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The Orange King, Yellow Journalism, and the Death of Truth

Photograph by Nathaniel St. Clair

The Red Queen shook her head. “You may call it ‘nonsense’ if you like,” she said, “but I’ve heard nonsense, compared with which that would be as sensible as a dictionary!”

 – Lewis Carroll, Through the Looking Glass

In Lewis Carrol’s Through the Looking Glass, the Red Queen frantically runs around calling for the heads of her enemies. In America, the Orange King demands that the security clearances of his critics be revoked. Our Orange King has not only heard nonsense but he is not above spouting it himself, borrowing liberally from his own dictionary of patent absurdities. Indeed, by his own humble admission, Trump’s dictionary has the “best words,” which he generously continues to share with the world on Twitter. In it, one finds such terms as “sons of bitches,” “shithole,” “lowlife,” and “dog,” as well as a Borgesian lexiconof imaginary words and mangled misspellings, including “Nambia,” “United Sates,” “tarrifs,” “Special Councel,” and the enigmatic “covfefe.” Apparently, the only word not in Trump’s dictionary is “collusion,” though it may be in Robert Mueller’s.

Nonsense is part and parcel of the Orange King’s house of cards, which frequently takes the form of bold, bald-faced lies so transparently and absurdly false that like his inflated inauguration crowd numbers they do not withstand even cursory scrutiny. Yet, the dissemination of such fact-denying drivel has become the official national pastime, practiced zealously by the current occupant of the Oval Office and his equally truth-challenged apparatchiks.

We might perhaps take some comfort in the fact that we still possess some vestigial memory of what a lie is, since use of the term presupposed recognition that there is a truth that it conceals or distorts. However, in the world of “alternatives facts” – or alt-facts – lies as such no longer exist, having been replaced by vertigo-inducing spin.

It is not that previous administrations have not lied to us, but the sheer volume and variety of lies that spew forth from this administration is unprecedented. According to the Washington Post, as of July 31, Trump had made 4,229 false or misleading claims, claims that have been repeated and amplified by both Trump himself and his staff. And yet both his supporters and detractors alike shrug off the revelation as the personal quirk of someone whose only proximity to reality – as a former real estate mogul and reality television star – is adjectival, and even then, one based on misrepresentation and ratings-garnering theatrics.

Indeed, the current tsunami of lies reveals how deeply entrenched deception is in American life, forcing us to question the veracity of those who question that of others. The intelligence community swears that the Russians meddled in the 2016 election. And yet this is the same community that signed off on Iraq’s non-existent weapons of mass destruction. Indeed, at least one prominent member of that community, former Director of National Intelligence James Clapper, shamelessly declared under oath during congressional testimony that the NSA had “not wittingly” gathered “any type of data at all” on American citizens, a perjurious statement subsequently belied by the Edward Snowden leaks. Similarly, corporate media’s defense of itself against Trump’s “fake news” mantra rings shallow given its previous service as willing handmaiden to the 2003 invasion of Iraq. As Vanity Fair reported in 2006, “For more than two years it has been widely reported that the U.S. invaded Iraq because of intelligence failures. But in fact, it is far more likely that the Iraq war started because of an extraordinary intelligence success—specifically, an astoundingly effective campaign of disinformation, or black propaganda, which led the White House, the Pentagon, Britain’s M.I.6 intelligence service, and thousands of outlets in the American media to promote the falsehood that Saddam Hussein’s nuclear-weapons program posed a grave risk to the United States.” If Trump has emboldened the right with his dog-whistle tirades, he has also emboldened the leftish corporate media to self-righteously exaggerate the fierceness of its journalistic dedication to the pursuit of truth. Where, one wonders, was the adversarial, truth-seeking press during the previous four administrations? No doubt waiting on the unemployment line with Peter Arnett, Phil Donahue, and John Leiberman and other critics of the Gulf War.

In contrast, what price do the powerful pay for their falsehoods? Apparently, there is none. Dan Rather was forced out at CBS as a result of the use of unauthenticated documentson George Bush’s National Guard service. Yet Bush, Dick Cheney, Colin Powell, and other architects of Gulf War II have evaded responsibility for cynically orchestrating a war that claimed the lives of over 5,000 American soldiers and tens of thousands of Iraqis, many civilian and whose aftershocks still jolt the region. Moreover, as Time magazine wrote in 2003, “While the Bush administration may have been sweating, just a little during the past two months, over the absence of WMD finds in Iraq, a majority of Americans appear willing to believe that going to war was justified even if no such weapons are ever found.” The truth, as they say, will out, but it will not necessarily set you free.

In 2018, most of us know that Trump is lying to us. But where do we go from here? For some, Trump’s molestation of the truth is justified as a strategic ploy designed to mislead his enemies who conspire to sabotage his plan to restore American greatness. Others assume that because ours is a democracy, all we need do is patiently bide our time and wait for the next presidential election to vent the popular will, presuming, of course, there will be another election and democratic ideals remain popular and do not succumb convenient untruths. Yet the infrastructure of democracy that was designed to insure the reflection of that popular will are being eviscerated, undermined not by Russian interference but by Republicans who promulgate  the lie of massive voter fraud champion and champion redistricting, voter intimidation, and  other policies designed to suppress the vote. These stories, however, have not garnered even close to the same level of attention as Russian meddling.

Even more disturbing is the fact that in our modern information age nothingseems to matter, despite the proliferation of placards for various causes proclaiming the opposite. Confronted with the practical equivalent of the logical paradox “Everything I say is a lie. I am lying” (or in the immortal and immoral words of Rudy Giuliani, “Truth isn’t the truth”), some have responded with a moral shrug as the only way to wrest a quantum of sanity out of an untenable conundrum. Others believe that the existence of tapes (Michael Cohen’s, Omarosa Manigault Newman’s, and perhaps those of others, including, allegedly, Vladimir Putin) will make a difference, as if evidence of lying captured on tape will bring actual consequences. The existence of such tapes, however, guarantees nothing, for if they did an orchard of brutally rotten police would already be behind bars.

The dispiriting consequence of all of this may be a society that believes in nothing, that is simply too leery and too weary to place its faith in anything. And herein lies the real danger. The Washington Post warns that “Democracy Dies in Darkness.” It is wrong. Democracy dies in the gentle glare of daylight when those who witness its destruction fail to act to preserve it because they don’t know what to believe or cease to believe at all.

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