Donald Trump and the trouble with reality

Brooke Gladstone, a broadcaster and media critic, has written a provocative 87-page book about Donald Trump and his challenge to the concept of objective truth.

Trump has given us a constant stream of assertions—Obama was born in Kenya, Muslims in New Jersey celebrated 9/11, millions voted illegally in the 2016 elections–without facts to back them up.

That is, as she wrote, a challenge to the basis premise of democracy, which is that we the people have the ability to make good choices as to who will represent us.

But what if we don’t have a good basis for making a choice?  What if the very possibility of making a rational fact-based choice is called in question?

We normally assume that both sides have some basis for what they say and that our job is to choose the one who makes the best case.   But Donald Trump just says things without bothering to make an argument?

How can the casual newspaper reader, TV watcher and social media user evaluate this?


The philosopher Harry Frankfurt made a distinction between liars (people who knowingly make false statements for a reason) and bullshitters (people who don’t know or care whether what they say is true or not).

It’s not just Trump.   The whole flood of charges regarding Trump and Russia seems very—for want of a better word—Trumpian.  Every day there’s something new and nothing is ever proved.

The distinction between lies and bullshit applies here.  I don’t think anybody is knowingly making false statements about Trump and friends.  I think many of them just don’t care one way or the other.

On the other hand, the consequences for revealing unwelcome truths can be severe—Chelsea Manning seven years in prison, Edward Snowden a fugitive from U.S. law, Julian Assange confined to the Ecuadorian embassy in London.

I’ve had people tell me that Assange should not have published information unfavorable to Hillary Clinton unless he had information equally unfavorable Donald Trump to publish.


Donald Trump is a bullshitter.  So was the late Senator Joe McCarthy.

I can remember how reporters and editors debated among themselves as to how to report on McCarthy, just as they now do about Trump.

McCarthy’s rise to popularity and power was based on a constant stream of accusations of Communist influence in government—accusations not supported by evidence, and often not consistent with each other.

The convention of newspaper reporting in that day is that reporters should be, as much as possible, invisible.  A United States Senator’s opinion was newsworthy; a reporter’s opinion wasn’t.

If a politician said something that was contrary to a verifiable fact, the reporter was allowed to cite that fact and led readers draw their own conclusions.

There also was something called analysis, in which reporters could interpret the significance of facts, but in a manner that hopefully was fair to both sides, and editorials and opinion columns, in which writers could freely express opinions, subject to the editorial policy of the newspaper, but editorial pages were very little read.

If Senator McCarthy had made one charge, it would have been possible to investigate and determine whether or not it was true.  But he said so many things, and so confusingly, that it was hard to keep up.

By the time reporters had pinned down whether he had charged that there were 57 or 201 or 89 known Communists in the State Department, and what basis these figures had, he was on to attacking the Voice of America and the Democrats.

So the press was, unwillingly in most cases, facilitating the demagoguery of Senator McCarthy.

The famous newscaster Edward R. Murrow abandoned journalistic neutrality in 1964 with his famous “See It Now” program exposing McCarthy’s lies.    Under the Fairness Doctrine, he set aside an hour for McCarthy to present a rebuttal, which he did.

By then, McCarthy was already on the way out, partly because the public had come to understand what he was, partly because he had come to threaten powerful institutions such as the Army.

I think McCarthy had two sets of supporters—hard-core believers who could not be swayed, and sympathizers who thought that where there’s smoke, there must be fire, but were open to being swayed by Murrow’s broadcasts and the Army-McCarthy hearings.


White House correspondent Ron Suskind wrote in 2004 about a conversation with a top aide to President George W. Bush (believed by many to be Karl Rover).

The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.”  I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism.

He cut me off.  “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued.  “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.  And while you’re studying that reality— judiciously, as you will—we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out.  We’re history’s actors… and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”

Source: Ron Suskind | The New York Times

The United States as a nation has grown so powerful that some American leaders no longer think they have to understand reality.   They think that we—they—are so powerful that we can shape reality as we please, and therefore don’t have to understand reality.

Vice President Dick Cheney’s claim that Saddam Hussein possessed weapons of mass destruction was a lie.  Administration officials knew there was no evidence of this.

But Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld’s decision to exclude experts on Iraq from administering the occupation was a decision that the truth was irrelevant.   He wanted people who would implement his vision for Iraq unquestioningly.  We know now how that turned out.

The philosopher Ayn Rand once said something to the effect that it is possible to ignore reality, but that it is not possible to ignore the consequences of ignoring reality.   That has been true in the past, and it still is true.


George Orwell, writing in 1943, said the thing that scared him more than bombs was the idea that the concept of objective truth was disappearing.   Since he wrote that in London during the Blitz, it was no small statement.

He pointed out that Nazism explicitly denied that there were universal truths—only German truth, Jewish truth and so on.  If the leader said that two plus two equaled five, then two plus two equaled five.

His novel 1984 showed what the triumph of totalitarianism could mean.   That’s why I’ve opposed fascism and Communism for as long as I’ve understood what they were.

The reason why the concept of objective truth is so fundamental is that, without it, there is not only no basis for opposing tyranny, there is no reason for opposing tyranny.

I thought for most of my life that democracy, plus freedom of speech and of the press, were sufficient safeguards against the Orwellian disappearance of objective truth.

But a free society doesn’t just rest on laws and a good form of government.   It rests on the desire of a free people to know the truth.


Brooke Gladstone

Q&A: Gladstone on the media, Trump and truth, an interview in Columbia Journalism Review.

Step Around the Benghazi Trap by Doug Muder for The Weekly Sift.   A warning to fellow Democrats against jumping to conclusions about Trump and Russia.

The Magic of Donald Trump by Mark Danner for The New York Review of Books (2016).

Faith, Certainty and the Presidency of George W. Bush by Ron Suskind for The New York Times (2004)

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One Response to “Donald Trump and the trouble with reality”

  1. whungerford Says:

    There is reason to think that a lie repeated often enough grows legs–lying Ted, crooked Hillary, unspecified tax reform will create jobs, a wall will make America great again, and so on.


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