Trump, Mueller, and our post-facts society
The country's epistemic disjuncture — between right and left, Trump and #NeverTrump, pro-life and pro-choice, FOX and MSNBC, even progressive and liberal — is worrisome
Robert Mueller's final report to the attorney general of the United States found no evidence of a Russian conspiracy. This means, among other things, that our commander-in-chief is not the Manchurian Candidate.
Shouldn't we all be happy about this? I know I am. As one of those bores who insists on buying things made in the U.S. whenever possible, I for one prefer to have my elections bought strictly by American millionaires and billionaires, thank you. This is one thing we don't need to outsource.
Reading most of our esteemed newspapers or watching television since news Friday afternoon or so, you would have no idea that millions of words and thousands of on-air hours have been devoted over the last two years to an absurd hypothesis spread by a paid agent of Hillary Clinton's presidential campaign. In less time than it takes me to remember to bring the recycling out to the road, the story that has consumed the entire first half of Donald Trump's first term as president has been kicked to the curb.
You would think there would be a pause, however brief, for some quiet introspection from the leading purveyors. Instead we are now being treated to blithe dismissals of the special counsel investigation and its findings from the same people who spent years pretending that flubbing a timeline question posed by Mueller's team was a serious criminal offense. Collusion? Please, they are already saying. The Russia thing doesn't matter. We don't need some smart Republican lawyer to tell us that Trump is a crook. This is only the beginning of the very serious investigations into crimes he and people with whom he has had business dealings or shaken hands at least once may or may not have committed in the present millennium.
This is the definition of "fake news." It is the reason why the president calls journalists the "enemy of the people," not because they pose some kind of imminent existential threat to the American republic but because they have assumed for themselves a quasi-sacred role as the guardians of truth and justice in this country and approached it with roughly the amount of disinterestedness I would bring if I were asked to officiate the Michigan-Ohio state game this November. Journalists are not the enemy of the people. We are also not guardians of anything except maybe our own paychecks.
Many Americans have a hard time believing this because they have a somewhat childish understanding of how our political life is organized. We elect politicians to represent our interests, right? They do things. Journalists tell us about them and sometimes make comments about whether they are good or bad. On the basis of this we decide whether the politicians are doing a good job and vote accordingly. This is more or less how liberal democracy is supposed to work on paper.
In practice, though? No one persuades anyone on the basis of facts anymore because all of us are emboldened to reject facts that do not fit comfortably into our understanding of how the world should be organized. If a good guy turns out to be bad, he must have been a bad guy all along. If one bad guy decides that he agrees with me about the other, much worse, bad guy, he is a good guy, at least for now. Climate change is going to kill us all in 10 years. Climate change is fake. Abortion is a safe medical procedure and a constitutional right. Abortion is murder. The caravan is going to murder us in our beds. There is no caravan. Trump is a Russian agent. Trump is Cyrus the Great.
This epistemic disjuncture — between right and left, Trump and #NeverTrump, pro-life and pro-choice, FOX and MSNBC, even progressive and liberal — is worrisome. How are we supposed to have reasoned debates if we are not arguing about the same facts? Without a common frame of reference, politics devolves into shouting: endless imputations of bad faith and mutual anathemas and suggestions that this or that group is utterly beyond the pale. Which is all fine and dare I say, occasionally entertaining.
That is, until some lunatic takes the whole thing too seriously — or not seriously enough, if the irony-poisoned manifesto of the recent New Zealand shooter is any indication of how our new madmen see the post-fact world we are all living in. Right now it seems like a very scary place.