The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Opinion In a post-truth world, there is no democracy

President Trump and national security adviser John Bolton. (Mark Wilson/Getty Images)

Former CIA director Michael Hayden writes: “We in the intelligence world have dealt with obstinate and argumentative presidents through the years. But we have never served a president for whom ground truth really doesn’t matter.” When the commander in chief is irrational and driven by personal animus and emotion, intelligence briefings and skilled advisers may not be sufficient to steer the ship of state away from the rocks. However, as Hayden points out, not all hope is lost:

Over time it has become clear to me that security decisions in the Trump administration follow a certain pattern. Discussion seems to start with a presidential statement or tweet. Then follows a large-scale effort to inform the president, to impress upon him the complexity of an issue, to review the relevant history, to surface more factors bearing on the problem, to raise second- and third-order consequences and to explore subsequent moves.

It’s not easy. The president by all accounts is not a patient man. According to The Washington Post, one Trump confidant called him “the two-minute man” with “patience for a half page.” He insists on five-page or shorter intelligence briefs, rather than the 60 pages we typically gave previous presidents. There is something inherently disturbing in that. There are some problems that cannot be simplified.

It is the job of senior advisers to take President Trump out of the comfort of his fictional world and compel him to grapple with reality, no matter how inconsistent it is with his own rhetoric: We are not getting more from North Korea than any other president has gotten; this is the same empty pantomime we’ve seen time and again. Iran is not cheating on the nuclear deal; we do not have great options if we back out of the deal but our allies remain. We have blown up the debt with tax cuts that are not paying for themselves. Trump does not want to hear any of this, but it is the obligation of advisers, who take an oath to the Constitution, and not him, to resist enabling his delusional behavior. Under no circumstances should they parrot his falsehoods.

Hayden is right that the challenges for top advisers are considerable. “These are truly uncharted waters for the country. We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.” Perhaps hard truths can be delivered by aides who have buttered him up in the past, but they now must use that personal capital with the president to prevent disastrous results. That means leveling with him about what is and is not a reliable source of information and rebutting irresponsible voices who do not have the responsibility for governing.

Hayden is correct in pointing out that the United States needs a coalition of truth-tellers. (“In this post-truth world, intelligence agencies are in the bunker with some unlikely mates: journalism, academia, the courts, law enforcement and science — all of which, like intelligence gathering, are evidence-based. Intelligence shares a broader duty with these other truth-tellers to preserve the commitment and ability of our society to base important decisions on our best judgment of what constitutes objective reality.”) The pro-truth coalition must step up its game, pursue facts zealously and call out lies — again and again. Threats, insults and a morass of lies spread via social media must be identified for what they are — an attempt to suppress truth and thereby make those with power unaccountable.

One way to disable the attack on objective reality is to break up the collaboration between the White House and the GOP Congress. There must be consequences for lawmakers who are bent on creating a parallel universe in which the FBI and Deputy Attorney General Rod J. Rosenstein are the enemies of democracy, we are in the midst of a crime wave cause by illegal immigrants, climate change is a fraud, tariffs are good for workers and tax cuts pay for themselves.

If you’re pushing the narrative that the FBI is corrupt, then you should be booted from office. If you said the tax cuts would pay for themselves (despite a mound of evidence), you really have no business being in charge of taxpayers’ money. In reaffirming the primacy of reality, voters can readily identify the lawmakers who have failed to uphold their oaths of office.

Fortunately, every House member and a third of the Senate will be on the ballot in November, along with dozens of governors and hundreds of state lawmakers. At a time when Trump’s pet evangelical figureheads have shed any pretense of upholding values, the rest of the country must insist on the value of truth-telling. Trump’s legislative allies need to be confronted with facts, shamed into acknowledging reality and, if need be, removed from office. If one or both houses flip to Democratic control, open oversight hearings and perhaps an independent commission or two will be essential to restore rational decision-making and accountability. You see, the purpose of flipping the House and/or Senate is not to remove the president but to stymie his crusade against reality. It’s only then that we can repair our democracy and begin addressing our policy challenges.