My Turn: An unlikely legacy

For the Monitor
Published: 1/2/2022 8:00:46 AM
Modified: 1/2/2022 8:00:06 AM

As the nation continues to recover from the ravages of the Trump presidency (our diminished standing in the world, a crippled economy, the exacerbation of race relations, a setback to addressing climate change) there is a positive development for which Donald Trump can take credit — it turns out that Americans may indeed care about truth.

That’s not a development we can take for granted. One of the intellectual movements in the academy in recent decades has been something called post-structuralism, which taken to its logical conclusions undermines the notion of absolute truth. Post-structuralism denies, or at least minimizes, the importance of authorial intent. In other words, what the author writes or intends in a work of literature, for example, is far less important than the meaning or the interpretation that the reader, or critic, derives from it.

Put simply, well, far 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, and perhaps the best illustration of this was Trump adviser Kellyanne Conway’s declaration about the existence of “alternative facts.”

I’m inclined to believe that the idea of truth as relative also emerged out of the counterculture of the sixties and early seventies. In an age when psychotropic drugs produced an alternative reality, the mantra was “do your own thing” or “whatever,” which has insinuated itself into popular culture. “Live and let live” somehow morphed into “believe whatever you choose.”

In addition, the proliferation of media has fueled the dissemination of falsehoods. “People were always crazy, but they couldn’t find each other, they couldn’t talk and disperse their craziness,” Robert C. Post, a Yale law professor, told the New York Times. “Now we are confronting a new phenomenon and we have to think about how we regulate that in a way which is compatible with people’s freedom to form public opinion.”

The Trump presidency didn’t banish post-structuralism, but some Americans at least seem to be more willing to discern and to identify what is true and what is false, especially following the insurrection of domestic terrorists a year ago. Recognizing a threat to democracy in the wash of falsehood, especially lies about widespread electoral fraud, responsible Americans now want to ascertain what is true and what is not.

One way to trace this is through the media. Yes, plenty of outlets in the downstream media continue to traffic in misinformation and distortions, and the dark corners of the internet amplify such lies. But whereas other, more reputable media organizations, the New York Times, the Washington Post, the Los Angeles Times, CNN and others, once reported statements from politicians and others verbatim and without comment, they now routinely frame those statements with words that clarify whether or not the statement should be regarded as truthful.

“Trump falsely claims he has won election, even though ballots are still being counted,” ran a headline in USA Today following the 2020 election. The next day, to cite another example, the Los Angeles Times ran an article entitled “Trump falsely accuses Democrats of trying to ‘steal’ the election,” a piece that included the following paragraph: “Even by the president’s standards of mendacity, he delivered an extraordinary stream of falsehoods and a dramatic display of desperation as his path to winning a second term seemed to shrink by the hour.”

I expect that some readers will object to such framing as a form of editorializing rather than news reporting, and I understand that argument. But in an era when truth has become a casualty of ambition and narcissism, I wonder if some ballast in a sea of deception isn’t necessary.

Even more important to those efforts, several media organizations have taken on the role of truth squads, dedicated to deciphering the statements of officials to determine whether or not they should be regarded as truthful.

One such watchdog, for instance, ruled that Barack Obama had issued 28 false or misleading statements during his eight years in office. Trump’s tally (over four years) came to 30,573.

Trump’s false claims have continued to proliferate since he left office, especially what some media outlets have begun to label the Big Lie — capital B, capital L — that the election was stolen from him. And what is worse, he has inspired others. Social media are swamped with conspiracy theories and paranoia over everything from COVID vaccines, “Pizzagate” and the genesis of ovarian cysts (from 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 plenty of Americans are either credulous or willfully ignorant of facts. But the trauma of the Trump presidency has prompted others to care deeply about truth. At a time when democracy in the United States is imperiled, renewed attention to sorting fact from falsehood, especially in the arena of public discourse, can’t hurt.

There is no small irony here, of course. A chronic fabricator, someone who issued more than thirty thousand false or misleading statements during his four-year presidency, has many Americans scrutinizing what is or what is not true.

(Randall Balmer, a professor at Dartmouth College, is the author of more than a dozen books, including “Bad Faith: Race and the Rise of the Religious Right.”)

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