It always happens the same way. Donald Trump tweets some outrageous lie — say, that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote (while losing the electoral vote) because "millions" of people voted "illegally" — and then, right on cue, Twitter explodes into sputtering outrage at the president-elect's brazen disregard for truth and penchant for blatant conspiracy-mongering. Soon media outlets post a flood of stories about this very unpresidential presidential tweet, with liberal critics evaluating these articles primarily on whether their headlines are sufficiently sweeping in labeling Trump's statement a lie.
This reaction is understandable, maybe even admirable. It grows out of the deep devotion of journalists to the truth. Yes, they often fall short of that standard, display various forms of bias, and so forth. But the norms of the profession valorize accuracy, verification of facts, and fairness to sources — which is why reputable media outlets post corrections when an error is found in a story and strive mightily to avoid making mistakes in the first place. When presented with a public figure saying something blatantly false, the instinctual response of the journalist is to call it out as a lie, with the assumption being that those who read the story will share their disgust at the deception.
But what if the rest of the country doesn't share the journalistic devotion to the truth? Or rather, what if a significant segment of the population no longer trusts any authority — journalistic, scientific, scholarly, political — to serve as an impartial, fair-minded arbiter of what is true and what is false?
That, I'm afraid, is where we are today, led by the man who will become the 45th president on Jan. 20, encouraged by a range of technological and cultural trends, and perhaps abetted by Russian intelligence services. Journalists should — must — continue to tell the public when an assertion is untrue. But they should also be aware that the efficacy of doing so is declining fast — and that there may be nothing that they, or anyone else, can do about it.
Most mainstream media responses to Trump treat his outrageous statements on the model of propaganda: as an official, authoritative lie that must be dispelled by exposure to the light of truth. Those who dig deeper almost invariably search for motives. Why, for instance, would Trump say that millions voted illegally when that seems to strengthen rather than undermine the case for a recount? Is he so strategically inept that he doesn't see this? Could he be trying to inflate his vote totals in order to enhance his perceived legitimacy, as dictators often do? Or might he be laying the groundwork for a massive effort at curtailing voting rights? Or perhaps there's no rational intent at all and Trump is merely tweeting impulsively without regard for the strategic consequences?
In every case, the goal is to discern the intent of the propaganda: How is Trump trying to manipulate us with his latest lie? What's his goal in trying to convince us that his inflammatory fictions are true?
This misses the point. Trump's intent with any given tweet is irrelevant. He isn't a propagandist out to convince the nation as a whole to embrace his positions. He's a sower of chaos out to reduce us to squabbling, impotent factions.
Every Trump lie — going all the way back to his baseless claim that Barack Obama was born in Kenya and so should never have been allowed to run for president in the first place — has two audiences. The first consists of those who either already believe the lie or who are predisposed to believe it because of a tendency to accept the truth of conspiracy theories. These are people who get the bulk of their news from the National Enquirer and outlets much worse, like Weekly World News, InfoWars, and the rapidly proliferating plague of fake news sites. These people combine radical skepticism of professional, journalistic media outlets with stunning credulity about information disseminated by "alternative" sources of news. Trump jumpstarted his political career by appealing to and activating this subset of voters.
Then there's the second audience — the rest of us. We're the ones who roll our eyes when Trump accuses Ted Cruz's father of involvement with the assassination of John F. Kennedy or asserts without a shred of evidence that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote because of widespread election fraud. We aren't persuaded by the claims, and I doubt very much that Trump thinks there's any hope that we will be.
But then what is the point? Journalist Michael Weiss touched on it in a recent tweet about the cumulative effect of fake news, the point of which isn't to "convince you of something but to make you skeptical of everything and too demoralized, cynical to care anymore.”
Trump and his de facto allies in the fake news business aren't trying to propagandize the country with a coherent counter-truth that stands in opposition to a reality of indisputable facts that can then be marshaled to puncture and dispel the official disinformation campaign. On the contrary, they're acting in ways that deny the distinction between truth and lies altogether, transforming the public sphere into an anarchistic free-for-all permeated by a constantly churning swirl of claims and counter-claims, with no authority able to establish or maintain the standing needed to debunk any of it.
You have your truth (InfoWars) and I have mine (The New York Times), and who's to say which is right?
The dissidents from past totalitarianisms were able to puncture ideological lies by appealing to a common truth that was concealed or obscured by propaganda. But in the world Trump is working to build — a world of epistemological chaos, in which every party and faction has its own "truth" and a slew of media outlets to spread and promote its distinctive set of "facts" — the greatest impediment to the unlimited exercise of government power will have been removed, or at least badly degraded.
Every time Donald Trump lies on any subject at all, he moves us one step closer to the realization of such a world. And none of us has the slightest idea of how to make it stop.