Post-truth Update: False Reality and the End of the Trump Campaign
“I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”
Let’s say you watched the televised debate a couple nights ago. If you think one of the candidates said something outlandish, you could go to NPR, which did its usual debate fact check in approximately real time. Or, if you think NPR has a liberal slant, why not go to the website of Accuracy in Media? They did a fact check on NPR’s fact check. But Right Wing Watch writes occasionally about AIM, particularly its director, and they say he’s said some pretty questionable things. But just last month, the Family Research Council wrote to debunk some of RWW’s claims. If you look up the FRC and whatever bias they might have, you could find that Southern Poverty Law Center happens to have a page in their Extremist Files about them (they do not care for homosexuals). Compounding matters, all of these sources will say they only give the facts.
Critics of critics of critics of critics, like one of those content-aware scale gifs, distort as the searches go on. Inevitably they carry the searcher to the grotesque places where SPLC has been designated a hate group against white people.
Even when one stays outside the fascist sphere, it becomes difficult to know who to trust, unless they choose a side and take it on faith it will be on the right track most of the time. Then it is not so much knowing who to trust as trusting who to trust. Lately I understand something about the Pirahã people, who don’t accept any event as truth unless an eyewitness relates it to them.
The concept often called “post-truth” is an important one when talking about politics today. Colbert famously coined the word “truthiness” to express the emotional realness of a fact, often in opposition to the real realness of a fact. The line blurs. In online communities, users all over the political spectrum call this “feels over reals” (a phrase used by the right to mock left-liberals’ emotionality, now also used by left-liberals and far left to mock the right’s push-button rage). A 2010 post in Grist, which seems to have first published the phrase “post-truth politics,” described the anti-Enlightenment process by which voters decide to vote: choosing a group based on social values, then aligning with the group’s political values, then choosing or inventing facts to support them. Ours are the days of cheap text, passionate tribalism, and denial.
Have you ever questioned someone’s tether to reality because you disagreed with their political views? I certainly have. I have wondered why someone can’t see what I see, or accept what I accept, but see and accept all sorts of stupid things that have no connection to the real world and real facts. I’ve done it from both sides of the spectrum. In the Bush years I was a rare creature, a teen conservative, and I accepted Fox News talking points in spite of 100% of my peers and teachers finding them ridiculous, in spite of technically being in the conservatives’ line of fire. I patriotically ignored this. I didn’t want special treatment, I didn’t presume to have a claim on rights I shouldn’t need, I wasn’t like those people.
Now, from the other side and beyond the American Overton window, I have a different metric by which to be a horrible, judgmental person. I also recognize that certain things I once believed are distorted accounts of true accounts of events, or what I currently accept to be true accounts of events. I’m sure if one looked in the dozens of conservative books I owned, they would find compelling evidence I am now in the wrong. I still read material that opposes my views. Because of the multiple layers of criticism and sources and fallacy and bias above the fascist garbage hole, like the junkyard realm into which Sarah falls in the film Labyrinth, it’s difficult to suss out what really happened, who is really at fault, how much money was thrown around, really — if that David Bowie prom wasn’t real, and ultimately the entire trip was a dream, maybe, what else isn’t real? (I’ll stop referencing Labyrinth now.) If that sounds weak and dithery, it’s because I am.
That there is little factual communication between the differing American viewpoints is, ironically, a fact well-known to all of them.
The United States has adapted to the post-truth world with gusto. Leaders fund post-truth studies and post-truth periodicals, and their voters read post-truth op-eds and consume post-truth television and radio programs that play to their post-truth fears about their post-truth image of strange city people. (The votes gained because of post-truth may be real votes, but ask any older hippie or person who knows of the existence of the electoral college, and they’ll tell you the votes are also post-truth.) So-called alternative media, the stuff that isn’t on television, does the same things and worse. The right would accuse the American left of being the same way. Whether one side does it more than the other is an exercise for the truthscape of the reader.
Humans are allotted a few short years of free time to read and make sense of the Library of Babel world in which we live. Which facts are descriptions of reality, of true events as they objectively happened? Which facts were invented to drown out facts that were discovered? Which facts are egregores, the may-as-well-be-truths, the memes with lives of their own? The limitations of language, medium, and brainpower, the limit of the things an individual of H. sapiens can think about at once, become obvious and troublesome. One can come to the frustrating conclusion that they have access to the sum of nearly all written knowledge and still know nothing about the world.
The art world is where the disconnect is most vivid. Artists cannot describe reality or realness without a book’s worth of jargon or loose quotes. Sublimity feels flat and passé for its reproduction thousands of times over, like a Chinese knickknack. Dull, lookalike “beautiful design” is everywhere. Collage or deconstructive works make newness from the old without really creating newness; they understand there is nothing new under the sun. The best fiction in the 21st century is packaged as nonfiction, or at least has one foot planted firmly in reality: memoirs, speculative true crime stories, character blogs, alternate reality games, satire, horror video series, hidden guerilla art. Consumers of these play along with the lie and interact with the bits that poke into the real world. The unreality is a known, knowable quantity, therefore, it’s safe. A work like this is an “authentic fake,” as Umberto Eco put it.
