A political campaign that once looked like a reality-based television series has revealed a broader truth. It was never reality-based at all. Reality requires facts, and facts don’t matter. Not anymore.
Some people look at the Trump phenomenon and see disaffected citizens who have become alienated. The political class ignored them for years; now they think that the Donald as President won’t. Others view Trump as the repository of racists and bigots. In the past, such individuals responded to subtle dog whistles of intolerance. Now they’ve found a socially acceptable vehicle for expressing their views loudly, publicly, and sometimes violently. The list of proffered explanations for Trump’s appeal is long. Most are pretty ugly.
This is Huge!
The micro view ignores the big picture – the really, really big picture. Trump sees it: Americans have learned to dismiss facts as irrelevant. The universal phenomenon that psychologists call confirmation bias does the rest. We tend to see the world in a particular way and, when contrary facts get in the way, we ignore them. If like minded others to do the same, that’s a movement!
This problem didn’t arrive with Donald Trump. He’s just exploiting it to new heights — or depths. Consider the hand-held banners at early Tea Party rallies: “Keep the government out of my social security!”
Facts haven’t mattered to the Obama “birthers” – Trump’s signature issue in 2011 as he turned increasingly toward politics. More than four years after President Obama released a copy of his birth certificate, 20 percent of Americans still believe that he was born outside the United States. Twenty-nine percent think he is Muslim.
Trump University? No Problem
Facts haven’t mattered to the candidate’s handling of the Trump University issue. Founded in 2004, it was never a “university” under New York law. In 2010, it became the Trump Entrepreneur Initiative with a Better Business Bureau rating dropping to as low as a D-minus. According to Trump’s attorney, the program accepted no students after 2010. The BBB received few complaints thereafter.
The BBB tried to publicize the straightforward facts about all of this. When a business stops having customers, it stops generating complaints: “As a result, over time, Trump University’s BBB rating went to an A in July 2014 and then to an A+ in January 2015.”
In the March 3 debate, Trump boasted about his “A” rating from the BBB. But the Bureau responded that it “did not send a document of any kind to the Republican debate site last Thursday evening. The document presented to debate moderators did not come from BBB that night.” Since September 2015, the Trump enterprise has had no rating at all.
Undeterred, Trump tweeted a photo of a BBB report showing an “A” rating for Trump University. To that, the BBB offered more facts to be ignored:
“The document posted on social media on Thursday night was not a current BBB Business Review of Trump University. It appeared to be part of a Business Review from 2014.”
“I Can Make That Deal”
Then there are the facts that get woven into a Trump argument that makes no sense to anyone who understands them. Trump has referred repeatedly to America’s $58 billion trade deficit with Mexico. He juxtaposes that number with his infamous “wall” to keep illegal immigrants out of the country; it would cost $10 billion.
“That’s an easy deal. $58 billion deficit; $10 billion wall, I can make that deal,” he said in the March 3 debate.
Except that the $58 billion number has nothing to do with the $10 billion potential expense of Trump’s wall. The 2015 trade deficit resulted because Americans bought $294 billion in goods from Mexican companies, while Mexicans bought $58 billion less than that from United States companies. It’s not money that went to the Mexican government. It’s not a source of funds that Trump can tap to build a wall that gets higher every time a past or present Mexican president ridicules it. There’s no “deal” for him to make on his apples-to-oranges comparison of the $58 billion trade deficit to the $10 billion cost of a “really, really big wall.”
When Truth and Reason Become Casualties, Everyone Suffers
The list of Trump non-facts goes on and on and on.
“Thousands and thousands of Muslims cheered as the World Trade Center fell!” No evidence of that. But Trump says it, so it must be true. Who would tell such a big lie?
“The Mexican government is forcing criminals, drug dealers, and rapists into the United States!” False, offensive, and divisive.
“Obama plans to admit 250,000 Syrian refuges.” The real figure was 10,000.
“Islam hates America.” Absurd on its face, but only if facts matter to the listener.
For the final six months of 2015 alone, Trump led all other political candidates in The Washington Post’s compilation of the year’s most frequent recipients of “Four Pinocchios.” He notched eleven. But the Post’s more telling observation was this:
“Most politicians drop a claim after it has been fact-checked as false. But Trump is unusual in that he always insists he is right, no matter how little evidence he has for his claim.”
There’s unfortunate historical precedent for Trump’s use of hyperbolic rhetoric to exacerbate fear and generate divisions that spin out of control. In the world of “The Big Lie,” facts don’t matter – until they catch up with all of us.
At the conclusion of the Constitutional Convention in 1787, an interested spectator asked Benjamin Franklin, “Well, Doctor, what have we got, a republic or a monarchy?”
Franklin responded immediately, “A republic, if you can keep it.”
Keeping it requires citizens willing to allow facts and reason to produce informed decisions. Donald Trump – the master salesman and showman – has found a way to short-circuit that process in too many American minds. In November, we may all find out how many.