Carlos Lozada is the nonfiction book critic of The Washington Post. He has also served as The Post’s economics editor, national security editor and Outlook editor. He received the 2015 National Book Critics Circle’s citation for excellence in reviewing.
Back in the summer of 2002, long before “fake news” or “post-truth” infected the vernacular, one of President George W. Bush’s top advisers mocked a journalist for being part of the “reality-based community.” Seeking answers in reality was for suckers, the unnamed adviser explained. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.” This was the hubris and idealism of a post-Cold War, pre-Iraq War superpower: If you exert enough pressure, events will bend to your will.
Reality-based thinking is again under assault in America, but the deceit emanating from the White House today is lazier, more cynical. It is not born of grand strategy or ideology; it is impulsive and self-serving. It is not arrogant, but shameless.
Bush wanted to remake the world. President Trump, by contrast, just wants to make it up as he goes along.
The disregard for honesty in the Trump era, with its ever-changing menu of “alternative facts,” is eliciting new research and polemics from philosophers, literary critics, political analysts and social scientists. (In the publishing world circa summer 2018, the death-of-truth brigade is rivaled only by the death-of-democracy crew.) Through all their debates over who is to blame for imperiling truth (whether Trump, postmodernism, social media or Fox News), as well as the consequences (invariably dire) and the solutions (usually vague), a few conclusions materialize, should you choose to believe them.
Truth is not dead, but it is degraded, and its cheapening political value predates current management. There is a pattern and logic behind the dishonesty of Trump and his surrogates; however, it’s less multidimensional chess than the simple subordination of reality to political and personal ambition. And ironically, at a time when the president’s supporters mock liberal sensitivities, Trump’s untruth sells best precisely when feelings and instincts overpower facts, when America becomes a safe space for fabrication.
Post-truth politics has been around for a while, enduring and evolving. When Jesus told Pontius Pilate that he came to bear witness to the truth, the Roman prefect asked, “What is truth?” (Some theologians think Pilate was kidding, but maybe he was worried about fake good news?) A couple of millennia later, Rand Corp. scholars Jennifer Kavanagh and Michael D. Rich point to the Gilded Age, the Roaring Twenties and the rise of television in the mid-20th century as recent periods of what they call “Truth Decay” — marked by growing disagreement over facts and interpretation of data; a blurring of lines between opinion, fact and personal experience; and diminishing trust in once-respected sources of information.
In eras of truth decay, “competing narratives emerge, tribalism within the U.S. electorate increases, and political paralysis and dysfunction grow,” the authors write — and conditions today only make things worse. Once you add the silos of social media as well as deeply polarized politics and deteriorating civic education, it becomes “nearly impossible to have the types of meaningful policy debates that form the foundation of democracy.” True to their calling, the social scientists don’t provide much in the way of actionable solutions, but they do serve up 114 possible question topics meriting further research, divided into four broad categories and 22 sub-groups. So Rand-y.
In her slim, impassioned book “The Death of Truth,” former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani is less circumspect, aiming a fusillade of literary allusions and personal insults at the president. Trump is an “over-the-top avatar of narcissism, mendacity, ignorance, prejudice, boorishness, demagoguery, and tyrannical impulses (not to mention someone who consumes as many as a dozen Diet Cokes a day) . . . some manic cartoon artist’s mashup of Ubu Roi, Triumph the Insult Comic Dog, and a character discarded by Molière,” she writes. To interpret our era’s debasement of language, Kakutani reflects perceptively on the World War II-era works of Victor Klemperer, who showed how the Nazis used “words as ‘tiny doses of arsenic’ to poison and subvert the German culture,” and of Stefan Zweig, whose memoir “The World of Yesterday” highlights how ordinary Germans failed to grasp the sudden erosion of their freedoms. Not exactly subtle.