As the nation continues to recover from the ravages of the Trump presidency – our diminished reputation in the world, a crippled economy, escalating race relations, a setback in the fight against climate change – there is a positive development of which Donald Trump can take the credit. : It turns out that many Americans can indeed care about the truth.
It is not a development that we can take for granted.
One of the intellectual movements in the academy over the past decades has been what is known as post-structuralism, which, taken to its logical conclusions, undermines the notion of absolute truth. Post-structuralism denies, or at least minimizes, the importance of the author’s intention. In other words, what the author writes or hears in a literary work, for example, is much less important than the meaning or interpretation that the reader, or critic, derives from it. In other words, all too simply, post-structuralism is a radical form of subjectivism, even narcissism. The notion of objective truth or meaning takes a back seat to the perceptions of the reader or the listener. Perhaps the best illustration of this is the statement by Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway on the existence of “alternative facts.”
I am inclined to believe that the idea of truth as relative also emerged from the counterculture of the 1960s and early 1970s. At a time when psychotropic drugs produced an alternate reality, the mantra was “done.” your own thing ”or“ whatever ”that has crept into popular culture. “Live and let live” has sort of transformed into “believe whatever you choose”.
In addition, the proliferation of media has fueled the spread of lies. “People were always mad, but they couldn’t find each other, they couldn’t talk and disperse their madness,” said Robert C. Post, professor of law at Yale. The New York Times. “Now we are faced with a new phenomenon and we need to think about how we regulate it in a way that is compatible with the freedom of people to form public opinion. “
The Trump presidency has not banned post-structuralism, but at least some Americans seem more willing to discern and identify what is true and what is false, especially following the insurgency of domestic terrorists a year ago. . Acknowledging a threat to democracy in the flood of lies, especially the lies about widespread voter fraud, responsible Americans now want to determine what is true and what is not. One way to track this is through the media. Yes, many media in the downstream media continue to spread disinformation and distortion, and the dark corners of the internet amplify such lies. But while other more reputable media organizations – The New York Times, The Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN and others – once reported statements by politicians and others verbatim and without comment, they now systematically frame those statements with words that specify whether the statement is to be considered true or not.
“Trump falsely claims he won the election, even though the ballots are still being counted,” headline in USA today following the 2020 elections. The next day, to cite another example, the Los Angeles Times published an article titled “Trump Falsely Accusing Democrats of Trying to ‘Steal’ the Election,” an article which included the following paragraph: “Even by the President’s standards of lying, he delivered an extraordinary flow of lies and a Dramatic display of desperation his path to winning a second term seemed to be narrowing hour by hour.
I expect some readers to object to such framing as a form of editorialization rather than topical reporting, and I understand that argument. But at a time when the truth has become a victim of ambition and narcissism, I wonder if a little ballast in a sea of deception is not needed.
More importantly to these efforts, several media organizations have taken on the role of truth squads, dedicated to deciphering statements made by those responsible to determine whether or not they should be considered true. One such watchdog, for example, ruled that Barack Obama had made 28 false or misleading statements during his eight years in office. Trump’s tally (over four years) stood at 30,573.
Trump’s false claims have continued to proliferate since he stepped down, especially what some media began to label as the Big Lie – capital B, capital L – that the election was stolen from him. And worse yet, it has inspired others. Social media is inundated with conspiracy theories and paranoia about everything from COVID-19 vaccines, “Pizzagate” and the genesis of ovarian cysts (sex with demons) to the imminent return of John F. Kennedy Jr. (deceased since 1999) and yes, stolen elections.
The apparent market for such fables suggests that many Americans are either gullible or willfully ignorant of the facts. But the trauma of the Trump presidency has made others care deeply about the truth. In an age when democracy in the United States is in jeopardy, a renewed attention to sorting out facts from lies, especially in the arena of public discourse, cannot hurt.
There is no small irony here, of course. One chronic manufacturer, someone who has made more than 30,000 false or misleading statements in his four years as president, has many Americans scrutinizing what is true or what is not true.
Randall Balmer, professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of more than a dozen books, including Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.