“Hey, look, I can’t be doing so badly because I’m president and you’re not.”
— President Donald Trump, in an interview last week with Time magazine.
It didn’t start with Donald Trump. Back before the country began coming unstuck, Americans already were granting themselves permission to construct narratives that reinforced whatever they wanted to believe. True or not, if the narrative made them feel good, that was what mattered.
Now the most powerful nation on earth is divided and angry, and we wonder why.
Researchers at Carnegie-Mellon University reported last week that our impulse to avoid information that makes us unhappy is not new. It’s not unlike, they said, our desire to avoid medical tests that might deliver bad news.
“One of the ways that people believe what they want to believe is to dismiss new information coming from sources that don’t comport with their beliefs,” one of the authors told the Pittsburgh Post-Gazette.
Meanwhile, experts who study the behavior of America voters told the New York Times that partisan polarization is to blame. People are happy to accept claims that are demonstrably untrue because they are so eager for the other side to fail.
So it was that Sarah Palin (in 2009) could predict that the Affordable Care Act would lead to “death panels.” So it was that Trump (in 2015 and 2016) could say that Barack Obama was born in Kenya.
Explained the Times: “Mr. Trump, perhaps unconsciously, has grasped a core truth of modern politics: that voters tend to seek out information that fits the story they want to believe, usually one in which members of the other party are the bad guys.”
Democrats in places like California like to pretend that only conservatives revert to fake news to advance their points of view. But this, too, is an alternative fact.
During the last campaign, Democrats shared the revelation that Trump said that if he ever ran for president, he would run as a Republican because Republicans “are the dumbest group of voters in the country.”
This online meme made Trump’s detractors happy. The only problem was, Trump didn’t say it. The story was false.
Last week, with breathless promotion, the MSNBC commentator Rachel Maddow let it be known that she would reveal portions of Trump’s 2005 tax return. But when she finally got around to showing the contents, we learned almost nothing about Trump’s business dealings. He makes money, he pays taxes. Big surprise.
This is not to say that Trump hasn’t changed the landscape for fake news. Even the conservative editorial board of the Wall Street Journal has grown tired of what it called Trump’s “seemingly endless stream of exaggerations, evidence-free accusations, implausible denials and other falsehoods.”
About his unsubstantiated claim that Obama tapped his phone, the Journal declared on Wednesday, “The president clings to his assertion like a drunk to an empty gin bottle.” Ouch.
In decrying the self-inflicted damage to the president’s credibility, the editorial began with two questions: “If President Trump announces that North Korea launched a missile that landed within 100 miles of Hawaii, would most Americans believe him? Would the rest of the world?”