A Post-Truth Presidency

"'Post-truth' is just a new spin on an old concept."
11/28/2016 08:30 pm ET Updated Nov 28, 2016
Mike Segar / Reuters

We’re approaching the end of the year, so we can all expect to hear lots of “the year that was” items in the news. One of the earliest entries in this news genre came from across the pond:

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, according to the Oxford University Press.

Now, “post-truth” is just a new spin on an old concept. Stephen Colbert was feeling a bit peeved last week, since “post-truth” is just another way to express Colbert’s own famous neologism, “truthiness.” But other than coining a new term for it, the idea behind Colbert’s (or Oxford’s) snappy word certainly isn’t new. Back in World War II, it was known as “The Big Lie.” The basic idea is an easy one to grasp: believe the hype, not the facts. Repeat a falsehood enough times, and a whole bunch of people start to believe it. Once they do, proving it wrong using facts just doesn’t seem to work.

Donald Trump might be called “post-truthiness defined” (with apologies to both Oxford and Colbert). Whatever Donald Trump believes at any given moment is truth, to him. Furthermore, even with mountains of evidence to contradict him, whatever he believes at the moment is always what he believed. Any videotape showing this not to be true is dismissed as the “crooked media” misunderstanding or misrepresenting Trump’s true beliefs.

This was on full display this weekend, as Trump took to Twitter to (confusingly) argue both sides of an issue simultaneously. First, he called the recount effort in Wisconsin, launched by Green Party candidate Jill Stein, as a “scam.” Then, apparently still miffed that Hillary Clinton beat him in the popular vote by over two million votes, Trump bizarrely tweeted (without a shred of actual proof) that, if the “millions who voted illegally” weren’t counted, then he, in fact, had won the popular vote. So in the space of hours, Trump is arguing that recounting votes is a scam, but also that millions voted illegally ― confirming all his bluster in the weeks leading up to the election that it would be “rigged.” Trump (and, to be honest, most of the media) doesn’t see any contradiction in those stances. He’s taking all sides of the issue, so he can later claim to have been right no matter what happens. Post-truthiness at its finest!

Believing the hype rather than the facts, once again, is nothing new in politics. The fact that a leader believes something that is not true also influences everyone around him. Anyone attempting to curry favor with such a leader will have to prove they too fervently believe the hype over the facts. This feedback loop only serves to reinforce the falsehood in the leader himself. This is so well-known we even have a myth available as an example, which is used to warn children about such people. Hans Christian Anderson’s “The Emperor’s New Clothes” accurately predicts the consequences of a leader believing a lie and forcing all those around him to believe it as well. Trump’s not naked, he’s just got magic new clothes that nobody can see.

At his core, Donald Trump shows a dangerous instability that could have far-reaching consequences for millions. New York Times reporters who met with Trump last week in an on-the-record interview session revealed part of this instability when they said Trump does actually appear malleable on some core issues, and that whatever he says at the moment, he fully believes for that moment. Trump sitting down with a general who warned that waterboarding and other torture was ineffectual and counterproductive resulted in Trump drastically shifting his own position. Perhaps, though, if Trump sits down with proponents of torture, he’ll change his mind again.

The really scary part of this is how Trump expects everyone else to just accept his statements at face value and by doing so to totally ignore all his previous statements to the contrary. If Trump believes it now, then he always must have believed it. Hey, who you gonna believe, Trump or all those lyin’ video tapes?

Trump proved himself a master at these mental gymnastics on the campaign trail. Back then, it didn’t really matter whether Trump reversed himself on any particular issue, because his supporters would blandly tell you it was Trump’s style in speaking rather than what he was actually saying that they admired. They weren’t about to believe (or even read) what some pointy-headed media factchecker had to say about things, since the media was so crooked and so anti-Trump. But this will change as president. When Trump makes up his mind about something, then there are going to be real-world consequences. Whatever course of action Trump decides upon will influence a lot of lives. However, if Trump later on decides to abruptly reverse his position, reversing course in the real world will take longer than dashing off a tweet in the middle of the night. Trump loathes ever admitting he was wrong, but when such a reversal means reversing all the real-world consequences of his previous position, it’s going to be a lot harder to just pretend it all never happened.

This, too, has a literary reference worth noting: “We’ve never been at war with Eastasia ― we’ve always been at war with Eurasia.” No matter the changing policy from the top, the Ministry of Truth in George Orwell’s Nineteen Eighty-Four would scrub the past of any proof that any other policy had ever previously been followed. This may be overstating the case, but the Trump administration will be in charge of all the bureaus and agencies which put out official statistics. Could Trump insist that the Labor Department go back and change all the unemployment numbers from the past eight years to show what Trump believed the rate to be? Could he likewise insist that the unemployment numbers under his reign be calculated in a creative new fashion to show the reality he believes his policies are creating? These would be unimaginable questions to ask of any other incoming president, it’s worth pointing out. And the unemployment rate is just one obvious example. Justice Department statistics on civil rights violations is another that easily springs to mind, with Jeff Sessions in control.

Normally, presidents wouldn’t be allowed to get away with such things, but these are anything but normal times. Normally, the White House press corps would hold a president accountable for radical shifts in policy direction. But I have to wonder if President Trump is even going to bother holding press conferences. Will he boldly stand before hostile reporters and attempt to brush away inconvenient questions? Or will he decide that just phoning in to Sean Hannity’s show every once in a while is sufficient? What happens if Trump just decides to stonewall any reporters (and any media outlets) that write critical stories about him? This could lead directly to more and more critical stories about Trump, which would just reinforce Trump’s decision that they’ll never give him a fair shake. Will White House press conferences become a thing of the past, swept away by Trump “changing Washington” to suit his needs? These are all ― sadly ― also valid questions to ask, at this point. Trump hasn’t held a press conference since the election (indeed, the last one he gave was in July), so maybe it’s time for media outlets to create rolling countdown (countup?) clocks showing how long it has been since Trump held a press conference.

If Trump surrounds himself with people who will never point out his contradictory stances (for fear of losing influence) and if Trump refuses to face the press (who might ask him about such contradictions to his face), then he will have created his own post-truth bubble. This will serve to insulate him from any news that his policy ideas either aren’t working or are actively making things worse. It will also insulate Trump from having to admit failure, because every new policy idea (even those diametrically opposed to his previous ones) will be treated as singular events unconnected to any inconvenient past failures of his own making.

To conclude, there’s a saying in many parts of the country about the weather. “If you don’t like the weather here, wait 15 minutes and it’ll change.” Will this be the operative way to deal with Trump’s presidency? If Trump makes a really bad decision, will we all just have to wait for a spell before Trump reverses himself and insists that he never believed otherwise? If he is indeed open to hearing reality from his advisors, this might be the best thing to hope for. Of course, this shows the instability of Trump’s core persona. But if Trump can navigate being post-truthy (so he can sleep at night, or whatever) in order to change his mind on things that aren’t working as advertised, perhaps it’s something most people will accept in a president. Perhaps a post-truth president might be better than a stone-cold ideologue who would never reverse course, even when things weren’t working out as planned. Perhaps we’ll all forgive a bit of post-truthiness in Donald Trump if it means it’ll be easier for him to scrap ideas which just don’t work. It’s an optimistic way to look at it, to be sure, but for now it seems the best thing to hope for in a Trump presidency: if you don’t like his policies, just wait a few months until they change.

 

Chris Weigant blogs at:

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