These works are the obvious conclusion to a generation growing up in a post-truth world. They are signs to me that our first-world reality, with its anxiety and pointless jobs, does not quite meet some unknown human need. (I wouldn’t know what that need is — perhaps a connection or a reason to continue on, or a bison hunt.)
In all senses in which the term is used, “post-truth” may as well be a synonym for “fake.” These are fake politics, this is a fake era, we have grown up in a fake world. How else can one describe a world where facts and words have no meaning? How can a person find the true truth? It’s no wonder quests for meaning and happiness consume everyone who can afford to go. It’s no wonder so many of us Global Northerners have turned inward.
During the debate, the moderator, Chris Wallace, asked Trump if he’d accept the results of the election. “You have been warning at rallies recently that this election is rigged and that Hillary Clinton is in the process of trying to steal it from you,” said Wallace.
Trump then complained about the corrupt New York Times and his corrupt opponent, which, everyone has already noted, are dogwhistles. “…they [the Times] have poisoned the minds of the voters.”
He can repeat Fox News post-truth facts without hurting his chances. So could Mitt Romney, to be fair. Other things that have not hurt Trump this election: fiscally unconservative plans such as the Great Wall; proposals to deport Mexicans en masse; the suggestion of a Muslim database and closing of borders to Muslims; getting chummy with Alex Jones; mocking a reporter’s disability; insulting a deceased Army captain; calling women pigs and dogs; implying a reporter needled him because she was on her period.
His past comments of a more centrist or left-liberal bent did not put a dent in him, either. He copped to donations of many dollars to Democratic candidates and other campaigns conservatives would normally oppose with great bombast. If I remember right, it was “because [he] wanted something from them,” and a political donation was a way to get it. Inconsistency and dishonesty are fine — as in nonfiction-fiction, if the author admits to them, they are not a problem. It’s still good art. It made you feel something.
The candidates of the previous age would perhaps have stammered, used the word “evolved,” or denied these things completely. Not so for Trump, the candidate of the future.
I recall 2012 when everyone agreed Romney had the faintly awkward air of a wealthy Mormon-royalty dad. I recall 2008 when everyone agreed Obama used sophisticated language, though whether it was teleprompted or improvised depends on whom you ask. George W. Bush is described by both sides, even those who say he should be tried as a war criminal, as an affable, nice guy. I recall my father telling me in 1996 that he was voting Bob Dole, because even though Bob Dole was a liar, he didn’t lie as often as Bill Clinton.
I’ve only existed for a quarter of a century, so my experience with these things is limited. But I can’t remember a time when so many looked at the same candidate and saw completely different people.
To illustrate, there is this video by CBS, at the 1:13 mark:
Woman: Donald Trump has a straightforward way that he communicates.
Reporter: Has he ever spoke so plainly that you kind of cringe?
Woman: I understand what’s behind what he’s saying.
The puzzle is instantly solved. He is like the drawing that can be a maiden or a crone, or any other piece of art with multiple interpretations. Liberals see a mush-mouthed hypocritical failed businessman; establishment conservatives see a man making kabuki theater out of the GOP; Trump fans see a straight-talking (racist) billionaire who is the buyer, not the bought. He’s telling them through post-truth language, which sounds like straight-talking in certain post-truth reality, that he understands the foreign people have taken their jobs and Black people need to stop being so entitled. Whatever interpretation you have of him and his candidacy is the correct one, leading to simultaneous contradictory analyses that are all equally true. It does not seem like this should make him trustworthy, but the truest things are packaged as falsehood, as the postmodernists believe. I suppose this is why journalists failed to hurt his numbers for so long. They were essentially writing long thinkpieces about dumb yokels incorrectly interpreting a new arrival at the art museum. Those tactics went out of fashion in the last century.
I cannot come to any other conclusion except that Trump is the perfect post-truth spectacle for the post-truth world. He is the authentic fake candidate. Hillary Clinton, fake authenticity personified, has no appeal to those hungry for the opposite.
However, the leaked tape and resultant ship-jump is inexplicable to me viewed through this lens — he was never exactly respectful of women before. I suspect he would not have a problem if he had bragged about assaulting a specific mildly famous woman. In the mind of the public, these people should expect to be molested in the line of duty. But the anonymous ’em whose genitals were being hypothetically grabbed could have been any woman — your daughter, your wife, your sister (always yours, which is the important part). Conservative projection destroyed his chances completely. The voters who remain are his ultra-fans, pro-life single-issue voters ignoring his pro-choice statements in the past, the young fascists, temporarily embarrassed millionaires, and House Speaker Paul Ryan. So ends the most futuristic candidacy of all time: a reminder that the art object is just a man, and more importantly, a man who can hurt your daughter.
