9).
This interpretation is valid, and one should not ignore mainstream media biases; however, this paper studies how these labels can be harmful when a “dominant” position of power (such as the President of the United States) attacks scientific information. This paper focuses on the conspiracy theories of the “rigged” 2016 and 2020 presidential elections and the downplaying of the coronavirus to convey how “fake news” was divisive for American democracy.
What exactly does the term “fake news” mean? Deemed the 2017 word of the year by Collins Dictionary, the formal definition of the term is, “false, often sensational, information disseminated under the guise of news” (3). Although Trump claims he “came up with the term” (10), Hillary Clinton employed it first. In December 2016, Clinton addressed “the epidemic of malicious fake news and false propaganda that flooded social media over the past year,” possibly referring to “Pizzagate,” an early form of the QAnon conspiracy theory (11). Two days later, on December 10, 2016, Trump made his first public remark regarding “fake news” in a tweet: “Reports by @CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue – FAKE NEWS!” (12). While these early “fake news” statements seemingly follow the dictionary definition, the 2016 election and Trump’s Twitter page radically changed the term’s public perception, changing it from an adjective describing untrustworthy information to a noun characterizing Trump’s rampage against professional media outlets. In other words, “the term fake news has evolved into an ideological term of art used to discredit any perceived criticism of Trumpian demagoguery” (3).
The term’s divisiveness first arose at a press conference in New York on January 11, 2017, when Trump famously said: “You are fake news” to a CNN reporter (2). “Fake news” gained momentum with the allegations that Trump had worked with Russia to win the 2016 election. Trump then commenced repeatedly stating the “fake news” was the “enemy of the people.” In a tweet on February 17, 2017, Trump not only specified whom he deemed “fake news” – the “failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN” – but also specified they were “not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Later in his presidential term, Trump also characterized “fake news” as the “LameStream Media,” and the “Radical Left Wing Media” (13) to appeal to his followers who distrusted both mainstream media and feared the rise of the “radical left” (5). Trump’s crafty characterizations of “fake news” were an expansion upon his first attack of “you’re fake news.” By identifying the “fake news” with his political enemies, Trump tactfully evolved the term to fit his needs and to build upon his political platform.
Trump’s “fake news” media was inherently biased against his chances of electoral victory, an element contributing to partisan polarization. From his attack on the media’s coverage of the 2016 election Russian interference to his steadfast claims that the media ignored the “fact” that the 2020 election was “rigged,” Trump’s “fake news” was centered around his political insecurities. There is ample acknowledgment that the 2020 “stolen” election claim is, in fact, a conspiracy theory of Trump’s own making; Democratic claims of Russia meddling in the 2016 election can also fall under the conspiracy theory umbrella. This duality means Trump’s statements of “fake news” both effectively attacked and supported election conspiracy theories, corresponding to his respective victory or loss. Hellinger brings light to this phenomenon by explaining “the alleged collusion [of Trump with Russia in 2016] should be considered a conspiracy theory, but one that (rightly) is not considered emblematic of the paranoid style” (4). Hellinger categorizes the Russian Interference theory as “highly plausible” because Mueller’s 2018 indictment had “detailed information that warrants a high degree of credibility.” He specifies Mueller’s indictment does not validate other theories circulated by the Democratic party, specifically those directly connecting Russian tampering to Trump’s victory or claims of Trump engaging in collusion (4). Instead, it merely investigated Russian Interference without aiming to indict Trump himself (14). Because of this, the Russian Interference theory does not fit Hofstadter’s paranoid style, as it focuses on one singular event, rather than a “‘gigantic’ conspiracy as the motive force in historical events” (15).
On the other hand, the 2020 Stolen Election theory can be viewed as following the paranoid style of conspiracy. While both the Russian Interference and the 2020 Stolen Election theories embody a partisan “us versus them” mentality, the 2020 Election theory pits the Democratic party as part of a larger sinister political plot, and it exemplifies the need for “complete victory” (15). However, Trump’s consistent aggression against the Russian Interference theory with the help of his “fake news” does follow the paranoid style. For instance, Trump continued to publicly attack Hillary Clinton after he served in the Office of the President, tweeting, “The greatest influence over our election was the Fake News Media “screaming” for Crooked Hillary Clinton” and:
now that collusion with Russia is proving to be a total hoax and the only collusion is with Hillary Clinton and the FBI/Russia, the Fake News Media (Mainstream) and this phony new book are hitting out at every new front imaginable. (16)
Trump’s post-victory attacks on Clinton, paired with his common enemy of the mainstream media, indicate the polarizing nature of his “fake news” rhetoric, one which effectively encapsulates the paranoid pessimism of conspiratorial thinking.
