The Cause
How are you feeling about democracy?
“How we forgot Trump” with Melissa Ryan

“How we forgot Trump” with Melissa Ryan

The disinfo expert behind Ctrl Alt Right Delete explains why so many Americans have blocked out Trump's failures.

“We're trying to win an election, and the right is trying to seize power by any means necessary.”

Melissa Ryan helps people, policymakers, and institutions combat disinformation; you can see why. She has a clarity that comes from more than a decade in national politics and a coolness that comes from either some really good nature or nurture, probably both. And you can get that calming clarity she offers every week in her newsletter Ctrl Alt Right Delete.

This is a quick interview, by our standards, that sprints point-by-point through some of the trickiest issues democracy faces now, with some excellent advice about what we, as earlyworms, can be doing now.

She also makes a point that helps explain why this race is so close, though we all lived through the misery of Trump’s presidency. Our brains are begging us to go back to our last normal week.

Catch up on all the episodes of “How are you feeling about democracy?” here.

If you want to be a supporter this podcast, please join the earlyworm society – free or paid, your support matters.



Jason Sattler: How do you think the Republican party's relationship with extremism has evolved over the last decade?

Melissa Ryan: I think the big thing is the amount of power they've amassed. I think when we were thinking about extremists and the Obama years, you were thinking about the Amon Bundys and militias of the world, which moves into the trolls and the so-called "alt-right." And what is really troubling that I really want us all to internalize is that you have far-right actors running and holding elected office, building power in the party.

And now with Project 2025 having plans to do a complete takeover of our federal administrative government should Trump win the next election. So these are folks who you would not think were fit for polite company in most cases who now have power and aren't afraid to use it.

Jason Sattler: I hadn't thought about that angle of covering extremism right now. We're in the worst case, the dystopia version of this. We're getting a preview of the people who are going to be in the next Trump administration. 

Melissa Ryan: I think what you've seen happen in state and local governments across the country is an example of what we will see in the administration. Secretary Catturd sounds ridiculous, but is not out of the question in the next Trump administration. And the thing, this has been a long time coming.

You think back to the Identity Europa movement, which has been defunct for a little, some time. But one of the things that Patrick Casey was advocating for before Trump even got in office was go in, infiltrate, take over your Republican party, run for local office. And these are folks across the country who are ready, willing, and able to help another attempt to seize power at the local and national level.

Jason Sattler: I keep thinking about Charlottesville because of the, their anniversary comes up every year. And then I think about the campaign Trump ran the first time where he refused to disavow David Duke when he was on TV, and then when Twitter kind of adjusted a statement later this kind of signaling to the extremists that keeps happening over and over again there's seems to be 2012 from what I understand is that Republicans, the swing voters don't believe. That the person's going to be as terrible as Democrats say he's going to be. And for Mitt Romney, that was, yes, he probably would take your healthcare away if he had the chance and for, Donald Trump, it's maybe he'd like to re-enact the middle parts, just the middle parts of Schindler's List. Do you have a theory about how you make that extremism seem real to voters who don't pay as much attention? 

Melissa Ryan: Yeah, and I think it's interesting because in addition to what we would think of as low-information voters, I don't know if you've had this sense, but my theory about 2023 was we all just tried to pretend the collective trauma of COVID and the Trump administration didn't happen. So in addition to people who are tuned out, I think a lot of folks have just blocked it out of their minds because it was so traumatic. And the good news is with Trump's conviction with other things, we've got more opportunities to remind voters of who this person is, what his character is, and because he has spelled it out and his base has spelled it out with Project 2025 what exactly their agenda is, should they should they make it back into power? And I say power. Because, I think the left, we're trying to win an election and the right is trying to seize power with by any means necessary. And I think that's important to keep in mind as well.

Jason Sattler: You had this primer that you wrote called Five Things You Need to Know about MAGA Republicans.

And this kind of picks up on the strategy of separating Republicans from MAGA Republicans that kind of started in 2022. And it also expands on an idea that I think a lot of people have heard about this idea that the cruelty is the point and Adam kind of was suggesting this, but I think this adds another dimension of the strategy also really matters here.

How is misery used strategically by extremists?

