When Truth No Longer Matters

December 2016



See below for photo attribution.

Donald Trump was just elected president of the United States. Like so many millions of Americans – and many more millions of people around the world – I am in deep shock and distress. Throughout the long, sordid campaign I would periodically try to imagine what a Trump presidency would look like; each time, the picture was so upsetting and frightening that I would calm myself by saying, “But that’s not going to happen.”

But it did. We just elected to be the next president of the United States – the world’s most powerful nation – a reality TV star with no experience in government, and with a highly erratic temperament driven largely by a need for attention and a desire for revenge when he feels disrespected. Let that sink in.

The many things about Trump that made him such a “standout” as a presidential candidate have been well documented and much discussed. Lest we forget, in the process of trying to “normalize” our new president-elect, I’ll just quickly enumerate them again here: He has poor impulse control and often acts in an infantile manner; he is stunningly narcissistic[1]; he is a pathological liar[2]; he is racist[3]; he is misogynistic, bragging about being a sexual predator[4]; he’s a demagogue with fascistic tendencies, appealing to people’s fears and saying only he can fix things; he is a climate change denier who has stated that he would take the United States out of the Paris climate agreement[5]; and he has trashed the norms of our democracy – saying he wouldn’t necessarily respect the outcome of the election (unless he wins), questioning the legitimacy of the election (unless he wins), saying that he would try to jail his opponent, threatening journalists who write critically of him, and inciting violence against protesters at his rallies.

For many people, any one of those characteristics would be disqualifying. But those folks who voted for Trump were either willing to overlook those things or actually voted for Trump because of some of them. The latter group would include, for example, the racists, who felt Trump legitimized their racism, and the people for whom keeping immigrants out was the only thing that matters.

There are many things about this election – about Trump, now the president-elect, and about those who voted for him – that are profoundly upsetting. But in this essay I want to focus on just one: the assault on truth.

Much has been written about the differences between liberals and conservatives, Democrats and Republicans. It has been noted that the two “tribes” have different preferences concerning what kind of society they want to live in: liberals embrace the change that comes with a multi-ethnic, multi-racial, multi-cultural society, while conservatives are more comfortable with the kind of (largely white) society they grew up in, and think it’s a mistake to be too quick to cast off traditional values and impose change on traditional communities. Conservatives are more likely to favor authoritarianism (wanting a strong leader); liberals, not so much. Conservatives are more likely to emphasize religious rights, while liberals are more likely to emphasize the personal freedoms with which some “religious rights” conflict. And so forth. These are differences in preferences.

But in this last election – and, actually, increasingly for many years – Democrats and Republicans have differed on their facts, or “facts” – i.e., on what they believe to be true. It’s important here to distinguish between opinions and preferences, on the one hand, and facts, on the other. There’s nothing wrong with people having different opinions about things or different preferences. But there cannot be different contradictory facts. As the late Senator Daniel Patrick Moynihan is reputed to have said, “Everyone is entitled to their own opinions, but not their own facts.” President Obama was either born in the United States or he was not. Both cannot be true.

Sometimes the truth of something is established over time, as the evidence accumulates. Climate change is a good example. It took a while, and the accumulation of a lot of evidence, to confirm that climate change is real and human-caused. At this point, however, there is an overwhelming consensus about this among climate scientists, and virtually all the world’s leaders. And yet only 22 percent of Trump supporters believe this.[6] (The rest believe either that it isn’t human-caused (47 percent) or that it isn’t happening (30 percent).) At the risk of stating the obvious, it’s difficult to solve a problem if you don’t believe it exists.

Why do so many Trump supporters not believe that human-caused climate change is real? I would venture to guess it’s because they get their “information” from sources that aren’t actual news sources but are instead essentially propaganda sites – Fox News, Rush Limbaugh, conspiracy theorists like Alex Jones, etc. Watching or listening to those people is like being in an alternative universe with alternative “facts” (and lots of innuendo) – all of which creates an “alternative reality.” But while there can be many different preferences and many different opinions about things and many different lived experiences, there can really be only one truth where factual matters are concerned.