Trump further followed the classic paranoid style by denouncing any negative feedback as “fake news,” as predominantly conveyed through his discrediting of polls. In a tweet from February 6, 2017, Trump wrote, “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election” (17). This attack against negative polls was a common theme throughout the Trump presidency. Trump blamed the “fake news” for fake polling data a total of 132 times in public remarks. The polling process is by no means perfect and can often reflect biases. However, this dismissal of a well-established political science practice corresponds with Hofstadter’s paranoid style. Trump refused to enter discourse with any who doubted him. Instead, by labeling certain polls as “fake news” he embodied “the quality of a defensive act which shuts off his receptive apparatus and protects him from having to attend to disturbing considerations that do not fortify his ideas” (15). The “fake news” label worked as an active agent in Trump’s transmission of his conspiracy against the media.
When examining the progression of Trump’s “fake news” political statements, 2018 marks a political turn, as Trump began to campaign for the 2020 presidential election. One significant change was from a negative to a positive usage; on the campaign trail, often at rallies, he would state how the “fake news” had lied to the people about his accomplishments as president. While still used in an accusatory tone, the term “fake news” was now applied with a positive spin for his supporters. Upon examination of all Trump’s public statements, both in person and digitally, it can be observed how he weaponized the term “fake news” for his political rallies to garner support from possible voters, creating a common enemy. Trump claimed the “fake news” would not have believed it if his campaign said he would create “3.4 million new jobs since Election Day,” mocked “the tears from the fake news media when it was obvious we were going to win,” and how the “fake news” incorrectly assumed he “wouldn’t do well with women.” As these rallies effectively brought to life “the enemy of the people,” it comes to no surprise the term “fake news” was often met with passionate boos from the audience.
Trump’s reelection campaign also coincided with Robert Mueller’s formal conclusion there was insufficient evidence to accuse the Trump campaign of collusion with Russia during the 2016 election. This sparked Trump’s insinuation the Russian Interference theory was a conspiracy against him, tweeting the theory was a “GIANT AND ILLEGAL HOAX, developed long before the election…an excuse…as to why Crooked Hillary Clinton lost…Someday the Fake News Media will…report that Donald J. Trump was actually a GREAT Candidate!” The idea that the theory attacks Trump is not the issue; however, the baseless claim that it was “developed long before the election” once again plays to Hofstadter’s paranoid style (18). Just as Trump’s timely application of the term “fake news” amassed support from his followers, it also created the perfect storm for his supporters to believe conspiracies.
Trump’s eventual 2020 election loss instigated perhaps his most pernicious conspiracy, as it resulted in the storming of the Capitol on January 6, 2021. His perceived battle with the “fake news” played a key role in this incident, as he blamed President Joe Biden’s “false” victory on the media. On November 15, 2020, he infamously refused to concede the election and made history as the first president to do so. In a tweet, he stated, “He [Biden] only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!,” clearly emphasizing supposed collusion between the Biden campaign and the mainstream media. He claimed the “fake news” was an actor in the “rigged election.” He continued this assertion through his tweets and accused “Big Tech” of shared responsibility: “Big Tech and the Fake News Media have partnered to Suppress. Freedom of the Press is gone, a thing of the past. That’s why they refuse to report the real facts and figures of the 2020 Election” (19). This comment marked a significant shift in Trump’s war against “fake news,” as, paradoxically, his attack against the free press became branded as a noble crusade to protect freedom of the press. Through this tactical twist, Trump’s conspiracy against professional journalism became even more pressing, as he equated the “fake news” with eliminating treasured American freedom.
