Trump and Pravda
So What Happened?
This week, Trump presided over the divorce of the American people from reality (married 1776 to 2016). In doing so, he realized one of his primary campaign goals — confusing real life and fiction so much that we no longer care about the distinction.
Last Friday, Donald Trump (a real, honest-to-God candidate for president) made up some stuff about Hillary Clinton starting the birther movement back in 2008.
On Meet The Press on Sunday (listening to their podcast prompted this post), a parade of Trump supporters and employees didn’t even try to spin this. They doubled down and defended it as fact.
First things first. It is not fact. Hillary Clinton didn’t start the birther movement, her campaign didn’t start it — her supporters didn’t even start it. This POLITICO article is a good overview. Bottom line — while some of her supporters may have toyed with the idea back in 2008, claims that Hillary or her campaign played into the movement are already a stretch. Claims that she started the movement in the first place are an outright lie.
Trump has said false things before but this feels different. He’s doubling down (along with his campaign) to an extent we haven’t seen before and with a level of organization we haven’t seen before. This isn’t a mad scramble to defend the candidate as everyone else tears into him for lying about something. This was done with foresight — they planned a media blitz around what they knew to be an outright lie.
It seems like they’re finally comfortable denying reality completely. The scary thing is, it’s working.
The New Normal
During this election cycle, Americans have been exposed to so many stories like this that it’s become normal. If nothing else, history has taught us that people can become accustomed to just about any “new normal.”
So you end up with people in the anti-Trump camp worrying about how similar all this is to Germany before Hitler took power. Our acceptance of Trump as a presidential candidate is the first step toward autocracy in the US, they say. That’s a bit much — because come on, Nazi Germany is not going to happen again here — but (no surprise) the Trump campaign actually shares a lot of underlying strategies with autocratic regimes.
The big one is their relationship to the truth.
Trump and Pravda
It’s a disaster for the country when someone in a position of power can say things that are plainly false or say one thing while doing something completely different without any consequences. Trump will come and go, but that precedent will stick around unless we choose to do something about it now. Whether Trump wins or not, we’re allowing him to build a template for anyone similarly ambitious/crazy to do the same thing next election cycle.
Again, it’s impossible to overstate how big a deal this is. One of the pillars of the state in any modern autocratic regime is control of information. The USSR is a good example because they took it to such impressive levels. They didn’t try to exercise total control over information (unlike North Korea, for example) — their strategy was much more insidious. They created doubt, confusion, misinformation — so you were never quite sure whether something was truth or fiction.
Once you doubt every piece of information you see, the regime is free to create whatever reality they’d like. Sound familiar?
From the Media
Just like in the USSR, this starts with controlling the media. A lot has already been written about about Trump’s genius for media manipulation. I think his real coup has been in how the news networks report on everything he does. It goes something like this:
- Trump tells a lie or says something crazy
- News networks report that it happened
- News networks bring in people from both sides to discuss the issue
There’s a critical step missing there — at no point do they come out and say “we can confidently state that what Donald Trump said is a lie. That is the correct way to look at this situation.”
A viewer turning on their TV hears a debate. The obvious conclusion is that the issue they’re talking about has two sides — we don’t debate things with only one side, after all. Truth and Lie are suddenly on equal footing.
If I turn on CNN for an hour and can’t tell whether they’re reporting truth or fiction, every piece of information on the network becomes suspect. It becomes mere entertainment. When that happens across all the major networks, the networks many Americans trust as their only/main source of news, we have a huge problem. The reality those networks create gets farther and farther away from the Truth. Now Trump can tell us Hillary started birtherism and he ended it, and nobody bats an eye.
Control of (mis)information — what the USSR spent decades and untold resources perfecting — we’re handing to Trump on a silver platter.
There must be accountability, and that starts with the media.
To the Media
Your job is not to give all candidates equal coverage or the same platform to spread their messages, whatever those may be. Not all messages are created equal. Your job is to protect that which sits at the heart of our democracy — the Truth. Your responsibility to the voters is to give them what they need to make a clear-minded decision on election day — a decision based on the Truth.
If Donald Trump lies about something and you report it as a “statement from the Trump campaign” and move on, you’re missing the most important part of your job. Call him out! Fact-check him! If you’re afraid of looking biased because you’re calling out one candidate more than the other, then so fucking be it! Your job isn’t to blindly give us both sides of a one-sided issue — sometimes there is only one side.
Grow a backbone.