America's parallel universes
Newt Gingrich observed recently that American politics are now divided into "parallel universes," with each side fiercely competing for the right to make their reality true. In one universe, facts are relevant. In the other, feelings trump all.
The presidential election was a referendum on this theory of American politics. It turns out Newt was right. America just elected as her leader a man who wondered aloud whether, as president, he could start a super PAC to punish his enemies. A man caught on tape saying he could grab women by the genitals if he felt like it, who also said (on tape and on purpose) that he could shoot someone and his supporters would remain loyal. A man whose lies were constant, extensive, falsifiable, well-documented, competently reported on, and cleanly debunked — and who nevertheless managed to convince the electorate to regard his opponent as "the liar," just as he convinced many, some years ago, to regard President Obama as a Kenyan Muslim.
These are not normal events.This was not a normal election. And there can be no normalizing of what happened here, no pretense that ordinary explanations suffice.
The creeping horror for many as they watched the electoral results come in was not the typical disappointment people feel during a political defeat; it was a realization that there is no overlap any longer in our scoresheets for what constitutes a leader — or even a decent person. Half the country either had no knowledge of the monstrous things the president-elect has said and done or else they simply didn't care. The former is hard to believe, given the coverage Donald Trump received. The latter is heartbreaking, if true.
There is a third possibility: that half the country saw these things and simply refused to believe what they saw. Facebook and social media has flattened the distinction between information and disinformation. Even though his image was on video, even though his voice was on tape, many of Trump's supporters attributed the facts to the "liberal media," the outrageousness of Trump's actions as "spin."
Journalism cannot reach this world view. As responsible media outlets try to account for how every prediction went wrong, there will be waves of hand-wringing; there will be fatuous pronouncements on how "the elite" in the media failed to reckon with some deep unavailable truth about Trump's supporters.
This is wrong. Worse, it perpetuates the error it seeks to correct by making the conversation all about the media instead of this transformation of the American electorate.
Don't misunderstand me: Patronizing attitudes toward "flyover country" in the media certainly exist, and I'm no fan of those jokes, or of the condescension that plagues the way some people talk about rural America. But elitism is not the problem with journalism. There is nothing "elitist" about reporting incidents like the ones with which I began this piece. They are things that actually happened and Americans needed to know about them. To wriggle in discomfort during this national autopsy and posit that maybe giving Trump exposure was a mistake, or that lies are somehow not lies, or that Trump didn't say what he clearly said — to suggest, in short, that there is something "elitist" about reporting verbatim a candidate's statements and evaluating their truth content because this method somehow "talks down" to Trump voters? That is as absurd as it is actually condescending.
The voters deserved to be informed, and the information was printed. They chose to elect Trump anyway. Those are the facts, and it will do no good for "the media" to blame itself.
Indeed, if this election showed anything, it's that the handwringing can stop because "the media" has never mattered less. (Look no further than the number of newspapers and magazines that endorsed Clinton vs. Trump.) It could (and should) be argued that an element of the media wielded enormous influence, but you won't see activist right-wing outlets like Breitbart or Infowars examining their consciences, and they are not the group to which the phrase "the media" traditionally refers. They will continue to print that Clinton is a Satanist and Obama a Muslim and celebrate their post-factual victory in the post-factual world they have conjured into being.
As for the rest of the country: We absolutely must not normalize what happened on Election Day. Pretending the media is responsible for this outcome does just that — it presumes that America spent the election in one universe instead of two.
And if this election must be understood as an index of how far one America has drifted from the other, it also registers the extent to which one half of the electorate — the Trump half — has been transformed.
The things that used to matter to Trump's half of the electorate don't anymore. A good ground game doesn't matter. Political experience doesn't matter. Detailed policy proposals don't matter. Courtesy doesn't matter. A record of public service doesn't matter. Respecting Gold Star families and prisoners of war doesn't matter. Paying taxes doesn't matter. Releasing your taxes doesn't matter. Character doesn't matter. Even pretending to respect women's bodily autonomy doesn't matter.
Meanwhile, "political correctness," another bugaboo phrase of the right, has expanded through mission creep to include things Americans once considered morals or standards of decency. Thanks to Trump, it is now not just acceptable but admirable to slander entire races and creeds, interrupt moderators, scream at journalists, and call for the imprisonment of one's political enemies. These things are more than admirable, in fact, they are how you get elected president.
All of which brings us to the "two universes" of which Newt Gingrich speaks. In one, you believe in cause and effect and imagine that information has the power to influence decisions. You believe a candidate's tax returns might factor into someone's vote. You imagine a voter might want a detail or two concerning what would happen to health care after a candidate eliminated the Affordable Care Act.
To succeed in the other, you go with rumor. You assume that humans are base, tribal creatures in need of a target for their own resentments. The electorate is a crowd that will cheer on your name calling until they believe it's true.
It's no surprise that Trump subscribes to the latter view. He understands it better than most. The president-elect has shown himself to be a venal, petty, endlessly vindictive man who believes his failures are the fault of others. Allegedly a multi-billionaire, he believes he deserves more power than he already has. He has translated this fluency in anger and finger-pointing into a recruitment tool.
If you want to know how Trump won, you don't need sophisticated analysis. Just look up fearmongering and scapegoating and plant them in a post-fact universe. Say crime is up even though it's down and blame immigrants. Say our taxes are the highest in the world though they aren't and blame Democrats. Tell people they live in an economic hellscape even though the jobs numbers have steadily improved. Sit back as people all too easily translate their personal disappointments into blind hatred for whatever group Trump — in this fact-free, feelings-based universe — says caused them.
In Gingrich's political universe, honesty is for losers. You pay lip-service to it and tell outrageous, easily falsifiable lies. The more inflammatory, the better. As long as they make people feel something, they'll follow you.
Gingrich even offered examples. In an interview with Alisyn Camerota, he parried her attempt to fact-check Trump's claim that violent crime was rampant by saying that her FBI statistics on how violent crime was down across the country didn't matter: People felt it was up, and that mattered more. Feelings, he argued, are facts. "People feel more threatened," he said.
He has been proven correct. But here's what we mustn't lose sight of: What Gingrich described was not some rarefied America that exists but a recipe for a panicked, feelings-based America that you produce. People "feel" more threatened because a presidential candidate spent over a year telling them their lives are in danger, and they trust him. Fearmongering works.
Media, take comfort: There is nothing you could have done to prevent this. Gingrich's universe wasn't listening to you anyway. In Gingrich's reality, the FBI numbers on crime are a set of liberal statistics signifying nothing. Feelings are what's real. The Central Park Five should still be in prison — their exoneration through DNA evidence and the real murderer's confession be damned — because Trump feels they're guilty. Facts don't matter here. In such a universe, neither does reporting. "Forget the press, read the internet," as the president-elect said.
And the bigger half of America obeyed.