America Is Back—but for How Long?
Political Polarization and the End of U.S. Credibility
Psychological manipulation is an influence technique designed to change the behavior or beliefs of its target audiences through distraction, deception, and misrepresentation. One strikingly effective variant relies on the strategic deployment and exploitation of rumors, conspiracy theories, fake news, and other forms of what I call “extra-factual information”—a term that encompasses not only false or misleading information but also unverified statements and other sources of nonfactual knowledge, such as literature and “common sense”—in order to fan fears that have little or no basis in objective reality but ring viscerally true to target audiences.
U.S. President Donald Trump has shown himself to be a master practitioner of such manipulation, especially when it comes to the subject of immigration and refugee policy. Trump has systematically used distraction and the repetition of misleading information to conflate the real challenges of migration policy with false (albeit psychologically satisfying) ones, allowing him to normalize previously fringe solutions, including his well-known proposals to build a border wall with Mexico and bar Muslims’ entry to the United States. In doing so, Trump has transformed the tenor of mainstream political discourse, stymieing the ability of journalists, politicians, and members of the public to effectively debunk his claims and thereby fundamentally altering the political bargaining space.
Combating Trump’s skilled use of deception and extra-factual information will take more than fact-checking—although the narratives he pushes often contain lies, they are successful because they feel true to, and purport to address the real concerns of, many American voters. What those who seek to oppose Trump’s migration policies need is a compelling narrative of their own, one that takes voter concerns seriously, defining problems responsibly and offering comprehensible and attainable solutions. Unfortunately, whatever the shape and content of that narrative, the changes that Trump has brought to the United States’ public discourse and policy arena may prove more difficult to undo than they were to effect.
Although there are myriad long-standing methods of psychological manipulation, Trump has used four to great effect in order to shape public perceptions of migration, all of which involve the deployment of extra-factual information: distraction, threat conflation, normalization, and repetition.
The first of these methods, distraction, is designed to do just what its name implies: encourage audiences to divert their energies and resources away from topics the manipulator finds politically troubling and toward the cognitive equivalents of what former Republican primary candidate Carly Fiorina referred to as “bright, shiny objects”—divisive, often symbolic issues that monopolize attention and crowd out more nuanced and factual debates.
According to a June 1 article in The Washington Post, Trump averaged more than 6.5 false or misleading statements a day during his first 497 days in the White House. Not only does this dynamic drive journalists to devote time and column inches to fact-checking nonsense instead of focusing on consequential policy issues, it causes the resulting coverage to suggest uncertainty over settled facts where there should be none at all.
Although Trump has used this method on everything from diplomacy to climate change, his statements on migration have been particularly egregious. He has consistently misrepresented (or simply failed to understand) the diversity visa lottery that he wishes to abolish and repeatedly claimed that sections of border fence under construction along parts of the U.S.-Mexican border—local infrastructure projects in the works since the previous administration—are part of his long-promised border wall. One of his favorite tricks has been to accuse prominent Democrats, including Representative Nancy Pelosi and Senator Kamala Harris, of supporting the violent Salvadoran gang MS-13—an absurd contention that is nonetheless effective in drawing attention away from his harsh and controversial immigration enforcement policies.
Trump has also proved successful at transforming vague and inchoate sources of anxiety into proximate and existentially menacing, albeit unverifiable, threats to personal or national security, through a process that I call “threat conflation.” Threat conflation is an extreme manifestation of its better-known cousin, threat inflation, whereby a real but manageable potential threat is magnified into a crisis through exaggeration or the presentation of facts in the most alarming way possible. Threat conflation ups the ante—by using extra-factual information to blur the boundaries between widely shared sources of anxiety, enterprising actors can mobilize support for policies that fact-based appeals (even inflated ones) fail to muster. Threat conflation is a variation on another tried-and-true instrument of propaganda: create a problem and then offer a solution to it. This bait and switch simultaneously permits manipulators to achieve their preexisting policy objectives and to look like heroes for promising to vanquish ostensibly significant—but actually illusory—threats.
Examples of Trump using threat conflation to distort the migration debate are distressingly easy to identify. He has sought to leverage sometimes quite understandable anxieties about the effects and costs of irregular migration and mass refugee flows and then embroider, embellish, and twist the facts to suggest that these cross-border movements pose existential security threats to our country, when the preponderance of available evidence suggests otherwise.
Trump has proved successful at transforming vague and inchoate sources of anxiety into proximate and existentially menacing threats.
Most famously, Trump suggested in a June 2015 campaign speech that Mexico was sending “rapists” who brought “crime” and “drugs” into the United States. Despite extensive reporting to the contrary in recent years, nearly half of all Americans still believe immigration raises crime rates, although immigrants commit crimes at lower rates than the native-born population. Trump and his officials have also repeatedly warned that terrorists were infiltrating the United States through its refugee program, despite the fact that terrorist attacks by refugees are nearly nonexistent. This conflation of national security threats with refugee policy may also help explain why public support for the United States accepting refugees is dropping, especially among Republicans.
