Back in the summer of 2002, long before “fake news” or “post-truth” infected the vernacular, one of President George W. Bush’s top advisers mocked a journalist for being part of the “reality-based community.” Seeking answers in reality was for suckers, the unnamed adviser explained. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” This was the hubris and idealism of a post-Cold War, pre-Iraq War superpower: If you exert enough pressure, events will bend to your will.
Reality-based thinking is again under assault in America, but the deceit emanating from the White House today is lazier, more cynical. It is not born of grand strategy or ideology; it is impulsive and self-serving. It is not arrogant, but shameless.
Bush wanted to remake the world. President Trump, by contrast, just wants to make it up as he goes along.
The disregard for honesty in the Trump era, with its ever-changing menu of “alternative facts,” is eliciting new research and polemics from philosophers, literary critics, political analysts and social scientists. (In the publishing world circa summer 2018, the death-of-truth brigade is rivaled only by the death-of-democracy crew.) Through all their debates over who is to blame for imperiling truth (whether Trump, postmodernism, social media or Fox News), as well as the consequences (invariably dire) and the solutions (usually vague), a few conclusions materialize, should you choose to believe them.
Truth is not dead, but it is degraded, and its cheapening political value predates current management. There is a pattern and logic behind the dishonesty of Trump and his surrogates; however, it’s less multidimensional chess than the simple subordination of reality to political and personal ambition. And ironically, at a time when the president’s supporters mock liberal sensitivities, Trump’s untruth sells best precisely when feelings and instincts overpower facts, when America becomes a safe space for fabrication.
Post-truth politics has been around for a while, enduring and evolving. When Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he came to bear witness to the truth, the Roman prefect asked, “What is truth?” (Some theologians think Pilate was kidding, but maybe he was worried about fake good news?) A couple of millennia later, Rand Corp. scholars Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich point to the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties and the rise of television in the mid-20th century as recent periods of what they call “Truth Decay” — marked by growing disagreement over facts and interpretation of data; a blurring of lines between opinion, fact and personal experience; and diminishing trust in once-respected sources of information.
In eras of truth decay, “competing narratives emerge, tribalism within the U.S. electorate increases, and political paralysis and dysfunction grow,” the authors write — and conditions today only make things worse. Once you add the silos of social media as well as deeply polarized politics and deteriorating civic education, it becomes “nearly impossible to have the types of meaningful policy debates that form the foundation of democracy.” True to their calling, the social scientists don’t provide much in the way of actionable solutions, but they do serve up 114 possible question topics meriting further research, divided into four broad categories and 22 sub-groups. So Rand-y.
In her slim, impassioned book “The Death of Truth,” former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani is less circumspect, aiming a fusillade of literary allusions and personal insults at the president. Trump is an “over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) . . . some manic cartoon artist’s mashup of Ubu Roi, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and a character discarded by Molière,” she writes. To interpret our era’s debasement of language, Kakutani reflects perceptively on the World War II-era works of Victor Klemperer, who showed how the Nazis used “words as ‘tiny doses of arsenic’ to poison and subvert the German culture,” and of Stefan Zweig, whose memoir “The World of Yesterday” highlights how ordinary Germans failed to grasp the sudden erosion of their freedoms. Not exactly subtle.
At times Kakutani feels a bit scattershot in her cultural references. Turns out America today, in its sense of randomness and meaninglessness and indifference to consequences, is like “The Great Gatsby.” And like “Fight Club.” It’s also like “No Country for Old Men.” It’s even like “True Detective,” though we don’t learn why. But she is more focused when exploring the left-wing pedigree of post-truth culture. Even though she laments that objectivity has declined ever since “a solar system of right-wing news sites orbiting around Fox News and Breitbart News consolidated its gravitational hold over the Republican base,” Kakutani calls out lefty academics who for decades preached postmodernism and social constructivism, which argued that truth is not universal but a reflection of relative power, structural forces and personal vantage points. In the early culture wars, centered on literary studies, postmodernists rejected Enlightenment ideals as “vestiges of old patriarchal and imperialist thinking,” Kakutani writes, paving the way for today’s violence against fact in politics and science.
“It’s safe to say that Trump has never plowed through the works of Derrida, Baudrillard, or Lyotard (if he’s even heard of them),” Kakutani sniffs. But while she argues that “postmodernists are hardly to blame for all the free-floating nihilism abroad in the land,” she concedes that “dumbed-down corollaries” of postmodernist thought have been hijacked by Trump’s defenders, who use them to explain away his lies, inconsistencies and broken promises.
In “Post-Truth,” Boston University philosophy professor Lee McIntyre has no problem affixing blame. “At some level all ideologies are an enemy of the process by which truth is discovered,” he writes. But he convincingly tracks how intelligent-design proponents and later climate deniers drew from postmodernism to undermine public perceptions of evolution and climate change. “Even if right-wing politicians and other science deniers were not reading Derrida and Foucault, the germ of the idea made its way to them: science does not have a monopoly on the truth,” he writes.
