Christine Emba is a Post opinions writer and editor.
“This story has been floating around on the Internet for a while” is a line that rarely inspires confidence.
Nevertheless, that’s how Sarah Huckabee Sanders kicked off Monday’s White House press briefing. The press secretary spent nearly five minutes reading from the lectern a lengthy and convoluted allegory about 10 reporters splitting a $100 bar tab, apparently to explain the logic behind the Republican tax plan. It was baffling. Later research by skeptical reporters revealed that the story has been circulating in and out of inboxes since at least 2003. It’s even been investigated by urban legend website Snopes.
Not to be outdone in the “email forwards from an elderly uncle” department, Donald Trump Jr. the next day tweeted a picture of his 4-year-old daughter in a Halloween costume, ostensibly to illustrate the downsides of alternative economic systems. “I’m going to take half of Chloe’s candy tonight & give it to some kid who sat at home. It’s never to [sic] early to teach her about socialism.”
That particular analogy has also been making its way around the Web for some time. Most recently, it appeared on conspiracy theorist Alex Jones’s Prison Planet website the day before Trump Jr. tweeted his own version. Econ lessons from a Pizzagate truther’s viral video: trustworthy!
And then, of course, there’s President Trump himself. The president appears to get all his news and policy advice from “Fox & Friends,” a morning show that traffics in unsubstantiated rumor and echo-chamber thinking. On Twitter, he retweets bogus crime statistics and memes from alt-right message boards.
We’re in the era of the chain-letter administration.
Instead of justifying policy through facts and data (which are being deleted from government websites as we speak), the administration and its allies rely on viral stories and dubious parables to inform the public. And while allegory, anecdote and analogy can be useful in explaining complex policy issues, this administration uses them in all the worst ways.
For one thing, the stories are often just wrong. In his tweet, Trump Jr. used the word “socialism” to describe being forced to share the fruits of your labor (broadly defined, considering how trick-or-treating works) with a stranger. Except, that’s not socialism. The term has a specific meaning: government control of the means of production and of the distribution of goods and services. It’s not the same thing as coerced sharing.
Sanders’s bar tab analogy went similarly wide of the mark. Her tale was of a wealthy, generous beer drinker forced to abandon his nightly draft because of the loud complaints of his poor, overly entitled companions. But the story conveniently elided both the mathematics of income distribution and Trump’s original promise that tax reform would focus on helping the middle class rather than the wealthy.
Of course, the point of these fables was never to provide an accurate explanation of policy issues. Rather, the Trump team uses chain-email fabulism to advance its own agenda and promote a skewed interpretation of reality.
Trump Jr.’s socialism tweet is meant to darken the public perception of any sort of redistribution, associating it with stealing candy from babies rather than undergirding a functioning health insurance system or social-welfare programs to help the less fortunate. Sanders’s beer story was less an explanation of how taxation works than an attempt to garner sympathy for the wealthy. The end goal is to persuade anyone listening in from the middle class not to grumble when the tax cut for those in higher brackets is larger than for them.
These stories would fall apart if anyone questioned their premise. The slightest bit of research would provide a more accurate explanation of how taxes and socialism work and poke holes in the misinformation issuing from the White House. But the success of these well-worn analogies relies upon and entrenches the lack of critical thinking that’s become all too common since Trump’s political career began.
That’s what makes this brand of storytelling so pernicious — and what makes these tales seem more plausible than ever before.
When all news is fake and all reporting is leaks and lies, people still need to be informed. That vacuum is filled by folk wisdom shared by family and friends, or rumors and information shortcuts circulated by those who seem as though they’re in the know. And there’s no reason to spend your own time searching for truth when you’ve been informed by a reputable-enough source who happens to confirm your biases perfectly.
But the “wisdom” emanating from the White House these days comes from those who aren’t wise at all. That’s what your delete key is for.