I’ve been publicly debunking the “fine people” hoax since 2017. The press created the hoax by consistently and intentionally omitting the second half of President Trump’s comments about Charlottesville. If you only see or hear the first half of what the president said, it looks exactly like the president is calling neo-Nazis “fine people.” But in the second part of Trump’s comments, he clarified, “You had people in that group who were there to protest the taking down, of to them, a very, very important statue and the renaming of the park from Robert E. Lee to another name.”
In other words, the president believed there were non-racists in attendance who support keeping historical monuments. To remove all doubt, the President continued with “I’m not talking about the neo-Nazis and the white nationalists, because they should be condemned totally – but you had many people in that group other than neo-Nazis and white nationalists, okay?”
Keep in mind that it doesn’t matter if the President’s assumption about the attendees was accurate or not. He clearly stated his assumption that some people were there for the monument protest, which he contrasted to the racists who were there to march and chant racist stuff. The New York Times interviewed a member of the non-marchers who said they did not stand with the racists. They cared about guns and free speech. See for yourself, here and more background on that group here.
Last week I chatted at length with one of the Charlottesville protest attendees. He hates racism, loves free speech, and wasn’t “marching with” anyone. He reports that there was chaos from the start, with lots of people all over the venue doing lots of different things. And there was no way to know what all of the people in normal street clothes were thinking by attending. He was there because he figured it would be a diverse group, from Antifa to neo-Nazis, with plenty of normal non-racists in between. Bolstering his argument is his Jewish heritage. He didn’t think he was attending a neo-Nazi event. He learned that from the press.
How dumb is that guy, you might reasonably ask?
I asked him to explain how he could look at the flyer for the event and NOT know it was organized by racists. I pointed to the little Nazi-looking winged image on the flyer to make my point. He said it looked like an American eagle to him. And when I started to push back on that point, he sent me other images of American eagles that are evil and warlike. At that point, I remembered a central truth about the human experience: If a hundred people look at exactly the same thing at the same time, they will arrive at wildly different opinions of what they are seeing. If you show that racist flyer to a hundred Americans, most would not recognize the names of the speakers, and many would not realize the graphic design was suggestive of a racist association. The fact that you and I would definitely recognize it for what it was does not suggest others would do the same. As evidence that people interpret the same information differently, consider every political disagreement ever. Most of it involves people looking at the same information and drawing mind-bogglingly different conclusions about what it all means. I wrote about that phenomenon in my book Win Bigly.
I remind you again that it doesn’t matter whether or not President Trump was accurate in his assumption that some non-racists attended. He stated his assumption and then spoke to the assumption. Worst case, the New York Times got the “fine people” story wrong, and Trump also got a detail wrong about the composition of the crowd. There was no reporting on the exact composition of the crowd, then or later. No one did a survey of opinions. We only know of the groups that had the highest profiles.
In America, if there is a large political protest of any kind, the most reasonable assumption one could make is that it will attract a diverse crowd including nearly every kind of opinion on just about everything. If the President is wrong about the existence at that event of some non-racists who were pro-statue, this would be one of the few times in history that there were only two opinions at an event attended by hundreds.
My point is that Trump could have been right or wrong about who attended, but it doesn’t change the fact that his words clearly and unambiguously condemned the marching racists while excluding them from his “fine people” category.
But there is something far more interesting going on here than just a story of fake news and quotes taken out of context. This topic is like a laboratory for testing cognitive dissonance. Rarely do you see a strongly held belief, such as the “fine people” hoax, which can be so easily and unambiguously debunked. You only need to show the transcript and/or the video of Trump’s comments in their entirety. The case is made. Easy, right?
After a few years of trying to deprogram people from this hoax, I have discovered a fascinating similarity in how people’s brains respond to having their worldview annihilated in real time. I call it the “fine people” hoax funnel. When you present the debunking context to a believer in the hoax, they will NEVER say this: “Gee, I hadn’t seen the full quote. Now that I see it in its complete form, it is obvious to me that my long-held belief is 100% wrong and the media has been duping me.”
