We’ve all been freaking out, with justification, over Donald Trump’s dalliance with rejecting the results of the election. But as bad as that is, it’s not the worst thing Trump has done. Rather, Trump’s refusal to commit to the peaceful transition of power is just a function of his larger attack — his systematic dismantling of our shared reality.
“Trump undermines reality” sounds almost like a joke, a final attempt to stretch our capacity for hyperbole in a season where hyperbole has proven insufficient to describe events. But it’s no joke. The hallucinatory quality of this campaign threatens to distort our vision forever, whether or not Trump wins on Election Day.
Almost from the beginning of his presidential run, Trump’s outrageous lies forced the media to choose sides in an unprecedented fashion. His falsehoods were too obvious to write off as just another point of view. Reporters found it harder to engage in the “on the one hand/on the other hand” style of reporting (a.k.a. “false equivalence”). Anyone with internet access could turn up footage of Trump saying something he said he didn’t say, or doing something he said he didn’t do. Journalists could not report on his statements without also rebutting them, lest they seem unhinged themselves. The Revolt of the Cable News Chyrons was born. The New York Times came to use the word “lies” to describe actual, you know, lies. (Why they didn’t feel they could do this prior to Trump is an investigation for another time.)
At first this seemed like a good thing for democracy. Dispense with the notion every story has two sides, I thought to myself, and stand up for reporting the truth! But I fear my excitement about newly engaged reporting was shortsighted. Because Trump has been the only candidate to warrant such extreme refutations, the media’s reporting on him has come off as one-sided. This is the price that Hillary Clinton has paid for being a conventional politician, for sticking to spin and nuance rather than bold disregard for history: To casual observers, it just looks like the press has taken her side.
Trump’s truculent deceitfulness is a devious innovation on how one traditionally “works the refs”: Rather than argue each individual call with the hopes that one or two eventually break your way, you just flout all the rules you can. The refs stay so busy administering penalties on one side that their inability to police the opposing players’ minor infractions looks like favoritism, even to those who aren’t fans of either team. Thus the outcome of the game is tainted; even if most people agree Team Clinton deserved to win, Monday morning quarterbacks will insist the game get an asterisk. Even worse, no one — not the fans of either team, nor the unaffiliated — will trust the refs quite like they used to.
That’s how we arrived at this election’s most startling statistic: In a Pew Research survey this month, 81 percent of those polled said that “most supporters of Hillary Clinton and Donald Trump” don’t just “disagree over plans and policies, but also cannot agree on ‘basic facts.’” I imagine this is one of the few polls Trump wouldn’t disparage as “rigged”; this poll, as with the ones he selectively publicizes, is helpful to him. While it doesn’t show he’s ahead, it does reaffirm his view of the world — the very idea that facts are up for dispute is how his lies flourish.
Step back for a second and you may realize that the question pollsters asked is itself problematic. “Facts” aren’t actually things you agree or disagree on. One doesn’t “disagree” with laws of Newtonian physics, for instance. Gravity will always pull you down, and to treat arguments to the contrary as simply another point of view allows doubt to exist where there is absolutely no room for it. If gravity’s direction were just a theory, some people would insist it’s safe to jump off the roof... which isn’t a bad metaphor for Trump voters, now that I think about it. Just as apt in that metaphor: the culpability of anyone who ignored the whole gravity “debate,” or simply said, “I don’t trust either side.”
The difference between gravity and political news is, of course, that you can personally test the laws of physics. The vast majority of us can’t gather firsthand knowledge about Trump’s taxes or the exact nature of Clinton Foundation donors’ influence in the State Department. And so our discussion of “basic facts” necessarily becomes a discussion of how we find out about those facts: the media.
Thus healthy skepticism has curdled into outright nihilism. “False equivalence” has given way to belief in “equivalent falseness.” Gallup has found that trust in the media is at a 20-year low. As you might expect, the drop in faith is led by conservatives (whom Fox News has been preaching bias to for — huh, weird coincidence — 20 years): Only 14 percent of Republicans trust the media. Perhaps less predictable is the age gap in media agnosticism; among people aged 18 to 49, only 26 percent trust the media, compared to 38 percent of those 50 and older. And 70 percent of political independents say they don’t believe what the media says, either.
But just because you don’t believe what “the media” is telling you about the world doesn’t mean you don’t believe anything about the world. I think people feel like saying they don’t trust “either side” or they don’t trust “the media” is somehow akin to being one of those political independents. But mistrust is not a philosophically neutral position — it’s a declaration of faith in the idea of not trusting institutions. Indeed, since 2000 Gallup has found a generalized downward trend in trust in all our major institutions, from organized religion, to public schools, to the Supreme Court, to banks. And there’s one specific candidate out there benefiting from suspicion of these institutions and distrust in our very system of government. Spoiler alert: It’s the one who’s losing.
That Trump benefits from this global distrust is one reason we can’t hew too closely to our sports metaphor about how repeated, flagrant fouls discredit the refs. In the comparatively rational world of professional sports, it’s counterproductive to completely undermine the league — you’d lose your audience. Hell, you’d lose your players. But that’s exactly what Trump is doing when it comes to politics. And in the real world, “the rules don't matter” quickly becomes “there are no rules.”
Nihilism breeds a lack of regard for consequences, and we’ve already seen how adroitly Trump massages disgust with “the system” into actual acts of sabotage and violence. The folks who say “I hope we can start a coup ... There’s going to be a lot of bloodshed” if Clinton wins are just the most terrifying new version of this response.
Is any of this an argument for trusting the media? Not exactly. But we have to stop the erosion of faith that develops when questioning how facts are reported somehow becomes questioning the existence of facts themselves. There are practical methods for becoming a sophisticated consumer of news media, for parsing out nuggets of information and analysis from the swirl of arguments. National Public Radio has produced guides specifically regarding breaking news and election polling.
You can go ahead and ask why you should believe them, but I think you’ll find that their advice is procedural and not partisan, and applicable to almost any information environment: Gather multiple sources, mainly. Beware of news that creates a sense of drama. Be wary of information gathered primarily via the internet. Learn the track record of your sources.
A couple of additional suggestions from me: Seek out sources that you don’t agree with, just to understand exactly what “the other side” is saying (you may even find a perspective you hadn’t thought of). Also: Find out how your source handles corrections and other errors. Value transparency and responsiveness.
This election has become a referendum on the very nature of reality — on whether or not there is a reality. You can’t stay undecided. I had a friend in college who liked to mock the overly cynical by observing, “It’s easy to say you don’t believe in anything — until someone throws a rock at your head.” That’s another metaphor that’s particularly appropriate to this election year. Indeed, at this rate, one worries it won’t remain a metaphor for long.