The problem of falsehoods and innuendo running rampant through our politics is, of course, not new. Politicians – and, in my opinion, particularly Republicans – have noticed that if a lie is repeated often enough, people will start to believe it. As the saying goes, “A lie can travel halfway around the world while the truth is putting on its shoes” (attributed to Mark Twain – falsely, as it turns out[7], but the false attribution has traveled halfway around the world…).

When it comes to falsehood in the world of politics, however, Donald Trump is in a class by himself. We have elected a man who believes all sorts of crazy conspiracy theories – and has himself promoted a prominent one (birtherism) with racist overtones.

Worse, he is a pathological liar. I’m not talking about the usual “bending” of the truth that is, unfortunately, common among politicians. I’m talking about really blatant, I’ll-just-say-whatever-I-feel-like lies. These lies are often 180 degrees from the actual recorded truth – e.g., Trump is recorded saying X and later says he never said X. It’s the kind of lying that makes one question the psychology of the person spouting the lies. The examples of Trump’s lies are too numerous to enumerate here, but there are many enumerations elsewhere.[8]

If we lived in a sane, rational, and reasonably well-informed country, Trump’s pathological lying would have spelled doom for his campaign. Once people saw that he lies incessantly, they would realize they couldn’t trust anything he says. And that would have been the end of that. After all, how can you believe anything a pathological liar says – even things you want to be true?

But we don’t live in a sane, rational, reasonably well-informed country, apparently. An indication of just how “off” this country has become came in the form of a recent poll. As Nicholas Kristoff reported in September:

“A CNN/ORC poll this month found that by a margin of 15 percentage points, voters thought Donald Trump was “more honest and trustworthy” than Hillary Clinton. Let’s be frank: This public perception is completely at odds with all evidence.”

As I wrote elsewhere (see here), “At odds with all evidence” doesn’t begin to do justice to the situation.

But Kristoff writes for the New York Times, and many of the folks who voted for Trump have written off the Times as a credible source of news or opinion – a fact that one conservative radio host now notes with horror (and regret):

“”We’ve basically eliminated any of the referees, the gatekeepers. There’s nobody. Let’s say that Donald Trump basically makes whatever you want to say, whatever claim he wants to make. And everybody knows it’s a falsehood,” he explained. ‘The big question of my audience, it is impossible for me to say that. ‘By the way, you know it’s false.’ And they’ll say, ‘Why? I saw it on Allen B. West.’ Or they’ll say, ‘I saw it on a Facebook page.’ And I’ll say, ‘The New York Times did a fact check.’ And they’ll say, Oh, that’s The New York Times. That’s bullshit.””[9]

More recently, Paul Waldman writes along the same lines about how Trump’s complete disinterest in truth is damaging the role of the media in reporting the (objective) facts:

“Here’s how the cycle works. First, Trump says something outrageously false, but which his supporters either believe already or would like to believe. Then Trump gets criticized in the media for it, and his supporters say, ‘There they go again, the liberal anti-Trump media.’ Instead of convincing everyone that the claim was false, the criticism only reinforces for Trump’s fans the idea that nothing the media says can be believed, which further undermines their ability to act as neutral arbiters in any debate. … The entire sequence of events enables Trump to create a meta-message, which is that there’s no such thing as truth and no such thing as genuine authority.”

So we now have a situation in which there is no universally trusted source of news. It cannot possibly get worse than that.

Yes it can. Due to the wonders of the Internet and social media, it is now easy to disseminate “fake news” (for evil purposes or just for kicks) and have it spread widely or, as the Internet-savvy say, “go viral.”[10]

The New York Times (if you still trust it) reported on a recent case of a fake news story about protesters being bused to demonstrations against president-elect Trump. The story was false, but it went viral and “fueled a nationwide conspiracy theory.” Needless to say, the story fed the anger of Trump supporters towards those on the other side – and further confirmed their resolve to vote for Trump.

