In the New York Times this week a former conservative radio host from Wisconsin made the compelling argument that in Trump’s ‘alternative facts’ world, lies – even when they are blatant and proven to be untrue – do nothing to discredit the man due mostly to the fact that he has taken the label of liar, so often levied at him, and flung it back at those media sources who dare dissent from the White House line.
This has essentially broken up the world of journalism into two de facto camps: those who acquiesce and those who don’t.
The ones who side with the President get preferential treatment – as Breitbart has with the elevation of Steve Bannon – and those who defy the myriad lies emanating from The White House find themselves further alienated from the public at large, already weary and suspicious of media, as the President of the United States calls their credibility into question.
To say this is not how that is supposed to work may well turn out to be the defining legacy of this administration. Trump/Pence 2017: the year truth was assassinated.
On the conservative right, this is nothing new. FOX news has a long history of heavy bias and demonstrable falsehoods which has done nothing to curtail its popularity in those parts of the country where echoing preconceived notions has traditionally been highly effective.
Yet on the left – the people supposedly more rational, more intellectual, more open to changing their minds based on evidence – this new world wherein there exists so much information and yet so little truth is relatively new. It is not difficult to change minds in this demographic with demonstrable, quantitative facts, but there is division within the party over subjective truths, and even what, now, constitutes the greater good.
This is due in no small part to Hillary Clinton losing the election and Bernie Sanders being snubbed by the Democratic National Convention denying the United States both the best candidate for the Presidency, but also heralding the rise of Donald Trump. Yet those are not the only factors in the chaos. In-fighting over where the Democratic platform should be in terms of the issues and confusion, frustration, and even bewilderment at the (bad) news coming from the White House like a torrent is diverting attention to individual issues while the roots of those issues remain a step removed from the backlash.
Trump, and Bannon, are masters of this game. If, tomorrow, news emerged that the Trump administration were to allow the harpooning of manatees in Florida estuaries, some part of the Democratic party base would be out in force making a lot of noise as pictures of a butchered protected species would be plastered on the news 24/7 and clogging up social media feeds. Behind that smokescreen Trump could single-handedly appoint the Grand Dragon of the Ku Klux Klan to his team and it would someone garner less attention and less outrage. If pressed he would likely deny all or part of that reality and the story would be the lie rather than the fact.
I am afraid there is no easy solution. We must all strive to be clear-headed and discerning as consumers of news, but that is not an option that is likely. Similarly, expecting news media outlets to do all the heavy lifting for us is a recipe doomed to fail as news organizations are businesses just like any other and popular lies sell more add revenue than the truth.
The only people who are – and have been – doing a good job with the news are, ironically, comedy news shows whose satirical take on events is often more insightful, and more fun, than the horrible, dry, mainstream news. Jon Stewart was the King of this for years, but in his wake Stephen Colbert, Saturday Night Live’s Alec Baldwin, Trevor Noah, and Britt-come-American John Oliver on “Last Week Tonight” have taken up that torch and run with it. Yet these shows too – for all their tremendous value – are democratic echo chambers. Their message, and their humor, are not reaching those places where they most need to be heard. Though, even if they did, I doubt they would change many minds, not least because that demographic has – ironically – a hard time telling satire apart from lies.
Again, in the era of “your facts are no match for my beliefs” we cannot reasonably expect to get anywhere by hammering those who are unwilling to hear reason with more reason as though there exists a tipping point for the zealot where his double-down, fingers-in-the-ears, adherence to what he is “supposed to” believe will suddenly give way to an intellectual awakening. Some are not thusly blessed, others are willfully defiant, and their masters fan the flames of the latter whilst legislating the perpetuation of the former.
To trot out a tiresome, oft-quoted, but difficult to source observation*:
“Religion is perceived by the wise as false, by the foolish as true, and by the powerful as useful.” (Or some derivation thereof)
So now the religion is skepticism of the truth, and you’ll note the powerful (or rulers, as the quote is oft written) find that very useful indeed.