We live in treacherous times, times in which even the most basic building block of open debate and thought — the existence of an objective, agreed -upon reality — is being challenged and undermined. Where this ends I do not know, but the historical precedents are ominous.
As an example, here’s Trump surrogate Scottie Nell Hughes in a radio interview this week, when asked about outright lies being spread by our president-elect and how it’s perceived by the Trump campaign and of course by the incoming Trump administration:
“On one hand, I hear half the media saying that these are lies. But on the other half, there are many people that go, ‘No, it’s true.’ And so one thing that has been interesting this entire campaign season to watch is that people that say facts are facts — they’re not really facts. Everybody has a way — it’s kind of like looking at ratings, or looking at a glass of half-full water. Everybody has a way of interpreting them to be the truth, or not truth. There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts.
“And so Mr. Trump’s tweet, amongst a certain crowd — a large part of the population—are truth. When he says that millions of people illegally voted, he has some — amongst him and his supporters, and people believe they have facts to back that up. Those that do not like Mr. Trump, they say that those are lies and that there are no facts to back it up.”
As we’ve discussed before on the site, Trump’s claim that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the past election — and voted for Hillary Clinton, thus explaining away his 2.5-million-vote deficit in the popular count — has no basis in fact. It originated in a claim posted on Twitter by one obscure man who has since refused to offer any proof to back it up or to explain the methodology by which he reached that conclusion.
Nonetheless, his claim gained exposure when it was promoted on the Infowars conspiracy site run by radio host Alex Jones, the same Alex Jones who believes that the Sandy Hook Elementary School shooting was a government hoax perpetrated to build support for gun control. In his version of reality, 20 first- and second-graders didn’t die a violent death in that school, nor did the six teachers who tried to protect them. What the rest of us saw as a terrible tragedy was in fact a performance by paid actors, including the grieving parents of those kids.
And if you or I say otherwise, well, that’s just our opinion. It’s worth noting that after the election, Trump took the time to personally call Jones to thank him for his support.
Corey Lewandowski, another close Trump intimate, expounded a bit further on the issue of truth vs. fiction in an appearance at Harvard University this week. Sure, a lot of things that Trump said might not have been true, Lewandowski acknowledged, but the mistake was in thinking that it mattered:
“This is the problem with the media. You guys took everything that Donald Trump said so literally. The American people didn’t. They understood it. They understood that sometimes — when you have a conversation with people, whether it’s around the dinner table or at a bar — you’re going to say things, and sometimes you don’t have all the facts to back it up.”
As Lewandowski sees it, it’s foolish to hold a candidate to be president of the United States to a higher standard of truth than you would hold, say, someone sitting next to you in a bar who’s about to down his fourth beer and who is explaining to you in sincere tones that the Sandy Hook shooting was really a government plot.
To apply Lewandowski’s point, Trump didn’t literally mean that Clinton should be prosecuted and jailed, that there would be an actual 2,000-mile wall on the border with Mexico or that Mexico would pay for it, or that he would tear up the Iran nuclear deal on his first day in office, or that Ted Cruz’s dad helped to kill JFK, or that he was going to take on Goldman Sachs and the Wall Street elite, or that he would protect Medicare and Medicaid. These were just things he said, not things he actually meant.
These are strange claims, especially coming from a campaign that made “Lyin’ Hillary” a catchphrase among its followers. And in the spirit of the times, I suppose you could argue that the statements by Hughes and Lewandowski are themselves not to be taken literally or factually.
However, that gets a little more complicated when Trump himself publicly joins the game, as he did in his remarks yesterday at a Carrier plant in Indiana. Basically, and I’m sure inadvertently, he confirmed everything that his surrogates had said.
In his speech, Trump told the crowd that he had been watching a TV news show about a week ago — “I won’t say which one, because I don’t want to give them credit, because I don’t like them much, I’ll be honest” — when they interviewed a Carrier employee about the company’s plans to move to Mexico. Here’s how he put it:
“And they had a gentleman, worker, great guy, handsome guy, he was on, and it was like he didn’t even know they were leaving. He said something to the effect, “No, we’re not leaving, because Donald Trump promised us that we’re not leaving,” and I never thought I made that promise. Not with Carrier. I made it for everybody else. I didn’t make it really for Carrier.
And I said, “What’s he saying?” And he was such a believer, and he was such a great guy. He said, “I’ve been with Donald Trump from the beginning, and he made the statement that Carrier’s not going anywhere, they’re not leaving.”
And I’m saying to myself, “Man.”
And then they played my statement, and I said, “Carrier will never leave.” But that was a euphemism. I was talking about Carrier like all other companies from here on in. Because they made the decision a year and a half ago.
But he believed that that was — and I could understand it. I actually said — I didn’t make it — when they played that, I said, “I did make it, but I didn’t mean it quite that way.”
Of course, in that same speech in which Trump explained that he hadn’t really meant what he had point-blank said, he also pledged point blank that “companies are not going to leave the United States any more without consequences. Not going to happen. It’s not going to happen, I’ll tell you right now.”
Except of course it is going to happen. It’s happening right now, in the very place where he stood. While Carrier has agreed to keep 850 jobs at its Indianapolis plant rather than move them to Mexico, it has also made clear that it is still committed to moving another 1,300 jobs from Indiana to Mexico. And despite what Trump said, the company faces no consequences for doing so.
Now, Trump, Hughes and Lewandowski would probably tell us that if we focus on the literal truth of that statement, we miss the important thing. In Trump’s term, it’s just a “euphemism,” and it should be assessed not on the basis of whether it’s factual but rather on the intent that it communicates.
For those who have read Hannah Arendt’s 1951 study of fascism and communism, “The Origins of Totalitarianism,” this is alarming familiar. Arendt wrote extensively about the importance of defending truth and fact as bulwarks against government control, and warned against those who attempt “to dissolve every statement of fact into a declaration of purpose.”
She wrote, referring to the growth of fascism and communism in the ’20s and ’30s:
“In an ever-changing, incomprehensible world the masses had reached the point where they would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true. … Mass propaganda discovered that its audience was ready at all times to believe the worst, no matter how absurd, and did not particularly object to being deceived because it held every statement to be a lie anyhow. The totalitarian mass leaders based their propaganda on the correct psychological assumption that, under such conditions, one could make people believe the most fantastic statements one day, and trust that if the next day they were given irrefutable proof of their falsehood, they would take refuge in cynicism; instead of deserting the leaders who had lied to them, they would protest that they had known all along that the statement was a lie and would admire the leaders for their superior tactical cleverness.”
As I said, that sounds alarmingly familiar and all too current.