Under Trump, is the very idea of truth going extinct?
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In a terrific book called “True Enough,” my friend Farhad Manjoo wrote of a new world order in which the actual truth has come to matter far less than a mere belief that something is true.
Manjoo called this parallel universe “a place at once a part of the mainland, but profoundly distant from it, a place where another truth — a truth pocked with holes, but one just true enough to do damage — hold sway.”
Whether it’s blind bias in favor of one’s own sports team, an insistence that Republicans rigged the 2004 election, 9/11 conspiracy theories or AIDS skepticism, Manjoo concluded that the feeling that something is true had, for many, become a substitute for actual evidence. It’s what Stephen Colbert called “truthiness.”
Now, Colbert and Manjoo’s idea is nearly a decade old — which makes it almost quaint, considering where we are today. If they meant to warn us against the slippery slope toward truthiness and “true enough,” it’s clear we didn’t listen.
In the era of President Trump, we’ve gone from believing things that are “true enough” to believing things that aren’t true at all, and can be demonstrably proven so.
We caught a whiff of this phenomenon during the campaign, during which then-candidate Trump made hyperbole and lying hallmarks of his rallies, press conferences and interviews.
Recall statements like “the election is rigged” and “millions of people voted illegally,” and allegations claiming Ted Cruz’s father was somehow connected to the JFK assassination. According to PolitiFact, 70% of Trump’s rated statements during the campaign were false, and only 4 percent were completely true.
If that sounds ominous, it’s actually gotten worse. While there may have been no evidence corroborating Trump’s campaign claims, we have now moved on to a reality in which there is evidence proving Trump and Trump officials’ claims patently false — and yet, many still believe.
Take White House press secretary Sean Spicer’s infamous first press conference, for example, during which he angrily told reporters that Trump’s inauguration was “the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration — period — both in person and around the globe.”
This claim was proven unequivocally false, earning four Pinocchios from the Washington Post, and led Trump spokesperson Kellyanne Conway to invent the term “alternative facts” to justify what everyone else calls a lie.
But even photographic evidence proving Spicer, Conway and Trump false couldn’t sway some Trump supporters. Researchers Brian Schaffner and Samantha Luks asked 1,388 Americans to assess which photo showed more people — President Obama’s 2009 inauguration or Trump’s. Though the Obama photo showed indisputable proof that his had a larger attendance, a full 15 percent of Trump supporters said it did not.
Pizzagate — or the bizarre conspiracy theory alleging that Hillary Clinton and her aides were running a child-trafficking ring out of a Washington pizza parlor, pushed by some prominent Trump allies — wasn’t bizarre enough to seem preposterous to many of his supporters. Despite downright insane storylines involving satanic symbols and a secret kill room — all of which have been definitively debunked — 49 percent of Republicans said there’s at least some truth to the Pizzagate scandal, according to a YouGov/Economist survey.
But fake news got real when Trump tweeted that President Obama had his “wires tapped” at Trump Tower. Despite having exactly zero evidence to back up that very serious claim, Spicer and other White House spokespeople doubled- and tripled-down on it for weeks. Spicer took the Trump era to peak-delusion when he claimed “wire-tapping” did not necessarily mean wire-tapping.
And yet a YouGov poll in early March showed 29 percentr of people believed Trump’s fact-free allegation. We now know, thanks to Monday’s hearing with FBI Director James Comey, that there was no surveillance ordered on Trump by Obama.
Do not expect a retraction from Trump or a wavering of belief from his supporters. Because, for them at least, it looks like the lies are serving their purpose.
The question is, what are the consequences of repeatedly lying to the American people? Will we begin to treat team Trump like kooky doomsday cultists who, when the prophesied end-of-times date comes and goes, just find another date to worry about?
Or will we continue down a dangerous path of “true enough,” where we believe what we feel instead of what we see?
Contact Cupp at thesecupp.com.
This column first appeared in the New York Daily News.
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