Donald Trump understood at least one thing better than almost everybody watching the 2016 election: The breakdown of a shared public reality built upon widely accepted facts represented not a hazard, but an opportunity.
The institutions that once generated and reaffirmed that shared reality — including the church, the government, the news media, the universities and labor unions — are in various stages of turmoil or even collapse. Because Mr. Trump himself has little regard for facts, it was easy for him to capitalize on this situation. But even as Americans gobble up “fake news,” there is the sense that something crucial has been lost. A North Carolina man told The Times that while he regularly clicked on links to stories claiming that Hillary Clinton was indicted or that Mexico built a wall along its southern border, he missed the days when Walter Cronkite delivered the news to the nation.
He’s not alone; it was different then. Americans knew that whatever they were hearing on the news, their neighbors were hearing, too. Cable TV fractured that shared experience, and then social media made it easier for Americans to curl up in cozy, angry or self-righteous cocoons.
The rise of social media has been great in many ways. In a media environment with endless inputs and outlets, citizens can inform and entertain one another, organize more easily and hold their leaders accountable. But it also turns out that when everyone can customize his or her own information bubble, it’s easier for demagogues to deploy made-up facts to suit the story they want to tell.
That’s what Mr. Trump has done. For him, facts aren’t the point; trust is. Like any autocrat, he wins his followers’ trust — let’s call it a blind trust — by lying so often and so brazenly that millions of people give up on trying to distinguish truth from falsehood. Whether the lie is about millions of noncitizens voting illegally, or the crime rate, or President Obama’s citizenship, it doesn’t matter: In a confusing world of competing, shouted “truths,” the simplest solution is to trust in your leader. As Mr. Trump is fond of saying, “I alone can fix it.”
He is not just indifferent to facts; he can be hostile to any effort to assert them. On Tuesday, Chuck Jones, a union boss at Carrier Corporation, told The Washington Post that Mr. Trump was wrong when he claimed to have saved 1,100 of the company’s jobs from moving to Mexico — the real number will be closer to 730. Rather than admit error, the president-elect instead attacked Mr. Jones, a private citizen, on Twitter, saying he had done a “terrible job representing workers.”
In other words, Mr. Trump’s is a different kind of lying, though it has been coming for some time. When Bill Clinton, during the Monica Lewinsky meltdown, defended his public contortions of the truth by saying, “It depends on what the meaning of the word ‘is’ is,” he provided a sort of coda for the era of spin. In those days, politicians pinched and yanked at facts like Play-Doh, trying to shape them to their ends, but they were still acknowledging, and working with, the same shared underlying realities.
During the Bush years, the administration saw itself as racing ahead of a faltering media. In 2002, one of President George W. Bush’s top advisers mocked a Times reporter as living in the “reality-based community.” “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he was quoted as saying. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study, too, and that’s how things will sort out.”
By the time Mitt Romney was running for president a decade later, politicians recognized that they could treat the news media not as some sort of arbiter of the facts but simply one side of a he-said-she-said debate. As one of Mr. Romney’s aides put it, “We’re not going to let our campaign be dictated by fact-checkers.”
Mr. Trump has changed this game. He has exploited, perhaps better than any presidential candidate before him, the human impulse to be swayed more by story than by fact. As one of his surrogates said recently, “There’s no such thing, unfortunately, anymore, of facts.”
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Right now, Mr. Trump has his story, and he’s sticking to it — and he’s increasingly carrying the Republican party along with him. It’s bad enough when a truth-defying president-elect uses his megaphone to shout the lie that millions of illegal votes were responsible for Mrs. Clinton’s large popular-vote win. It’s even more ominous when the vice president-elect, the speaker of the House and the chairman of the Republican National Committee — all people who should know better — repeat that fiction, or refuse to disavow it.
Without a Walter Cronkite to guide them, how can Americans find the path back to a culture of commonly accepted facts, the building blocks of democracy? A president and other politicians who care about the truth could certainly help them along. In the absence of leaders like that, media organizations that report fact without regard for partisanship, and citizens who think for themselves, will need to light the way.