And, according to Paul Horner, an “impresario of a Facebook fake-news empire,” Trump supporters are particularly gullible – or just lazy about fact-checking stories they read:

“Honestly, people are definitely dumber. They just keep passing stuff around. Nobody fact-checks anything anymore — I mean, that’s how Trump got elected. He just said whatever he wanted, and people believed everything, and when the things he said turned out not to be true, people didn’t care because they’d already accepted it. It’s real scary. I’ve never seen anything like it. …

 “My sites were picked up by Trump supporters all the time. I think Trump is in the White House because of me. His followers don’t fact-check anything — they’ll post everything, believe anything. His campaign manager posted my story about a protester getting paid $3,500 as fact. Like, I made that up.”

Oh joy. People are now making their living by composing fake news stories that are easily disseminated to a wide audience via Facebook and Twitter and are eagerly consumed by folks who cannot distinguish fake from real and most likely don’t care about which is which. If it tells them something they want to believe is true, it’s as good as true.

I’ve now heard a variety of reasons why Trump supporters voted for him – some directly from those voters themselves. I’ve heard about white working class pain and the loss of jobs in Rust Belt towns. One Trump supporter in Jonestown, Pennsylvania, interviewed on NPR, said that Trump promised to get those jobs back, and that’s why she voted for him. The program then cut to a tape of Trump at a rally saying that he was going to get those jobs back. He repeated it for emphasis. He said it with utter confidence. I heard that, and I thought, “How?” The Trump supporter heard that and presumably thought, “Yes!!”

But any economist will tell you that those jobs aren’t coming back. And the mining jobs aren’t coming back either (and if they did, it would be horrendous for the planet).[11] There is no evidence at all that Trump cared one whit about the working class before he ran for president. (There is, however, some evidence to the contrary.) Only a con man would so blithely promise something he cannot possibly deliver. Only desperate people who don’t care about evidence and disdain expertise would believe him.

Of course, I’m not the only one who has noticed this assault on truth. In fact, it’s gotten so extreme in the age of Trump that it has spawned a new word: “post-truth” – which, according to a recent piece in the Washington Post’s “The Fix,” was named 2016 word of the year by Oxford Dictionaries:

“It’s official: Truth is dead. Facts are passé. … Oxford Dictionaries has selected “post-truth” as 2016’s international word of the year, after the contentious “Brexit” referendum and an equally divisive U.S. presidential election caused usage of the adjective to skyrocket … In this case, the “post-” prefix doesn’t mean “after” so much as it implies an atmosphere in which a notion is irrelevant …

 “We concede all politicians lie,” conservative columnist Jennifer Rubin wrote in September. “Nevertheless, Donald Trump is in a class by himself.” … She cited The Atlantic’s David Frum, who described Trump’s dishonesty in May as “qualitatively different than anything before seen from a major-party nominee.”

 “None of this seemed to matter significantly to those who supported him.”

Do I need to elaborate on how dangerous this is? It’s as if the whole country is in free fall, unanchored to any actual agreed-upon facts, with a good portion of the population feeling no need at all for evidence to support what they believe or what their candidate of choice tells them. If it feels good, if it’s what they want to hear, that’s good enough for them. Just think what could happen if an unhinged demagogue were to enter the scene, telling folks that he – and only he – can solve their problems.

Oh, wait…


Photo credit: Jamelle Bouie. https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by/2.0/ Text added.

[1] There has been much written about this, but all you have to do is listen to him talk to see this. It’s hard not to notice.

[2] This has been abundantly demonstrated by fact-checkers, who have never worked so hard.

[3] Trump has a history of racism in his own business dealings, has legitimized racism in his fans, and pals around with white supremacists. Steve Bannon, who was prominent in the Trump campaign and was just named as his “chief strategist,” was executive chair of Breitbart News — “which according to several media and people, Bannon himself included, is indirectly associated with the Internet-based alternative right, or alt-right,” a white nationalist movement. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Steve_Bannon

[4] http://www.npr.org/2016/10/07/497087141/donald-trump-caught-on-tape-making-vulgar-remarks-about-women

[5] In case you were thinking that that might just be bluster, he has appointed Myron Ebell, a well known climate denier, to head up his EPA demolition transition team. For a good (if depressing) overview of what Trump’s – and the Republican Party’s – win is likely to mean for the environment, and the whole planet, see http://www.vox.com/science-and-health/2016/11/14/13582562/trump-gop-climate-environmental-policy

[6] http://www.pewresearch.org/fact-tank/2016/10/10/clinton-trump-supporters-worlds-apart-on-views-of-climate-change-and-its-scientists/ . This contrasts significantly with the beliefs of Clinton supporters, 70 percent of whom believe climate change is real and human-caused.

