As we have seen over the last week of public impeachment hearings, the GOP's main argument against the witnesses, that they have no first-hand information of the events at the heart of the impeachment investigation, is hilariously weak. First of all, there is no need for first-hand information. This is common sense. If your friend says their brother is sick, you believe them. You do not say, “Are you sure? Did you see him sneeze?” If your financial planner tells you to sell a certain stock because a CEO got fired, you don’t ask the financial planner if they saw the firing take place. You just sell the stock. The point is that there is no need for first-hand information in order to secure the truth of what happened in the Ukraine scandal because that isn’t how the world works. But second of all -- accepting for the moment the false premise that first-hand information is required -- there are first-hand witnesses available, and the GOP is blocking them from coming forward. Gordon Sondland will testify soon, but he is far from the only first-hand witness available including the president himself. Rep. Peter Welch (D-Vt.) invited President Trump to testify on Wednesday, eliciting laughter from onlookers of the proceedings. “I say to my colleague, I’d be glad to have the person who started it all come in and testify. President Trump is welcome to take a seat right there,” Welch said.
The strange thing about observing Trump supporters spout these nonsensical claims is that they must be aware of how nonsensical the claims are. After all, this sort of twisted logic is not hard to recognize. Yet the GOP leadership continuously contradicts itself with every turn of their arguments. Consider their demand for the whistleblower to testify. As mentioned above, if they want only first-hand info, then they can lift the subpoena blockade and allow witnesses who do have first-hand info to come forward. That seems like common sense. But, if this is the case, if they indeed want only first-hand accounts, then bringing forward the whistleblower makes no sense since the whistleblower has no first-hand knowledge of the situation. So let’s put it this way: if Republicans want only first-hand info, then they have to explain why first-hand information matters when it comes to all of the witnesses except the whistleblower and everyone else in the world, because, again, the world runs on second-hand, third-hand, etc., information. But that logic is absurd, and it is hard to imagine that they cannot see it for what it is.
However, far from abandoning ship, the Trump establishment seems to be shoring up its foundations. The House GOP was purged of any wishy-washy Trump skeptics last year during the midterms, and now the Trump base is going through a similar purge. All of the people who might ever abandon the president will do so now, or go down with him. As the impeachment scandal breaks across the swing states and suburban America, rightwingers will be confronted with the logic above, as well as other such double-think moments, such as when Donald Trump Jr. criticizes Hunter Biden for nepotism. How each individual reacts when presented with this nonsense will be different. But at the end of this impeachment process, whoever has stuck by their golden god will never ever budge.
Slate reported recently that George Conway, a major Republican lawyer who has served in several administrations, routinely says that his wife, Kellyanne Conway is in a “cult.” It is an interesting observation on Conway’s part because the GOP messaging does appear very cult-ish. This tortured logic is a hallmark of abusive cults who work their followers into such a frenzy that they deny basic truths about the world and are prone to outlandish logic that asserts control over a population. When this sort of messaging appears in the public sphere at scale and is disseminated by a State apparatus, analysts often refer to it as propaganda. The purpose of propaganda is to force someone to deny their own powers to see the truth and act on it. It is a method of control that states use to solidify their power over their base. And yes, it's weirdly cultish.
The problem is that this sort of messaging works very well as a method of control over a population. In his 2016 book titled What Is Propaganda?, Yale professor of Philosophy Jason Stanley writes that “propaganda is characteristically part of the mechanism, by which people become deceived about how best to realize their goals, and hence deceived from seeing what is in their own best interests.” This is done by playing into a person’s emotions such that rational debate is sidelined or short-circuited, by promoting an insider/outsider dynamic that pollutes the broader conversation with negative stereotypes of out-of-favor groups, and by eroding community standards of “reasonableness” that depend on “norms of mutual respect and mutual accountability.”
This is clearly what the GOP leadership is up to: by saying that Trump is the most criticized president in history, that Democrats can’t even say one nice thing about him, that the impeachment is unfair and unjust, that any witness who criticizes Trump is a Never Trumper, and so on. Trump’s GOP is using emotions to destroy logic, creating an insider/outsider dynamic, and obliterating the norms of mutual respect and accountability that stable democracies rely on to function.
Democrats have only a slim majority of the country on board with the impeachment investigation, and around 35% of the country have already joined the Trump-for-life camp. That only leaves around 10% of the country who could be swayed one way or the other. With the GOP pumping out propaganda, there is a strong likelihood that 10% will end up not supporting impeachment. It’s too early to tell, though. According to a recent Reuters poll, 68% of the country is paying attention to the hearings: “Among those paying attention, 41% said the hearings had made them “more supportive” of impeaching Trump, while 25% said they had made them “less supportive.” That finding, combined with the overall lack of movement in public opinion regarding impeachment, suggests the hearings so far have mostly provided people with a rationale for their earlier support or opposition to impeachment.”
For now, the GOP propaganda during the impeachment hearings is successfully strengthening support in his base. It remains to be seen whether the middle will fall to the Democrats side or not, propaganda techniques like those we are seeing now are tried and true. Democrats will have to counter the messaging with facts and do it in a way that exposes the absurdity of the propaganda. That is the only way forward to secure an impeachment conviction in the Senate.