McIntyre quotes at length from mea culpas by postmodernist and social constructivist writers agonizing over what their theories have wrought, shocked that conservatives would use them for nefarious purposes. And he notes, for example, that pro-Trump troll and conspiracy theorist Mike Cernovich, who helped popularize the “Pizzagate” lie, has forthrightly cited his unlikely influences. “Look, I read postmodernist theory in college,” Cernovich told the New Yorker in 2016. “If everything is a narrative, then we need alternatives to the dominant narrative. I don’t seem like a guy who reads [Jacques] Lacan, do I?”
When truth becomes malleable and contestable regardless of evidence, a mere tussle of manufactured narratives, it becomes less about conveying facts than about picking sides, particularly in politics. “The goal of propaganda is not to convince someone that you are right, but to demonstrate that you have authority over the truth itself,” McIntyre writes. “When a political leader is really powerful, he or she can defy reality.”
The Washington Post counted 3,251 false or misleading claims by the president from his first day in office through this May, while former White House press secretary Sean Spicer will forever be remembered for the most bizarre falsehood of Trump’s inaugural weekend, when he declared from the lectern of the press room that the new president had enjoyed “the largest audience ever to witness an inauguration, period.” But it was White House counselor Kellyanne Conway, defending Spicer the next day, who captured this presidency’s postmodernist project, suggesting that her colleague had merely offered “alternative facts” about the inauguration.
Spicer’s lie was conventional, an effort to have us believe something specific that is not true. Conway’s framing went further, granting us permission to believe whatever alternative we prefer — and therefore to believe nothing at all.
Trump’s falsehoods can seem arbitrary at times, emerging in early-morning tweets cribbed from cable news or in digressions spewed at some endless rally. Yet there is a method to the mendacity, which conservative political commentator Amanda Carpenter unpacks neatly in her book “Gaslighting America.”
If you track some of Trump’s most notorious lies, you’ll recognize the steps, Carpenter explains. Step 1: “Stake a claim” on a fringe issue that few people want to touch. Step 2: “Advance and deny” — that is, put the falsehood into circulation, but don’t own it. (This is Trump’s “people are saying” phase.) Third, “create suspense” by promising new evidence or revelations, even if they never appear. Fourth, “discredit the opponent” with attacks on motive or character. And fifth, just win — “Trump declares victory, no matter the circumstances.” McIntyre provides one more step: Suggest that the press cannot be trusted to deliver the truth on the matter, thus redefining the lie as “controversial” and empowering people to privilege beliefs that fit their personal biases.
Trump’s birtherism, for instance, checked all the boxes. Even when he admitted in late 2016 that Barack Obama was born in the United States — contradicting the lie that had propelled his political rise — Trump still congratulated himself for putting the matter to rest and blamed his Democratic presidential rival for the whole thing. Similarly, his flirtation with white-nationalist forces is “one of the biggest cons he’s pulled,” Carpenter argues. “For years, he advanced messages that were happily received and endorsed among that crowd, while coyly denying any association with them.”
Trump commits to his story “like a method actor,” Carpenter writes, even if the script always changes. “He will pick up and drop different fables with ease until he forces his opponents into a defensive posture.” And it’s not just Trump. Carpenter, a former aide to Sen. Ted Cruz, picks apart the incentives and tactics of Trump’s best-known television supporters. They were the misfits, she argues, operatives and mouthpieces who could not win favor with more professional GOP campaigns. “They didn’t have anything to lose in supporting Trump and neither did Trump in accepting their support.” The higher the candidate rose in the GOP primary polls, the more marketable and sycophantic they grew. Think Jeffrey Lord, Katrina Pierson and the rest of the gang.
In particular, Carpenter relishes going after Adriana Cohen, a columnist and reliable Trump supporter who suggested to Carpenter — live on CNN — that Carpenter had carried on an affair with Cruz. (Cohen did so in fine Trumpian fashion, too, not accusing Carpenter outright but citing a National Enquirer story and asking her to confirm or deny.) “Associating herself with the slimy narrative posed no risk to her reputation because she had barely any recognition to begin with,” Carpenter writes, noting that Trump apologists “never let their personal dignity get in the way of flacking for their man.”
