Some of the terms we’ve been hearing lately are inventive; one is even humorous — and intended as such. But all of them mean the same thing, and there’s nothing funny about the suggestion that we live in a “post-truth era.” All of these terms mean “lies.” It doesn’t matter how you package a lie, it is still a lie.
More dangerous is complacently believing that this actually is a “post-truth era.” While it is perhaps difficult to tell fact from fiction in the echo chambers of the Internet, that is not permission to surrender; as citizens, we do not get to shrug off our responsibility and then claim helplessness because someone has coined new words for lying.
I’m thinking of a few specific “someones.” The mediocre reality show has been and repeatedly bankrupt real estate magnate who became president has, with his surrogates, already grown a bumper crop of lies.
Exhibit A: The Fragile Narcissist In-Chief
Donald Trump, after trashing the intelligence community for its conclusions that Russia wanted him to win, went before the CIA to proclaim his love for the agency. And also to brag about how smart he is. And of course to call the media, apparently without a hint of self-awareness, “among the most dishonest human beings on earth.” Their sin? “ … they sort of made it sound like I had a feud with the intelligence community.”
If by “sort of,” Trump means “totally reported my own words as I threw a hissy fit about the unflattering allegations in a dossier,” then, sure. Witness his own Tweet on Jan. 11:
“Intelligence agencies should never have allowed this fake news to ‘leak’ into the public. One last shot at me. Are we living in Nazi Germany?”
I believe I have mentioned that Trump may lack self-awareness. At his CIA visit, he went on to say the media had been “caught in a beauty” of a lie over accurate reporting as to the size of his inauguration crowds versus Obama’s first-term turnout. He added: “I think they’re going to pay a big price.” Translation: “I will do my best to make sure they pay a big price, and in the process, also cut off the American people from accurate information.” Not only does accurate reporting rankle the guy who now has the nuclear launch codes, but what he’s perturbed about is, essentially, rally numbers.
At his first press conference after winning the Electoral College, Trump also railed against particular networks, refusing to take their questions on the basis that they were “fake news.” (Another world leader once called the media the “lying press.” That person was Hitler.)
But a story is not false merely because someone dislikes it. Trump signed up to be president (at least for the glory and adulation part), and it’s no one’s fault but his own that he doesn’t know what he is doing. Criticism comes with the territory. He’d better get used to it.
Exhibit B: Sean Spicer
Press secretary is a tough job. Spicer showed in January that he is in no way capable of it. He claimed that Trump’s inauguration was the most widely attended and viewed, ever, which is completely at odds with reality.
He tried to suggest that white ground coverings just made empty spaces stand out more than they had at Obama’s inauguration, and that greater security measures kept more people off the Washington Mall. The Secret Service said measures were not significantly different, per the New York Times.
On video, an angry Spicer reads as if from a script, claiming the media deliberately misrepresented the photos to “minimize” Trump’s “enormous support.” He further took a shot at a reporter who had incorrectly said Martin Luther King’s bust had been removed from the Oval Office. Spicer raved about this error as if it were The Worst Thing Ever, proof positive that all media are “reckless.” (And therefore, lying to them is OK?)
Then, in perhaps one of the most stunning lies of the day, he said Democrats had placed national security at risk by “stalling” confirmation hearings for Trump’s national security pick.
For those who may have missed it, a number of Trump’s Cabinet picks have been overwhelmingly unqualified for their jobs; some have not gone through the level of vetting required by law, and some have been found not to have made required disclosures. (Looking at you, Steve “the paperwork is complicated” Mnuchin.) But by all means, blame the Democrats as heel-draggers because Trump failed at the outset to adhere to the selection process.
“We’re going to hold the press accountable as well (for divisions in the nation),” Spicer fumed, before stalking out of the room.
Translation: “We’re going to continue to frame the press as your enemy. We want to control the information. It makes it easier for us.”
Exhibit C: Kellyanne Conway
Conway has been shilling for Trump since taking over his campaign, spinning so much it’s a wonder she’s not developed vertigo. But after the Spicer disaster, Conway outdid herself.
NBC’s Chuck Todd asked Conway why Trump had sent Spicer out to discuss a “provable falsehood,” with respect to inauguration numbers. Conway attempted to deflect by talking about the executive orders Trump had signed and what happened in the months prior that brought the public out.