That doesn’t happen.
Instead, people usually react by falling down what I call the Hoax Funnel. I use the funnel imagery because the big hoax (that the President called neo-Nazis fine people) is instantly replaced with a lesser hoax, and so on, until the final claim is laughably vaporous, consisting of a question without a claim. Here is the hoax funnel in all its parts. You can test this at home by debunking the hoax with friends and family. Watch how they all go down the same hoax funnel until they end with nothing but questions of the “How do you explain X, then?” type.
We start at the top of the funnel.
Trump called neo-Nazis and white nationalists in Charlottesville “fine people”
This is debunked by showing the full transcript or the full video in which he clearly, and without prompting, says the exact opposite, that the neo-Nazis and white nationalists should be condemned totally. See for yourself.
The believer in the “fine people” hoax will question the authenticity of the transcript first, which you can debunk by showing the actual video clip here. Once the legitimacy of the transcript is established, expect the believer to retreat down the hoax funnel to the following hallucination.
No “fine people” march with neo-Nazis!
Here you can expect the hoaxed person to hallucinate (literally) a fact that is not claimed and is not in evidence. There is no claim that “fine people” were “marching with” the neo-Nazis, or supporting them in any way. There is a claim that such people were in the same zip code. The “marching with” hallucination is easily debunked by a New York Times article in which they interview one of the non-racists in attendance who love guns and free speech and do not stand with racists, much less march with them. Excerpt here:
But it doesn’t matter if the New York Times got that story right. What matters is that the President explained his assumption about who attended. Keep in mind that the media has not reported who attended. No survey of opinions was taken, and there were plenty of people in attendance who were not physically marching or chanting with the neo-Nazis.
Once you debunk the “marching with” point, expect the believer to retreat down the hoax funnel to this next point.
Trump wasn’t talking about statue protests! He was talking about protesters versus neo-Nazis!
Again, showing the transcript debunks this claim. Trump specifically mentioned that people were protesting the removal of the Robert E. Lee statue. That clearly frames the “both sides” as being pro and anti-statue, not neo-Nazis versus anti-racism protestors, which of course was the biggest story theme from the event.
Once you have shown that Trump was explicitly talking about both sides of the statue debate, believers can be expected to retreat down the hoax funnel to this next level.
It was obviously a neo-Nazi event, so no one would attend who was not a racist!
That point would make sense if you had never spent a minute as an adult in the actual world. In the real world, a hundred people can look at a flyer and have a lot of different opinions on what it means. You might look at the flyer and conclude that only racists were attending. Someone else might look at it and not know some of the named speakers had racist views, or might assume the racists were a small part of a larger event about statues. The only way a believer can defend their “should have known” opinion is by assuming that the attendees were smarter than the average American seems to be in every other walk of life. You can’t get a hundred Americans to have the same interpretation of ANYTHING, no matter how confident you are that they should.
Once you have debunked this claim by showing how opposite the “should have known” argument is to all human experience, observation, and common sense, the believer will still hold it to be a rational argument. But you can finish it off by reminding the believer that the facts of exactly who attended do not matter to the hoax question because the President clearly stated he believed some non-racists were attending to protest the statue question. (No marching!)
At this point, your believer will retreat further down the hoax funnel to an even weaker position that looks like this.
Why didn’t the non-racists who attended turn and leave as soon as they arrived? Huh? Huh? Explain that, you apologist!
Notice we are entering the question phase instead of the opinion stage. When hoax believers are so far down the hoax funnel that the best point they can make is in the form of a question, you have already debunked the main point: The President was NOT calling the neo-Nazis and white nationalists “fine people.”
But watch how your believer will abandon the main point without admitting it, as if the lesser points that follow are somehow all the original point, but different. This is when things get really freaky.
Expect this question next.
