Does it ever feel like most of America earned a philosophy degree in the past few years? In that suddenly everyone is an expert on the nature of reality, I mean. I’ve noticed this trend because I, for some reason, already had a philosophy degree — and so it’s quite jarring to realize that the average online political spat now boils down to ontological, epistemological or even metaphysical disagreement.
It’s not that people are using the academic language, of course, but the assumption everywhere is that your opponents are trapped in a distortion of the world as it really isn’t. The left wants the right to see the nature of systemic injustice and corruption; the right chants “facts don’t care about your feelings” to amplify regressive, unscientific beliefs.
You’d hope the media would help us separate truth from fiction, but fresh off the botched 2016 election coverage, many outlets seemed unsure of the ground beneath their feet. The result has been a period of journalism that either baldly misstates the story (as with the New York Times’ disastrously wrong summary of the Mueller Report in headlines) or credulously repeats the propaganda of an ethno-fascist ruling class (like when Chuck Todd and Meet the Press helped to spread Trump’s nonsense about Obama creating the family separation policy for migrants in detention).
Elsewhere, the pushback is just plain weak — Trump always “falsely claims” something that gets plenty of oxygen regardless — or numbingly granular: The Washington Post’s Fact Checker section reported in April that the president had made “more than 10,000 false or misleading statements” since assuming office. Last month the Post raised the tally to 10,796.
What difference do those nearly 800 new lies make? I haven’t the foggiest idea.
In the Outline this week, Andrew Hart dissects the history, and diagnoses the impotence, of discourse “referees” like FactCheck.org, PolitiFact and particularly the Post’s Fact Checker, in which columnist Glenn Kessler rates the veracity of politicians’ statements using a regrettable “Pinocchio” scale. (In fairness, PolitiFact’s “Pants on Fire” label is hardly better.) Like many flailing commentators of our moment, Hart writes, Kessler is a victim of a “both sides” centrism and the limits of his bloodless, technical approach.
Nowhere was this in better evidence than when Kessler challenged Sen. Bernie Sanders’ wildly accurate comment that “three people in this country own more wealth than the bottom half of America.” Kessler’s argument was that thanks to their crushing debts, the bottom half of the country has essentially zero wealth — and, well, you can’t compare having nothing to having something! That would be like “apples and oranges.” Mmm, yes.
But Kessler and his ilk are unhelpful not just in their efforts to downplay material truth in favor of a rarefied, conceptual kind, or their ongoing faith in the impact of saying, day after day, “Sir, sir! You have uttered yet another perfidious phrase with a suspect relationship to objective detail!” A deeper problem still is this organizational division between a newsroom’s “fact-checking” crew and its regular reporters, as if the former are free of the latter’s bias, or correspondents on the campaign trail are not empowered to identify and dismantle obvious falsehoods. This alienation of responsibilities is all the worse under Trump, who is less of a poised liar than a seat-of-his-poorly-tailored-pants bullshitter.
That’s an important distinction, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt famously put forth in his 1986 treatise On Bullshit, as it shifts our understanding of intent. “It is just this lack of connection to a concern with truth — this indifference to how things really are — that I regard as of the essence of bullshit,” he wrote, capably predicting the rhetorical style of the commander-in-chief elected 30 years hence. In other words, Trump’s lies aren’t an attempt to deny or obfuscate specific facts, but to create a reality out of whole cloth.
History is bound to reveal how frighteningly little Trump knew or understood during his term in the White House: how his inner circle kept him in the dark, misled him for their own purposes, ignored his orders and exaggerated or minimized whatever information made its way to his desk. Perhaps there is scholarly value in cataloguing exactly how many times he pulled a figure out of thin air for no other reason than not remembering a real one, but the Sisyphean project of quantifying his metastatic mountain of bullshit outside the currents of journalistic narrative can have no stabilizing, corrective effect on the electorate.
We all recognize that he’s incapable, at least when off-script, of voicing anything that may be soundly verified. It’s just that his base enjoys this. So, then, for whom is Kessler writing? What type of voter? One who doesn’t exist: some wonkish unaffiliated type waiting till Trump hits lie No. 20,000 to judge his fitness for power.
Irritatingly, the media also seizes upon the “lies” that are more akin to simple brain-diarrhea, as when Trump, describing the American War of Independence (muddling it with the War of 1812) in his Fourth of July speech, read the word “ramparts” as “airports,” an utterance that sent countless writers scurrying to note that airports — get this — didn’t exist in 1775. The outcome was a slew of tweets that jokingly condescended to readers while repackaging a nightmarish truth (the president is barely literate) as a viral gaffe. But, again, this was not part of a focused assault on reality, as the fact-checkers were obliged to frame it. This was only another instance of Trump having no fucking clue what he’s talking about, ever. And of all the incorrect statements to issue from the sphincter on his face, this one rates close to the bottom in terms of lasting damage. I’d bet you a Gulfstream jet it’s the one people will remember.
Meanwhile, the disturbing, deliberate and complex lies — blaming a self-made border crisis on everyone else, ghastly tall tales of infant execution and cover stories for obstructions of justice — are neither limited to Trump nor as amusing and clickable, which is, perhaps, why few are eager to report them out. Unquestionably, they are the lies doing irreparable harm to both individuals and the national consciousness. Those “actually, the Wright brothers flew the first airplane in 1903” analysts are nowhere to be found when the internet devolves into a debate over whether migrants in American concentration camps were really forced to drink from a toilet. They’re too busy tussling over the semantics of the term “concentration camp” to remember that a human rights violation is such by any name you give it. And so it is the leftist politician who must relay and defend what she’s seen with her own eyes: a truth that establishment media couldn’t be bothered to investigate, let alone describe.