Our Post-Truth Election
Ta-Nehisi Coates wrote an excellent essay for the Atlantic, analyzing the fall-out from Hillary Clinton’s now-infamous “basket of deplorables” remark. In it, Coates points out how reactionary outrage from the commentariat “reflects an ugly and lethal…impulse to ignore and minimize racism, an aversion to calling it by its name.” While I wholeheartedly agree that reaction to this remark reveals our cultural hostility towards those who name white supremacy in our midst, I find the countless aggrieved hot-takes also indicative of another troubling trend in this election: Truth has ceased to matter.
Because here’s the interesting, and little-remarked-upon aspect of her comment: By all appearances it seems to be largely accurate. Journalists who bothered to look into the polling statistics — analyzing responses to questions like “are blacks lazier than whites,” — suggest that calling ~50% of Trump’s supporters openly bigoted is pretty damn near the truth. Yet that seems to no longer matter in a campaign increasingly evaluated as a stylistic performance, not a battle of ideas.
Certainly, general elections have never been entirely substantive; style and optics have long played an powerful role in how voters perceive candidates. And yet, truth still mattered. Policy still mattered. Following this campaign is making me seriously question whether that’s still true. Because here’s the thing: Trump and Clinton are polling nearly evenly, despite the Republican nominee’s clear disdain for the truth, and contemptuous ignorance of even the most basic policy issues.
A campaign in which optics are the primary evaluative criteria is the only one in which people could have watched the recent NBC Commander-in-Chief forum and declared it a toss-up. “Eh, they’re both bad options.” Are you kidding me? We’re living in fucking fantasy-land. That’s the only explanation. Because otherwise, that 30-minute stretch — in which the Republican nominee suggested we set up a military court system (seemingly oblivious to the fact that one already exists), heaped praise on Putin (well, he does have an 82% approval rating…) and answered a veteran requesting details about how he’d combat ISIS with a diatribe polling and how he beat 16 primary opponents — would prove disqualifying.
Trump has made it abundantly clear that he knows nothing about how the government works. Each passing day reveals new depths to his ignorance, and yet the race remains close. That he is running against perhaps the most well-informed and policy-minded candidate to ever vie for the office further reveals how little actually knowing things apparently matters. The RNC’s response to Clinton’s NBC forum? “She wasn’t smiling.”
The debates will likely prove the deciding moments of this campaign. I dearly hope that I am wrong. I pray that the American people will decide that, in fact, truth does matter. That it’s important to know things. But when moderators say it’s not their job to inform viewers when a candidate is openly lying, and when networks open debates with intros more at home in pro wrestling, I’m not entirely certain that substance will trump optics. And that’s fucking terrifying.