At a critical moment in Elf, the greatest Christmas movie ever made, the titular elf played by Will Ferrell confronts a department-store Santa who is clearly not the real Santa: “You sit on a throne of lies,” Buddy hisses, before ersatz Santa tackles him and proves his unsuitability for the job.
At this moment, all of America – at least the part that hasn’t drunk the tribal Kool-Aid – is Buddy, and the throne of lies is occupied by a man who was the first Republican since Dwight Eisenhower to win the state of Wisconsin in a presidential election.
Except, wait: Donald Trump wasn’t the first Republican since Dwight Eisenhower to win the state of Wisconsin. It’s just a lie he likes to tell, over and over. Mr. Trump lies so frequently, and with such gusto, that there are now lexicographical debates about how to classify his lies. Misstatements, say the generous. Bald-faced B.S., is the counter-argument. The Toronto Star’s Daniel Dale, heroic chronicler of the presidential fib factory, has documented more than 2,000 false statements that Mr. Trump has made since he became President – and the rate of lying has almost doubled this year.
The question is, how do you begin to rationally discuss someone who lies with toxic frequency about matters both inconsequential and grave – about his own father’s birthplace, at one end of the scale, and the previous president’s birthplace, at the other? He lies about whether he knew about hush-money payments to a Playboy model he allegedly had an affair with, about whether he dictated his son’s misleading letter regarding a meeting with Russians, about the height of Trump Tower, about the balance of trade with Canada. He tweets one thing and lies about it two days later, as if taunting the citizens of his country to go out and visit their optometrists.
Or perhaps he wants them to doubt their own sanity, to deny the reality of their eyes when it contradicts their master’s voice: “What you’re seeing and what you’re reading is not what’s happening,” Mr. Trump told a group of veterans in Kansas City this week.
An equally important question: What are the consequences of this garbage deluge, for his own country and the world? Already cynicism and weariness have set in. To quote another classic comedy, it just doesn’t matter. Mr. Trump’s supporters knew about his dishonesty when they elected him, and either didn’t care or – even more alarming – found his mendacity invigorating and thrilling, an example of his authenticity. That’s right, he was authentically inauthentic, a real fake, snake oil in a genuine gold bottle.
Except, of course, it does matter for the whole world. Truth pollution, like pollution in the oceans, doesn’t respect national borders. If the leader of the most powerful country in the world doesn’t find profit in the currency of truth, you can bet that politicians in other countries are going to begin their sell-offs, too. Citizens, already mistrustful of their leaders and each other, will become even more cynical and polarized in their beliefs.
This is the danger that Michiko Kakutani outlines in her new book, The Death of Truth. We are already well down the path of what she calls “the new nihilism.” That is, a kind of end-times resignation that there is no meaning, no universal truth, no common decency except that which already exists within tribes.
“The nihilism in Washington is both an echo and a cause of more widespread feelings: a reflection of a growing loss of faith in institutions and a loss of respect for both the rule of law and everyday norms and traditions; a symptom of our loss of civility, our growing inability to have respectful debates with people who have opinions different from our own; and our growing unwillingness to give others the benefit of the doubt, room for an honest mistake, the courtesy of a hearing.”
The new nihilism, she writes, is what allows the alt-right to disseminate grotesque and damaging conspiracies about the Sandy Hook school massacre and the Parkland shooting survivors under the guise of “free speech.” It’s what allows people to shrug off the lies that come cascading down from the top: If nothing matters, then there’s no point putting in the work to separate fact from fiction. Truth, you’re going to have to sink or swim on your own, little buddy.
Ms. Kakutani was the long-time book reviewer at The New York Times, and The Death of Truth draws upon her reading of various theorists, from Baudrillard to Arendt, and propaganda from the Third Reich and Stalin’s Russia, to examine how we came to this frayed moment. This frayed moment where 68 per cent of Republicans believe that millions of illegal immigrants voted in the last presidential election. That never happened; I wonder where they got the idea from?
Fleeting mistruths cheered by a sea of MAGA hats at a campaign rally are one thing, and bad enough. Changes to the historical record are quite another. As Ms. Kakutani points out, the Trump administration has quickly got to work changing the record to influence its values, including deleting climate-change information from government websites, and replacing educational pages about renewable energy with ones about fossil fuels.
This altering of the historical record would seem brazen at any other time, except in this era of “alternative facts.” For more than a week, the White House’s official transcript of the Trump-Putin press conference in Helsinki omitted Reuters reporter Jeff Mason’s crucial first question: “Mr. Putin, did you want President Trump to win the election?” “Yes, I did,” Mr. Putin responded. Only after a week of pestering did the White House correct the official transcript and reinstate Mr. Mason’s question, blaming a technical snafu for the omission.
So the moral of this modern-day fable – which feels more like an endless Monty Python skit – is that pestering matters. Vigilance matters. Listening, really listening, and staying informed, matter. Not being blinded by partisanship matters. Recognizing that there is an empirical truth matters, and so does recognizing the charlatans who would twist it for their own reward. The idea of a common good matters. Because we’ve tried nihilism, and the truth is it’s not very much fun.