Why doesn’t the president speak out against racism and neo-Nazis?
This can be debunked by referring to links showing the President repeatedly condemning racism and bigotry at different times and places. See here and here and here for examples. And of course here talking about Charlottesville.
After you have shown clips of Trump condemning racists repeatedly, and naming the groups, you generally see the hoax believer retreat down the hoax funnel to this.
Why is Trump “revising history” now, instead of when it happened in 2017?
Chris Cuomo of CNN asked this question recently when discussing the topic. And he asked the question immediately after reporting that Sleepy Joe Biden had raised the issue in his campaign announcement speech. Biden is the answer to the first part of the question as to why it is in the headlines. But why is Trump pushing back on the hoax now when he didn’t push back so hard in 2017?
Unfortunately, I have some insight into that question, and I don’t like it. According to my sources, the White House staff (many of whom were not as pro-Trump as you would expect, especially in the earlier days) and even some percentage of the management of FoxNews believed the hoax. That isn’t so surprising when you consider that half the country believed it and still do. Under those conditions, the President was trapped. If he couldn’t get his own staff and FoxNews on his side, maybe it was better to let the story atrophy from lack of attention. I can’t read the President’s mind, but without his staff and FoxNews on the same side, it would have been risky to take on the hoax without backup.
So what changed?
It turns out I’m part of the answer to that question. As I said, I’ve been publicly persuading on this topic for a few years, and slowly picking up support. But I wasn’t getting much traction until Sleepy Joe raised the issue, and that encouraged me to hammer at the topic with the help of my 312,000 Twitter followers. Brave writers such as Joel Pollack and Steve Cortes took it up a level with articles debunking the hoax here and here. Best of all, meme-maker phenomenon Carpe Donktum mocked the hoax in a way that is fun and visual, which increased its attention. And special thanks to the Twitter patriots who wrestled with other Wikipedia editors to correct the record on that site, including @Unstumpable2016, @natasjlp, @milkchaser, @daveJay and @SolidPhase.
Collectively, including all the folks on social media who joined the debunking, we made enough noise to force the major news outlets to respond to the criticisms, with several of them naming me as a debunker. Wikipedia was the first non-right-leaning publication to debunk the hoax by including for the first time the entirety of the President’s statements. In the past week, I’ve seen other major publications debunk it as well, while pretending they are not. By that I mean they show the second part of the quote that debunks the hoax. They don’t frame it as a debunking, choosing instead (every time) to descend down the hoax funnel to find something – anything – that is tangentially related to the topic that they can claim is what they meant all along, or is true enough, or at least changes the subject. I include among the debunkers this past week the Washington Post, Vox, CNN, FoxNews, TheDailyBeast, RealClearPolitics, Breitbart, USA Today, the Wall Street Journal, and even Politifact.com. Any publication that printed the second part of Trump’s statement is debunking the hoax.
You might think all that debunking would be enough to end the hoax. But the hoax funnel goes deep. Chris Cuomo of CNN retreated all the way to this question.
Why does Trump speak out against Islamic terror more than white supremacy when the death count lately is higher from white supremacists?
I can’t read the President’s mind, but I observe he downplays everything he wants to see less of and exaggerates everything he wants more of. For example, he downplayed ISIS when the press was warning they were still a bigger threat. I interpreted that as a way to keep ISIS recruiting down. Who wants to join a losing team? Likewise, downplaying the rise of white nationalists/supremacists is how you get less of it. That last thing that would be helpful to the nation is hearing our President say the racists are doing great lately at getting their kill stats up. That would attract people to it.
We also know the press tries hard to frame the president as the cause of any rise in racist violence in this country. If someone is blaming you for causing a problem, would you respond by saying there’s a lot of that problem? You might think the smart answer involves minimizing it, given that you know you are going to take the blame for it.
