In 2016, Oxford Dictionaries declared “post-truth” its “word of the year.” Small wonder.
Of course, “truth” is a large, somewhat unknowable abstraction. “Factual” is a little closer to the earth, even though a clever liar can construct a falsehood out of accurate facts, by choosing their facts dishonestly, leaving out the ones that undermine the particular “truth” that they are pushing. But that’s an old, ongoing, slippery problem that can be cured by a commitment to intellectual honesty, which includes the practice of acknowledging inconvenient facts, and remaining humble about one’s latest attempt to figure out some truth.
But, one suspects, Oxford didn’t give its award to “post-truth” because of a decline in the general willingness to acknowledge inconvenient truths (although, based on nothing, I would suggest that there has been such a decline). No, one suspects the choice had something to do with the election of an inveterate liar to the highest office of the most powerful nation on earth.
Oxford didn’t mention President Trump in explaining its choice (although there is a picture of him, speaking at one of his rallies, in the article explaining the choice of Oxford’s word of the year) but its good manners didn’t fool many readers.
Trump doesn’t just leave out inconvenient facts. He says things, constantly, a steady stream of things, that are blatantly, provably false, and this is constantly pointed out by, among others, the operators of the great journalistic “fact-checkers” whose role has grown bigger and bigger over recent years. Trump almost never retracts or apologizes for his lies.
That such a blatant, colossal liar could be elected president of the United States explains why “post-truth” was the word of the year. I harp on this obvious (dare one say) truth only by way of introducing a concise description of the Trump method of murdering truth that was included in yesterday’s daily newsletter summarizing the opinion section of what Trump calls the “failing New York Times.” (It’s not failing, by the way. Circulation, both online and in print, are way up, as are revenues and profits, perhaps thanks in major part to Trump. But asserting the opposite of verifiable reality is just how he rolls.)
Anyway, Times columnist Roger Cohen was filling in this morning as the author of the daily op-ed newsletter summary, and he let fly with a brilliant, trenchant, caustic summary of how Trump rolls. It begins:
You grow numb. You grow weary. I recall discovering a few weeks back that President Trump had lied about two phone calls, one from the president of Mexico and one from the head of the Boy Scouts. The calls, supposedly to congratulate him, did not exist. They never happened. They were pure inventions. Asked if Trump had lied, the White House press secretary, Sarah Huckabee Sanders, said, ‘I wouldn’t say it was a lie.’
I actually remember shrugging. The shrug was terrifying. This is how autocrats — or would-be autocrats — cement their power. They wear you down with their lies. They distract you. They want you to believe that 2+2=5. They want you to forget that freedom withers when the distinction between truth and falsehood dies. In a dictatorship there is a single font of “truth”: the voice of the dictator. Remember Trump at the Republican National Convention a little over a year ago: “I am your voice.” And now his voice is everywhere.
There’s the scripted Trump voice, which is fake. There’s the unscripted voice, which is genuine. The two tend to alternate; call this the choreography of disorientation. It’s confusing, like having a president who isn’t really a president but instead acts like the leader of a rabble-rousing movement. The Oval Office is a useful prop, no more than that. He’s held eight rallies since becoming president in January. The latest was in Phoenix, where he called the media “very dishonest people.” He led the crowd in a chant of “CNN sucks.” He attacked the ‘failing New York Times.’
It’s familiar. That familiarity is menacing. It led me to think of my half-repressed shrug at the beginning of this month. Trump has one fundamental talent: a ruthless ability to mess with people’s minds and turn their anger into the engine of his ambition. A dishonest president calls the media that report on his dishonesty dishonest for doing so. This is where we are. This is the danger that Trump represents.
Have a nice rest of your day.