Additionally, the development of his attacks to include “Big Tech” mobilized suspicion against corporations. Up to his very last day in office, Trump continued to employ the term “fake news” to promote his own political goals. In one of his final public statements, Trump pointedly assigned the blame for his loss on “fake news,” stating,
All of us here today do not want to see our election victory stolen by emboldened radical-left Democrats, which is what they’re doing, and stolen by the fake news media….We will never give up. We will never concede. It doesn’t happen. (20)
His supporters later took Trump’s words to heart and stormed the Capitol. Trump’s statement and inclusion of “fake news” should not be taken lightly. When comparing this statement to his earlier tweet refusing concession, it is clear his argument evolved from him “conceding nothing” to all of his supporters “conceding nothing.” With these words, the common enemy of the “fake news” not only united Trump supporters but inspired their treasonous action. As Van der Linden’s 2020 study indicates, associating the media with “fake news” correlates with an increased belief in conspiracy theories (5). In the case of January 6, this association leaped belief and led to conspiratorial inspired action. Trump’s rhetoric – “never,” “stolen,” and “it doesn’t happen” – invokes the apocalyptic view of Hofstadter’s paranoid style, masterfully conveying the necessity of immediate action and the prolongation of believing the cause (15). The “us versus them” mentality along with the “fake news” as the enemy proves a threat to the longevity of professional journalism’s public reception, a pillar of democracy whose fall would have detrimental effects.
Throughout the latter half of his 2020 presidential campaign, the rise of Covid-19 affected Trump’s attack on “fake news.” In his first public statement mentioning both Covid-19 and “fake news,” Trump tweeted on February 26, 2020, “Low Ratings Fake News MSDNC (Comcast) & @CNN are doing everything possible to make the Caronavirus [sic] look as bad as possible.” Aside from his misspelling of “coronavirus,” this tweet reveals how Trump initially pitted the media against American Covid-19 efforts, characterizing media outlets such as CNN as ones with malicious intent. Much like his strategy in political rallies, Trump continued to blame “fake news” and the Democratic party for downplaying American success, as he stated, “Great credit being given for our Coronavirus response, except in the Fake News. They are a disgrace to America!”; “…We marshaled every power at America’s disposal to defeat the virus and through Operation Warp Speed, which was something that was very successful that the fake news doesn’t like writing about” (21); and “You will never hear this on the Fake News concerning the China Virus, but by comparison to most other countries, who are suffering greatly, we are doing very well” (22). Along with continuing to use racist terminology (“China Virus”) regarding Covid-19 – another example of creating an “us versus them” mentality – Trump’s references here to “fake news” further established his claim that it was the “enemy of the people.” By doing so, he characterized the media as unpatriotic and unsupportive of American Covid-19 relief efforts. In effect, Trump politicized and nationalized a health crisis in a paranoid fashion.
In addition to downplaying the pandemic’s severity, Trump also inspired, with references to “fake news,” disbelief in Covid-19 vaccinations. A telling statement on September 10, 2020, declared, “Before the end of the year, we will have a safe and effective vaccine and we will defeat the China virus….And with it or without it, we’re rounding the turn…but the fake news doesn’t like saying that” (23). By associating vaccines with “fake news” falsehoods, Trump encouraged the dangerous conspiracy against Covid-19 prevention and treatment.
Research has found “fake news” to harm public health. A recent publication in Health Promotion Perspectives, an international journal, associates Trump’s “fake news” label with the anti-vaxxer movement and encouraging anti-Covid-19 vaccine protests. With his influential position as President, Trump “negatively impacted the population” through an “infodemic” of “fake news” jargon (24). Ultimately, while “fake news” was a politically charged term aimed to demonize Trump’s contenders, his continued manipulation of it throughout the Covid-19 pandemic expanded its harmful impacts to affect not just partisan politics but the health of all Americans, as well.
As a response, some scholars have suggested the criminalization of spreading medical, fake news. Deemed one of the “greatest threats to public health” in 2019 by the WHO, a 2021 publication in the European journal Medicine, Health Care and Philosophy proposes “whoever publicly disseminates information evidently discrepant with medical knowledge is subject to a penalty” (25). While this aims to combat fake news, it is different from Trump’s attack on the “fake news” media – he was a politically driven effort that, when matched with the pandemic, motivated partisan conspiracies about Covid-19. The article attributes Trump to spreading fake news, indicating his hypothetical guilt in the proposed crime (25). It is important to regard this proposal seriously as it is indicative of how the conspiracies associated with “fake news” present a danger to the global community when it comes to health.