If the erosion of accepted facts is a process, so is their creation. In “On Truth,” Cambridge University philosopher Simon Blackburn writes that truth is attainable, if at all, “only at the vanishing end points of enquiry,” adding that, “instead of ‘facts first’ we may do better if we think of ‘enquiry first,’ with the notion of fact modestly waiting to be invited to the feast afterward.” He is concerned, but not overwhelmingly so, about the survival of truth under Trump. “Outside the fevered world of politics, truth has a secure enough foothold,” Blackburn writes. “Perjury is still a serious crime, and we still hope that our pilots and surgeons know their way about.” Kavanaugh and Rich offer similar consolation: “Facts and data have become more important in most other fields, with political and civil discourse being striking exceptions. Thus, it is hard to argue that the world is truly ‘post-fact.’ ”
Sure, it may be that we are no more post-truth under Trump than we were post-racial under Obama. But McIntyre argues persuasively that our methods of ascertaining truth — not just the facts themselves — are under attack, too, and that this assault is especially dangerous. Ideologues don’t just disregard facts they disagree with, he explains, but willingly embrace any information, however dubious, that fits their agenda. “This is not the abandonment of facts, but a corruption of the process by which facts are credibly gathered and reliably used to shape one’s beliefs about reality. Indeed, the rejection of this undermines the idea that some things are true irrespective of how we feel about them.”
Ah, feelings! It is a right-wing trope that liberals — especially all those entitled brats at elite colleges — take offense at any slight, lacking, as they do, the common sense and steely resilience ingrained in the conservative mind. The problem with this story is that Trump defenders routinely rely on feelings over facts to justify the president’s falsehoods. Speaking to CNN about Trump’s constant references to supposedly soaring rates of violent crime across the United States, Newt Gingrich dismissed FBI statistics showing decreasing violence as “theoretically” accurate, “but it’s not where human beings are.” When the interviewer emphasized the facts of the matter, Gingrich replied, “I’ll go with how people feel, and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.”
Of course, feelings and facts are not necessarily at odds. “It is hardly a depressing new phenomenon that people’s beliefs are capable of being moved by their hopes, grievances and fears,” Blackburn writes. “In order to move people, objective facts must become personal beliefs.” But it can’t work — or shouldn’t work — in reverse. Personal feelings, untethered from facts, can morph into flat-out false statements on, say, the size of a tax cut or the political leanings of a special counsel. More than fearing a post-truth world, Blackburn is concerned by a “post-shame environment,” in which politicians easily brush off their open disregard for truth.
Trump, for one, has little compunction running with false claims convenient to him and his supporters. When ABC News asked him last year whether it was irresponsible to suggest that millions of undocumented immigrants had voted in the presidential election without presenting any evidence to that effect, he responded, “No, not at all . . . because many people feel the same way that I do.”
Many people. They feel. And when those feelings clash with facts and truth, it is human nature to rationalize away the dissonance. “Why get upset by his lies, when all politicians lie?” Kakutani asks, distilling the mind-set. “Why get upset by his venality, when the law of the jungle rules?”
So any opposition is deemed a witch hunt, or fake news, rigged or just so unfair. Trump is not killing the truth. But he is vandalizing it, constantly and indiscriminately, diminishing its prestige and appeal, coaxing us to look away from it.
Post-truth. Death of truth. Gaslighting. Truth decay. Whatever you call it, the devaluing of truth — and, by extension, of expertise and the pursuit of knowledge — should pose enough of a concern on its own without worrying about the collateral damage. Except, these authors argue, the collateral damage includes the American experiment.
Kavanagh and Rich list the risks: that our democracy is fundamentally weakened, that political institutions become paralyzed and irrelevant, that the electorate is permanently divided, and that new generations become alienated from civic life. Trump heightens the concerns, of course, but they are not really about him.
Alas, the proposed remedies in these volumes don’t seem up to the challenge the writers lay out. Kakutani calls for citizens to defy cynicism and resignation, as well as uphold and strengthen our three branches of government, the free press and our educational institutions. Well, yes, but little in her book gives hope for that. Carpenter encourages us to consider the underlying goals and coded messages of Trump’s falsehoods, but also to let some of his storylines just fade away: “Let go of the outrage already . . . be vigilant but don’t flip out.” Sound advice, though limited. Kavanagh and Rich consider how truth decay died out in past eras — through a revival of investigative journalism and the emergence of large-scale political scandals that “underscored the value of fact-based information.” That’s tough, however, when the credibility of news organizations and of major political investigations is itself a target of the relentless assault on truth. “We want to think [Trump’s] crazy lies are his greatest weakness when they are, in fact, the source of his strength,” Carpenter reminds us.
McIntyre, whose book is perhaps the most thoughtful of the post-truth set, also urges us to root out untruth before it festers. But he calls for introspection, even humility, in this battle. “One of the most important ways to fight back against post-truth is to fight it within ourselves,” he writes, whatever our particular politics may be. “It is easy to identify a truth that someone else does not want to see. But how many of us are prepared to do this with our own beliefs? To doubt something that we want to believe, even though a little piece of us whispers that we do not have all the facts?”
It’s annoying advice, for sure. It takes the focus off Trump and his acolytes. It casts the gaze inward, toward discomforting self-reflection, at a moment when engagement and argument seem like all that matter.
But that doesn’t make it untrue.