Has Donald Trump successfully created his own alternate reality? Apparently, The Washington Post believes he has. In a recent story about the investigation of Russia’s efforts to manipulate the 2016 presidential election in Trump’s favor, Aaron Blake made the following observation:
Americans live in two realities when it comes to the Russia investigation. On one side is the intelligence community, and on the other is a Republican Party that very much believes President Trump’s alternative facts.
Including, apparently, that Trump’s offices were wiretapped during the 2016 presidential campaign.
A new CBS poll shows that three in four Republicans believe it’s at least “somewhat likely” that Trump’s offices were wiretapped or under some kind of surveillance during the race. Although 35 percent think it’s “very likely,” 39 percent say it’s “somewhat likely.” About half (49 percent) of independents also say it’s at least “somewhat likely.”
Blake also wrote:
So what we have here is another situation in which Trump makes an evidence-free claim, the White House moves the goal posts to suggest that he was saying something less severe than he actually was, and eventually enough reasonable doubt emerges for partisans to give Trump the benefit of the doubt.
Whatever position one takes on the debate about whether Donald Trump is a political genius (my answer: he is not) or has simply surrounded himself with gangster capitalist nihilists and racists who want to destroy the United States in an orgy of political chaos and self-interested greed at the expense of the American people (my answer: this is true), one thing is clear: Trump has not created his own reality.
He is not a leviathan or visionary. The simple and pathetic truth is that like a Republican version of Cinderella, Donald Trump slipped his foot into a political shoe that was tailor-made just for him.
The extreme divides in public opinion that separate Republicans and Democrats on issues such as Russia’s tampering in the 2016 presidential election are a reflection of how the right-wing media has trained its public to believe lies and falsehoods. Today’s conservatives have also been conditioned by their news media and political leaders to believe outrageous conspiracy theories. Social scientists and other researchers have repeatedly shown that Fox News viewers and others who are plugged into the right-wing echo chamber are disconnected from empirical reality and more likely to hold factually incorrect beliefs about current events than the general public.
Over the last two decades, authoritarianism has increased among Republicans and right-leaning independents. This is reflected by the extent to which the Republican Party and movement conservatism has become increasingly radical, revanchist and outside the decades-long norms that have governed America’s consensus politics. The election of Barack Obama, America’s first black president, was also met with a backlash of white racism, white rage and white racial resentment.
As Neil Postman warned in 1985, the American people are “amusing themselves to death.” This is happening for various reasons: the rise of celebrity culture, the way capitalism and consumerism have become conflated with democracy and freedom, widespread idealization of wealth and a broken public school system that nurtures anti-intellectualism and smothers critical thinking.
Declining levels of trust in America’s political and social institutions, extreme wealth inequality, declining wages, a perpetual “war on terror” and the broader neoliberal regime of surveillance and punishment have created a perpetual state of anxiety and fear among the American people.
The sum effect of these forces is that America’s civic culture is in a severe crisis. Like the skilled carnie, salesperson, demagogue, neo-fascist and student of professional wrestling that he is, Donald Trump hustled the marks by telling them what they wanted to hear and playing on their fears and moral shortcomings. In many ways, Donald Trump is everything wrong with America distilled into one person.
What can be done?
The American news media must stop using language that normalizes, legitimates and creates the alternate reality that Donald Trump and the Republican party inhabit. There are no “alternate facts.” They are lies. The alt-right consists of white supremacists and white nationalists. Many in the American news media refuse to call Trump a liar because this is somehow a betrayal of journalistic standards; apparently one needs to be able to confirm intent before making such a declaration. These outdated norms are ill-equipped to confront or hold accountable a political leader and a movement that have no respect for the truth and wield lies as a weapon, with full knowledge that their target has already decided to surrender.
The public should closely monitor the American news media. Guests and hosts who pander to false equivalencies or clichés of journalistic “balance” must be held publicly accountable. The public should also pressure the advertisers who support the news outlets that give a platform for Donald Trump’s spokespeople and other propagandists to present lies as truths, usually without challenge. The news media is a business. If the spigot of money is turned off, it will begin to act more responsibly.
Americans who are determined to resist Donald Trump should support independent journalism, as well as organizations that protect First Amendment rights.
Ultimately, Donald Trump was the wrong man at the wrong time for America. This made him the right man for the Republican Party and his role as the child-king of the American neo-fascist movement. Like other demagogues, Donald Trump wants to believe that he can create his own reality. Outside of his political cult, this transformation can happen only if the American people surrender to him and thus adopt a condition of learned helplessness. In this moment of American twilight, resistance must include defending the very nature of reality itself.