It also doesn’t make much sense to say domestic racist terror is “worse” than Islamic terror based solely on the fact that the recent body counts are higher in one group. For starters, only a few dozen people are killed by domestic terror per year, compared to 280,000 people killed by handguns over the past decade. If all you do is count dead bodies, domestic terrorism and even Islamic terrorism in this country both round to zero. If you are being honest, you don’t compare those two groups on the basis of victim counts alone.
Islamic terrorists would love to use a weapon of mass destruction in the United States. They are an international organization bent on world domination, with standing armies, at least in the case of ISIS. And they are driven by an ideology that is hard to stop once it gets a toehold. By contrast, white racist terrorist attacks usually involve mental illness and lone wolves. I don’t see those risks as similar, and I don’t know how smart it would be to tell the public the racists are doing a great job of getting their stats up.
Now let’s say you have talked a believer in the “fine people” hoax all the way down the hoax funnel to here. Do they acknowledge how badly they have been misinformed and hoaxed by their trusted news sources for years?
Instead, expect them to pivot to one of the other debunked hoaxes that they are not aware have been debunked because their news sources are unreliable. That last gasp looks like this.
Well, Trump said other things that prove he is a racist monster, so…
That’s when the hoax-believer will present a laundry list of other hoaxes they still believe, including these gems.
Trump called Mexicans “animals”! (He didn’t. He called MS-13 gang members animals)
Trump called countries in which brown people live “shitholes.” (He didn’t. It was a reference to poor economic situations in some countries.)
Trump questioned Obama’s birth certificate. (Questioning an opponent’s legitimacy for office is politics 101. Trump did the same for Ted Cruz, questioning his Canadian birth. Politics of the most common kind is not racism.)
Trump said all Mexicans are rapists! (He didn’t say all Mexicans are rapists. He was using his normal hyperbole to say too many criminals were crossing the border.)
Trump said Judge Curiel couldn’t be fair because he is Mexican! (No, he indicated that Judge Curiel’s Mexican heritage might bias him against Trump because the media had painted Trump as an enemy of all Hispanics. In the legal process, calling out potential bias is normal and useful.)
Trump mocked a reporter who has an arm disability! (No, Trump uses similar mocking gestures for anyone he thinks acts stupid, including Ted Cruz. See for yourself here.
For a tour of some of the other hoaxes about Trump, see my blog post titled Why Democrats Hear a Secret Racist Dog Whistle and Republicans Don’t.
As I mentioned, this topic is interesting on the political dimension, but far more fascinating on the psychological dimension. As a test that you can try at home, see if you can push a believer in the “fine people” hoax down the hoax funnel. And just for fun, see if you can talk a believer into reading aloud the part of Trump’s transcript in which he “condemned totally” the neo-Nazis and white nationalists. I predict it will be hard to get anyone to read it. The cognitive dissonance should, in theory, freeze their brains and render them speechless. The believer will become “cognitively blind” to the transcript and probably get angry in the process. And you will give yourself a lesson in what cognitive dissonance looks like. Watch carefully the eyes of the hoax believer as their worldview dissolves. They will often get bug-eyed (literally widening their eyes) and start to sputter out laundry lists of other hoaxes.
You won’t change any minds. In my experience, the hoax believers go all the way down the hoax funnel and then forget the journey, returning to the top as if it had not been debunked one minute earlier. But you might enjoy breaking the brains of your critics. And you might learn something in the process.
Update 1: Al Sharpton recently said on MSNBC that anyone who supports keeping Confederate statues is a racist, period. For context, polls show a surprising percentage (44%) of African-Americans support keeping the statues. Here’s how Wikipedia summed it up.
Update 2: A number of militias were in attendance at Charlottesville. Some militias have racist views and some reject all forms of racism. The latter are more interested in free speech and other Constitutional rights. See this Washington Post article for those details.
Update 3: Just to round things out, here is a group of Israeli school kids singing the praise of President Trump, who they evidently do not believe praised neo-Nazis. My understanding is that Israel is good at identifying anti-semitism, and they don’t see it here.