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Trust Issues

The Orange Elephant in the Room

Public trust is eroding for plenty of reasons, but let’s not discount the man at the heart of it all

Photo by Jabin Botsford/The Washington Post via Getty Images

TThe presidency of Donald J. Trump and the campaign he ran to get to the White House have been fueled by lies and misinformation that undermine the public’s trust in government and the electoral process and subvert the very idea of objective truth. The implications could not be more serious. The barrage of lies and conspiracy theories we are being subjected to today — from President Trump, his Republican enablers, and the right-wing media that amplifies his message — are normalizing mendacity, suspicion, and disdain for the rule of law.

This “firehose of falsehood” (to borrow a term used to describe the high-intensity stream of propaganda spewed forth by the Kremlin to engulf Russia in a fog of disinformation) foments cynicism, mistrust, and chronic emotional exhaustion. As Hannah Arendt pointed out in her 1951 book, The Origins of Totalitarianism, the resulting lack of trust makes people reach the point where they “would, at the same time, believe everything and nothing, think that everything was possible and that nothing was true.”

In such a world, people can’t make informed choices at the ballot box. In fact, if they come to believe that all politicians lie and that all policies are transactional, they will not be bothered to vote or to question a leader’s arbitrary decisions — they will passively allow that leader and his cohorts to define reality, much like how the denizens of Oceania in Orwell’s 1984 accede to Big Brother’s insistence that 2+2=5. When nihilism is ascendant and when perpetual scandal and deliberate distraction claim people’s attention in a data-overloaded society, serious policy issues fall by the wayside, politicians elude accountability, and the abnormal becomes routine.

The fake news stories shared on social media in the run-up to the 2016 election accelerated just this sort of confusion among voters. Russian trolls sought to not only help Trump defeat Hillary Clinton, but also amplify chaos and discord in America (trying to fuel existing racial, religious, and political divisions) in order to undercut their old Cold War adversary’s electoral system and to bolster their larger goal of subverting liberal democracy in the West.

In June 2018, the Washington Post reported that Trump had made 3,251 false or misleading claims in his first 497 days in office — an average of more than 6.5 claims per day. And those lies — along with his contempt for expertise, precedent, and norms of morality and common decency — have been shrugged off by roughly a third of the country. Even as he has benefited from a growing populist hostility toward the establishment, Trump is willfully drumming up further mistrust — mistrust of the press, the judiciary, the FBI, any institution he finds threatening to his own autocratic whims. In the process, he is throwing sand into the gears of democracy and hacking away at the pillars that uphold the Constitution.

Watergate, the war in Iraq (and the failure to find WMDs), and the financial crash of 2008 all played understandable roles in the loss of public confidence in government, the media, and big business. So, too, have broader social dynamics — including the ever-growing polarization of our politics (a tribalism that defies Daniel Patrick Moynihan’s wisdom that “everyone is entitled to his own opinion, but not to his own facts”). Then there’s the elevation, accelerating in the 1960s, of subjective over objective truth; the blurring of lines between news and entertainment; and the proliferation of filter bubbles and echo chambers on the web, which has made confirmation bias and the cherry-picking of information increasingly common practice.

In Trump’s reality-show presidency, policy is made not through the usual process of analysis and review, not in consultation with experts, but according to the commander in chief’s own grievances and craving for attention. To quote Thomas Pynchon in Gravity’s Rainbow: “Decisions are never really made — at best they manage to emerge, from a chaos of peeves, whims, hallucinations, and all-round assholery.”

This contempt for reason — and disdain for the advice of experts with a knowledge of history and geopolitics — is rattling the U.S.-led postwar world order and leaving America increasingly alone. Not only has Trump assailed our traditional allies in Europe (and now Canada, too) while promoting Russian interests, but his irrational and improvisatory foreign policy has made other countries less and less willing to trust us.

Just as voters at home cannot trust Trump to tell them the truth or to make decisions congruent with their best interests or the country’s longstanding values, so do world leaders regard Trump’s leadership with mushrooming misgivings and mistrust. The result is the isolation of America on the world stage and the erosion of democracy at home — the undermining of the very ideals this country was founded upon.

former chief book critic, The New York Times; author of "The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump" (coming July 17, 2018)

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