Ever wanted to be right about something even though there’s literally no factual evidence supporting it? Well, you’re not alone: the Trump Administration can relate. From false claims about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd, to unsubstantiated claims about illegal immigrants, to false claims about Obama wiretapping Trump tower… The list goes on. And yet, a significant amount of people have prevented any unanimous condemnation of the administration’s actions. So, we have to ask, what has Trump done to truth, and is it permanent?
It’s no secret that politicians lie – it happens, and usually it isn’t good, but it isn’t that frequent either. The occasional lie was forgivable for most. And in any other time, that’s what lies were – occasional. Yet, like it has with a lot of other things in America, the Trump Administration has turned truth on it’s head. Kellyanne Conway’s ‘alternative facts’ were just the beginning – hardly a week goes by when we don’t hear ‘fake news’ tossed out by some Trump team member.
Party of Lies
Maybe at a glance, what I want to call the ‘alternative facts’ trend seems like a joke – something liberals can use to make fun of Trump. Or, maybe it just seems like something they’re using in the light of a particularly bad presidency, to cover up Trump’s blatant inadequacy in the White House. If you’re particularly pessimistic, maybe it seems like the end of truth itself – and we in university can say ‘hello’ to Wikipedia research projects, because what’s true won’t matter if it feels right…
Let’s start with the RNC in 2016, when the first obvious sign that facts were going to take a back seat to feelings. As pointed out by John Oliver at the time, Newt Gingrich set the theme of the RNC – by arguing with a reporter about the violent crime rate. The reporter has it right – violent crime was down at the time, even if there were pockets where it was still high. Gingrich had a slightly different take, claiming that people didn’t feel safe, so therefore, the crime rate couldn’t possibly be down.
It’s a silly clip to watch, but it’s not insignificant. What makes it equally terrifying is that this is the sort of thing people will believe. Even with the right information, there’s going to be a part of the population that will take feelings as fact. And now, they have political figures backing them up. What was once a small group of die-hard conspiracy theorists now have a public office that watches their news and peddles the falsehoods they believe. Which, for the existence of facts, seems troubling.
After the RNC, the whole ‘feelings as facts’ thing didn’t stop, either. Throughout the rest of the campaign, and now into the presidency, the Trump Administration has continued to essentially deceive their way through office. What makes the campaign a lot less worrying, though, is that at the time Trump’s lies had negligible consequences. If he lied, it was frustrating, but it didn’t matter. Now? He’s president. And what he says is incredibly consequential.
The most recent scandal to pass is, for example, the wiretapping allegations made against former President Obama. This report started, as far as I know, when a Brietbart report gave Trump a report based on questionable evidence from right-wing reporter Mark Levin. Trump then tweeted it out (misspelling ‘tap’ as ‘tapp’ in the process) and now here we are, weeks later, in the midst of an investigation of a claim that never had any substance to it in the first place.
Where this becomes more than just a huge waste of time for the American Congress and security agencies? Well, recently, it has slipped into international relations. A British spy agency was accused of helping Obama with this fake wiretap. The British were, understandably, not at all happy about this. Then, Trump suggested in a joint press conference with Angela Merkel that she had also been wiretapped by Obama – to which she responded with the most relatable look anyone could have when it comes to Trump.
The point is, this all started as actual fake news – an unsubstantiated report meant to deceive people or to inflame people’s anger. Now, it’s been dominating the actual news cycle for a good three weeks. Instead of fully focusing real issues – the 24 million people who may lose their health insurance because of the American Health Care Act, for example – reporters have to focus somewhat on the wiretapping story. Given this case, the idea that facts are disappearing, then, is pretty compelling.
So, are facts still a thing in America? Or are we in serious danger of losing sight of real, evidence-based claims driving policy? Unfortunately, the media can only do some much – they have to report on these false stories, and when they dismiss them, they face getting called ‘enemies to the American people,’ among other things. Which, of course, may continue to enforce for hard-core Trump supporters that what they feel is totally factual, regardless of the evidence (or lack thereof). So… is truth in serious danger of disappearing?
A New Hope?
Believe it or not, the Toronto Star’s Washington Correspondent, Daniel Dale, who spoke at UTM’s Public Affairs Lecture, thinks there is still a chance of truth’s survival. He cited three reasons for believing that facts might still exist in 2020. People still want real news, for one. Investigative journalism really takes off in times like this, as getting at the truth requires a little more looking. And thirdly, the people who reject facts are small in number. Some are going to believe in falsehoods regardless of evidence, but they represent a smaller portion of Trump’s supporters; many are just misinformed, having been told plenty of dubious claims by far-right radio.
So, while CNN may have earned the presidential label ‘fake news,’ that won’t completely discredit them. Mainstream media (CNN, BBC, and The Economist, to name a few) may attack Trump – but at least their claims are evidence-based, and they’re committed to trying to provide facts. And, most importantly, they’re being as objective as they’re able. Anyone who claims that the news is extremely biased against Trump specifically clearly hasn’t watched news coverage of Liberal or Democratic leaders.
Additionally, as viewers of media, what we can do is keep to the most trusted news sources, and to take some time to fact check. Dale (who has a ‘Trump Checker’ of his own) suggested that even a google search of any given story would be good enough – it’s not hard to find when something’s false. And, as people who at least somewhat like the idea of truth, we can pay attention – after all, politicians can do a lot, but they can’t destroy truth. Trump will be no exception.
Whether it’s by alternative facts peddled by the Trump Administration, or a fake news story that someone literally just made up (and the Trump Administration picked up as truth), facts are going to be under siege for a bit. We have the responsibility not to give into these blatant lies. And while that can be incredibly tiring, we got this!
Don’t hold out for Wikipedia-based research projects – facts are still going to exist in 2020, so long as we protect them.