As Trump’s “fake news” attacked the political science of polling, his dismissal of Covid-19 legitimacy weakened the scientific medical practice for some Americans. Specifically, by referencing Covid-19 “fake news” in a defensive, paranoid manner, Trump simultaneously strengthened the belief in Covid-19 conspiracies. Trump’s continual barrage against the media contributed to a conspiracy against them, as any agency who reported Trump’s “fake news” about vaccines or the U.S. Covid-19 response became “fake news” itself.
Through weaponizing the term “fake news,” Trump manifested a cultural paranoia and a massive distrust in the media. Not only did this fear prove to be a danger to democracy but a threat to the health of society, as well. Now out of the office and banned from his Twitter account, Trump no longer holds the public spotlight. Regardless, while he might not have radically changed or created a political precedent of the paranoid style, Trump surely enhanced partisan polarization by attacking a democratic device designed to be truthfully unbiased. In essence, Trump’s trumpeting of “fake news” initiated a conspiracy against the media that shakes the stabilization the press gives the United States.
Grace Rozembajgier is an American Studies and Business Economics major with Constitutional Studies minor at the University of Notre Dame. Her essay was for Professor Perin Gürel’s American Studies course ‘American Conspiracies.’
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- @realDonaldTrump. “Well, now that collusion with Russia is proving to be a total hoax and the only collusion is with Hillary Clinton and the FBI/Russia, the Fake News Media (Mainstream) and this phony new book are hitting out at every new front imaginable. They should try winning an election. Sad!” Twitter, 5 Jan. 2018, 4:32 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#mainstream.
- @realDonaldTrump. “Any negative polls are fake news, just like the CNN, ABC, NBC polls in the election. Sorry, people want border security and extreme vetting.” Twitter, 6 Feb. 2017, 2:01 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#negative%2Bpolls%2Bare%2Bfake%2Bnews.
- @realDonaldTrump. “…It is all a GIANT AND ILLEGAL HOAX, developed long before the election itself, but used as an excuse by the Democrats as to why Crooked Hillary Clinton lost the Election! Someday the Fake News Media will turn honest & report that Donald J. Trump was actually a GREAT Candidate!” Twitter, 8 Feb. 2019, 3:59 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#giant%2Band%2Billegal%2Bhoax.
- @realDonalTrump. “Big Tech and the Fake News Media have partnered to Suppress. Freedom of the Press is gone, a thing of the past. That’s why they refuse to report the real facts and figures of the 2020 Election or even, where’s Hunter!” Twitter, 27 Nov. 2020, 5:45 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#big%2Btech%2Band%2Bfake%2Bnews.
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- @realDonaldTrump. “Biggest crowd EVER, according to Arena people. Thousands outside trying to get in. Place was packed! Radical Left Dems & their Partner, LameStream Media, saying Arena empty. Check out pictures. Fake News. The Enemy of the People!” Twitter, 19 Aug. 2019, 7:11 p.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#fake%2Bnews.
- @realDonaldTrump. “Great credit being given for our Coronavirus response, except in the Fake News. They are a disgrace to America!” Twitter, 11 May 2020, 5:45 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#disgrace%2Bto%2Bamerica.
- @realDonaldTrump. “He only won in the eyes of the FAKE NEWS MEDIA. I concede NOTHING! We have a long way to go. This was a RIGGED ELECTION!” Twitter, 15 Nov. 2020, 4:19 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#i%2Bconcede%2Bnothing.
- @realDonaldTrump. “The FAKE NEWS media (failing @nytimes, @NBCNews, @ABC, @CBS, @CNN) is not my enemy, it is the enemy of the American People!” Twitter, 17 Feb. 2017, 11:48 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#enemy%2Bof%2Bthe%2Bamerican%2Bpeople.
- @realDonaldTrump. “The greatest influence over our election was the Fake News Media “screaming” for Crooked Hillary Clinton. Next, she was a bad candidate!” Twitter, 9 Sept. 2017, 3:26 a.m., https://factba.se/trump/search#fake%2Bnews.
Grace Rozembajgier is an American Studies and Business Economics major with Constitutional Studies minor at the University of Notre Dame. Her essay was for Professor Perin Gurel’s American Studies course ‘American Conspiracies.’