Truth and Fiction in the Age of Trump

The national disgrace that is the Republican contest for the Presidential nomination, carrying with it the potential for national tragedy, has been brewing for some time. The degradation of standards of public discourse along with the widespread tolerance for the abuse of truth in all its aspects has been the hallmark of 21st century politics in the United States. Responsibility lies with the country’s entire political class – broadly defined – not just the delinquents whose coarseness, dishonesty and calculated fostering of ignorance now dominate the headlines.

Acts great and small have combined to prepare the ground. Most obvious in the former category is promotion of persons for high office whose gross disqualifying traits were overlooked or slighted. John McCain’s selection of Sarah Palin as his running mate was the historic marker of a breakthrough that has opened the way for the Trumps, Caines, Santorums, Bachmanns, Forinas, Perrys, Sharptons, Jindals, and Carsons. All those among the Republican Establishment who went along with this insult to the Republic, all those apologists among the MSM and the punditocracy, all those who treated it as just another hilarious incident in the pageant of popular celebrity culture – they all share in the blame. Indeed, one could go further and argue that all those who voted for Ms Palin in awareness of the risks that act posed to the national welfare, too, are accomplices in this wound to our democracy.

Setting aside partisanship when the stakes are so high is a civic duty.

Lying as an omnipresent fact of governmental and political life is another ingredient of the toxic diet that has brought low our civic health. Some of the lying is widely recognized: the calculated deceit used to whip the populace into a war frenzy that would carry the United States into the disaster of Iraq with all its deleterious follow-on consequences. What was the 9/11 Commission report other than a blatant bi-partisan whitewash whose staff director was in almost daily telephone contact with Condoleezza Rice at the White House?

President Obama did not help matters by his cavalier decision to sweep it all under the rug. Other lies, even very big ones, are less remarked upon. Responsibility for the great financial collapse, another event with deep lingering effects, never has been clearly and firmly placed on the perpetrators – the financial predators led by our largest banking organizations. Certainly, there has been no accountability of the individual and corporate culprits. Instead, leaders of both parties – assisted by the media – have managed to diffuse responsibility throughout the “system.”  Hence, in the minds of most we all are somehow to blame. Indeed, that was the line taken by Hillary Clinton in one of her highly profitable talks to financial barons that has been leaked.

Nor, for sure, is Bill Clinton burdened with responsibility for forcing through the deregulation that opened to way to casino finance. And it was Barack Obama who eagerly placed in all positions of power the very people who had promoted that deregulation and who had moved on to Wall Street to reap the ill-begotten benefits. That sell-out was followed by Obama’s spinning on a dime by converting to austerity economics, the permanent cutting of all government spending, and leaving in place the unconscionable tax breaks afforded the super-rich by his predecessor. All of these actions made a mockery of his campaign pledges. This represents a high order of dishonesty – whatever else one wants to call it.

Returning to the “war on terror,” which has been institutionalized now by two Presidents, it has been studded by a pageant of lies: Lies about the magnitude of the threat, lies about the political realities of Iraq and Afghanistan and Syria and Yemen, lies about clandestine American interventions in those and other places, lies about ending combat operations in Afghanistan, fabricated fictional tales about the killing of Osama bin-Laden peddled to Hollywood as the true inside story in a classic quid pro quo deal which exchanged corporate profits for electoral profit, endless lies about electronic spying on American citizens, lies about the White House hacking of Senate Intelligence Committee computers, lies about the bungled CIA mission that produced the Benghazi tragedy, lies about the al-Qaeda/al-Nusra “moderates” of Syria – and so on. So numerous have the lies been, that memory buckles under the weight of remembering them all.

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As for Hillary, straight-talking never has had a place in the Clinton combine’s political repertoire. The ever-changing versions of the email server story and the vortex of excuses for hiding her compromising remarks to the generous Goldman Sachs bankers have become so convoluted as to leave us dazzled and dazed.

Sadly, this sorry record is largely ignored by serious media. Democrat leaning commentators in particular have seen criticism along these lines as tantamount to providing aid and comfort to the enemy. That has been true for seven years. More recently, we have been subject to more calculated, and concerted, campaigns to heap praise on the President – and to do so lavishly. That precludes any critical reference whatsoever to the issue of truthfulness under the Obama administration.

Lying, of course, is not a White House exclusive. The misrepresentations by heads of United States’ Intelligence agencies tops the list of those who are “truth-challenged.” Director of Central Intelligence John Brennan’s repeated lying, including perjury in public testimony before Congress, won him the singular dishonor of being so cited in a New York Times editorial.  Director of National Intelligence General  James Clapper similarly perjured himself before the Senate Intelligence Committee. On no occasion have they been held accountable by the President or Congress. Former Director of the NSA, General Keith Alexander, completed the trio of Intelligence dissemblers – repeatedly claiming that mass surveillance yielded actionable Intelligence that prevented at least 60 terrorist acts and then provided no supporting evidence before reducing the claim to “1” highly dubious case of a Los Angeles taxi driver sending a few dollars to a relative in Somalia.