Melissa Ryan: They want us depressed and demoralized. Generally they are not trying to convince anyone to vote for Trump. What they want is to convince people that it doesn't matter. Trump is untouchable. Nothing you can do will stop him. And beyond that democracy doesn't matter. So it's not worth participating.

It's not worth showing up because nothing you do will change anything. And it sounds so bleak, but I think all the time back to Brad Parscale, who was Trump's digital director in 2016, bragging after the election about how they ran voter suppression ads towards traditional Democratic voters.

And the idea was to get them not to turn out. It's not worth it. Hillary's just as bad as Trump. And again, ultimately this isn't about saying that elections aren't worth it, but the democracy is not worth bothering with.

Jason Sattler: Those ads were especially effective in Michigan and in the Midwest when I think Democrats really didn't expect them to come. They thought that voter suppression traditionally then had just been, you know, laws. 

It does feel like to an older person like me who once felt like he knew what was going on online on TikTok the exact ideas that you're talking: both sides are bad that they're both old. Everything that Fox News would dream that your grandparents would be saying is now being said on TikTok. How would you describe the information environment in 2024?

Melissa Ryan: Yeah. I think the most important thing to understand is that a lot of the same problems we had in 2016 are still very present. The tech platforms have, there was so much gain in getting tech policies updated on misinformation and hate speech. A lot of that has been rolled back since 2021.

I think the most obvious example is that, Donald Trump is allowed back on all the platforms after, calling for insurrection and violence on January 6th. They also they did a lot of layoffs in 2023. And one of the things that happened is the bulk of their trust and safety teams were gutted. So I know there's been some hiring since leading up to the election, but a lot of that institutional memory and understanding is just gone. And that's before you even get to Elon, who just outright bought a social media platform and turned it into the right wing hellscape he and his friends have always wanted. You hear a lot of concerns about emerging technologies like artificial intelligence deepfake audio and video. I think those are worth being aware of, but the most important thing is that a lot of the problems we were dealing with in 2016 haven't gone away. And the backslide on what the tech platforms will or won't do has been enormous.

Jason Sattler: And even the Russia stuff is back, probably even stronger than ever. Since the invasion of Ukraine, and like you said, there's this kind of forgetting that you're not allowed to connect anything to Russia anymore or else Donald Trump is going to say Russia at you. And the press 

Melissa Ryan: yeah, and I don't do a lot with foreign influence operations because frankly, we've had so much homegrown influence and hate that we've had to deal with. But I think it's important that people who do work on this and are knowledgeable at it, they will talk not just about Russia, but multiple countries trying to influence our election and running influence operations.

And, it's very, you can't really measure how effective it is or isn't after the fact. And even then, it's not going to be an exact science. But for those of us who are on social media, if we have a particular reaction to something or we see something that maybe leads into our confirmation bias, it's always really important to take a step back and wonder why it makes us feel that way, where it came from, and, who the person who put it out on the internet, what their agenda might be.

Jason Sattler: And let's say, you do see something, let's say you happen to catch Joe Biden being 81 years old, which is something he is guilty of being. And there's a video of it and people are talking about it and you, and let's say you want to set up, I say, this, I, my dad's 72 and he looks like this.

What I've understood from like messaging people is any engagement probably helps the trolls. It sends the story out there. It's not your frame

Is that correct understanding of it based on what you understand about dissimilar dis-and-misinformation? 

Melissa Ryan: I think a part of it is not even disinformation. It's just, if "You're explaining, you're losing." And I think that's true just politically across the board, including disinformation. I think the other thing that's just helpful to understand is someone who's completely bought in. It doesn't matter what the video actually shows they're going to believe it, it says what the right wing narrative is. Those are folks that you probably don't want to waste your time with who are, already locked in. They're going to believe it. They could see the video a million times and say it's see something else.

Now your neighbor who maybe hasn't seen the video who isn't dialed in and who isn't a member of the MAGA Cinematic Universe, that person might be worth having more of a conversation with. But I would make it less about what the video does or doesn't show. And more about the America that we get under Joe Biden versus the America we'd get under a second Trump administration.

So anything you can do to take it back to their record and their policies, rather than getting in arguments over the minutia of a video that person may not have even watched.

Jason Sattler: Something I've been thinking about a lot is that Twitter has changed so radically. It was a 30 billion donation to Donald Trump, ultimately, because it's destroyed a lot. It used to be a useful space for journalists and for stories and for narratives and people to vet and test out ideas.

