When Facts No Longer Matter
“I feel like I’m taking crazy pills!” screams the exasperated Jacobim Mugatu, Will Ferrill’s fashionista character in the 2001 comedy Zoolander.
Mugatu can’t believe he’s the only person in the world of haute couture who seems to notice that all of supermodel Derek Zoolander’s trademark “looks” on the runway are, in fact, the same absurd, pursed-lipped stare.
After weeks of following news coverage of the aftermath of the recent presidential election, I feel Mugatu’s pain.
Since the polls closed on Nov. 3, President Donald Trump, his core supporters and right-wing media outlets have been proclaiming loudly and repeatedly that he won re-election in a landslide. The official tallies showed Democrat Joe Biden with well over the required 273 electoral votes and over seven million more votes than Trump nationwide. But those numbers are dismissed as the result of fraud, manipulation by shadowy cabals and unconstitutional state electoral laws. Trump’s legal minions filed dozens of lawsuits in half a dozen states alleging wrongdoing, asking courts to invalidate the votes of millions of Americans and to hand the election to Trump.
First, let’s be clear. There is absolutely no credible evidence of electoral wrongdoing on anywhere near the scale necessary to tip the election to Donald Trump. In more than 50 cases, before state and federal judges, in trial and appellate courts, before Democratic and Republican judges—including several appointed by Trump himself—every lawsuit but one, a minor technical case, was dismissed out of hand. According to the Washington Post “at least 86 judges have rejected at least one post-election lawsuit, and 38 of them were appointed by Republicans.” Typical of the rejections was this ruling by Third Circuit Court of Appeals Judge Stephanos Bibas in a case in Pennsylvania.
“Charges of unfairness are serious. But calling an election unfair does not make it so. Charges require specific allegations and then proof. We have neither here.”
But being decisively shot down in court hasn’t kept Trump and his allies from continuing to spray a 24/7 firehose of lies, fabrications and outlandish conspiracy theories across the airwaves, websites and social media. And according to recent surveys, despite thorough debunking and the total lack of provable evidence, somewhere around three-quarters of Republicans believe the election was stolen from them.
I feel like I’m taking crazy pills.
Now, you could dismiss all this as a cynical effort to fire up the GOP base for the Senate runoff elections in Georgia—as well as to poison the political well, making it harder for the new president to succeed. And certainly, there’s a good bit of that here, especially among Republican leadership.
But the most fervent of Trump’s supporters are turning their fire on their own party as well, for failing to more vigorously ensure Trump is given his rightful second term. No, for these folks, this is not political theater; this is very real. And that’s where this appalling spectacle shades from risible absurdity into genuine danger. Because a functioning democracy requires citizens who are willing to weigh evidence, test facts and accept reality.
Trump’s campaign to discredit the election, writes conservative New York Times columnist Bret Stephens, “has detonated a bomb under the epistemological foundations of a civilization that is increasingly unable to distinguish between facts and falsehoods, evidence and fantasy.” Renowned political philosopher Hannah Arendt, in her 1951 book The Origins of Totalitarianism, summed up the danger. “The ideal subject of totalitarian rule is not the convinced Nazi or the convinced Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction…and the distinction between true and false…no longer exist.”
This is where the pivotal role of quality journalism comes in. A key function of journalists in a democracy is to provide citizens with factual information they can use to weigh the merits of various candidates, political parties and policy proposals. Thus armed, they can make well-informed decisions regarding the direction of their government. The importance of this work is what originally led me to become a journalist, and it’s been my pole star during the nearly 30 years since I took up the craft.
But Shanto Iyengar, a political scientist at Stanford, told New York Times columnist Thomas B. Edsall that seismic shifts in the news business in recent decades have challenged that model, feeding a growing “political sectarianism.”
“Basically, we’ve moved from an ‘information commons’ in which Americans of all political stripes and walks of life encountered the same news coverage from well-regarded journalists and news organizations to a more fragmented, high-choice environment featuring news providers who no longer subscribe to the norms and standards of fact-based journalism.
"The increased availability of news with a slant, coupled with the strengthened motivation to encounter information that depicts opponents as deplorable, has led to a complete breakdown in the consensus over facts.”
The psychological need to cast fellow citizens not as political opponents, but as existential threats to all the tribe holds dear, is certainly not exclusive to the right. But Trump’s campaign to delegitimize not only the election, but anyone who fails to acknowledge the alternate reality he’s creating, is unique in recent memory.
When partisan media exploit that political sectarianism—concerned more with clicks and advertising dollars than with their crucial role in informing the public—it feeds a toxic divisiveness that could lead to a political crisis the likes of which the U.S. hasn’t seen in a very long time.
And it’s hard to see how that fits the ideal of journalism as public service.