The post-truth presidency of Donald Trump

This is the kind of headline that one never wants to see: A guide to all the ways Trump’s transition is like a reality show:

So far, reports about [Trump’s] transition have been full of drama, the kind that’s abnormal for today’s political Washington. But it all feels pretty familiar for loyal reality TV show fans, where something as small as a tweet or a small feud can turn into a whole high-stakes episode.

Here is another headline that one never wants to see: The Oxford Dictionary announces that “post-truth” is its 2016 word of the year:

According to the dictionary’s website, the word is “an adjective defined as ‘relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.’ “

I have frequently criticized the conservative media entertainment complex over the years for it’s mantra, “Don’t bother me with the facts, I know what I believe!” It is an anti-intelectualism movement which seeks to create its own reality. This is the fever swamp from which Donald Trump emerged.

Trumps-1984

Margaret Sullivan writes at the Washington Post, The post-truth world of the Trump administration is scarier than you think:

You may think you are prepared for a post-truth world, in which political appeals to emotion count for more than statements of verifiable fact.

But now it’s time to cross another bridge — into a world without facts. Or, more precisely, where facts do not matter a whit.

On live radio Wednesday morning, Scottie Nell Hughes sounded breezy as she drove a stake into the heart of knowable reality:

There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts,” she declared on “The Diane Rehm Show” on Wednesday.

Hughes, a frequent surrogate for President-elect Donald Trump and a paid commentator for CNN during the campaign, kept on defending that assertion at length, though not with much clarity of expression. Rehm had pressed her about Trump’s recent evidence-free assertion on Twitter that he, not Hillary Clinton, would have won the popular vote if millions of immigrants had not voted illegally.

(The apparent gen­esis of Trump’s claim was Infowars.com, a site that traffics in conspiracy theories and is run by Alex Jones, who says the 2012 massacre of 20 schoolchildren in Newtown, Conn., was a government-sponsored hoax.)

What matters now, Hughes argued, is not whether his fraud claim is true. No, what matters is who believes it.

“Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd, a large — a large part of the population, are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — in his — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies, and there’s no facts to back it up.”

Yes, it’s a fact: I heard it live, as did Rehm, Politico’s Glenn Thrush, and the Atlantic’s James Fallows, who wrote about it, citing a recording of the show.

One might be tempted, though, to dismiss it as one woman’s opinion: Maybe Hughes, the political editor of RightAlerts.com, was just having a hallucinatory day.

But at a high-profile event the next evening, two other Trump surrogates echoed this sentiment. Ousted Trump campaign manager Corey Lewandowski, speaking during an election post-mortem at Harvard University’s Shorenstein Center on Media, Politics and Public Policy, blamed journalists for — yes — believing what his candidate said.

“You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally,” said Lewandowski, who was another ill-advised CNN hire. “The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”

Yes, Corey, but Trump is not a guy at a bar; he was the Republican nominee for president of the United States and will pretty soon be the leader of the free world, such as it is.

* * *

There was more from the Harvard event. When CNN’s Jake Tapper asked Trump senior adviser Kellyanne Conway about the same election-fraud claim discussed above — specifically, whether disseminating misinformation was “presidential” — it was clear that she and Hughes got the same memo.

He’s the president-elect, so that’s presidential behavior,” Conway said, using mind-bending pseudo-logic, reminiscent of the Nixonian “When the president does it, that means that it’s not illegal.”

These surrogates’ disdain for facts should not be surprising, given Trump’s own casual relationship with verifiable truth.

It’s time to dust off your old copy of “1984” by George Orwell and recall this passage: “The Ministry of Peace concerns itself with war, the Ministry of Truth with lies, the Ministry of Love with torture and the Ministry of Plenty with starvation. These contradictions are not accidental, nor do they result from ordinary hypocrisy: they are deliberate exercises in doublethink.”

And be vigilant.

Sullivan’s Post colleague, Ruth Marcus, similarly writes, Welcome to the post-truth presidency:

Welcome to — brace yourself for — the post-truth presidency.

“Facts are stubborn things,” said John Adams in 1770, defending British soldiers accused in the Boston Massacre, “and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passion, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”

Or so we thought, until we elected to the presidency a man consistently heedless of truth and impervious to fact-checking.

Oxford Dictionaries last month selected post-truth — “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief” — as the international word of the year, and for good reason.

The practice of post-truth — untrue assertion piled on untrue assertion — helped get Donald Trump to the White House. The more untruths he told, the more supporters rewarded him for, as they saw it, telling it like it is.

As Politico’s Susan Glasser wrote in a sobering assessment of election coverage for the Brookings Institution, “Even fact-checking perhaps the most untruthful candidate of our lifetime didn’t work; the more news outlets did it, the less the facts resonated.

Indeed, Hannah Arendt, writing in 1967, presciently explained the basis for this phenomenon: “Since the liar is free to fashion his ‘facts’ to fit the profit and pleasure, or even the mere expectations, of his audience, the chances are that he will be more persuasive than the truth teller.”

So there is no reason to think Trump is about to suddenly truth-up. Indeed, all signs are to the contrary — most glaringly Trump’s chockfull-of-lies tweet that “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.”

Trump and his aides are not embarrassed by their post-truthism — they embrace it.

* * *

[T]he president-elect himself, who at a rally to celebrate his successful bribing of Carrier to keep some jobs in the United States, explained that he was impelled to act by a Carrier-employed supporter who had been naive enough to take Trump’s promises seriously.

Watching the evening news, Trump said, he saw the Carrier worker say “‘No, we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving,’ and I never thought I made that promise. Not with Carrier.”

Then, Trump said, “they played my statement, and I said, ‘Carrier will never leave.’ But that was a euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in.”

This was a telling moment, and not just because Trump doesn’t quite understand what euphemism means. The episode simultaneously shows Trump, confronted with Trump on tape, willing to recognize reality and Trump telling us straightforwardly that his promises are not to be taken seriously. They are truthphemisms.

Of course, Trump is not the first truth-impaired president. Ronald Reagan famously insisted on repeating tall tales; he conflated Hollywood with reality. “If you tell the same story five times it’s true,” said White House press secretary Larry Speakes.

And Arendt reminded us a half- century ago about the inherent tensions between truth-telling and political power: “No one has ever doubted that truth and politics are on rather bad terms with each other, and no one, as far as I know, has ever counted truthfulness among the political virtues.”

But today we have the conjunction of a president unconstrained by facts with a media environment both siloed into partisan echo chambers and polluted by fake news. This development poses an urgent challenge — for journalism and for democracy.

The journalist’s challenge is not to tire in refuting the torrent of lies. The citizen’s challenge is to remain vigilant against the enticing lure of post-truth politics, to recall the admonition of our second president even as our 45th seeks to prove his wisdom an outmoded relic of a pre-post-truth era.

Indeed, America was born of The Enlightenment in the Age of Reason. Despite the fact that modern Americans now have more access to information than at any time in history, Americans are regressing into anti-intellectualism, driven by beliefs in myths, legends and superstitions — and fake news– descending us into a new Dark Ages.

One response to “The post-truth presidency of Donald Trump

  1. Great post Blue! This means those of us who deal in truth must peddle our wares even more voraciously. And, good people everywhere must speak up when lies are told. We MUST NOT let them go unchallenged!