Todd then had the nerve to ask why, if the size of the crowd does not matter after all, Trump had sent out Spicer “to utter a provable falsehood.”
Conway’s response? That if Todd was going to keep questioning the press secretary, “I think we’re going to have to rethink our relationship with the press here.” When Todd pointed out that she wasn’t answering the question, Conway, too, began talking about the MLK bust. Soon after, she uttered the words I hope haunt her for years to come: “Our press secretary gave alternative facts.”
Todd responded: “Alternative facts are not facts.”
It was like shouting into a tornado.
Alternative facts are not facts, but apparently, Conway hopes that if they are repeated often enough, they will become the equivalent of facts in people’s minds.
I would say we cannot let that happen, but in significant ways, we already have — such as when people, before Trump was elected, and independently of what he was doing, heralded this as the “post-truth era.” The national media did not help matters later, covering in breathless detail every trivial aspect of Trump’s campaign, and treating his candidacy as a joke, rather than as a threat. He was given free publicity because network executives thought ratings were more important than actual reporting.
Trump did not give us the talk of, and near-acceptance of a “post-truth era.” The seeming embrace, by some, of a post-truth era gave us Trump. On balance, the Trump candidacy had the feel of a giant con and the Trump Administration, to date, is one of gaslighting those who try to tell the truth. “Gaslighting” comes from the 1944 movie, “Gaslight,” and refers to making someone appear insane, or making that person believe he or she is insane, so that the victim doesn’t even trust his or her own judgment. It is aimed at destroying the victim’s power and ability to challenge the abuser.
When the media present facts — photographs, videos, Trump’s own words — he and his propagandists pounce with cries of “fake news!” and “dishonest media!”
When Walter Shaub Jr., head of the Office of Government Ethics, wrote Senate Democrats that vetting for Trump’s Cabinet picks hadn’t been conducted entirely in accordance with the Ethics in Government Act, Toxic Human Being Jason Chaffetz sent him a letter alleging that OGE Tweets in November had “publicized private discussions” with Trump’s counsel with respect to Trump divesting his business interests.
Chaffetz scolded Shaub:” “Your agency’s mission is to provide clear ethics guidance, not engage in public relations.” He noted that the OGE’s statutory authorization lapsed at the end of the fiscal year and that the House decides whether to reauthorize it. He wrote: “To help the committee understand how you perceive the OGE’s role, among other things, please make yourself available for a transcribed interview …”
In other words: “Shaub doesn’t know his place and now we’re going after him for Tweets that have exactly beans to do with whether Trump’s Cabinet picks are being properly vetted. This is to punish him for pointing out the Ethics in Government Act issue.”
When former CIA director John Brennan commented that Trump’s speech before the CIA was a “despicable display of self-aggrandizement,” Trump mouthpiece Reince Priebus declared Brennan was just “bitter” that he had not been retained.
Conway chimed in that Brennan is “a partisan political hack.” (Apparently, she has as much self-awareness as her master). In other words: “John Brennan is washed up — really, kind of a terrorist, and you can’t trust him!” Lost in the noise machine’s cacophony: That Trump, while standing in front of a CIA memorial wall, blathered about the turnout for the inauguration, the media, and how “smart” he is. Seems an awful lot like self-aggrandizement to me.
The Trump strategy is to deflect, deny, project and sabotage. The endgame is far more than protecting Trump’s eggshell- thin feelings. It is to undermine public faith in the traditional institutions for fact-checking and research, and, really, anyone who speaks out about what his administration is doing.
That is why his propagandists go off the rails when speaking to the press. It is why he Tweets while the world burns. Or, in “alternative-fact”-speak, it’s so he can “communicate directly with the people.”
Direct communication is well and good, but it cannot be the only way by which the people learn about what he is doing. The reasons for that should be obvious: Neither he nor any other elected official can actually be forced to tell the truth and, worse, Trump appears to have a pathological aversion to doing so.
There is a reason why press freedoms are enshrined in the Constitution. And Trump finds it much easier to erode faith in the press than to repeal the First Amendment. But the press is not the only victim, or even the primary one. America is the victim. If you cannot, or will not, watch what your government is doing, then it can do anything at all.
Katharhynn Heidelberg is an award-winning journalist in Montrose, Colo.