We are a nation obsessed with fake news sites and conspiracy theories—which may very well be paving the way to victory for a president for whom fiction always trumps the facts.
The latest and final Benghazi report—a two-year, $7-million attempt by Republicans sitting on the House Select Committee to shape-shift facts to their liking—has (unintentionally, of course) cleared Hillary Clinton of wrongdoing. The report prompted late-night host Jimmy Kimmel to take his “Lie Witness News” segment onto the streets of Los Angeles and ask pedestrians whether they’d read the most recently released batch of her confidential state-secret emails. You know, the ones in which she emailed Vladimir Putin to request a shirtless photo, responded to a LinkedIn request from Osama bin Laden and ordered Edible Arrangements for herself in order to make the other women in her office jealous? Those emails.
Why yes, the passers-by responded indignantly. We’ve seen them!
“All she does is lie,” one man said.
“But you don’t?” the interviewer asked.
“I don’t, no. Never,” the man responded earnestly.
Of course, those emails don’t exist. They were made up by Kimmel to illustrate how the people accusing Clinton of lying are both tellers of their own small lies, and also victims of the big lie perpetrated by Republicans who have promised their constituents for years that Benghazi would at last be the long-sought smoking gun. It remains to be seen whether this report has finally put an end to Benghazi—not the place or the event, but the synecdoche for politically fruitful conspiracy-mongering about Clinton. In a post-truth era, one suspects not. (In fact, Paul Ryan told Fox’s Megyn Kelly that the GOP intends to hold hearings on the FBI’s decision not to indict Hillary Clinton.) Because, here’s the other thing: Cognitive bias means that people who fall for hoax news stories don’t care that they are hoaxes.
Last year, the Washington Post stopped running its internet-hoax-debunking column, “What was Fake?”, because readers were more interested in feeding their outrage than in getting the facts. Now that it’s 2016, the walls of these outrage silos have only become denser and more impervious to reason.
The explosion of fake news websites giving way to memes perpetuating untruths does more than just exploit readers for monetized clicks; it fosters a socially toxic mistrust of all media reports as politically biased fantasy, irrespective of the legitimacy (“professionalism”) of the outlets. One of the strangest examples of our current post-truth condition was a viral tweet claiming to show a female Trump supporter who’d been beaten up by “liberals.” There had indeed been violence at anti-Trump protests, but this image was not evidence of those altercations. In fact, it was Ash vs. Evil Dead actress Samara Weaving doing a makeup test. On-screen, the special-effects fakery is acceptable and even necessary to advance plotlines, etc. Remove the context, though, and what do you have? An illusion out-of-the-box becomes a corrupt political narrative.
Future archeologists will mistake movie theaters as cathedrals and interpret television sets as idols of demanding hearth gods. Tellingly, Donald Trump’s son Eric un-self-consciously confused 13 Hours, a Hollywood fictionalization of Benghazi, with actual events even as Trump has stated that his
military advice preparation for taking on the role of Commander-in-Chief comes from watching TV shows with military-type people talking on them. At chez Trump, it would seem, truth-constructs don’t emerge from boring, sad, low-energy realities happening off-screen, but from stylized (and stylish!) representations created by teams of professional illusionists in Hollywood. What happens to truth when your everyday reality becomes a pixilated image? You don’t get lies. You get post-truth.
Per the Paranoid style of politicking, there is no Benghazi. Instead there is “Benghazi,” a code word conjuring ardent displays of patriotism and/or boogeymen performed for omnipresent cameras. But, “What about the truth?” pleas junior attorney Helen Rodin in the Tom Cruise vehicle, Jack Reacher, after insisting to the hero that it doesn’t matter what she believes or can prove, only what it actually true. The question is so credulous and earnest it would likely elicit a cynical laugh in conversation with your average post-truth hipster. Only when it comes from a British actress (Rosamund Pike) playing a Pittsburgh attorney in a film based on a literary invention by author Lee Child, whose real name is Jim Grant, about a towering, modern-day knight errant played by diminutive Cruise, does the question sound feasible. Noble even.
Well, what about it?
The most basic understanding of truth is that it conveys information about the real world. But what world, exactly? And whose truth?
Conspiracy theories are Frankensteins of partial truths cobbled from dubious sources. (This would be the other final Benghazi report that was not signed off by the full committee because…well, it’s bonkers.) Yet it’s worth remembering that the true monster in that Gothic romance was not the nameless creation fashioned out of the abject bodies of the condemned, but the doctor determined to defy biology (truth?) in order to fulfill his grandiose ambitions. As with so many other things, the story has been twisted around so that victims become the bad guys, and the insane man becomes the hero.
