How America skidded from 'truthiness' to 'post-truth'
Eleven years ago, in the first episode of his show on Comedy Central, Stephen Colbert did a bit about "truthiness" that came to stand for the George W. Bush era. "We are a divided nation," Colbert said, "between those who think with their head and those who know with their heart." What mattered wasn't the truth in some objective, verifiable sense, but what felt true to you — or, as it happened, to a president who was unusually reliant on communiques from his gut.
Many Democrats would surely be quite happy to return to a time when they worried merely about the effect Bush's truthiness might have on public debate. Because now America is confronting a new dimension of this problem, brought on by the 2016 campaign. We've truly entered an era we can call post-truth, which was recently named Oxford Dictionaries' Word of the Year for 2016. It isn't just that too many people are finding their own truths. It's that an entire apparatus has sprung up to make truth less meaningful and less influential.
There is, of course, no greater evidence than the fact that Donald Trump was elected president of the United States. Simply put, there has never been a candidate, Democrat or Republican, who lied more frequently, more egregiously, more brazenly than Trump. (The outrage de jour is Trump baselessly, irresponsibly, and falsely tweeting, "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.")
Other candidates have said things that weren't true, but even when they did it was obvious they valued a reputation for honesty and tried to maintain it. Trump, in one of the many ghastly insights that propelled him to where he has come, realized that it just didn't matter. If you told enough lies and told them shamelessly enough — even continuing when a dozen journalists corrected you and made the documentary proof available for all to see — after a while those nattering nabobs in the fact-checking business would grow dispirited, and you would pay no price for your mendacity.
Toronto Star reporter Daniel Dale, perhaps in penance for horrifying sins committed in a previous life, took it upon himself to document the daily outpouring of Trump lies during the fall campaign, and it quickly became a Sisyphean task. Over 28 of his daily tallies, Dale counted no fewer than 560 lies — an average of 20 per day. Trump's lies were big and small, specific and general, about the past and the present, about himself and his opponent. He made up statistics, he told stories about things that never happened, he denied saying what he had said and claimed others said things they hadn't.
With Trump, the most deeply held beliefs of today could be discarded tomorrow, in what amounted to a national gaslighting. It's as if he believes that the American electorate is like one of those unfortunate patients who because of an injury or illness to the brain have been left unable to create long-term memories. Tell 'em anything — they won't know the difference.
Alongside Trump's personal spew of falsehood, American voters were deluged with fake news on Facebook. Though the stories originated from all over the world and with various intentions on their creators' part — often they were just looking to make money — we can thank our friends in Moscow for their spectacular reach. As The Washington Post reported, "The flood of 'fake news' this election season got support from a sophisticated Russian propaganda campaign that created and spread misleading articles online with the goal of punishing Democrat Hillary Clinton, helping Republican Donald Trump, and undermining faith in American democracy, say independent researchers who tracked the operation." Stories claiming that Clinton sold weapons to ISIS or that the pope endorsed Trump were viewed and shared millions of times.
In an election where a demagogue was running against a candidate desperate for voters to use their capacity for rational judgment, it wasn't even necessary for voters to believe the insane stories and ludicrous conspiracy theories. It was more than enough to make them confused and disoriented. As Brian Phillips wrote after the election, this is exactly the situation in which a president like Trump can thrive. "Confusion is an authoritarian tool; life under a strongman means not simply being lied to but being beset by contradiction and uncertainty until the line between truth and falsehood blurs and a kind of exhaustion settles over questions of fact... Authoritarianism wants to convince its supporters that nothing is true, that the whole machinery of truth is an intolerable imposition on their psyches, and thus that they might as well give free rein to their fantasies."
It helps that his party is so willing to follow along as Trump discards all norms and standards of reasonable behavior. As their champion charts out a presidency in which enriching himself will be a central goal — in contravention of 240 years of American practice, not to mention the most basic conception of ethical behavior — Republicans seem to have decided that nothing matters, so long as they get their conservative judges, tax breaks for the wealthy, and a dismantled safety net.
So what if Trump is now discarding half of what he promised his rabid fans? Only the naïve would think he actually meant what he told them during the campaign. It now seems that lots of the time even his supporters didn't believe him when he was telling them he'd build a wall or toss Hillary Clinton in jail. In September, Salena Zito noted that when he told outlandish lies and journalists got exasperated, they were missing the point. "When he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally," she wrote. When she offered up this analysis to Trump, he replied, "Now that's interesting." One can only imagine the wheels that were set turning in his head.
But by then he already knew that he could get away with anything. And why would he act any differently as president? The campaign taught Donald Trump many things, about his own impunity and the public's capacity for sorting the false from the true. The fact is, they just can't do it — and if they refuse to believe the journalists whose job it is to explain it to them, then the truth doesn't have a fighting chance. All it took to get there was a politician willing to attack the truth with enough enthusiasm, and allies who would undermine it from every possible direction at once. Who knows where it'll be four years from now.