And now if you have had the misfortune, anything go viral on Twitter, it's like a holding your Bar Mitzvah at David Duke's family reunion. You just feel the extremism growing on you. What do experts think about this kind of strange new thing that Elon has created?

 I don't think we've ever seen anything like it.

Melissa Ryan: I will say as a woman on the internet a lot of what I see on Twitter now is maybe worse, but is a problem that has always been present in my online life. So I just, Twitter is shit right now, but it's not like it was the best platform ever, particularly for women, people of color, LGBT folks before.

So it's just a thousand times worse. What concerns me about Twitter is it is a completely manipulated platform. You see what Elon wants you to see a lot of times. We know the algorithm has been changed because Elon feels like people aren't seeing enough of his content. There's a pay for access, but people haven't stopped using it.

I include myself. I still, I mostly just broadcast on Twitter. I don't engage in conversations, but I know journalists are still using it for sources and narratives. So there's still a habit of what are people saying on social media to that folks go to Twitter for.

Interestingly enough, I think TikTok is changing that somewhat. And I think TikTok for a cable news perspective is actually more friendly because there's short term video that you can put right on the air. But social media is still very much an assignment editor. For a lot of media outlets, particularly on television and it is now, Twitter is now a right wing hellscape.

There's really no two ways about it.

Jason Sattler: And for TikTok, for people who, I think TikTok does, obviously does a good job of introducing you to TikTok as a viewer. That's why it's so effective as you get on there. And before you know it, you've Oh I had no idea I wanted to have recipes about how to customize my pop tarts.

And it tunes into what you're into, but it does seem it has changed. Dramatically over the last few months in the sense that it does, you know, there was the vote in Capitol Hill and they're the sales being forced. Donald Trump comes out for all of a sudden reversing his himself on this.

And now it,

Melissa Ryan: Yeah. Change this position. 

Jason Sattler: Yeah. And you could, the money trail is so direct and so obvious that most people would just, you think it would be illegal, but it obviously is not or not yet. And The environment seems to be changing, and I don't know how much that is just imagined paranoid resistance brain, how much of that is the result of Gaza and genuine people having genuine views that have changed or hardened and I don't know how much of that is actually the company has really decided to do what happened with Facebook, I don't think they did it as willingly, but to become Donald Trump's platform for election.

Melissa Ryan: Yeah. So I don't have any data on that, so I can't, tell you what TikTok is or isn't doing or what is or isn't effective. What I can say is that the MAGA right, or whether you're thinking of foreign influence operations or anyone, trying to influence our politics on social media. They don't invent things out of nothing.

They exploit things that are already there. Gaza and Israel is obviously a weakness for the Biden administration. I think they've moved clearly not far where they need to be, where a lot of the public is, particularly the public under 30 and a lot of the frustrations that, that young people feel.

That's not coming out of nowhere. It is something that can easily be exploited. Part of the way that you fight back about this stuff is you work hard to give them fewer things, fewer divisions to exploit. 

Jason Sattler: Watching this Hunter Biden stuff and seeing the press basically ignore that there's humans involved in any of this stuff is feeling more and more like psychological warfare that this is what MAGA is really good at and what Donald Trump is how to get in people's heads and how to really You know, this is, this hurts Joe Biden because he actually likes his sons, which Donald Trump thinks of as something to exploit rather than something to do.

 When we see this going on, and then you also see that this isn't really something that most people are talking about. If your relatives aren't watching Fox news, they're probably not even aware of it. 

It doesn't seem to be working the way they did with hillary with their fixations with Hillary because he's not a woman. What do you think that's about?

Melissa Ryan: mean, voters have never bought into the idea that Hunter Biden is a one man crime syndicate. We know they didn't buy into it in 2020. We know that the Biden campaign chose not to respond because they had polling showing that, and focus groups showing that voters didn't understand and they didn't care. I think one of the things that the problems with the MAGA Cinematic Universe, which is what I call it is you get so insular and conspiratorial that people who just turn on Fox News or, might be right leaning, they're like, what? It's very hard to follow if you're not all bought in on the alternative worldview and conspiracy. But going up to, Hunter Biden's recent conviction, I think it's going to backfire on the right in the same way that coming after Fetterman after his stroke backfired because you start to look like a bully. And, you think about what the Biden family, they're all of their dirty laundry was there for all to see in that trial.

