The President has been in office for six weeks, and his administration has already developed an overarching theme that has colored its actions so far. If there has been any consistent philosophical underpinning of Trump’s governance, it is some kind of perverted postmodernism, where the existence of truth and the very concept of objectivity are subjected to relentless attack. Trump seems consumed by the goal of making sure that Americans have no common foundation of fact off of which to operate. He is the alternative fact president.
Most recently, Trump accused President Obama of wiretapping his phones in the run up to the election. This would be a scandal of truly Earth-shattering proportion. Fortunately though, it appears that the claim is simply not true. Trump seems to be basing his claim not on the vast intelligence apparatus he wields, but rather on an article from Breitbart. Outside the realm of Internet conspiracies, more trustworthy sources are contradicting the President. Several Republican senators have said that there is no evidence of Trump’s explosive claim. General James Clapper, who was Director of National Intelligence when the wiretap would have occurred, said on Sunday that “there was no such wiretap activity mounted against the President-elect at the time — or [Trump] as a candidate — or against his campaign.” And FBI Director James Comey has asked the Department of Justice to publicly reject Trump’s claim as false.
In so doing, the President is causing enormous damage to the presidency, as well as the media and the intelligence community. One of these two camps must not be telling the truth; there are no two ways about it. The public has to decide which set of institutions has lost credibility, the nation’s leader or the guardians of information. Or worse yet, they may be convinced that no one is really telling the truth, and that they don’t have access to objective facts.
This situation is only a continuation of Trump’s protracted effort to discredit credible institutions. He has famously called CNN, the New York Times, the Washington Post, and others categorically “fake news.” He has forwarded claims about a mythical voter fraud epidemic. He has dismissed court opinions as the shenanigans of “so-called” judges. He has rejected the scientific consensus on climate change, instead saying that it is a false concept “created by and for the Chinese.” He has shouted demonstrably false claims about the size of his inaugural crowd.
Each one of these episodes sees the same mutually destructive battle of credibility. Either the President is lying or the journalists are lying. Either the President is lying or the scientists are lying. So on and so forth. A properly functioning democracy needs strong institutions. Trust in these institutions is a key element of that strength.
The end result of all of these lies is the further erosion of public trust in almost anything, a decline that has been taking place for many years. The American public has lost trust in the government, the media, law enforcement, educators, businesses, and religious leaders. Increasingly, no one is to really be believed.
The impact of this is that public discourse becomes virtually impossible. A discourse cannot be had without a mutual recognition of reality. If Trump is successful, people will only retreat further into the ideological bubbles that the modern media enables. And if there is no way to mobilize a public discussion beyond self-reinforcing polemics, there will be no way to hold the powerful to account. For example, Democrats are three times likelier to think that Trump’s ties to Russia are important than Republicans. What should be a general agreement on government accountability is instead a partisan issue, ultimately rooted in a refusal by one side to acknowledge the trustworthiness of investigative journalism.
And this abandonment of institutions has come with particularly bad timing. A variety of economic factors have put journalism on the decline. Fewer people read the news. Fewer people watch non-talk-show news. News organizations hire fewer reporters. The Pew Research Center summarizes that “the pressures facing America’s newsrooms have intensified to nothing less than a reorganization of the industry itself.” The shrinking of the journalism industry will only compound the degradation of public discourse by removing the source of facts for those of us still convinced of their existence. But while you personally can’t change the President’s harmful rhetoric, you can help end the decline of journalism (hint, hint, hint, hint).
Louis Brandeis is quoted as saying that “sunlight is the best disinfectant.” Unfortunately, the President is hell bent on blocking out the sun.
Photo credit AP