The New York Times’s Timothy Egan ended last week on a grumpy note, with a column bemoaning that too many Americans are “politically illiterate—and functional. Which is to say, they will vote despite being unable to accept basic facts needed to process this American life.”
Take a wild guess as to which presidential candidate Egan sees as exemplary of the trend. That’s right:
Trump, who says he doesn’t read much at all, is both a product of the epidemic of ignorance and a main producer of it. He can litter the campaign trail with hundreds of easily debunked falsehoods because conservative media has spent more than two decades tearing down the idea of objective fact.
This isn’t the first such piece to appear in the American press this year. It wasn’t the first such piece to appear on the Times op-ed page last week.William Davies, with “The Age of Post-Truth Politics,” scooped Egan by two days.
Which is marvelously rich. Neither Egan nor Davies notes that three weeks ago the Times published an article on its front page arguing that at least for the duration of the campaign, journalistic objectivity ought to give way to an openly “oppositional” approach, Donald Trump being such a danger to all that is good and holy.
Curiously, though, the author of that piece, Jim Rutenberg, and Egan have something in common beside their loathing for Trump: Both are vexed by the distinction between politics and journalism. In journalism facts are paramount, or at least are supposed to be. Rutenberg wants to change that so that journalists can be more effective political actors. Egan wishes politicians (and voters, and especially Republicans) conducted themselves more as journalists do, or at least are supposed to do.
Also richly comical is the conceit that “post-truth politics” is a Republican innovation, or indeed an innovation at all. You’ve probably heard the story of the first presidential debate in 1960. The way it’s usually told, radio listeners judged Nixon the winner, while Kennedy beat Nixon—image trumped substance—among TV viewers.
American University’s W. Joseph Campbell, on his Media Myth Alert blog, disputes that account. It would overstate the matter to say he conclusively disproves the story—that may not be possible—but he shows that its evidentiary underpinnings are scant and inconclusive.
All of which is testimony to the power of myth. And the legend of JFK does not stop with that debate in 1960. After his assassination three years later, he became an icon of liberals and Democrats, on the strength not of policies and facts but of charisma and glamour. Bill Clinton in the 1990s and Barack Obama in the 2000s were cast as latter-day Kennedys, youthful and idealistic.
Now Republicans have a charismatic nominee, albeit not a youthful one—and Democrats and liberals insist all that matters is experience, policy and facts. Fifty-six years after he lost to JFK, suddenly Nixon’s the one.
Of course it’s completely normal for partisans to rationalize on behalf of their party. But it’s a lovely irony that the rationalization for Mrs. Clinton is that she is the candidate of rationality and fact.
Is that claim true? We’d say Mrs. Clinton’s supporters are guilty of empirical overstretch. Let’s look at a recent example. Trump has been attempting to appeal to black voters, who since 1964 have supported Democrats by overwhelming margins. As noted here, it started two weeks ago in a speech at West Bend, Wis. His campaign took criticism for delivering the message in a mostly white Milwaukee suburb, and it appears to have taken the critique to heart: The Hill reports that over the weekend, Trump campaign manager Kellyanne Conway told radio host John Catsimatidis: “We’re planning on additional events in communities of color.”
Last week, as CBS’s Sopan Deb reported, Trump made his appeal again, in blunt and hyperbolic terms:
You can go to war zones in countries that we’re fighting and it’s safer than living in some of our inner cities. . . . I ask you this. Crime. All of the problems. To the African Americans who I employ so many—so many people. To the Hispanics, tremendous people—what the hell do you have to lose? Give me a chance. I’ll straighten it out. . . . You’ll be able to walk down the street without getting shot. Right now, you walk down the street. You get shot.
The Clinton campaign responded with a statement from staffer Marlon Marshall:
It could not be clearer how much African Americans have to lose under Donald Trump. He is doubling down on insults, fear and stereotypes that set our community back and further divide our country. But again this is not surprising, this is a man who questions the citizenship of the first African American president, has a disturbing pattern of courting white supremacists, and has been sued for housing discrimination against communities of color.
As demonstrated by his bigotry and actions, Donald Trump is unfit and unqualified to be President. We cannot afford this out of touch and divisive thinking in the White House, which is why we must take nothing for granted and work as hard as we can to make sure Hillary Clinton is our next president.
“Donald Trump’s new message to African American voters isn’t just inaccurate, it’s outrageous,” proclaimed Mrs. Clinton’s campaign on its website. But neither that page nor the Marshall statement offered a single fact in support of the claim that Trump’s assertion about the conditions of inner cities was inaccurate. The rejoinder was pure ad hominem—an enumeration of objectionable things Trump had (actually or allegedly) said or done before.
To be sure, the ultimate question in an election campaign is which candidate voters should prefer, so that in the big picture ad hominem arguments are relevant. But they are not relevant to the particular claim Trump was making here.
The openly and notoriously anti-Trump New York Times offered a more sophisticated rebuttal. “The unrelievedly dire picture [Trump] has painted of black America has left many black voters angry, dumbfounded or both,” reported Richard Fausset, Alan Blinder and John Eligon in Thursday’s paper. “Interviews with roughly a dozen blacks here [in Atlanta] turned up no one who found any appeal in Mr. Trump’s remarks.”
This passage caught our attention:
Marc Morial, the president of the National Urban League, said that black Americans faced challenges, but that Mr. Trump’s depiction of a hopeless, violent black America did not match reality.
“It’s an inaccurate portrayal of the community that seeks to define the community by only its biggest challenges,” Mr. Morial said. “Black America has deep problems—deep economic problems—but black America also has a large community of striving, successful, hard-working people: college educated, in the work force.”
That gave us a hunch, which we confirmed in seconds using the great hunch-verifying machine Google. This is from a New Orleans Times-Picayune story dated May 17, 2016:
For 40 years the National Urban League has documented the great divide between the social and economic prosperity of white and black Americans. And for 40 years the story has remained much the same, said Marc Morial, the league’s president and CEO.
Black people continue to trail white residents in every category the league tracks, presenting “a persistent racial disparity in American life,” that might as well equate to a reversal of fortune for strides toward equality made after the Civil Rights era of the 1960s, he said.
“The similarities of the United States of 1976 and the United States of 2016 are profoundly striking,” Morial said. “We are now, as we were then, a nation struggling to overcome the greatest economic downturn since the Great Depression. All gears have been thrown into reverse.”
That’s quite a change in three months!
But what changed, exactly? Surely not the underlying facts. Probably some annual statistics were updated between May and August, but we are unaware of any that showed a sudden and dramatic improvement. In any case, social change is a slow process. A sudden change could be the start of a long-term trend, or it could be a mere anomaly.
It’s possible that Morial’s knowledge of the facts has expanded in the past three months. But it seems unlikely. He is an expert on the condition of black America, and as such he undoubtedly knew almost as much about the subject in May as he knows today.
The likeliest explanation is the obvious one: Trump’s challenging words prompted Morial to change the way he thinks about the same set of facts. Now he accentuates the positive, and he frames the problems of black America as “challenges” rather than grievances.
That can make a big difference. To see why, think about your own life. Remember a time when you had a problem that began as a justified grievance. Perhaps the passage of time wore down your anger, or maybe somebody said something startling that led you to an epiphany. Either way, you solved the problem by changing the way you thought about it.
The facts mattered far less than your attitude toward them. That’s often true in politics as well.
As with Barack Obama, there is more than enough reason to object to Trump without making up things. And to say that Hillary Clinton speaks the undisputed truth is a triumph of amnesia.