The Trump administration is, for those of us concerned with improving our world, more disturbing than any I have encountered. It’s not that Trump will necessarily make things worse than G.W. Bush, who started two wars, or Ronald Reagan, who began our slide into a society of increasing inequality, or even Barack Obama, who persecuted whistle-blowers and agreed to use the U.S. military to attack Yemeni civilians in order to curry favor with the Saudis.
So far, Trump hasn’t accomplished as much bad, or good, as any of those who were president for 8 years. But it’s hard not to lose faith in any kind of progress when truth has been sacrificed. The reason we can talk about the problems of previous presidencies is because they were reported on, the news was widely disseminated, and ultimately the force of evidence led to belief.
But what Trump is doing is distinct from prior presidents in that he will not stop lying even when his position has been roundly disproved. And his followers eat this up. Trump took to the campaign trail this week, about three years early, and held a rally for supporters who cheered his falsehoods. Of course, a rally is a self-selected group of the most hardcore supporters, but a full 49% of respondents in a general poll found Trump trustworthy, compared to only 38% who said this about “the media” — an abstraction that, in its vagueness, gets to the heart of the problem: no one can say what, precisely, the media is, what they’ve said, or how they are untrustworthy.
When Trump or his surrogates talk about an “incident in Sweden,” or “millions of illegal votes” or claim that he won by the greatest landslide in history, nothing unusual is happening. It’s when they double down, repeat the lie, and refuse to acknowledge the truth, that a hole is created in hope. Watching the bombing in Iraq in 2002 was devastating, but there was always the chance that, at the very least, the truth would come out: there were no WMDs hidden there. The war was built on a lie. It’s a small comfort, but an important one, because it means the liars would be exposed and shamed.
But Trump and his followers exist beyond shame because they do not care if you think they’re lying. They exist beyond evidence because all of it comes from a source – “the media,” – which they believe is designed to lie to them. If it were just Trump and his immediate circle, this would be less terrible, but when crowds scream their approval for the lies and their hatred for the media, the base exists to shift U.S. policy from addressing reality to legislating for fantasy.
If evidence has ceased to be a criterion for knowledge, if the people will simply believe what is said because Trump said it, positive change becomes impossible. Perhaps fantasy gives hope to some, but for those who have an inkling of what the truth might be about, say, global warming, or the real crime rate, or the odds of being killed by a refugee, the lies are disheartening. We need to take into account human contributions to climate change, and the fact that our nation is at a more than 20-year low in crime, and that refugees are vanishingly unlikely to commit terrorist acts, in order to create smart policy, and direct resources toward improving what can be improved. If our policy comes from the imaginary and seeks to redress issues that exist only in the minds of the misinformed, we have little hope of dealing with the serious problems of reality.
You can find Prof. DiGiovanna on twitter @jamesdig