If Nothing Is True, Then Everything Can Be False
WASHINGTON -- After post-truth comes all-fake.
The election of Donald Trump has seen the flowering of the post-truth landscape. Emotion outranks fact; believing makes it so. We are all Tinker Bell now. Clap if you believe in voter fraud. Clap if you doubt a human role in climate change.
So when the president-elect claims, with no basis in reality, that he would have won the popular vote "if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally," the customary burden of proof is flipped: Where, his minions ask, with no hint of embarrassment, is the evidence that the assertion is untrue?
"I don't know that that is a false statement, George, and neither do you," vice president elect Mike Pence told George Stephanopoulos said on ABC's "This Week." Incoming White House chief of staff Reince Priebus took a similar true-until-proven-otherwise stance toward Trump's outlandish assertion: "I don't know if that's not true."
In this post-truth universe, institutions -- news media, the intelligence community -- are drained of all credibility. Thus Trump, speaking to Fox News' Chris Wallace on Sunday, summarily rejected not only the CIA's conclusion that Russia intervened in the election on Trump's behalf, but even the less controversial assessment that Russia was behind the hacking.
"Personally, it could be Russia. I don't really think it is," Trump told Wallace. "But who knows? I don't know either. They don't know and I don't know." Yes, intelligence can be wrong, a point the Trump transition team seized on last Friday in a written response to The Washington Post's report: "These are the same people that said Saddam Hussein had weapons of mass destruction."
But appropriate skepticism about intelligence is one thing -- summary, self-interested dismissal without engaging in this inquiry is quite another. This behavior was shocking enough coming from a major-party nominee.
From a president-elect, it is appallingly irresponsible. No president-elect would want to hear the assessment that a foreign power intervened to boost his campaign. A responsible president-elect would want to hear the evidence, and consider his options. How much easier, in the post-truth universe, to believe it all away, to blame it on "some guy in his home in New Jersey."
With facts passe, the next, inexorable move is to reduce all news to the same level of distrust and disbelief. If nothing is true, then everything can be false. So #pizzagate, the dangerously false accusation of a child sex ring run by Hillary Clinton operatives, occupies the same diminished rung as a news report that fails to toe the official line.
Trump is not responsible for the explosion of fake news, but he and his advisers seem delighted to exploit it. "Reports by (at symbol)CNN that I will be working on The Apprentice during my Presidency, even part time, are ridiculous & untrue -- FAKE NEWS!" Trump tweeted Saturday morning.
Similarly, transition spokesman Sean Spicer, disputing a New York Times report that Russia hacked the Republican National Committee's computer system, tweeted that the story was "Exhibit #1 in the fake news." And Trump adviser Newt Gingrich made the connection even more explicit: "The idea of The New York Times being worried about fake news is really weird," he told a chuckling Sean Hannity on Fox News. "The New York Times is fake news."
Journalism is an inherently imperfect profession. We write the first rough draft of history -- as best we can, subject to correction and revision. But there is a difference between inevitably flawed and intentionally false. To deliberately blur this distinction is to seek to undermine the central role of media in a free society.
This is where Trump has gone beyond the norm, and beyond the pale. All politicians chafe at their coverage. In 1992, George H.W. Bush's campaign passed out bumper stickers proclaiming, "Annoy the media, re-elect Bush." But the tone of Trump's unrelenting assault on the "dishonest media" and his zeal in inciting the mob against them -- "these people are the lowest form of life" -- are more menacing than any president since Nixon.
Thomas Jefferson famously wrote that he would prefer to have newspapers without a government than a government without newspapers. The Trump team would clearly make a different choice, at least when it comes to his government.
If that is not within his reach, Trump is going for second best: a society in which all truth is malleable and all news suspect. Whose voice, whose vision, whose authority will then be trusted? Trump doesn't say, but it is not hard to guess.
(c) 2016, Washington Post Writers Group