The Post-Truth Pandemic


Pete Marovich/NYT

Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway delivered remarks at the 2020 Republican National Convention

By Rob Mullins, Assistant Editor

January 20, 2021, was supposed to be the dawn of a new era as a new administration took power in Washington, D.C. Amid widespread claims of fraud, corruption, and discrepancies in critical precincts, Joe Biden was nonetheless inaugurated as the 46th President of the United States. Democrats also maintained a majority in the U.S. House, and after two hotly contested special elections in Georgia to the U.S. Senate, they achieved a 50-50 split in the chamber. The electorate had made their voice loud and clear, in the general election, congressional elections, and the special election in Georgia. The voters’ message was a repudiation of the politics of Donald Trump and his partisans, and the Democratic establishment thus emboldened by this mandate followed suit in word and deed. Immediately, the Biden administration set to work, ostensibly to undo the damage of the previous administration’s policies in a multitude of areas. From conciliatory remarks to other world leaders, reinstatement of environmental regulation, to the controversial protection of transgender athletes, the overarching tone of the administration can be summed up by Biden’s assertion to the Munich Security Conference: “America is back.”

As comforting as it may be to hear President Biden, especially after four years of incisive Trump rhetoric, the truth is America is not back. The current administration will continue its justified repudiation of the previous one, in diplomacy, domestic policy, and economic policy. It will continue to rightfully admonish the former administration for the many pernicious lies it propagated, from exaggerations about the strength of the economy, to implications that Muslim members of Congress support Al-Qaeda. As well-intentioned as the goal of restoring honesty to the White House may be, the truth is it remains a futile pursuit. To further illustrate this point, I wish to hearken back to an incident that occurred shortly after the inauguration of President Trump. This altercation was largely dismissed (more likely buried) as one of the first lies from an administration that was cited by the Washington Post as telling a grand total of 30,573 in four years. But in this case, a Trump staffer inadvertently revealed an ugly truth about our nation.

During the Trump Administration’s first press briefing, Press Secretary Sean Spicer falsely claimed that President Trump’s inaugural ceremony attracted the “largest crowd to ever witness an inauguration – period –  both in person and around the globe.” This statement earned Spicer the ire of many media pundits, due in part to how easy it was to verify that Trump’s inaugural crowd was smaller than both George Bush and Barack Obama’s, by a significant margin. Ridership data for the Washington Metropolitan Area Transit Authority indicates that about 2,000 more passengers rode the train to Obama’s second inauguration, which had an even smaller crowd and ridership than his first. Counselor to the President Kellyanne Conway did damage control, and faced Chuck Todd in an interview on NBC’s Meet the Press. Her defense of Spicer’s actions included the claim that he presented “alternative facts” to the press corps about the inaugural crowd.

Conway was roundly criticized for the statement, which was deemed “Orwellian” by critics. That week, sales of George Orwell’s dystopian novel 1984 soared to a 9,500% increase in sales, which forced publisher Penguin USA to order 75,000 new print copies of the novel to meet demand. Conway was widely mocked in the press and on social media. She was denounced by numerous public relations firms, and deemed the emblem of what would surely be the most dishonest, deceitful administration since Richard Nixon. While the characterization of Donald Trump and his sycophants as dishonest is far from inaccurate, there is perhaps more to the story than the press would let on. Conway’s remark, a flailing attempt to escape accountability for a clumsy lie on the one hand, is also deeply revealing about the state of our country and its manner of political discourse. It is almost surreal to ponder that an off-the-cuff comment uttered by a White House staffer could so perfectly encapsulate the atmosphere of the post-truth society we live in.

The Oxford Dictionary’s 2016 Word of the Year was “post-truth.” The compound word is defined as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” The word has been in circulation for decades, but Oxford noticed a large spike in searches in 2016, which saw Trump’s election to the presidency and Britain’s referendum to leave the European Union. In both cases, massive disinformation campaigns were deployed in order to convince large swaths of the working-class to vote against their own economic interests. One may question why working-class voters would back such controversial measures and candidates when hindsight generally indicates that they are the biggest losers in the types of nouveau régime they implement. Pundits and economists, psychologists and other “experts” pontificate on the question for hours, but the simple answer is that in some way, shape, or form, the status quo is failing the people whom these movements target. With the feelings of isolation and rejection the current class of out-of-touch plutocrats elicits in workers, what logically prevents them from rejecting such a hierarchy? The appeal populists like Trump and Brexit leader Nigel Farage have with the public can be summed up in Trump’s pitch to African American and Hispanic voters: “What the hell do you have to lose?”

No doubt, as income inequality is on the rise and only exacerbated by challenges presented by the pandemic, sweeping reform in many areas of government is in order. But this is not what occurred under President Trump. While his tax cut may have provided a small boon to the upper middle class of society, the main beneficiaries were the ultra-rich and corporations. The myth of “trickle-down” economics has been debunked again and again, yet the federal government continues to pursue this approach and expect a different result. The tense economic climate this creates has been exacerbated by the idealistic wealth redistribution programs proposed by many far-left Democrats, which lack public support and necessary governmental apparatus for implementation. Compounding this, moderate wings of both major parties typically fail to deliver on those few key issues bipartisan consensus acknowledges warrant reform, such as infrastructure or the jobs market, even in the face of overwhelming public support. When this change does not materialize, both sides commence their search for a scapegoat. In the forgotten days of functional government, responsibility for dead bills usually fell to Congressional leaders or partisan whips for exercising ineffective leadership. Now, both sides blame the other for engaging in bad faith and when this fails, conspiracy theories become the norm.