Conflation may also explain why, despite a significant uptick in recent years in reporting designed to correct the record on migration-related issues, 93 percent of Republicans, 78 percent of Independents, and 62 percent of Democrats still view “large numbers of immigrants and refugees coming into the United States” as a “critical” or “important” threat to the country. (Unsurprisingly, among core Trump supporters, these numbers are higher still.)
Threat conflation feeds directly into the third method of manipulation, which is the normalization of previously abnormal ideas. At any given time, there is a range of ideas and potential policies that a politician can recommend without being considered too extreme to gain public office. This range is referred to as an “Overton window” after Joseph Overton, the public relations executive who developed the concept. Ideas that fall outside the existing Overton window are usually rejected without much debate.
Yet Overton windows are not fixed—the range of acceptable ideas can be shifted over time. Publicly arguing for fringe ideas and policies can make other ideas—even those that would have been considered extreme relative to the status quo—appear moderate by comparison. By introducing conflated threats into policy discussions and deliberately promoting extreme solutions to them, Trump has made a variety of slightly less fringe ideas seem like acceptable compromises, thereby normalizing policy responses that were previously unmentionable.
In the realm of immigration and refugee policy, it is easy to identify examples of Trump shifting the Overton window such that policies that were recently considered unthinkable—and even laughable—are now mainstream. Trump’s initial desire to prevent Muslims from traveling to the United States helped make his later iterations of the travel ban, including the one recently upheld by the Supreme Court, seem moderate to many by comparison. His policy of separating the children of undocumented immigrants from their parents at the border, from which he has now retreated, paved the way for indefinite family detention. And Democrats have offered to provide funding for a very expensive border wall—one that is unlikely to make the United States safer or prevent unauthorized entries—in exchange for backing legislation to protect the so-called Dreamers.
The effects of this shift in the Overton window are unlikely to stop here. As my previous research has shown, intolerance and xenophobia often beget more of the same, which in turn tends to lead to a further tightening of immigration policy and a hardening of hearts and closing of borders to refugees. Such vicious cycles, moreover, are hardly limited to the migration sphere.
Trump’s final manipulation method, repetition, is arguably the most insidious. Repeated exposure to a piece of misinformation significantly increases the likelihood that people will, over time, come to believe it is true, even if they understood it to be dubious when they first encountered it. This is what is known as the “illusory truth effect.” When individuals assess veracity, they rely on two things: whether the information comports with their own prior understanding and whether it seems familiar. Unfortunately, familiarity can trump rationality, so hearing something repeatedly increases its perceived veracity.
In my research on unverified information in conflict zones, for instance, we found that having heard a rumor before made an individual between two and 8.5 times more likely to believe it. To make matters worse, the illusory effect is more powerful when people are tired or distracted by other information. So even among the most skeptical audiences, Trump’s thousands of speeches, campaign rallies, and tweets laded with extra-factual information—as well as all the media reporting on those claims, whether supportive or skeptical—are likely having some impact.
More specifically, as previously mentioned, The Washington Post counted more than 6.5 false or misleading statements a day, including “at least 122 claims that the president has repeated at least three times, some with breathtaking frequency,” many related to immigration. The New York Times reported that at a June 27 rally in Fargo, North Dakota, Trump repeated “numerous claims that [the Times]has previously debunked,” including that Democrats “want open borders and crime”; that Pelosi “wants to protect” MS-13; that his administration has deported “thousands” of MS-13 members; and that he has “already started” building a border wall.
The president has not paid much of a political price for this staggeringly large number of misrepresentations, at least so far. Although he is viewed favorably by only ten percent of Democrats, a recent poll shows 90 percent of Republicans giving Trump a favorable rating, and his approval rating among Independents has improved as well. Note, moreover, that this poll was taken after a public outcry had erupted over Trump’s family separation policy.
Although it is too hard to discern the precise role that repetition has played, what we know about the illusory truth effect suggests saying the same things over and over has likely convinced some voters that the United States is facing significant security threats along its southern border. It is suggestive, for instance, that according to recent polls 49 percent of the registered voters favored Trump’s decision to send National Guard troops to the U.S.-Mexican border (versus 42 percent opposed) and 41 percent said building a wall should be either a “top” or an “important” priority, versus only 38 percent who opposed the wall.
There is a lesson in all this for Trump’s opponents: having a good story to share is more powerful than simply having facts on your side. Those unhappy with the current state of affairs in the United States need a better story. That story doesn’t have to be untrue, but it needs to contain some of the same elements that make Trump’s true-feeling alternatives so compelling—namely, it must speak to audience concerns and fears, not simply dismiss them as false and unfounded. It needs to offer concrete and comprehensible solutions.
Most of all, a compelling alternative to Trump’s narrative should speak to Americans’ collective identity and emphasize that what Americans share—irrespective of political leaning, ethnic or racial background, or socioeconomic status—offers a better path forward than the prevailing tribalism and division that spawns fear and threatens U.S. values and institutions. Absent a more compelling and unifying narrative, we should anticipate more polarization, fear, and distrust of “others,” migrants and citizens alike. This is not an alternative fact but an inconvenient truth.