How Facts Failed Us: Reckoning With Trump and Truth
From the nation’s founding, it’s always been fashionably American to rebel. Ours is a land of particular obsessions: food, war, success. Over time, though, our civic obsession with resistance, and how one deploys it for personal design, has taken an unsightly form. Just look to Donald Trump; he resists irresistible truth with the flagrant abandon of a bratty teenager. With the weaponization of his Twitter feed, he's been able to exploit the gulf between fact and fiction—all but shifting the axis on which democracy feeds.
“The migration of postmodern ideas,” Michiko Kakutani writes about the rejection of fact in her recent book The Death of Truth: Notes on Falsehood in the Age of Trump, “from academia to the political mainstream is a reminder of how the cultural wars have mutated in unexpected ways.”
According to the former New York Times chief book critic, one such mode is “truth decay.” Online and off, Trump assaults not just the very physical existences of Americans whose worldview or experience he does not share, but has slowly and cunningly driven tenets like “reason” and “discernment” from the national center. Truth is no longer tethered to fact because facts are proportionate to one’s embrace of reality—and reality, sieved through the curatorial filter of outlets like Instagram and Fox News, can be what you choose to make it: a wonderland built atop self-entitlement, soured idealism, and willful ignorance.
Just how has Trump gone about this? By spewing a narrative of dislocation. This isn’t a revelatory idea, but Kakutani does her best to chart the fragmentation across time, as Trump crossed from publicity-hungry mogul to reality-TV curio to candidate. For 14 seasons, he popularized the phrase “You’re fired” on The Apprentice—removing contestants from positions of authority and paths to betterment—and later entered the political realm on a ticket of Birtherism.
But to call it a narrative of dislocation is also to understand it as a language of brutality, a tongue activist DeRay Mckesson knows too well. “Violence was the first language of this country,” Mckesson writes in his just-released book, On the Other Side of Freedom: The Case For Hope. Language is a tool of power distribution, of control—it has the capacity to exile and creates hierarchies—but Mckesson believes that when wielded equitably it becomes “the gateway to liberation, to justice, to freedom.”
Born in Baltimore and an educator by trade, Mckesson was thrust into the spotlight during the bloody summer of 2014, in the wake of Michael Brown’s killing in Ferguson. As protests choked the city, Mckesson traveled to Missouri—“I wanted to see what was happening with my own eyes,” he confesses—and became a trusted on-the-ground voice by using Twitter to amplify the gross mistreatment that was transpiring on the streets. That visibility helped vault him to be the controversial face and spokesperson for the Black Lives Matter movement, a justice campaign that defies single leadership. (Originating as a hashtag online, it was initially founded by Alicia Garza, Opal Tometi, and Patrisse Cullors, and McKesson has faced criticism from inside the ranks for how he yoked his own identity to BLM’s.)
Mckesson is engaged in what he’s termed “hope-work”: the constant practice of protest, love, and accountability as a work of hope. But hope for what, and for who? In broad strokes, these are questions he attempts to unpin in his quasi-memoir. For both he and Kakutani, our present bind stems from the collapse of the social structure, particularly the erosion of communication—how we connect, how we empathize, how we work together, how we build a more just future.
With a diagnostic approach, both books telescope the decline of the country’s moral core—with special attention to how our abuse of communication, online and across various media entities, has expedited its rot. Which is to say: These are books about control, and the unflinchingly violent loss of it.
In one of On the Other Side of Freedom’s more revealing bits, in which Mckesson recounts his childhood, he admits he didn’t realize white people could be wrong—that their word was the order of the world. “I grew up watching whiteness work,” he writes, “watching it dance and adapt itself around me, demanding that I dance and adapt to it, shaping how the world sees it and therefore how people make decisions and this about possibilities.” That is, in essence, what has happened with Trump, with Fox News, with Breitbart. Whiteness that seeks to conquer understands that seizing control requires abandoning the universal truths that would otherwise delegitimize its claim; Kakutani refers to this trend as a “cavalier disregard for accuracy, details, and precision.”
So how does one fight this? Activism is one way. Journalism can certainly be another. Journalists have long been a form of resistance against dark forces in our democracy. The reporting of fact and truth—restored to their validity, a twin star to guide any discussion—now seem especially important in curbing national deterioration.
And still the echo of history rages to the fore, its howl demanding stronger countermeasures. The two authors are short on specific remedies but agree that what remains ahead is a matter of irrefutable urgency. “It is a different type of work to survive whiteness,” Mckesson writes, “to grow up in its context, and to learn to make meaning independent of it. To challenge it, to escape its grasp, and to love oneself in spite of it.” The work continues.