MILWAUKEE — If President Trump’s first tumultuous weeks have done nothing else, at least they have again made us a nation of readers.
As Americans grapple with the unreality of the new administration, George Orwell’s “1984” has enjoyed a resurgence of interest, becoming a surprise best seller and an invaluable guide to our post-factual world.
On his first full day in office Mr. Trump insisted that his inaugural crowd was the largest ever, a baseless boast that will likely set a pattern for his relationship both to the media and to the truth.
At an event marking Black History Month last week, the president took a detour from a discussion of Frederick Douglass — he described the abolitionist as “an example of somebody who’s done an amazing job and is being recognized more and more” — to talk about the press. “A lot of the media is actually the opposition party — they’re so biased,” he said. “So much of the media is the opposition party and knowingly saying incorrect things.”
Mr. Trump understands that attacking the media is the reddest of meat for his base, which has been conditioned to reject reporting from news sites outside of the conservative media ecosystem.
The news media’s spectacular failure to get the election right has made it only easier for many conservatives to ignore anything that happens outside the right’s bubble and for the Trump White House to fabricate facts with little fear of alienating its base.
Unfortunately, that also means that the more the fact-based media tries to debunk the president’s falsehoods, the further it will entrench the battle lines.
During his first week in office, Mr. Trump reiterated the unfounded charge that millions of people had voted illegally. When challenged on the evident falsehood, Sean Spicer, the White House press secretary, seemed to argue that Mr. Trump’s belief that something was true qualified as evidence. The press secretary also declined to answer a straightforward question about the unemployment rate, suggesting that the number will henceforth be whatever the Trump administration wants it to be.
He can do this because members of the Trump administration feel confident that the alternative-reality media will provide air cover, even if they are caught fabricating facts or twisting words (like claiming that the “ban” on Muslim immigrants wasn’t really a “ban”). Indeed, they believe they have shifted the paradigm of media coverage, replacing the traditional media with their own.
In a stunning demonstration of the power and resiliency of our new post-factual political culture, Mr. Trump and his allies in the right media have already turned the term “fake news” against its critics, essentially draining it of any meaning. During the campaign, actual “fake news” — deliberate hoaxes — polluted political discourse and clogged social media timelines.
Some outlets opened the door, by helping spread conspiracy theories and indulging the paranoia of the fever swamps. For years, the widely read Drudge Report has linked to the bizarre conspiracy theorist Alex Jones, who believes that both the attacks of Sept. 11 and the Sandy Hook shootings were government-inspired “false flag” operations.
For conservatives, this should have made it clear that something was badly amiss in their media ecosystem. But now any news deemed to be biased, annoying or negative can be labeled “fake news.” Erroneous reports that the bust of the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. had been removed from the Oval Office or misleading reports that sanctions against Russia had been lifted will be seized on by Mr. Trump’s White House to reinforce his indictment.
Even as he continues to attack the “dishonest media,” Mr. Trump and his allies are empowering this alt-reality media, providing White House access to Breitbart and other post-factual outlets that are already morphing into fierce defenders of the administration.
The relationship appears to be symbiotic, as Mr. Trump often seems to pick up on talking points from Fox News and has tweeted out links from websites notorious for their casual relationship to the truth, including sites like Gateway Pundit, a hoax-peddling site that announced, shortly after the inauguration, that it would have a White House correspondent.
By now, it ought to be evident that enemies are important to this administration, whether they are foreigners, refugees, international bankers or the press.
But discrediting independent sources of information also has two major advantages for Mr. Trump: It helps insulate him from criticism and it allows him to create his own narratives, metrics and “alternative facts.”
The Russian dissident and chess grandmaster Garry Kasparov drew upon long familiarity with that process when he tweeted: “The point of modern propaganda isn’t only to misinform or push an agenda. It is to exhaust your critical thinking, to annihilate truth.”
Mr. Kasparov grasps that the real threat is not merely that a large number of Americans have become accustomed to rejecting factual information, or even that they have become habituated to believing hoaxes. The real danger is that, inundated with “alternative facts,” many voters will simply shrug, asking, “What is truth?” — and not wait for an answer.
In that world, the leader becomes the only reliable source of truth; a familiar phenomenon in an authoritarian state, but a radical departure from the norms of a democratic society. The battle over truth is now central to our politics.
This may explain one of the more revealing moments from after the election, when one of Mr. Trump’s campaign surrogates, Scottie Nell Hughes, was asked to defend the clearly false statement by Mr. Trump that millions of votes had been cast illegally. She answered by explaining that everybody now had their own way of interpreting whether a fact was true or not.
“There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore as facts,” she declared. Among “a large part of the population” what Mr. Trump said was the truth.
“When he says that millions of people illegally voted,” she said, his supporters believe him — and “people believe they have facts to back that up.”
Or as George Orwell said: “The very concept of objective truth is fading out of the world. Lies will pass into history.” But Ms. Hughes’s comment was perhaps unintentionally insightful. Mr. Trump and company seem to be betting that much of the electorate will not care if the president tells demonstrable lies, and will pick and choose whatever “alternative facts” confirm their views.
The next few years will be a test of that thesis.
In the meantime, we must recognize the magnitude of the challenge. If we want to restore respect for facts and break through the intellectual ghettos on both the right and left, the mainstream media will have to be aggressive without being hysterical and adversarial without being unduly oppositional.
Perhaps just as important, it will be incumbent on conservative media outlets to push back as well. Conservatism should be a reality-based philosophy, and the movement will be better off if it recognizes that facts really do matter. There may be short-term advantages to running headlines about millions of illegal immigrants voting or secret United Nations plots to steal your guns, but the longer the right enables such fabrications, the weaker it will be in the long run. As uncomfortable as it may be, it will fall to the conservative media to police its worst actors.
The conservative media ecosystem — like the rest of us — has to recognize how critical, but also how fragile, credibility is in the Orwellian age of Donald Trump.