The existence of conspiracy theories does not necessarily correspond with the rise of a post-truth society, but their acceptance into mainstream culture certainly does. Donald Trump peddled in them long before the days of QAnon or “stolen” elections. His promotion of Birtherism, the claim that Barack Obama was not born in the United States and is therefore ineligible for the presidency, was widely publicized until it was finally debunked by the release of the 44th president’s long-form birth certificate. The Trump-loyalist wing of Congress is currently led by Georgia Representative Marjorie Taylor-Greene, who among her more rational views considers recent school shootings to be false flags to attack Second Amendment rights, migrants in Europe are funded by George Soros as part of a white genocide, and that a plane did not hit the Pentagon on 9/11. Greene was later stripped of her committee assignments in the House of Representatives, but only after a bitter battle between the leadership of the two parties led to a full foor vote where 11 Republicans joined 219 Democrats. The Taylor-Greene debacle proved that the overlap between Trump populism and tinfoil-hat conspiracy theorists has become a formidable demographic within the Republican Party grassroots. But our civilized, functioning government did not reach the destination we find ourselves in at the moment with the guidance of the GOP alone.

Some credit naturally belongs to Democrats who followed the Republican example and completely lost their collective mind in the fallout of the 2016 election. For two years after the fact, the party that would accuse Republicans of treason for questioning the results of the 2020 election did just that, and used every governmental apparatus that could fall under the guise of investigation to undermine and impede the Trump presidency. This was remarkably similar to the tactics Republicans employed in 2008, lest anyone think I believe the blame resides more with one particular party than the other. As this game of tit-for-tat increased in acerbity, the Democratic Party yet again followed Republican lead and embraced conspiracy theories. We witnessed a two-year Congressional investigation of specious claims of corruption by the Trump campaign, as well as collusion with Russia. At the height of the frenzy, rumors abounded about President Trump’s vulnerability to blackmail from the Kremlin due to the existence of a tape of Trump in a hotel with Russian prostitutes urinating on a bed. This allegation and others come from the Steele dossier, which has now been revealed as opposition research conducted by the Clinton campaign. The 448-page report compiled by Special Counsel Robert Mueller, the man charged with investigating the extent of the Trump campaign’s Russian collusion, soundly debunked the Steele dossier.

It is worth reiterating that the existence of conspiracy theorists on the fringes of either party does not invalidate their legitimate policy positions. Just as there are Republicans who do not believe in QAnon, there are also Democrats who are skeptical of the pee pee tape. What matters in evaluating the parties is not what their fringe wings believe, but rather the extent of the power the fringe wings hold and how mainstream their beliefs are. Right now, the average person who dispassionately examines the issues would be frightened at the influence the fringe holds in both major parties. It is also interesting to examine the different sources that this fringe draws from in each party. For Republicans, the current House minority makes it clear that the grassroots of the party are still squarely in Trump’s corner, as only 10 supported his second impeachment. In Democrats, the fringe is largely occupied by highly educated academics whose competence and ability to raise money elevates them to influential office like Senator Elizabeth Warren, or gubernatorial candidate Stacey Abrams, who delivered the Democratic response to the 2019 State of the Union Address.

These fringe factions are engaged in a war on two fronts. As they battle their enemies, real and imagined, on the opposite side of the aisle, they are also involved in the fight to take over the party they lay claim to. The backroom dealings and moneyed interests that control the parties usually ensured this was a fruitless endeavor, but times have changed. The Trump method of branding those not personally loyal to him as RINOs (Republican In Name Only) has proven incredibly damaging in primaries, such as that of former Attorney General Jeff Sessions against now-Senator Tommy Tuberville. This kind of vindictive punishment is not just relegated to the Republicans, however. Former Hawaii Representative Tulsi Gabbard was denied funding for a re-election campaign because her continued support for Bernie Sanders’ presidential campaign was “disrespectful to Hillary Clinton,” according to an internal email included in the Podesta Email Leak.

As these factions grow in number and raw political power, they will continue to tear at the fabric of our government, and by extension, our nation itself. These uncompromising, idealistic political attitudes span across the political spectrum. No matter what they claim to reject, whether it be white supremacist power structures, or a bureaucratic deep state, one aspect they both share is a fundamental rejection of one of the most important forces in the American political tradition: compromise. This is the fount from which all other features of the post-truth society flow, as identified by the Commonwealth Center for Connected Learning: the decline of reason, fake news, culture wars, polarization, and the conversion of popularity into legitimacy that allows for manipulation by populist figures and fringe actors. This degeneration is in keeping with the observations of German philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche, who postulated that man creates the values he defines as good and just, replacing objective truth with subjective value, which grounds reality in the human will to power. How true his words ring today, and will continue to, if the current climate were to continue unchecked.

The longer these movements constitute power players in major political parties and even the government itself, it will appear as though we have less and less in common as a people. It is important to remember that this is only as true as we make it in our words and actions. We as a nation can rise above the fractious and divisive discourse of the day by returning to the shared values we hold dear, the ones that made this country truly great. That starts from the ground up. In the same way Trump’s grassroots support is a testament to the power of the people to exercise their will at the ballot box, enough people dedicated to the return of reason and compromise to political spheres can certainly exercise their collective will and make this a reality.