Some old-fashioned onlookers are still capable of being flabbergasted by Trump’s fluency with gas-lighting, as he repeatedly offers the delirious scenario: Who are you going to believe? Me, or your lying eyes? If he says his steaks are Trump brand, then they are, even if they’re still wrapped in cellophane clearly marked Bush Brothers. But if you really want to terrify yourself, understand that Trump isn’t lying when he says these things on network TV. Because everything staged for the camera belongs to the land of make believe, a seductive no-place ringed by woods where bears never, ever take a shit and money grows on animated trees.
Affirming that Trump practices post-truth politics is different from stating that Trump lies. Everybody lies, mostly to themselves. For advertisers and politicians, however, lying to others is practically part of the job description. But the scale of Trump’s whoppers is both idiosyncratic and unique. He’s lied about his heritage, claiming Swedish ancestry though his family is German. He lies about his policies, such as they are, frequently contradicting himself even when there is no seeming advantage to it. In June, an extraordinary Twitter battle erupted between Clinton and Trump after he accused her of lying about things that he’d said. She responded by providing sources on her website, “The Briefing,” demonstrating that he had, in fact, said the things she said he said. He responded by creating a website, lyingcrookedhillary.com, which dedicated its first efforts to insistently spinning the Fox News–supported Benghazi conspiracy theories even in the face of the House Select Committee’s new report.
Meanwhile, a cottage industry of commentariat has sprung up around the Lies of Donald Trump, rounding them up like so many feral pigs trampling flowerbeds. The Guardian has a new series, “Lyin’ Trump,” which runs down his biggest lies of the week. Trumplies.com exists solely to keep track of them and Politifact’s terse corrections of Trump’s lies—12 pages of them and counting—are inadvertent masterpieces of tinder-dry comedy. Ever since The Donald became the presumptive Republican nominee, rafts of alarmed opinion pieces have exposed the breadth and depth of Trump’s shameless mendacity. And yet, to the great consternation of the press, calling out his lies has little to no impact on the remarkably widespread perception that Trump is telling a type of truth despite all the lies. How could this be?
Back in 2006—the equivalent of a century in internet time—Rick Perlstein observed that “we live in a mendocracy. He was critiquing the news media’s failure to challenge lies being told by political propagandists, his concern being that lies told frequently enough by powerful interests and then amplified by a credulous, lazy or complicit media become belief systems. These, in turn, tend to morph into stubborn, sticky simulations of historical and scientific truths, otherwise known as “facts.” Fast-forward ten years, and millions of Americans sincerely believe that President Obama is a foreign-born mole. Or that climate change is a hoax.
Earlier this year, rapper B.o.B ended up in a Twitter debate over the flatness of the Earth with astrophysicist Neal deGrasse Tyson, whose years of advanced study were no match for B.o.B’s gut instincts. Unable to persuade B.o.B that he just might be getting the science wrong, Tyson ultimately gave up, noting that, “Flat Earth is a problem only when people in charge think that way.”
But people in charge do think this way. Which is not to say that so-called “populist” politicians believe the Earth is flat. But they are perfectly aware that a significant percentage of the electorate does, and instead of laughing it away, they gleefully exploit it. In a media-centric world where “news” is indistinguishable from entertainment, the platform of irrational beliefs that allows flat-Earth conspiracy theorists to waltz with Lizard People overlords is making a post-truth Trump presidency frighteningly possible.
Truth has always been a bummer. Lies are lullabies to the traumatized. “We risk being the first people in history,” historian Daniel Boorstin wrote in 1962, “to have been able to make their illusions so vivid, so persuasive, so ‘realistic’ that they can live in them.” Whether gushing over synchronized virtual-reality goggles, or pondering serious theories that humans aren’t humans but artificial programs inside an infinite hologram, first-worlders are straining as hard as they can to live inside ever-grander illusions. Reality is for poor people. Flesh-bodies are for chumps. But in that place where night dreams go to die, the restless brain warns us that something important is off. Then, we wake, instantly forgetting the dream, ruefully snapping on the nearest screen to greet the vortex of our vanities. From the other side of looking glass, the face grinning at us from every outlet from BBC to Fox belongs to Donald Trump, post-truth politician.
It’s not just about the stories. Journalism is also about who is telling them.
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