Such is their reputation, and that of the Intelligence organizations they lead, that any statement they make should be taken to be as likely false as true. The same holds about any statement from a Central Command spokesman about our numerous military engagements in the greater Middle East (e.g. the serial lies about the assault on the Medecins Sans Frontieres hospital in Kunduz). As has been said, were any of these gentlemen to testify that Saudi air strikes in Yemen (guided by American Intelligence officers) struck hospitals and schools accidentally because the dawn flights approached targets from the West with the rising sun in their eyes, there would be a prime facie case for consulting with NOAA to determine if there had not been a change in the rotation of the Earth’s axis the night before.

As for the Republicans in Congress over the past seven years, as well as their Presidential candidates, truth has become something unspoken except by mishap. Many seem no longer able to distinguish truth from falsity   –  much less recognize the difference in what they say or do.

Commentators inside the MSM and outside it both have taken a permissive attitude toward all that encourages this misbehavior. Hence, it has become cost free for the mendacious. The methods for doing so are numerous. They include stenographic reporting of lies and contradictions; ignoring them whether through intent or sheer laziness; joining forces without admitting it to the viewing/listening/reading audience; or camouflaging the whole sham with the supposedly reassuring bromide that “they all do it” or “it’s just part of the game.”

With this magnitude of dishonesty, responsible and accountability governance is impossible – and so, too, the political process that sustains it.

We also might note that the removal of all inhibition on the use of obscene language, such as the “f word,” has given free rein to politicos to do the same. Every time some smart-ass TV host mouths off this way – smirking in self-satisfaction like a delinquent 11-year old – added encouragement is given to public figures to take similar liberties. Moreover, it prompts people generally to think in terms of vulgarities. And that is the language of crude emotion – not the language of thinking.

More consequential is the related pattern that has legitimized racist speech. The appearance of a “black” man in the White House has irritated the bowels of many Americans. Some are race haters of the old school, some can’t stand a black as the nation’s symbol and highest authority even as they tolerate their integration into the rest of society, some use the “n-word” as an all-purpose obscenity like “bastard” or “son-of-a-bitch” that is a short hand way of saying “I really hate that guy” – even if for non-racist reasons.

When gross racist insults began to enter the national discourse, including those uttered by elected Republican officials, they were taken to be marginal phenomena. The full implications were not understood. Racist slogans beget racist slogans; and, at a certain point, beget racist thinking and then racist conduct. By degrees, the unthinkable and the unacceptable have taken root in American public life. That gives courage to the true racists. It also makes palatable other forms of racism: Muslim-bashing and Latino-bashing. Both of the latter have now entered the “mainstream.” They thrive in a culture where ignorance is worn like a badge of honor – by media personalities, politicos and university students – in addition to the nitwit in the street.

Listening to Donald Trump pronounce anathema on all Muslims, our studiously ignorant culture fails to note that if they had been shunned historically, billionaire Trump would be known as: MMMMMMMMMM……(two thousand Ms)…. Trump. He would need voluminous rolls of papyrus just to write it. Paper came to the Christian world via the Arabs from China.

Lax behavioral standards applied erratically generate a downward spiral of abusive language. What was impermissible yesterday is permissible tomorrow because of what was allowed to pass uncontested today. Moreover, it acts like a magnet, attracting subjective angers and hurts from different sources which thereby acquire an emotional point of hostility and a crude vocabulary.

What is quite remarkable about this electoral season is how many have crossed the threshold between bar room (or dinette) modes of feeling/expression and how they react to candidates. In the past, instinctive good sense maintained awareness of that line. It was the ingrained responsible way for grown-ups to act. No more. That has emboldened candidates to play to those emotions. As Donald Trump, the showman and ego maniac himself, has explained, the more vulgar and reckless he became in what he said and how he said, the more attention he drew – and most of that was favorable attention as registered in survey polling and votes. So why not go for the KKK vote on the eve of Super Tuesday.

Furthermore, his clown performance did not bring him scorn on part of commentators and editorial writers. A generation or two ago, he would have been denounced and shunned. Not in today’s “anything goes” culture where vulgarity sells and where selling is what it is all about. Media have to sell advertising time by attracting an audience that wallows in “extreme,” gender changes as emotional take-out food, and the weird doings of Hollywood wackos.   Commentators have to be “with it” and up-to-date lest they be abandoned like retro analog watches. Self-respect and respect for the integrity of the Commonweal places less and less constraint on this nihilism.

It is stunning to note how few newspapers and electronic media organizations have made even a slight effort to point with alarm to the nefarious effects of antics by candidates like Trump and others. My local Texas paper has not editorialized a single word along these lines – despite vaunting its liberalism and dedication to civic responsibility. The reasons are simple. One is abiding anxiety about estranging the “red neck” portion of its readership. Nation-wide, that disposition is strongly reinforced by corporate ownership that is predominantly conservative. The old Republican Establishment cynically has seen advantage in back-rolling and egging-on the Tea Party movement. Its members served as their shock troops in besieging the Obama White House, spearheading the war against Democrats, liberals and whomever dared challenge their plutocratic consolidation. In the process, they became captives to a diabolical force that they cannot control.

Another reason for the gross irresponsibility of the media, think tanks, et al is straightforward cowardice. Greed and selfish careerism inevitably lead to cowardice. They are paired traits in the gradual moral debilitation that occurs when society loses the moral gyroscope that calls us to order.

The tragic reality is that most Americans have lost the aptitude for separating truth from fiction – and the body politic collectivity really does not care as long as the show goes on.

Michael Brenner is a Professor of International Affairs at the University of Pittsburgh.