Future Post-Truth: What happens when lying is just practical politics?

Post-Truth Politicians? In this Wednesday, Aug. 24, 2016, file photo, then-Republican presidential candidate Donald Trump, right, welcomes pro-Brexit British politician Nigel Farage, to speak at a campaign rally in Jackson, Miss. (AP Photo/Gerald Herbert, File)

As a tumultuous 2016 draws toward a welcome end and weeks have passed since the extraordinary electoral events in the United States, it is still too early to view everything that has happened dispassionately or with much perspective. The amount of light shed on several extraordinary developments this year is in inverse proportion to the amount of ink, real or virtual, spilled in attempted explanation.

Allowing for the trans-Atlantic time-difference, the early morning of the day after the Trump election felt practically identical to the morning after the Brexit vote—with only some of the names and places altered, although the innocent were not protected. It felt eerie, even scary.

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In each instance, somehow sensing a major upset, your correspondent tried to stay up all night to watch the results come in; in each case, tiredness or dread took over. The spirit wasn’t particularly willing and the flesh was pretty weak.

Reawakening in the quiet of the early morning and going straight to both old and new media, the similarity between the two electoral endgames was uncanny, destabilizing. In each moment, I’d somehow awoken about half an hour before the result was officially called. The language and expression of the media anchors, and the predictions on social media, dealt the news that I, for one, had dreaded.

As the Brexit vote closed, I wondered, would there be a district somewhere in Britain that would return an 11th hour surprise vote (or, in this case, about the fifth hour in the morning) that would reverse what looked inevitable?

Would one of those remaining U.S. swing states do likewise and halt Mr. Trump’s momentum? Before I had even managed to down the day’s first espresso, I had to admit that neither vote had gone the way I wanted it to. That is democracy in action, I tried to tell myself. Not everyone holds the views that I do. And I failed entirely to convince myself.

Quite a lot of the commentary since the Brexit vote and U.S. elections suggests that the victors did not expect to win. Part of the evidence advanced for this thesis is that in neither case did the winner appear to know what to do next.

In Britain, the governing Conservative party has been widely roasted for not having a plan, or as one version goes, echoing the popular Britcom series of a few years ago, Blackadder, the cunning plan is to have no plan (“That’ll confuse those foreigners, eh, Baldrick?”). “Leave” campaign winners were anything but gleeful on their morning after. Reports of the first weeks of the Trump transition effort suggest something similar. Policy is being made either on the hoof or by means of undoing campaign commitments or just forgetting them.

It is another venerable British institution that has just led us to uncover a deeper reality that underscores everything that has happened this year. The Oxford English Dictionary announced that its International Word of the Year for 2016 is post-truth.  O.E.D. editors found that the compound word’s usage increased by over 2,000 percent over 2015. Post-truth beat out such doughty competitors as “alt-right,” a synonym for white nationalist—or worse; “Brexiteer,” which is obvious; and “coulrophobia,”the extreme or irrational fear of clowns.

The O.E.D. editors explain post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Thought to have been first coined in 1992, the term might have already undergone a significant shift in meaning; from describing a situation that obtains after the truth has become known, to a new situation, which you can see plainly this year, in which the objective, empirical truth just is not relevant.

Since the O.E.D. began the custom of selecting a Word of the Year, there have been separate winners on either side of the Atlantic. Famously, in 2009, the United Kingdom selected simples and the United States chose unfriend. Significantly, this year, both British and American editors agreed on post-truth. That chilling sense of deja-vu between the Brexit referendum result and the Trump election win got a lot scarier.

Post-truth’s ascendancy starts to explain what happened on both sides of the Atlantic this year, focusing on a disturbing feature common to each of these momentous campaigns. In a word, untruths. Now add that descriptive “intentional.” Suddenly, we have found ourselves living in the post-truth era in which it has become acceptable to knowingly lie to the public.

The O.E.D. word of the year choice aims to do more than acknowledge frequency of usage. The editors hope to capture the moment, the zeitgeist. We could say it is just a fancy synonym for lying, but that won’t cover all its nuance. People in the United States voted (although not a majority of them—another oddity) for a candidate known to have lied over 500 times, according to a fact-checking Canadian journalist, but it did not seem to matter.

People in Britain voted for a campaign that foregrounded a significant lie, that £350m each week would be spent, post-Brexit, on the National Health Service rather than handed over to Brussels. That lie was admitted the very next morning, but it didn’t seem to matter. Each campaign focused on the appalling lie that immigrants are to blame for all problems. When actual facts—you know, those details that you can check and verify—were adduced, they were dismissed by the likes of Mr. Trump and Mr. Farage as the special-interest propaganda of the mainstream media.

What is to be done? The world is full of anger. The appeal to emotion rather than fact engages that anger, but this does not look promising as the basis of a new politics, a new way of doing things. Post-truth is a close cousin of relativism, where my truth and your truth might well collide, but we’re not going to get into any informed arguments or debate, out of which truth might emerge; I’ll stick my fingers in my ears while you face-palm. Yet we do follow one who was heard to say, at least once, that the truth would set us free; one who was executed with the consent of a weakling who shrugged his shoulders as he asked, “Truth? What is that?”

Dorothy Day reminds us that “no-one has a right to sit down and feel hopeless. There is too much work to do.” At the end of this extraordinary year, much of that work might be to rediscover the power of the search for truth. Could 2017 be the year of post post-truth?

