We can say with absolute certainty that the Chicago Cubs ended a 108-year spell of futility and won the World Series. The Curse of the Billy Goat is dead. We also know with absolute certainty that on the dawn following the last out, the sun rose over Chicago, my dad’s hometown, at 7:26 a.m.
But with nearly everything else, we choose to believe what we want. Segregation lives. Reality no longer bites – it sorts. This coming Election Day, separate theaters for red and blue voters will open so that viewers can get their political news inside the comfort of their own fact bubbles.
Of all the concerns facing a Madam President, governing in a post-truth environment may be the biggest challenge. Perhaps a third of American adults now believe a few Big Lies. And those Big Lies may be nearly impossible to dislodge, because in the course of this awful election, even fact-checking became suspect.
Take it from Rush Limbaugh, long divorced from reality, as well as from three wives. Earlier this year, he told his listeners not to fall for the independent, nonpartisan outlets that try to referee the statements of politicians. “There is no fact-checking,” he said, “just vehicles to do partisan journalism.”
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It’s bad enough that 1 in 4 Americans believes that the sun revolves around the earth. But how many people believe, as Donald Trump insists, that the murder rate is the highest it has been in 45 years?
“The press never talks about it,” said Trump, barely a week ago. They don’t talk about it because it’s not true. The murder rate is less than half what it was in the peak year of 1980, and lower than at any time between 1965 and 2009.
Ah, but the truth is rigged. If it wasn’t, you would all know that the United States government was complicit in the 9/11 attacks on its own people. Well, you’d know it if you’d listened to Alex Jones, the conspiracy theorist whose relationship to the truth is like that of a vegan to a porterhouse steak.
No surprise, Trump has praised this rabid dog with a microphone. “Your reputation is amazing,” he told Jones. And the wackosphere has responded in kind. It’s not just the Ku Klux Klan newspaper that supports Trump, or retired propagandists from the old KGB. Jones told the Republican presidential nominee that 90 percent of his radio show’s listeners are with him.
Trump’s falsities come in three forms. There’s the vanity lie – about his hair, his height or his wealth. There’s the denial of something he said or did, easily rebutted. And then there’s the worst kind, causing lasting damage – the lie about democracy itself, or climate change, which he calls a hoax.
A few days ago, Trump said that if Hillary Clinton were elected “you could triple the size of our country in one week.” In order for 650 million people to pour into the United States, you would have to empty all of South America, Central America and Mexico – and then drain Canada as well. In seven days.
This passes with a shrug in part because Trump is so good for cable television. His rallies are carried live, often without context. CNN is projected to make an extra $100 million from the Trump circus. On top of that, the networks have added party hacks to their paid rosters – spewers of misinformation in the service of a candidate.
“It may not be good for America,” said Les Moonves, the CBS head, on Trump’s media ubiquity, “but it’s damn good for CBS.”
More than 70 percent of Trump’s statements have been rated false, mostly false or pants-on-fire lies by PolitiFact – nearly three times the falsity score of Hillary Clinton. And yet, Trump is considered more honest and trustworthy in some polls.
The fog comes from all ZIP codes. I’ve been on the receiving end of emails sent out by a well-educated woman who lives in Cambridge, Massachusetts, blocks from Harvard. The swill that this nice lady passes along has Barack Obama as a Manchurian president, all evidence of his youth and college years nonexistent. And Trump, he of the many bankruptcies and a fraud-plagued “university,” is the most successful businessman of our day.
“I don’t know the source of this information,” she wrote of Trump, “but if even half of it is true, he is an amazing person.”
Oh, but every one of the 57 presidential elections since 1789 has featured lies and the lying liars who tell them, you say. George Washington was called a traitor, robber and perjurer, in print. Abraham Lincoln was secretly Jewish or had African-American blood. John Kerry was not a real war hero.
The difference is those lies go to character. The lies that many Americans now believe, and that make it so difficult to move the country on the big issues, go to existential facts. A government of the people requires the people to conduct an honest assessment of their world – something too many citizens are no longer capable of doing.