Trump was asked by the moderator if he’d accept his loss, being that we have a largely unbroken 230-year tradition of peaceful concessions of power by a losing candidate.
“What I’m saying is that I will tell you at the time,” Trump said. “I’ll keep you in suspense, okay?”
Clinton noted right away that these words were “horrifying.” Much was already written about them only a few hours after he spoke them.
The most pressing matter here is “the fabric” of democracy, republic, nation or what have you, which I saw many times on social media while gauging opinion of the debate. The fear is understandable. Democracy is as fragile as any other social contract, and lately it looks like theater, just another casualty of post-truth politics.
Anyway, the last time some Americans refused to accept election results, we had a civil war. You don’t need me to tell you this won’t happen in November. The factors 150 years ago were not the same.
That doesn’t change that Trump fans must feel just like the southerners, with their way of life, economy, and society all under threat of destruction. City liberals want to take their guns and make them drive electric cars, city liberals want to outsource all the jobs, city liberals want to foist gay marriage on everybody. The old ways were not necessarily safer, but at least they were familiar, and certainly better than whatever liberals in their pretend identity politics welfare world can cook up.
The crucial difference is the owners. Currently it is non-owners who feel like this. Owners in 2016 are quite content with the way things are. Since knowledge of neoliberalism does not seem to be commonplace, neither candidate has spoken against it; indeed, they enthusiastically promote it without using the word or acknowledging that this is not the only way to make policy. This has been the way of things for nearly fifty years.
The American Civil War was caused by economic panic. Non-owners might have feared for their culture and such things, but theirs was not the visceral, Mesopotamian fear their acres and acres of slave-planted crops would rot unharvested in the fields. What do the masses of conservative non-owners currently fear? Outsourcing to China, Malaysia, Mexico. Perpetual odd jobs in lieu of steady, reliable employment. Factories and shops closing. Working past 65, 70, 75, until you’re dead. Relatives dying of liver failure, overdose, suicide. Destruction of their patriarchal, suspicious way of life. Being told what to do.
You can see there is no reason for owners to panic and start something as serious as a war. Blue-collar labor might be a way of life for the proles, but only proles suffer the consequences of its forty-year bleedout, i.e., who cares? Owners pay big money not to see, hear, or live beside non-owners, and non-owners’ overdoses and suicides are statistics in a magazine. There will be no war or even a panic unless owners see no escape. The slaveowners tried to bite the cat and lost. Nowadays, we live in a global economy — there is always somewhere for them to run.
Here is my bet:
If Republicans can hold the party together, and I believe they will, and if they’re shrewd, which I believe they often are, their candidate in 2020 or 2024 will be a choice adapted to the Trump strategy.
He will be a young entrepreneur in tech or finance, not a politician. He will claim he cannot be bought. He will be just as flippant and offensive to liberal sensibilities. Like Trump, he will be a good showman, charming enough in face-to-face interactions, but unlike Trump, he will know not to say things that suggest he will rape your daughter — he might even be gay. He will have catchy slogans, maybe even borrowing MAGA, and will “finish what Trump started.” Trump will endorse him and call him a “great kid.” A screenshot of him making a “get a load of this!” face during the Republican Primary will briefly become a meme. Global warming will have significantly worsened in four years, eight years, but he will not mention it except to say it’s a liberal myth. He will talk about funding space colonies. He will know the right things to say to skim centrists who don’t want to vote for whichever dull establishment person the Democrats cough up next time, and socialists will complain about accelerationism, but nothing will change. We will still be bombing Middle Eastern countries because we may as well hit that 20-year anniversary of the War on Terror. Like every other politician since the Surge, he will see that the terrorists have won, but won’t acknowledge it. He will have retweeted fascists several times, especially right now in 2016, and screenshots of his ancient 2016 tweets and ancienter 2009 tweets will surface, but no one will care. They will have been deleted by his unpaid intern by the time he starts running.
I’m not worried about Trump winning and have not been for many months. His debate answer was very questionable and certainly didn’t help his poll numbers. Clinton wins debates by virtue of being the grownup in the room, and for this reason she will be the President.
I’m worried about the next people that will be raised up as our choices — an unprogressive, centrist, corrupt, neoliberal Democrat, and Trump Junior. I’m worried about the total lack of left unity.
I’m worried that Gen X and Gen Y, having grown up in a false propaganda world, can’t conceive of a true world. I’m worried the real and hyperreal are impossible to separate. I’m worried that even if all of us understand this, it will be impossible to escape.