David Stewart, S.J., is America's London correspondent.

Comments are automatically closed two weeks after an article's initial publication. See our comments policy for more.
Lisa Weber
1 year ago
When people cannot tell the difference between fact and fiction in what they read or watch on electronic media, they have to wait for ugly realities to develop before they believe those realities are possible. Often, it is then too late to repair the damage.
Maree Hutchison
12 months ago
Post-truth is a contradiction in terms. Bit like saying post-science, which wouldn't have anything to do with science. Whatever happened to 'falsity with intent to whatever'? Which actually describes the nature and dynamics. Must be my background in the social and behavioural sciences. You first need to label in a way that can be observed and hence tested, and 'falsity with intent to whatever' does that. While 'post-truth' refers to a notion which seeks to exploit the positive aura generated by the use of the word 'truth' to make more palatable something that's the opposite of truth. So post-truth sounds like a weasel word to me. A weasel word being: "Word used in order to evade or retreat from a direct or forthright statement or position." But, a lie, despite post-truth's attempt to throw off its ill odour, remains a lie. Whatever happened to integrity, both intellectual and moral? Or is there something called 'post-integrity'?
J Cosgrove
12 months ago
The O.E.D. editors explain post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.
Anyone who believes that lies are what led to the US election results, should ask if their percepiton of what went on is based on lies or appeals to emotion. Maybe they are the victim of a post-truth. Especially one who has built in biases and who depends on major media sources and is from another nation. The US media is well known for the distortions it spread in favor of one of the candidates and this campaign was so egregious that many thought the results were due to a reaction to the constant distortions by the press. Yes, post-truth. Maybe the irony is one does not know when they are a victim of post-truth and then goes popping off about how others are affected. As far as truths which the author seems to have challenged as mis-guided is the effect of immigration. The US changed its immigrant laws in 1965 and then began large scale immigration mostly from Latin America at the beginning. Eight years later in 1973 wages peaked for non-supervisor workers in the United States due to the large scale immigration of low skilled workers. Those wages rose steadily each year after World War II till 1973. Today the wages for this group is less than it was 40 years ago despite the rapid climb of wages for workers in other categories. Since 1965 there are 80 million in the US as a result of immigration, either the immigrants themselves, their children or grand children. About 65 million people in the US do not speak English in their homes (many obviously know some English and many are fluent). This incredible influx of immigrants has depressed wages at the lower end of the economic scale. Reaction to this was a major reason for what happened in the election. But there were other issues and I am sure the post-truth will not sync up with reality there either. For example, a common belief among many in the United States is that blacks are unfairly targeted by the police but when statistics are applied to this issue it turns out that it is not true. As a result of this false meme police have been targeted and killed in the US. As one who did not support Trump but could never vote for Clinton, the election was difficult. I preferred 2 or 3 of the other Republicans in the primaries. But post election has convinced me that the best person by far of those running in the presidential election won. The transition to a working government has been swift, smooth and very organized. Much is still to be done. The opposition has become unglued and has become a self parody of immaturity and vindictiveness. Trump's biggest problem so far and it is not small is what to do with his wealth. No one elected to the presidency in the previous history of the country had this much wealth so widely distributed. It seems insoluble at the moment.
ed gleason
12 months ago
Blind trust. But hustlers never give their wallet to anyone,not even their kids.
Erin Snook
12 months ago
Well, yes, blacks are unfairly targeted by the police force. Just ask a trooper ( though this would be anecdotal evidence). And by the judicial system. It's this thing called 'racial profiling' and 'mass incarceration'. To what statistics do you refer that lead you to believe otherwise?
J Cosgrove
12 months ago
Erin, Blacks are actually less targeted than the percentage of crime they commit. Depending on the source and place in the US, blacks are responsible for 40-65% of violent crime while representing about 15% of the population. Because of this police will be responding to crime in black neighborhoods much more often than they will for other areas. If anything police are a calming influence in black neighborhoods and the shaming or blaming of police for problems in these neighborhoods has really got the cart before the horse. I suggest you read Heather MacDonalds book
The War on Cops: How the New Attack on Law and Order Makes Everyone Less Safe
http://amzn.to/29DZFl0 Here is a sample of what is in her book http://washex.am/2c0WGkc The real question that should be addressed is why do blacks commit so much crime relative to their numbers. This was not true in the 1940's and 50's but is true today. But you won't find anyone here addressing that issue. For an answer see the following video http://bit.ly/29FGdBN But because it is politically unacceptable to address the root causes, a different meme is pushed, one that gets policemen killed.
Chuck Kotlarz
11 months 4 weeks ago
Are you aware of a major city (over 250,000) where the root causes have been addressed to some degree?
Kevin Murphy
12 months ago
When I hear the phrase "knowingly lie to the public" my first thought is "If you like your doctor you can keep your doctor." Trump is an amateur next to Obama.
Charles Erlinger
12 months ago
I keep thinking that there must be a reason why God did not exempt politicians from the eighth commandment. Does he feel sorry for us? Was it because He created us with intellects that yearn with an unquenchable thirst and unsatisfiable hunger for truth? Did He think His decision would spare us from the dull nagging headaches we get from from pharmaceutical ads and telephone and email scams? No. He knows all that and more. He knows that we do weird stuff, like send false advertisers to jail or at least fine them, but call political liars practitioners of "rhetoric." Maybe He just thought "OK, time to practice Prudence, and practice, and practice."

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