[7] See http://quoteinvestigator.com/2014/07/13/truth/ ; http://freakonomics.com/2011/04/07/quotes-uncovered-how-lies-travel/

[8] I gave a list of sources for this in another (related) essay – see footnote 6 in “Footloose and Fact-Free.” Just putting “Trump” and “lies” into Google, you can get others – such as: http://www.nytimes.com/2016/09/27/opinion/campaign-stops/the-lies-trump-told.html

[9] http://www.rawstory.com/2016/08/conservative-radio-host-weve-created-this-monster-of-fact-hating-right-wing-voters/

[10] There are several good pieces on this. NPR has an interesting one that is worth a listen: http://www.npr.org/sections/alltechconsidered/2016/11/23/503146770/npr-finds-the-head-of-a-covert-fake-news-operation-in-the-suburbs

[11] Paul Krugman gives a brief explanation of why these jobs are not coming back – see http://www.nytimes.com/2016/11/25/opinion/the-populism-perplex.html?action=click&pgtype=Homepage&clickSource=story-heading&module=opinion-c-col-left-region&region=opinion-c-col-left-region&WT.nav=opinion-c-col-left-region&_r=0 .


2 comments on “When Truth No Longer Matters

  1. Jackie B says:

    Thanks as always , Ellen. We’re 32 years late, but George Orwell was right on point…

  2. Dear Ellen, there is a stubborn opposition to actual facts among our fellow liberals and environmentally conscious folk. The only dispatchable energy technologies with low gaseous emissions, and indeed extremely low rate of solid waste, are hydro and nuclear. During 2000 and 2001, California discovered that even hydro is too weather-dependent, as of course is the hopelessly inadequate notion of biofuels. Winter snow-pack supplies the longest lasting reserve of water behind the dams, which amounts to being stored energy that can be called upon to serve sudden demand peaks.
    I was working for the FERC at that time, and Congress had been dominated with people who imagined that the energy market, if government regulation were minimized, was a free market.
    Adam Smith, who wrote on the “Wealth of Nations” while professor of Moral Philosophy at Glasgow University, would not have agreed. His chief criterion for a free market is absence of monopoly or anything like it.
    So what happened was that it was possible for the operators and owners of gas turbines to charge ransom level prices for the maintenance of “spinning reserve”,.
    That’s where the guarantor runs a gas turbine of 500 MW maximum capacity, on idle like a car at a traffic light, so that a sudden load of up to 500 MW can be met by it soon enough.
    The synchronicity of a system alternating in voltage 60 times a second can be disarranged by differences of slowing in response to overload. “Soon enough” means before that can do any harm. Note that two equal generators out of phase by 1/120th of a second cancel each other out, and do worse things than that.
    In short, if zero power capable of suddenly rising very sharply is worth enough to bankrupt some of the distribution companies, how much is it worth to have “free” power capable of dropping equally sharply?
    There is another established fact, so little known that I learned it after I retired in 2002.
    Three weeks before Chernobyl, in April 1986 the fast neutron, liquid-metal cooled reactor EBR-2 of the Integral Fast Reactor program was the second US experimental breeder to prove itself by actual test, immune to the meltdown risk of loss-of-coolant-pumping-power.
    Note that a breeder reactor consumes slightly less than a ton of fuel, producing a ton of short-lived waste, per 1000 MW-years of electric energy production.
    But even at present, the USA annually produces 2500 tons of slightly used fuel that is called “spent” or, calumniously, “deadly long-lived toxic nuclear waste”. For the first hour after extraction from the reactor, it is very hot and radioactive. After a day, less so — because radioactivity is correctly attributed to radioactive _decay_, and so on.
    In 2013, the US fossil fuel production of electrical power produced 200 thousand tons of sulfur dioxide, and 100 thousand tons of nitrogen oxides, both of which were released to the air, and cause smog, lung damage, and acid rain.

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