Can We Survive the Post-Truth Era?

How Donald Trump’s perverse brand of B.S. took over American politics.

Are you tired of the limitless avalanche of B.S. from the White House, not to mention the well-oiled GOP mendacity machine? Are you worried that masses of “low-information” MAGA voters will gleefully upturn the American experiment and replace it with a racist, theocracy-infused non-stop reality show? Well, you have reason worry.

I used to be optimistic that the systemic antibodies embedded in our democratic structure would always tackle political infections like Trump. Indeed, I thought that would be enough to rid us of them. I am no longer. When a society is split into parallel universes—each with its own enclosed informational ecosystem, divergent values, and expanding mutual animus—expect the worst. If our functional democracy comes to a demise, the key catalyst will be our lacking a shared baseline of facts. Olympian liars like Trump (and his enablers) will be the handmaidens of destruction.

Of the more than 15,000 lies (about 14 per day) Donald Trump has spouted since taking the oath of office, the fact checker PolitiFact has chosen his attack against the Ukraine whistleblower as its “Lie of the Year.” The reason: It “speaks to a falsehood that proves to be of real consequence and gets repeated in a virtual campaign to undermine an accurate narrative.” Simply put, Donald Trump is a bullshitter in a class of his own.

In his 2005 bestseller, On Bullshit, Harvard philosophy professor Harry G. Frankfurter wrote, “Bullshit is speech intended to persuade without regard for truth. The liar cares about the truth and attempts to hide it; the bullshitter doesn’t care if what they say is true or false, but rather only cares whether their listener is persuaded.”

Too many, unfortunately, are swayed by Trump’s lies. Despite the dozens of federal, state and congressional investigations against him, and the ever expanding indictments and convictions of his cronies, Trump’s approval ratings have stayed notably steady (in the low 40 percentile). What accounts for this?

Duke psychology professor Dan Ariely is not surprised. The author of The Honest Truth About Dishonesty: How We Lie to Everyone—Especially Ourselves, his research reveals that “People don’t mind so much if their politician lies because they think it’s for the common good.” In other words, they know their hero lies but don’t care.

That’s why populist opportunists like Trump hone their message to appeal to a person’s gut and not their reason. This is a tried-and-true tactic among autocrats. Joseph Goebbels grasped this concept fully. “The broad masses of a nation are always more easily corrupted in the deeper strata of their emotional nature than consciously or voluntarily,” he said.

Part of the problem is that the right has constructed a self-reinforcing structure of so-called “think tanks,” media outlets, and advocacy groups that constitute little more than an elaborate right-wing propaganda machine. In this self-contained ideological universe, loyalty to the tribe can often outweigh moral values.

There is a precedent for this. Post-World War I German society was polarized between insiders and outsiders, or what German historian Hans-Ulrich Wehler describes as a “cartel of traditional power elites” versus “the onslaught of new forces,” comprising those frozen out of political and economic power. In this environment, wealth and income inequality grew. Then a powerful conservative media magnate gave Hitler positive news coverage.

Germany’s tragic fate provides some insight into the crisis we are facing today. Look at the violent clashes that have erupted in Charlottesville, Oakland, Portland, St. Paul,  Fergusonand Baton Rouge.  Instead of armies clashing on a field of battle, we are experiencing an uptick in riots.

In the backdrop, Trump and the GOP are sowing the seeds for the country’s unraveling—be it through voter suppression efforts, packing the courts, and an inflammatory, truth-immunized right-wing media. A disturbing consequence: Perhaps a third of Americans view those who call out this administration’s corruption and lawless actions as existential enemies. As George Orwell once put it, “The further a society drifts from truth the more it will hate those who speak it.”

We have been through wrenching and divisive periods before. Eventually, we emerged healed, But today is different. A sizable portion of the country has walled itself off with the help of a balkanized media. It has become more radical, demonstrated a dwindling devotion to democratic norms and has come to view those with different worldviews as sworn enemies. This is how the societal seams then begin to come apart.

As we turn a new decade, America eerily resembles the charged atmosphere of the 1850s. It took an enormously bloody civil war to sort things out then. I’m not predicting a repeat scenario, but I fear our domestic instability could lead to more violence, which would then make it easier for foreign adversaries to take advantage of our weakness.

Once Trump is gone, it will take exceptional moral and political leadership to overcome the underlying causes of our current dysfunction. The first step will be to abandon Trump’s perverse form of bullshit.

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James Bruno

James Bruno is a Washington Monthly contributing writer and former U.S. diplomat. Read his blog, DIPLO DENIZEN, and follow him on Twitter @JamesLBruno. The opinions and characterizations in this article are those of the author, and do not necessarily represent official positions of the U.S. government.