What better embodiment of Trump’s vast and seemingly pathological hypocrisy is there than his claim that the media (or any critical opposition) lies about him. Hypocrisy is a historically successful strategy for narcissistic demagogues but Trump has taken the false presentation of self to a new level as he projects his own dubious relationship with truth onto all those who don’t share his beliefs. It’s seems to be the result of his fragile reality tv ego and the Newt Gingrich school of epistemology. In an interview earlier this year Gingrich revealed a basic component of the GOP strategy when he claimed feelings and unsupported beliefs were equally as true as facts and he would rather support feeling than statistics. He said, “The current view is that liberals have a whole set of statistics that theoretically may be right, but it’s not where human beings are.” “As a political candidate, I’ll go with how people feel and I’ll let you go with the theoreticians.” This is prominent member of the political establishment saying without any ambiguity that truth is subjective and unstable to such a degree that the way people feel, even when it is in contradiction to facts, is more useful to him as a politician than verifiable facts and statistics! No attempt is made to hide the ways he uses manipulation to garner support and gather power. Trump has taken this anti-science, anti-intellectual strategy and employed it in the creation of his own reality based on how he feels about any given topic. Is this the context which we should view his defensive responses to being called out for proliferating debunked conspiracy theories, fake crime statistics, or internet hoaxes? He famously responded “I only know what’s on the internet” as a justification for believing the hoax which served his purpose. Instead of promoting critical thought and how to navigate the treacherous waters of the information age he is normalizing confirmation bias as a political strategy and a way of life. Ezra Klein notes that it’s not the sort of behavior anyone should want from a president: Trump’s “tendency to solicit, repeat, and retweet self-serving falsehoods served up by sycophants and hangers-on should be taken seriously. Among the most important tasks the president has is knowing what to believe, whom to listen to, which facts to trust, and which theories to explore. Trump’s terrible judgment in this regard is one of the many reasons he’s not qualified for the office. Presidents often have to hear things they don’t want to hear — that an idea isn’t good, that a strategy has become unworkable, that a policy doesn’t add up, that a trusted subordinate is underperforming, that a strategy won’t survive public or judicial scrutiny.” If we give him the benefit of the doubt that he isn’t purposely misleading his followers then it appears that he is too gullible to hold such a powerful position in the world.
This lack of critical thinking isn’t limited to Trump and his supporters. A recent study from Stanford University showed that students of all ages consistently “failed to effectively evaluate the credibility of” various sources of information on the internet. There have been many discussions lately about the responsibilities, or in some cases blame, that the monolithic social media site Facebook should or can have in terms of proliferating fake news, disinformation, and propaganda. There seems to be a laissez-faire response to this widespread proliferation of “news” stories and memes which aren’t based on any verifiable account of reality. There is this idea that it isn’t the sites responsibility to filter out all the bogus noise and even if it was something they should act on, there are questions about how that could even be implemented (a group of University students have offered one solution after two days of work on the problem). I agree that any action that the company could take internally looks like a Band-Aid on a gaping wound that is our national sense of knowledge and critical thinking, but now that about half of all Americans get their news from social media sites they need to be held to a higher level of integrity if we want to be an informed democracy. 21st century post-internet media is a new landscape and without regulation this public information problem will grow.
So how should the traditional media outlets deal with Trump and this new truthiness manipulation that the GOP is so fond of? None of the barrage of blatant lies he spoke or tweeted before the election had a damaging effect on his political reputation. This is perhaps partly explained by noting the degree of confidence and comfort he seems to have in lying, which clearly fooled nearly half of the voting public who wanted to believe him and his huge, yet vague, proclamations of what does and doesn’t make America great. Another major factor is how little he was called out by the media for the hundreds of false claims during his time as a candidate. 70% of his statements fact-checked by polit-fact were mostly false to completely, even outrageously false (http://www.politifact.com/truth-o-meter/article/2016/nov/01/truth-check-clinton-and-trump-truth-o-meter-1-week/), but in spite of this many reputable news organizations reported his claims without much scrutiny. Free advertising for every brazen repudiation of truth. While a more critical shift did occur in mainstream media once he became the Republican nominee, it was still not sufficient. We have many media problems, but this one is indicative of a deeper issue: the health of our democracy. At what point did the Fourth Estate become a combination of a court jester and a town crier that repeats the ravings of any notable person? The practice of writing “so and so claimed such and such” as a headline or centerpiece of a story without any context or analysis isn’t journalism any more than uninformed partisan opinion framed as fact is. Repeating whatever questionable thing a person has said without giving readers a necessary critical response perpetuates the idea that there are many realities which all deserve equal respect and time. I’m not suggesting that there is one objective truth accessible by all, but the gray area of opinion isn’t the same thing as the gray area of the interpretation of statistical data. Personal feelings do not transform into facts at some threshold of popular opinion and science offers a higher degree of certainty than rash gut reactions. This practice of reporting without critical review ultimately contributes to normalizing extreme and destructive perspectives that are based on disproved claims and gut feeling lacking justification. The shift of the Right further from center is made easier without any consistent audit of their core “feelings.” In his series Trump Nation for The Atlantic James Fallows addresses why this issue is so important right now: “Knowledge of the risks of being caught has encouraged most politicians to minimize provable lies. None of this works with Donald Trump. He doesn’t care, and at least so far the institutional GOP hasn’t either.” Fallows recognizes that the way the press interacts with both the GOP and the president-elect needs to be significantly different than the status quo has been. They have to “call out lies as lies, not “controversies” and fight for reality itself especially when the person who is about to be in such a uniquely powerful position either doesn’t know the difference between facts and lies or doesn’t care. Whether Trump is ill-informed as a result of his own confirmation bias or he is purposely misinforming his audience, it seems to benefit his authoritarian approach. Unfortunately this strategy also has the effect of keeping a large proportion of the population misinformed to a degree I have not experienced in my lifetime and an uninformed or misinformed democracy is a deranged democracy. The idea that journalists should treat all utterances with the same respect is absurd in the current informational climate. False statements need to be called out immediately and relentlessly. Our traditional press needs to augment their approach if they hope to be the balancing power that they are intended to be for the stability of our democracy. The US might get through the next 4 years with some democratic integrity and self-awareness if we work to make all citizens better informed.