It is good for our public discourse that Andrew Sullivan has returned and is writing regularly with New York Magazine. In a recent and important piece, Sullivan takes on what he calls a culture of “denying empirical reality.”
His starting point is that all politicians lie. Presidents Bill Clinton and Richard Nixon, after all, could hang with anyone in this area. But at least they “paid some deference to the truth — even as they tried to dodge it.” They acknowledged a “shared reality” and a “common set of facts” necessary for a genuine public discourse to function.
But something has fundamentally changed, Sullivan argues, with the lies of the Trump administration. They are “direct refutations of reality” designed to “enforce power” and “test loyalty” rather than merely get out of a political problem.
Sending out Sean Spicer to say something about the size of Trump’s inauguration crowd that everyone could see was false could not have been a better example of this.
This past week Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch said he found Trump’s attacks on federal judges “disheartening” and “demoralizing,” but Trump and his administration responded by insisting Gorsuch was speaking of such attacks more generally.
It didn’t matter that both Republican Senator Ben Sasse and Gorsuch’s own spokesperson, Kelly Ayotte, couldn’t have been more clear that the words were, in fact, directed at Trump’s particular attacks on the judiciary.
Sullivan is not alone in this judgement. Indeed, as Trump and his supporters attempt to turn the “fake news” critique back on their critics, it has prompted near despair from those of us who would like at least a basic grounding for our public discourse:
the arc of the term “fake news” over 3 months is its own statement about postmodernism, media, mutability of language, death of meaning
— Lauren Wilford (@lauren_wilford) February 11, 2017
I agree with Sullivan that the 2016 campaign cycle, and the early weeks of the Trump administration, has kicked this trend into another gear, but I’m not sure we find ourselves on a totally different trajectory. Trump’s being in office now puts the spotlight on him, but a quick stroll down memory lane brings to mind several other important examples of the post-truth phenomenon.
“Meaning” may not have “died” when Bill Clinton, in an attempt to weasel out of the fact that he lied under oath about his sexual involvement with his subordinate Monica Lewinski, said “it depends on what the meaning of ‘is’ is.” But it sure gave us a new low.
And what does it say about our culture’s relationship to truth when a prenatal human baby with a beating heart and functioning brain—who can dance to music—is referred to with euphemisms like “products of conception” or “clump of cells”?
Perhaps most frustrating of all is when cultural development of important to justice-discourse — such as that of racial justice — is undermined by a post-truth, win-at-all-costs political mentality.
“Hands up, Don’t Shoot,” for instance, became the unfortunate rallying cry of many (even on the floor of the United States Senate) despite the fact that, even according to the Washington Post’s Jonathan Capehart, “it was built on a lie.”
The compelling power of this narrative to advance an agenda, however worthy, became more important than a commitment to a shared reality and common set of facts.
Trump and his supporters learned several important lessons from all of this:
- Perception is reality in politics.
- Appealing to objective facts almost always loses to compelling narratives which play on the confirmation biases of one’s audience.
- Major media has been complicit in the development of this post-truth political culture for decades.
- If one uses alternative media to (1) call out a wildly unpopular major media as biased and hypocritical when they criticize on the basis of objective facts and (2) create an alternative narrative, then one can similarly compete (and often win) by using a fact-free strategy.
We saw this with the nomination of Senator Jeff Sessions for Attorney General. Despite having a terrible past with race, the narrative created by his supporters included his being a civil rights leader and prosecutor of racists. Just one problem: that narrative was largely false.
But for conservatives and other Trump supporters, these facts just didn’t matter. They feel as if they have been political victims of a post-truth culture for decades, and now it is payback time.
Conor Friedersdorf, writing in The Atlantic, nailed his description of this strategy as an alternate form of political correctness. Trump came into power rightly decrying one kind of “deference to political sensibilities” overcoming appeals to objective truth, but his response has been to simply embrace the strategy of his opponents.
The Catholic philosopher Alasdair MacIntyre described this state of affairs, and predicted its result, in his 1981 book After Virtue. Once morality and politics were severed from any common understanding of the good—once the West at least tried to be genuinely plural with regard to our foundational moral principles—we got on a cultural road that could lead nowhere other than where we currently find ourselves.
Once we abandon any common metaphysics, any common grounding of the human person and what it means for her to flourish, we are left with no good options when it comes to adjudicating moral and political disagreements.
At best, we are left with emotive appeals to the self-interest and confirmation bias of a majority of our fellow citizens. At worst, we are left with resorting to raw power and physical violence.
The second option is particularly sobering to think about as we see more and more speakers and politicians threatened with such violence by their opponents.
Catholics cannot sell out to this post-truth culture. We must resist it on all fronts.
This is one reason I’ve been so disturbed to see so much Catholic support for Trump. It is frustrating to be consistently defeated by a post-truth strategy, but we should nevertheless stay committed to the discovery and pursuit of truth. Committed public intellectuals— such as Robert George and several others — have shown us the way in this regard by consistently rejecting Trump’s tactics at every turn.
The Father of Lies tries to convince us that we may use his tools and practices, but the Gospel teaches us that this leads to self-destruction.
The Church should instead be working to create intentionally diverse communities of dialogue—communities in which people with different understandings of the good can at least come together in a shared reality and disagree on the basis of a common set of facts. (This, incidentally, also describes the mission and ethos of Crux.)
Especially give the increasingly deep roots of our post-truth culture, this kind of counter-cultural practice will likely not succeed at first. But there are pockets of resistance, such as the Focolare, which have had great success.
Let us join that resistance by being apostles of dialogue.
Charles C. Camosy is Associate Professor of Theological and Social Ethics at Fordham University.