Even that old KGB hand Vladimir Putin has cause to admire Trump’s achievement. Until Trump, no American politician had ever imagined running a fire-hose-of-falsehood campaign against the American public, much less had figured out how to do it. Trump saw the possibilities and capitalized on them. He opened the disinformation spigot on the first day of his presidency, with a blatant lie about the size of his inauguration crowd, and then spewed falsehoods at a rate that defied fact-checking—in October, more than 50 falsehoods a day.
But even that flood paled in comparison with the postelection tsunami. Trump spread disinformation through social media, conventional conservative media, the presidential bully pulpit, Republican partisans, and even the courts. Having weaponized lawsuits for advantage in his business career, he grasped how to use court filings as a disinformation channel, winning attention for his lies even if he lost the cases. He succeeded in getting politicians, media outlets, and millions of ordinary people to repeat and amplify his claims; no matter if the claims were absurd or mutually contradictory, as long as they spread. In American politics, so audacious and cynical a disinformation campaign is a radical innovation.
Yet it worked. Trump convinced a solid majority of Republicans that Biden did not rightfully win the election; just as worrisome, he convinced many other Americans that the true outcome of the election was in doubt, because, after all, where there is so much smoke, there must be fire. His success will induce other politicians to use similar methods. Trump’s development of an American model for mass disinformation may prove to be his most important and pernicious legacy.
That is a pretty remarkable list of accomplishments, even if it does not include stealing the election. But the benefits accrue to Trump, not the Republican Party.