And it might be just as deadly.
Last January we penned an essay, “The Death of Truth.” It began, “We have a very serious and destructive problem in America. Yes, we know, we have many. But this one is different because it is widely tolerated and, sadly, carefully nurtured by our nation’s leadership regardless of party. Truth has become one of the lowest coins in the realm. The narrative, carefully conceived, studiously nurtured, and determinedly communicated has, it seems, become the highest coin of the realm.”
Today, we believe the problem is even worse. That’s because we have become willfully ignorant. Too many of us have abandoned truth as our bedrock value, and, instead, embraced any narrative that best suits our beliefs, biases and comfort levels. It is a dangerous place to be. It is a realm where mischief and demagoguery thrive, and where altruism and good citizenship go to die.
This realm is not home to any particular party in America. Politicians, both Democrat and Republican have, do and will continue to focus herculean effort on constructing narratives that are seductive rather than truthful—not so much to fool people, but rather, to provide people versions of reality that they most want to see, hear or read. Sadly, far too many of us largely, and willingly, seem to prefer seduction to candor. To be fooled is bad enough. To seek to be fooled is far worse. Today, many people turn the dial (okay, press the button) to find “news” that comports with their preferred version of reality rather than the hard, solid, truth.
President Trump defines truth as being that version of events that best satisfies his needs or objectives, or salves his sense of self. Hence his inaugural crowds were the largest ever, and he would have won the popular vote but for the three million illegals who voted for Hillary Clinton. Both ridiculous assertions. President Trump simply says what serves his interest with complete abandon. For example, he blithely stated that his budget plan would offer “one of the largest increases in national defense spending in American history.” But in fact, Congress raised defense budgets by larger percentages than the 10 percent increase that Trump proposed three times since 2000. The base defense budget grew by 14.3 percent, in 2002; by 11.3 percent, in 2003, and by 10.9 percent, in 2008.
Trump bragged that since his election, “Ford, Fiat-Chrysler, General Motors, Sprint, Softbank, Lockheed, Intel, Walmart and many others have announced that they will invest billions of dollars in the United States and will create tens of thousands of new American jobs.”
Why President Trump chooses to misrepresent facts that are so easily checked is beyond us. Many of these announcements reflect corporate decisions that predate Trump’s presidential election, making it unlikely that his administration had much, if anything, to do with these corporate decisions. In the case of Intel, construction of the Chandler, Arizona, factory referred to by Trump actually began during Barack Obama‘s presidency.
Then we have the consequences of years of demographic change in America. Candidate Trump, sensing palpable xenophobic stress in the country, milked that unease for everything it was worth during the presidential election. He threatened to deport millions of undocumented men, women, and children who were here largely because we, as a nation, looked the other way when we needed their labor.
Lest anyone misinterpret our essay this week as an anti-trump screed, it is not. We do not believe the precipitous diminution of truth in American politics began when Donald Trump decided to march to the oval office by turning the 2016 Presidential election into a reality tv extravaganza.
After all, President Barrack Obama knowingly assured the nation that under his healthcare program, (1) premium costs would decline $2400 by the end of his first term, (2) that everyone who wanted to keep his or her doctor could, (3) everyone who liked his or her plan could keep it, and (4) that he would veto the Affordable Care Act if it increased the deficit by one dime. To which, for emphasis, he added “period!” It wasn’t true. It was never true, and the President knew it wasn’t true.
Remember when one of the key architects of the federal healthcare law, MIT Professor Jonathan Gruber told a panel that a “lack of transparency” and the “stupidity of the American voter” were essential in getting Congress to approve Obamacare. “Lack of transparency, he said, “is a huge political advantage,” Gruber continued, “And basically, call it the stupidity of the American voter or whatever, but basically that was really, really critical for the thing to pass.” He said that voters would have rejected Obamacare if the penalties for going without health insurance (the so-called mandate) were interpreted as taxes, either by budget analysts or the public. “If CBO scored the individual mandate as taxes, the bill dies,” Gruber said. “If you had a law that made it explicit that healthy people are going to pay in and sick people are going to get subsidies, it would not have passed.
What we find most disturbing, isn’t that Presidents are prone to exaggerate or even lie. What is disturbing, if not terrifying, is that most people don’t seem to care anymore. The impact of this reality is that truth is greatly devalued and deceit pays a far higher dividend.
We are living in a strange and troubling time. Politicians have always been willing to stretch the truth as long as they believed they could get away with it. Being caught in a deliberate, out-and-out lie, however, was once a deal breaker for most voters. Not anymore. If the lie comports with what one wants to hear, then it seems to have become de rigueur in American politics.
So, the reader might ask if we are being alarmist when we write of willful ignorance and describing it as a plague on the American body politic. We are not establishing a moral equivalency between lies that are self-serving and lies that are deemed to be for the public good. We are, however, sounding an alarm that widespread acceptance of lies, defamations, and misrepresentations simply because they comport with our sense of right or our sense of comfort, even when we know they are untrue, is a step back into very dark history.
Tellingly, a few days after the last election, the Oxford Dictionaries announced that “post-truth” had been chosen as the 2016 word of the year. — A strange and troubling time indeed.