But you also think about how many millions of Americans are either struggling with addiction or have family who are struggling with addiction. And that kind of exposure is their worst nightmare. And so I think what voters are going to see or likely to see is a man really Who struggled with demons and clearly, made some terrible choices and a father who very much loved his son and was trying to keep him alive. One thing about the MAGA coalition is, these folks, they have a complete lack of empathy. And I think that lack of empathy, you lose how normal humans see things and feel about things. And with all things Hunter Biden, I feel like they've really just lost the thread.

Jason Sattler: One of the things you're doing and is you know in addition to the stuff that you do on your day your TikTok is the is Ctrl-Alt Delete, which is what you know all about the issues we're talking about today, all about extremism, all about understanding, I think, the psychology of the right, not just the kind of strangeness of it but why it might work and why it matters.

What do you think people who aren't, able to do a newsletter TikTok, but are do care about democracy want to look back and be able to not TikTok, but for people who want to look back and say, I did everything I could. I don't want regrets. What would you tell these very well-intentioned early worms that they can do?

Melissa Ryan: Yeah first of all as much as I would love to do the newsletter TikTok. It's not my time job I also do a lot of most of my work is consulting with organizations, and it's on these same issues how to prevent yourself from becoming a victim of attack how to have a good strategies to combat disinformation and how to protect your organization.

 I do just want to make that clear as, as much as it would be great to write the newsletter TikTok. It's not all of my, all of what I do. 

But as far as what and I love the term early worms. I think that's so fantastic. The biggest one is, look, don't let the bastards get you down. Like I said, they want you to be demoralized. They want you to feel like it doesn't matter. They want you to not vote and to not keep showing up for democracy. So one of the best things you can do is just keep showing up. I think right now at this point in the cycle thinking relationally relational organizing, which is, making sure that you're talking to your friends and family and places, people where you have influence now again, that doesn't mean that your right-wing uncle who spends all his time watching Fox News and on Twitter is, he's probably not worth it, but maybe your right wing aunt or cousin or who are, maybe center right or have some qualms and questions... Folks where you have influence. That is a good time spending your energy knowing in your local community where the far right has built power, who are the TikTok election clerks, who are the TikTok city council members and school board members keeping an eye on them and holding them count, holding them accountable. Finally, I think in those conversations that you are having with friends and family we have to make the point that this election is all about a Supreme Court that is taking away our rights and freedoms as fast, as furiously as they can, all of while enriching themselves through corruption. 

This is one where the reporting has been quite good. We've got a lot of excellent press on Alito and Thomas in particular and their corruption and also, this is a bit of a leap, but if you're not paying attention constantly or politics, isn't your life, you might not understand or need a refresher on the role that the president plays in nominating Supreme court justices and that the number of senators, whether we have a majority, a minority, a slim majority or a wide majority impacts who the president can nominate and the chances of actually getting them in. The more we go down this path, the more I think that the election is going to be about the Supreme Court in all those facets.

So making sure that folks understand that and either have a primer or a reminder of the outsized role that the court has in this Court.

Jason Sattler: So something about how explaining how the Supreme Court is going to affect people's lives personally, I think, is a really powerful piece. That's just I'm just brainstorming. 

Melissa Ryan: While enriching themselves. I think you also, they're taking away your rights and freedoms while Leonard Leo is funding their, weird trips on private jets.

Jason Sattler: I really want to thank you for your newsletter. I meant to say part-time, but it could be a TikTok job because it's so good.

That's what I meant to say right there. And you're 

Melissa Ryan: Thank you. 

Jason Sattler: source of clarity. And you answer these questions so quickly and densely that I'm all out of them. And it's much faster than normally. But I want to thank you for your time. And hopefully we can talk again. 

Melissa Ryan: I am such a big fan of yours and have been since LOL GOP first popped up on my Twitter feed. So it is always a pleasure to talk to you and your followers as well. .

The Cause
How are you feeling about democracy?
Each week we'll ask one expert how they are feeling about democracy and dig into what we need to know to help save it. Hosted by earlyworm's Jason Sattler AKA @LOLGOP.