A decade is ending in which “truth”, has become a victim of the rise of populism, now sweeping through western democracies, and best illustrated in the US where Donald Trump’s Presidency has been characterised by the spreading of disinformation or lies on a scale, rarely seen outside pre-war Germany or authoritarian regimes in countries such as Brazil, India, Turkey, Philippines, Russia and China.
Truth is becoming devalued, the common ground of debate is shrinking, shared assumptions are diminishing, and undisputed facts are now thin on the ground. Political discourse is in danger of losing any meaning because there is no mechanism for resolving or mediating differences. George Orwell commented: “The further a society drifts from the truth, the more it would hate those that speak it.”
Political groups inhabit echo chambers, refusing to acknowledge anything that doesn’t confirm their own views. This is poisoning the well of politics, aided by social media, ill-informed electorates, the power of corrupt finance and the influence of cyber warriors such as Russia. Currently, our democracies are in peril. Progressives are often complacent and naïve and seem ill-equipped to understand what is happening or to know how to respond.
Many pundits believe that this threat to democracy is overstated and argue that politics has always been like this. It hasn’t. Politics, throughout history, has been a tough ugly business and we don’t elect angels. But this is not about hype, spin, exaggeration, mild demagoguery or the occasional misleading claim. Nor should we be mesmerised or enthralled by the language of the new populist politics-alternative facts, the post-truth society, fake news, or the lying press (inherited from Nazi Germany).
There is also the danger that we misinterpret what leaders like Trump are up to. Their new realities and alternative facts are part of a well-conceived populist playbook, essential reading for those who seek to manipulate and influence people and their politics. The President’s buffoonery is real and amusing, but his intent is deadly serious. Learning from Steve Bannon, Trump has created his own reality and the idea that he alone speaks truth to all the problems people face.
Every other source of information or advice is fake and cannot be trusted. The President alone speaks for them, creating a sense of belonging that morphs into the idea of “us”, around which a wide range of political grievances can be dealt with, but only by him: the cult, sect, or fan base is being shaped. Truth is being destroyed to achieve political goals and establish a new set of realities, to which they have unique access. The mainstream press is the lying press, the fake news and the enemy of the people (his people).
This is frightening. A major crisis faces young people who may think this is the norm. Trump has never let the truth get in the way of what he wants to say. Social media, in its current form, poses a real threat to our politics and democracy. Making matters much worse in the US, are the conspiracy theorists who wreak havoc with the minds of the ill-informed, and exploit issues of culture and identity. What people want to believe led many Americans to buy the idea that, “Hillary Clinton was running a Satanic paedophile ring out of a pizza restaurant in Washington DC”! Rejecting the evidence of their eyes and ears, Trump’s base eventually adopts his version of reality. Repetition is the key and ultimately leads to the chants of, “Lying Ted” and “Lock her up”, which make his hate-filled election rallies more like Nazi rallies in pre-war Germany.
Yale professor and historian Timothy Snyder, in his book On Tyranny, captures the seriousness of our slide into a darker era, when he writes: “To abandon facts is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true then no one can criticise power, because there is no basis upon which to do so. If nothing is true, then all is spectacle. The biggest wallet pays for the most blinding lights”.
Snyder suggest, truth dies in four modes: presenting lies as facts; endless repetition; the open embrace of contradiction; and misplaced faith.
To respond to Trump’s assault on the truth, the well-established, “fact checking” phenomenon into misleading and false claims, has rapidly expanded. FactCheck.org is a non-profit organisation that describes itself as a consumer advocate for voters that aims to reduce the level of deception and confusion in US politics. The UK’s equivalent, Full Fact, UK, was established in 2010.
There is only one Donald Trump, rings true when assessing his “truth” profile over his three years in office. From the Fact Checking data base, the Washington Post has confirmed that the President has made an astonishing 15,413 false or misleading claims in 1055 days: 15 every day! The US economy, 243, the Border wall, 235, the tax cuts 183, and the trade deficit 175, dominate his anti-truth Presidency.
Repeating false or misleading claims has posed a unique challenge to fact checkers. Most politicians in the US will make a false or misleading claim, but once this has been brought to their attention, they will drop it, as political credibility could be undermined. Not Trump. The President keeps going after the facts are clear. So, he is making a deliberate attempt to replace the truth.
Enter Pinocchio, the story. To become a real boy, this cartoon figure who first appeared in 1883, had to be, “brave, truthful and unselfish”, but unfortunately his nose grew longer whenever he told a lie. Adopting this idea, the Washington Post gives a “four” Pinocchio rating to politicians who are first offenders, at the less serious end of false claims. But to deal with Trump, the Post had to introduce a new category for a unique serial reoffender, called the “Bottomless Pinocchio”.
The President has repeated a four level Pinocchio claim 29 times and has become the first person in human history to have achieved the “Bottomless Pinocchio”. Normally 20 repeats would be needed to achieve this level of lies to confirm a deliberate campaign of misinformation. The bar was set at a very high level, but the President soared above everything.
Surely, this is an award the UK should adopt to highlight the false and misleading claims our politicians make?
The Pinocchio award may never compete with the Baftas, but surely a more informed exposé of misleading and false claims will refresh our political discourse. After a troubling election, Number 10 might be a good place to start.