Donald Trump is less responsible for America’s existential crisis than he is a symptom of it, the result of what happens when people identify themselves by an increasingly narrow set of beliefs, and the only remaining tie that binds us is the notion that objective truth no longer has any value in informing those beliefs.
Our current political dysfunction can be illustrated with a simple exercise: if you told me your personal stance on, say, climate change, I’d be able to determine with 90 percent accuracy your positions on immigration, abortion and gun control, issues that have nothing to do with one another aside from serving as ideological linchpins in the culture wars that’ve fenced off the two major political parties in this country. These religious commitments to a fixed set of policy issues don’t represent how people normally exchange ideas. In reality, we’re motivated by pluralistic principles, our own made-to-order goals. People are complex, even if our modern political silos belie that notion.
Our media environment has definitely had a hand in widening this schism, where hyper-partisan news outlets and social networks are curated to suit our ideology, offering echo chambers that cater to personalized, subjective accounts of reality. Complex issues are condensed into easy-to-swallow slogans. Anyone who doesn’t share our viewpoints is naive, stupid or racist. An à la carte media menu is available to feedback our unearned sense of moral superiority, confirming why we’re always right and why the other side is always wrong.
This makes conversation with anyone who doesn’t share our beliefs difficult, because any claims that run contrary to our fixed ideas of “truth” are seen as an affront to our narcissistic commitments to the identities that define us. It’s at the point that, as former New York Times book critic Michiko Kakutani wrote in her new book, The Death of Truth, “Stars Wars movies and the Super Bowl remain some of the few communal events that capture an audience cutting across demographic lines.” I’m guessing Kakutani was still drafting her tome when the NFL’s anthem protests turned the league into a political battleground. So, Star Wars is it?
It’s interesting that the post-truth era has become the left’s bête noire, given, as Kakutani mentions in her book, its tenets sound eerily similar to what postmodernists in the academic left have been selling us for decades. The legion of Fox News viewers who refuse to accept science, who flock to media narratives that undermine the biases of a perceived “establishment” power structure, remarkably mirrors a school of thought whose message has been, essentially, the same: that everything is an infinitely interpretable social construction, that there are no universal truths. I’m not suggesting Trump has been reading Foucault or Derrida, but addressing this problem is nothing if it isn’t a clear and obvious repudiation of the failings of postmodernism, be it from Gauloises-puffing professors or a populist movement with an aversion to objective reality.
In fact, the culture wars have had this weird effect of causing a 180-degree ideological flip on so many issues for the right and left you could argue they’ve arrived at a sort of accidental consensus in the sense that issues now matter less than blind party loyalty. When I was a kid, conservatives were offended by everything. A trip to a college campus today confirms this is a behavior now ensconced firmly in the left. The left 20 years ago opposed global trade agreements. Now the left is decrying Trump’s tariffs against China while conservatives, once vanguards of free trade, support them. Conservatives railed against the left for their “relativism,” but now it’s the right who seem to believe truth is in the eye of the beholder. The left, meanwhile, has become an ardent defender of science, though, to be fair, they haven’t been immune from the follies of cherry-picking data that confirms their preconceptions either.
So, what to do? It appears the only commonality people share anymore is their logical dexterity, the idea that they’re more interested in earning prestige points within their political tribes than expressing coherent viewpoints. Ideally, both sides will eventually realize we’re being played by bad information. If we ever intend to repair the bridge between us, we need to reclaim objectivity, and to do that we have to regain control of data and demand better standards from our media. Facebook, now Americans’ number-one daily news source, is essentially a facts-free zone, where clickbait and conspiracy theories reach more eyes than actual news. Facebook’s massive September security breach, where hackers gained access to 50 million user accounts, attests to the fact that the site remains perilously vulnerable years after data firms and Russian troll farms used it for propaganda efforts in the months leading up to the 2016 election. If you want to improve your media diet, you could do worse than delete your social network accounts. This clearly isn’t working.
If our post-truth era teaches us anything, hopefully it’s the notion that using media to feed our confirmation biases is a terrible substitute for the greater value of using these tools to gain the insight and knowledge that comes with a rational worldview. Advancements in AI and machine learning will undoubtedly make tomorrow’s fake news even more convincing. As long as truth remains a dispensable casualty, we can’t expect to bridge our divide anytime soon. But the unwritten implication for failing to do so is dire. We’ve created the very sort of environment in which extremist ideologies thrive.