The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Donald Trump is leading an increasingly fact-free 2016 campaign

The Washington Post's Chris Cillizza explains why a "fact-free campaign" won't hurt Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump (Video: Sarah Parnass/The Washington Post)

Let me start with this: I am rarely surprised by anything that happens in politics. Call it cynicism or pragmatism. But after spending two decades covering politics, I feel like nothing is shocking anymore.

Except, that is, the remarkable disdain for facts in the context of this presidential campaign. Candidates have always done their best to bend numbers, statistics and stories to make themselves look as good — or as not-bad — as possible. But there was almost always a line that wasn't crossed in years past, a sort of even-partisans-can-agree-on-this standard.

Now, in large part because of Donald Trump's candidacy, that line has been smudged out of existence. Daniel Patrick Moynihan's famous quote that "you are entitled to your own opinion … but you are not entitled to your own facts" is no longer operative in this campaign. That is to the detriment of not only the people running for president but to all of us.

Trump's latest foray into the fiction zone came on Saturday when he told a group of supporters that he watched as "thousands of people were cheering” in Jersey City, N.J., when the World Trade Center towers collapsed after the terrorist attacks of Sept. 11, 2001. On Sunday, Trump called in to ABC's "This Week" and got into a back and forth with moderator George Stephanopoulos over that claim. The exchange is long but worth printing in full.

I mean. What. The. Actual. Hell.

For those who would criticize Stephanopoulos for "letting Trump get away with it," I would ask you how he could have done things any differently. Trump is operating on his own set of "facts." Stephanopoulos is adamant that "the police have said it didn't happen" but it's quite clear that Trump wasn't going to suddenly say: "Yeah, you're right. I misspoke." Could Stephanopoulos have spent the next five minutes making the same point about the police? I guess. But Trump wasn't going to give in. Period.

In elections and campaigns past, there would have been a price to pay for The Donald's complete flouting of fact. It would have hurt him politically to just say things that aren't true. In this one, there's plenty of reason to think that he not only will get away with saying it but also that it may even help him among certain segments of the electorate.

Why? Because trust in the media — in both parties but especially among conservatives who comprise Trump's base — is at an all-time low. So, anything that a member of the media calls a "fact" is inherently viewed as fishy (at best) by the people backing Trump. The media lies, we all know that, so why wouldn't they lie about this, too? All the mainstream media cares about is serving as the political correctness police, so if this did happen then of course they would work to cover it up, right?

Here's the thing: If there is no agreed-upon neutral arbiter, there are no facts. And, as I have written before, what is happening in the Republican race is that most of the candidates — save Trump and, at times, Ben Carson — are playing by an established set of rules around what you can say and do. Trump is not only not playing by those rules but there are also no referees to enforce his blatant flouting of them.

I give you, Ben Carson's response Monday to Trump's allegations, a response that amounts to "Yeah, I saw that too."

What's remarkable is that even as the fact-checking industry has blossomed — our own Fact Checker gave Trump's "cheering" claim Four Pinnocchios, meaning it has no truth to it — its ability to keep candidates honest has declined precipitously.

Ask yourself this: Do you think Trump worries for one second about what fact checkers think of his statements? The answer, of course, is no. On the same day that he was fighting with Stephanopoulos about "facts" regarding 9/11, Trump retweeted an erroneous set of facts about black-on-black violence.

As The Post's Philip Bump documented, these stats are just plain wrong. As Philip wrote: "According to data from the FBI, most whites are killed by whites, as most blacks are killed by blacks. There's an obvious reason for that: Most people are killed by someone they know — as is the case in 78.1 percent of homicides between 1980 and 2008, as we've noted before — and most people are related to and live near people who are of the same race as themselves."

None of that concerns Trump or, if we're being honest, his supporters. He has established himself as a politically incorrect truth-teller, so naturally the "establishment" doesn't like or agree with what he has to say. Why would it? It has been protecting the status quo so long, it has to keep doing it.

What Donald Trump is doing and saying as a presidential candidate is not who we are as a country, says The Post's Jonathan Capehart. (Video: Tom LeGro/The Washington Post, Photo: FREDERIC J. BROWN/The Washington Post)

Okay. If you believe that you a) probably haven't read this far into the piece because, well, the media is biased and b) probably cannot be convinced that your view is wrong. So, this next part isn't for you.

For the rest of you: The obsession with disqualifying the ability of the media to referee what is factual and what is not is a terrible thing for the future of our democracy. Of course the media makes mistakes. Of course there are bad apples among us. Of course we are human.

And, yes, the fracturing of the mainstream media has made it easier than ever to get your own set of "facts" and your own "evidence" that supports those "facts." You can now live in a world in which only your opinions, often loosely based on factual evidence, are not only never challenged but are affirmed. But just because you can do it doesn't mean you should do it. Challenging your assumptions, digging beyond surface claims, educating yourself on what's real and what's not are the basic tasks of being a citizen of this country and of the world. Refusing to do that allows this fact-less environment not only to continue to exist but to prosper.

No matter your political affiliation or how negatively you view the media, think of Trump and this campaign more generally as the leading edge of what politics could look like if fact checkers and the media suddenly disappeared. Not too pretty, right?

That is the path we are headed down as of today. Campaigns and candidates, seeing the success Trump has had, will imitate his cavalier attitude toward an established and agreed-upon set of facts. And, before long, the media will be helpless to fight for facts because the efforts to discredit what we do have been so sustained and successful.

That's not the future I want to be part of — as a journalist or as a citizen.