Early Wednesday morning, President Trump retweeted three videos from the Twitter account of Jayda Fransen, deputy leader of Britain First, a far-right and ultranationalist political movement in the United Kingdom. Britain First is openly anti-Islam and anti-immigrant, and Fransen herself was convicted of “religiously aggravated harassment” after accosting a woman wearing a hijab in 2016. The videos purport to show Muslim violence, though the first has already been debunked—the attacker was neither Muslim nor a migrant—and the others are at least several years old and depict people who may or may not be Muslims.
As always with President Trump’s outbursts, especially on Twitter, it’s tempting to treat this as a distraction from a more serious concern. But presidential rhetoric matters, and presidential statements have real force in the world. When Trump attacks the press as “fake news,” for example, he empowers everyone who seeks to undermine the truth. Likewise, when he elevates right-wing extremists, he gives fuel and recognition to their cause. Indeed, his retweets of Fransen were serious enough to merit public rebuke from the British government.
Despite the clear power of the president’s words, and the danger of spreading this kind of misinformation (not just to abstract notions of truth but to actual people), the White House is uninterested in disavowing the tweets. Instead, responding to CBS News’ Major Garrett, press secretary Sarah Huckabee Sanders defended the outburst: “Whether it’s a real video, the threat is real. His goal is to promote strong border security and strong national security.”
This open disregard for the truth—arguing that the accuracy of the material doesn’t matter as long as it serves the president’s interests—is an outright defense of propaganda. It also seems to justify a whole range of behavior from the president, up to and including his frequent lying. (Reports in the New York Times and Washington Post this week said the president has recently denied his own appearance in the infamous Access Hollywood tape and has continued to doubt the veracity of President Obama’s birth certificate.)
The videos posted by Fransen, it should be said, don’t depict threats such as ISIS or al-Qaida. They are meant, explicitly, to portray Muslims as inherently violent and dangerous. In dismissing concern for the consequences of the president’s retweets, Sanders gives tacit endorsement to their premise. But then, this reflects President Trump’s rhetoric on Islam, going back to his campaign. “I think Islam hates us,” said Trump last year during an interview with CNN’s Anderson Cooper, pointing to “tremendous hatred” within the religion. He also called for a “total and complete shutdown” of all Muslim entry to the United States in 2015 “until our country’s representatives can figure out what is going on.” If you’re at all interested in why Trump retweeted Britain First, it’s because he shares the group’s basic view of Islam.
It’s random chance that the president’s tweets follow a failed sting by conservative provocateur James O’Keefe, but it is fitting nonetheless.
At first look, James O’Keefe’s failed attempt to discredit the Washington Post is simply sad. On Monday, the Post revealed that a would-be agent provocateur from O’Keefe’s Project Veritas—a conservative “investigative” organization that has been criticized for its dishonest methods—had falsely portrayed herself as a victim of Alabama Republican Senate candidate Roy Moore in an effort to plant a false story, discredit the newspaper as unscrupulous, and exonerate Moore in the process.
This backfired. In keeping with its standards, the Post investigated the claim and found it lacking. O’Keefe’s plan—making a false accusation of sexual assault in order to discredit the very real claims of Moore’s accusers—failed. But far from showing contrition, O’Keefe used this failure to fundraise, appealing to a credulous audience primed to see him as a crusader for truth.
His work at Project Veritas shows just the opposite. O’Keefe is a propagandist who seeks to obliterate the distinction between truth and lies, and leverage that destruction to further his partisan and ideological goals.
If O’Keefe is an example of the propagandistic approach, then President Trump embodies it. And around him swirls a larger culture of dishonesty, of indifference the standards of truth and fair play that make political life work. Trump’s tweets and Sanders’ statement don’t just show bigotry and a tolerance for bigoted messages, they show a White House that seeks to assert power, in part, by denying that reality matters.