Post-truth politics: Roger Cohen on the danger that Trump represents

Rebecca Ring/Courtesy of Knopf Doubleday
Roger Cohen

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.

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Comments (6)

  1. Submitted by Ray Schoch on 08/24/2017 - 02:31 pm.

    A big “if”

    If he weren’t the Current Occupant of the Oval Office, it would be easy for me to dismiss Donald Trump for the ignorant, boorish blowhard that he is. Unfortunately, he was elected, so while I’d *like* to ignore his duplicity as the delusional ravings common to all too many of the 1% (the recent tweet from the current treasury secretary’s physically attractive, ethically repugnant, wife comes easily and immediately to mind), it’s just not possible.

    While a part of me would like to keep the conversational tone civil and civilized, as has been usually done in the past, another part would like to see someone on the more liberal side, or even the more moderate segment, of the political spectrum get up in Trump’s face and publicly call him out for the deplorable (I use that term advisedly) liar he is, especially given the power and influence of the office to which he was elected.

    What we have at the moment, in addition to the habitual liar, is a national bully, with all the negatives that go with your typical junior-high school bully.

    • Submitted by Tim Walker on 08/24/2017 - 03:37 pm.

      You make very good points, as usual, Ray.

      While waiting for “someone on the more liberal side, or even the more moderate segment, of the political spectrum to get up in Trump’s face,” wouldn’t it be nice if the mainstream media actually acted in its capacity as the Fourth Estate and did some of that, too?

  2. Submitted by Paul Brandon on 08/24/2017 - 06:47 pm.

    The problem is

    that his supporters don’t -care- that he’s a liar.
    They want to believe him because he promises the moon, and despite the fact (that word again) that most of his promises are impossible to achieve (mutual incompatibility and such) they will still believe him.
    And despite the fact that they only constitute (interesting word) a third of the population, somehow they elected him.
    People like you and Paul Krugman have certainly called him out. The problem is how to fight him without becoming him, in which case he wins because you’re playing by his rules, or lack thereof. Anyone remember Calvinball?

  3. Submitted by Neal Rovick on 08/24/2017 - 07:45 pm.

    There will be no “Perry Mason moment”– that moment when the guilty person breaks down on the witness stand and confesses their guilt.

    There is no person or press outlet or even court that can break through the gathered imperviousness of 70 years. With the current level of shielding that is in place, there is no-one who could pin him with any charge.

    Haven’t you learned through all of the political debates, a politician who cannot bloviate through any topic for at least 20 minutes is not really a politician? Especially if a big dose of randomness and deflection is part of your response.

    If you aren’t sure on this, spend a few hours watching Kellyann Conway.

  4. Submitted by Tom Christensen on 08/25/2017 - 09:36 am.

    “The Emperor has no clothes”

    After 8 months of Trump I remain committed to my thought that Trump’s dad gave him millions to start out with just to get him out of the house. As Mr. Cohen says, “He just wears you down.” Now, for me, Trump has burned all the assumed credibility I gave him in the beginning. I don’t have any tolerance for a person with Trump’s character flaws. We have zero in common. I just won’t put up with it. He totally lost me during the campaign. The entire Republican party has the same problem after 7 years of trying to kill the ACA for nothing but political gain. It didn’t matter to them people’s lives hung in the balance as long as there was a political gain. The political gain turned into political blame because they totally misjudged how the public felt about the ACA. Cornered, now they don’t have a lick of an idea of what to do about replacing it. Their attitude now is, so what? Let’s move on to tax reform which will really pay off with big points for the party. The cost for their major blunder, the party doesn’t have any credibility either. In the Phoenix speech, we saw the two Donald Trump’s. The scripted Trump who is a very poor example of a presenter at best. He knows the words he’s reading were written by someone else and they don’t reflect his beliefs. Then there is the real Trump, rude, crude, and unfiltered. Trump needs an adversary, either real or imagined, to go on his diatribes. Trump is already setting up those who will be responsible for raising the debt ceiling by saying if CONGRESS had listened to him the problem would already be solved. CONGRESS will also be responsible for not going on a fool’s errand of building the wall. It is so foolish Trump even told the Mexican President not to talk about the wall because it could be politically harmful to him. Why is Trump this way? Narcissism, maybe a mental imbalance or is it because he has never in his life had to live within any boundaries or consequences. He has a so what attitude because he can buy his way out of consequences or as he so often does, he just plain ignores them. Laws are for other people. America needs and deserves much better than Trump.

  5. Submitted by Connie Sullivan on 08/25/2017 - 03:12 pm.

    Trump supporters at the dull and boring Phoenix rally, where Trump spent most of his time talking about himself when they’re interested in other issues, got tired of him, finally, and in the last half-hour just got up and went home. (This was in the New York Times editorial page, corroborating my own impression from actually sitting through that awful performance). They abandoned “their guy” to Making America Great pretty much alone.

    We should hope that Trump keeps up being the off-script Trump, the uncontrolled-by-Kelly Trump, the total narcissist Trump. And then gently insist that his supporters–you know, your uncle, your grandad, your Aunt Harriet–face what they’re seeing. And reading: Forward the Patrick Keefe article on Carl Icahn in this week’s New Yorker, which points to epic and unprecedented corruption in the Trump White House. Talk with them about it. Ask them why all the conservative talk-show panelists find it necessary to interrupt any and all other panelist views and shout them down (CNN’s Anderson Cooper just hired on one of those screamers for his “AC360” in primer time! You can’t make out what anyone is trying to say, because this new guy is shouting in their faces before they finish a sentence; I mean, Tucker Carlson has been doing that on Fox, but some viewers actually like to hear full sentences, by everybody, in a conversation). Ask them to explain what it is these conservatives don’t want you to hear.

    Because the only hope for the United States is for those who voted for Trump to find a way to swallow their pride and admit that they made a huge mistake. And abandon him, the way Trump has abandoned more than half of the population of this country to cater to thugs and racists and the hugely wealthy.

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