The Alcove

Are We Living in Post-Fact Times?

A new piece in Granta argues that we are living in a “post-truth world”—but Trump’s rhetoric is also grounded in distinctly American entertainment culture, one with roots as old as Mark Twain and P.T. Barnum.

By Kevin Mattson

Tagged Donald Trumpmedia

I often get a preliminary glimpse of politics while at the gym. As I work out on the elliptical machine, my eyes occasionally glance up to catch CNN. I have no sound to go on, just subtitles at the bottom of the screen. And last week I saw the most bizarre tagline: “Trump calls Obama founder of ISIS (he’s not).” As much as we’ve all gotten used to Trump’s dalliances into fantasy land, this statement still joggled my mind and almost joggled me off the exercise machine. My mind started to race: Trump really said this? Yes. And CNN felt it necessary to clarify for its viewers that there’s not an ounce of sense in the claim? Yes. And of course now we know how the story ended. Trump finally clarifies, after first defending the claim as a literal statement of truth, that he was just being sarcastic.

Which highlights the importance of a recent article in Granta. Peter Pomerantsev argues that we live today in a post-fact world. He points not just to Trump, but also to Putin. And he’s equally bothered by the claims that were made by leaders of the Brexit initiative who argued, “Let’s give our NHS the £350 million the EU takes every week” and then, upon winning the campaign, “shrugged off” the statements as a “mistake.” Pomerantsev goes on to dissect numerous trends from our past to assess how we’ve gotten to this post-fact world, a state where a candidate can speak balderdash and still win the nomination for a major party in the United States.

Some of this has to do with new technology. The Internet—and I’d argue, before that, cable news channels like Fox and MSNBC—has segmented Americans more than ever. We trundle into whatever enclave on the Internet that helps us legitimize our preconceived notions or beliefs. Or as Pomerantsev puts it, “Social media, now the primary news source for most Americans, leads us into echo chambers of similar-minded people, feeding us only the things that make us feel better, whether they are true or not.”

As our social media trumpets its participatory nature, our conceptions of objectivity in reporting nosedive. We are left with a world that is hostile toward any claim of expertise and that is increasingly framed by a kind of postmodern relativism. And, Pomerantsev points out, while a focus on subjectivity and the construction of reality might have been something that left-leaning academics helped develop within the walls of the university, especially during the 1980s and 1990s, this idea that beliefs are all inherently subjective in nature has been hijacked by those in power. We now face what I have elsewhere called  “postmodern conservatism,” which culminated recently in the presidency of George W. Bush. As Pomerantsev continues, “If reality is endlessly malleable, then…the Bush administration could legitimise a war based on misinformation. ‘When we act, we create our own reality’, a senior Bush advisor, thought to be Karl Rove, told the New York Times…‘and while you’re studying that reality – judiciously, as you will – we’ll act again, creating other new realities.’” One is reminded here of George Orwell’s eerie portrait of the future in 1984, where the totalitarian state’s slogans directly contradict reality but serve those in power.

This is a disturbing diagnosis indeed. But I think Pomerantsev is a bit too grounded in slightly outdated Western European affairs—he references Berlusconi a great deal—and in Putin’s contemporary Russia and misses something uniquely American in Trumpism. So let me put on my American historian’s cap here and say that Donald Trump has a unique relationship to the world of entertainment in America, his credentials riding on his reality television stardom more than his real estate business. No doubt part of this is his essential “outsider” status. But another part is that he draws upon the deepest roots of America’s entertainment culture.

If you had to name the forefathers of America’s twentieth century entertainment industry, P.T. Barnum and Mark Twain might come to mind. Barnum, of course, was the developer of the modern circus. He believed Americans wanted—and his success might seem to justify this view—to be lied to, that hoaxes were a central part of being entertained. If you wanted mermaids to be real, well, then, Barnum would make sure that they were.

Ernest Hemingway once quipped that all modern literature begins with The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn. And what we know about Twain was that much of his writing was developed as he traveled out west. Twain not only listened to the slaves he was raised around tell stories (which had a profound effect on him), but he also listened to those “tall tales” that animated the broader folk culture of the American west. Tall tales were always preposterous, as Bernard DeVoto once put it, every hill becomes a mountain, every fish caught becomes bigger than imaginable, and so forth. The central role of tall tales in Twain’s writing can be gleaned from the first paragraph of The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn where Huckleberry mentions that you might know his character from a previous book by Twain, The Adventures of Tom Sawyer. “That book was made by Mr. Mark Twain, and he told the truth, mainly. There was things which he stretched…” This “stretch” is the basis of the tall tale, and is how Twain chose to appeal to his readers.

What Twain and Barnum understood is that Americans love to be entertained, and that entertainment is about pleasure, not the truth. And as Americans today grow more alienated than ever from their political system, it is no surprise that some of them have drifted toward a candidate whose roots are in the world of entertainment and who creates fiction daily on the campaign trail. It’s fun or satisfying to some people—why else would they be there?—to hear the tall tales that come out of Trump’s yammering mouth at his endless campaign stops. Trump has taught the country a lesson. And, thanks to him, we now live with the consequences of a “post-fact” world where entertainment reigns supreme and where our collective sense of truth has combusted.

Although it’s likely too late for this campaign, after the election, progressives must internalize the lessons of the Trump candidacy and start figuring out how they can fight this battle against a media that now equates, more than ever before, politics with pure entertainment. We also have to acknowledge how the deep cynicism that lies at the heart of Trumpism—which turns every political statement into outlandishness, belligerence, and diversion—reflects a political culture that has fallen apart. Hope against hope that it’s not too late to put it back together again.

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Kevin Mattson teaches American history at Ohio University. He is author, most recently, of Just Plain Dick: Richard Nixon's Checkers Speech and the "Rocking, Socking" Election of 1952.

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