Team Trump embraces Truth as a provocation, a rhetorical question, a suggestion of something covered up.
As President Donald Trump, Rudy Giuliani and Sarah Huckabee Sanders contradictorily bumble over one another’s statements regarding Stormy Daniels and Russia, we may be tempted to hope that this charade will soon fold in on itself and that the presence of truth in the public realm might be reborn.
Since the 2016 campaign, we have lived in a world where we are estranged from facts and reality as Trump continues to decry the mainstream media as FAKE NEWS, rigged and elitist. In his continued effort to live in the past glory days of his campaign, he regularly tells his base that the media is lying to them while — at the very same time — feeding these supporters stories teeming with lies with the help of rigged media outlets from Russia, bots and paid fake-news writers.
Trump’s supporters seem to have bludgeoned truth to death with a persistent circulation of disinformation, which they have much more time to share than to verify.
But while many of us bemoan the loss of truth in this new paradigm, team Trump does not in fact reject truth. In the era of Trump, there is truth, but it’s a New Truth. It is based in a newfangled logic that presumes the narratives told to us by the mainstream media are rigged and biased. It fosters a mythical belief in a New Truth that is buried under the lies of the liberal media and thrives in an anti-government utopia. Birtherism is about New Truth. Is Obama a Kenyan-born Muslim? The popular vote in 2016 is about truth. But did HRC really win it? Climate change is about truth. Did China make this up? Fact checking is even truth, but not in the way we might think. Are the fact checkers not telling the whole story? Team Trump embraces the New Truth as a provocation, a rhetorical question, a suggestion of something covered up. This is not laissez-faire relativism regarding truth; this is a strong assertion that there is a there-there, and we’re going to get to the bottom of it.
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In this sense, then, Trump hasn’t outright killed truth — he has instead used what rhetorical scholars call dissociation, a concept that simply describes how we redefine concepts in a way that rejects one version and embraces another. In the world Trump is selling, the veneer of mainstream elitism promises truth, but Trump breaks truth apart to redefine it — he implicitly suggests that there are two truths: one that looks like truth but is in fact illusory and rigged (that of the left) and one that is real (his own).
While the apathy toward Trump’s lies and the spreading of false news stories may make us think that a contingent of the public no longer cares about truth, we’re only half-correct. They care about it, but not in a way that makes them reflect on what is or isn’t real. They care about it in the same way they care about a sports team, a shoe brand, or a handbag. In this way, the word truth functions as a floating signifier, devoid of its original meaning — and Trump supporters who have picked up this banner have co-opted and gutted the term so that they can now parade it as a sign of rebellion and anti-establishment moxie.
The bitter irony here is that the investigative pomp they use to reject the mainstream media utterly disappears when they encounter fake or misleading news stories from Sputnik, RT, Political Insider, Breitbart, Infowars and other outlets that make their money peddling half-truths and disinformation. Confirmation bias is at its worst when it comes to this crowd’s interest in maintaining the illusion that they know the real story. And they’re not going to let those elitist left-wing facts tell them otherwise.
The impulse to seek the other side of the story is not inherently bad, though — quite the opposite. Every day in my classes I teach students to question public narratives, research media biases and critique rhetorical appeals. However, I teach my students to ask questions about what they’re told; not simply assume that they’re being lied to. Trump’s campaign bred the latter paranoia-driven assumption in ways that blinded his team to the possibility that maybe sometimes the mainstream media are right. The way we talk about and frame facts indeed have biases — we of course have no ability to see the world from an objective bird’s eye view. But whether it’s about The Steele Dossier or Russian hacks on the DNC, there is an answer at the end of the day. Sixteen months into this presidency, we find ourselves living under a regime that has perfected the art of distraction to avoid this reality — and we, the public, must shoulder the burden of preventing the death of truth by reclaiming it.