CU Boulder prof warned of violence fueled by Trump’s viral lies years ago
Carole McGranahan, professor of cultural anthropology at the University of Colorado Boulder, may not be a soothsayer, but just months into Donald J. Trump’s presidential term, she warned that his rhetoric, amplified by the social media platform Twitter, might result in not just division, but outright violence.
Trump’s well-documented penchant for lying, she argued, was creating “affiliative truths,” alternate realities around which people were building communities.
“The sociality of lies brings people together, but in so doing, distances others,” she wrote in “An anthropology of lying: Trump and the political sociality of moral outrage,” published in the May 2017 issue of American Ethnologist. “Afﬁliative truths need not always be violent. But when they mark others as fearsome, afﬁliation to groups can bring violence. Is this the future of Trump’s America? Will such lie-fueled violence become normalized?”
Fast forward to the burgeoning days of 2021. For more than two months, Trump has refused to acknowledge that he lost the Nov. 3 presidential election to Democrat Joe Biden and, he has continually stirred up supporters with claims—mostly on Twitter—that the election was “stolen.” His attorneys have filed more than 60 lawsuits protesting various aspects of the election; all but one conceding a minor point were summarily dismissed.
The sociality of lies brings people together, but in so doing, distances others."
And as Congress moved toward a Jan. 6 session to certify the election results, the president continually hammered away at the idea that his supporters should come to Washington, D.C. in a last-ditch effort to have him installed for a second term. In a live rally that day, Trump urged thousands of supporters to march on the capitol: “You'll never take back our country with weakness, you have to show strength.”
Just over an hour later, the president’s partisans overran police barriers and smashed through windows to occupy the U.S. Capitol building for the next four hours.
Some wore outlandish costumes or body paint, while others sported T-shirts proclaiming Jan. 6 as the start of a civil war or feature literal Nazi messages such as “6MWE”—for “six million weren’t enough,” referring to lives lost in the Holocaust. Others carried Confederate flags; one tore down a U.S. flag and replaced it with a Trump flag. Some destroyed equipment belonging to the Associated Press, while others vandalized and stole from congressional offices, or lounged mockingly at desks and rostrums, taking selfies.
“I can hardly believe what is happening at the Capitol right now and yet at the same time it is exactly what I've been writing about,” McGranahan wrote in an email. “Still, so unreal, distressing and frightening.”
Though McGranahan’s academic focus is contemporary Tibet, she has gotten attention in recent years for her examinations of the Trump phenomena, including his use of Twitter, through the lens of anthropology.
Her anthropological analysis of Trump’s rhetoric “explains why nothing seem(s) to matter for Trump’s supporters,” María Morato-Bermejo writes in a November 2020 piece in The Paris Globalist. “Through his political lies, McGranahan writes, Trump creates new realities and denies historical reality, and provides the narratives his base wants to hear.”
Twitter has been foundational to Trump’s ability to spread his lies far and wide.
“Twitter, more so than Facebook or any other platform, is responsible for amplifying Donald Trump’s voice,” McGrahanan says. “Twitter has bent over backwards to make it possible for Trump to say whatever he wants to say. … It has provided him a platform on which he can speak to the world, but also has continually found ways to say his tweets are ‘historic,’ and therefore protected.”
And much of what Trump has communicated via Twitter has been “dog whistles” in which he defines the “other” and often encourages his supporters to act on his behalf, she says.
“Twitter has become a key site for the conversion of Trump’s lies to social truths as well as to political action,” she wrote in “A Presidential Archive of Lies: Racism, Twitter, and a History of the Present,” published in 2019 by the International Journal of Communication. “If as ethnographic space, Twitter is a site of cultures in formation, then as public archive, Twitter is a site of history unfolding.”
Although she no longer uses Twitter, McGranahan doesn’t deny that it has many benefits. She used it primarily as a way to connect with professional colleagues.
But Twitter’s structure and algorithms make it particularly susceptible to “virality,” sending information rapidly around the world, accurate or not, dangerous or not.
“People like the fast-paced aspect, and being in the know. We see that now being replicated in the QAnon stuff”—the online-generated, ever-growing conspiracy theory claiming that Trump is secretly battling a world-wide cabal of Satan-worshiping baby eaters. “It gives people access to knowledge they feel other people don’t have, building a community around being one of ‘insiders,’” McGranahan says.
Although just 22 percent of American adults use Twitter, and just 42 percent of them use it daily—a total of less than 10 percent of the population—what happens on the platform often assumes an outsized role in media and politics.
“Twitter makes what is actually a small community, a small world, seem like the world,” McGranahan says.
Trump specializes in the ‘aspirational lie,’ dangling what he wants to be true out there as if it is true."
She says it’s no surprise that Trump has been an enthusiastic Twitter user, even before he announced his 2016 presidential run.
The platform appeals to “people without a strong sense of confidence who are looking for external validation,” she says. “Trump is a man of ego, and Twitter is all about how many people follow him, how many retweets he gets. He can audit his cult of personality through the numbers.”
Since 2016, Trump has transformed the way Twitter is used by politicians, and by extension, their followers. Where elected officials once used tweets for such mundane things as communicating their accomplishments or congratulating constituents, Trump has wielded it as a weapon to attack “the other” and create an insulated, adoring community.
“Trump’s Twitter feed narrates (a) story using language that speaks to his far-right base,” McGranahan writes. “It is a story of class and status. It is a story of resentment, frustration, outsider success, and a desire for change.”
And while many of those not in his thrall are appalled by Trump’s lies, divisiveness and incitement, his “lies and his relentless dismissal of facts make him seem authentic to his followers.”
Although McGranahan foresaw that Trump’s use of Twitter could result in something like Jan. 6, she saw something disturbingly different among Trump supporters who broke into and trashed the capitol.
“The hate, anger and resentment, that’s all language we’ve seen before,” she says. “But one thing I saw (on Jan. 6) was contempt, in a new way. Contempt for the system, for mainstream media, for anything that goes against what they believed and wanted to be true,” she says.
“Trump specializes in the ‘aspirational lie,’ dangling what he wants to be true out there as if it is true. It becomes an ‘affiliative truth’ around which community is created. That emboldens people. Now they have not just ‘the truth,’ but a group of people with whom they can act on it.”
Note: Three hours after the above conversation took place, Twitter permanently banned Donald Trump from using the platform.