Trump administration press secretary Sean Spicer has, rightfully, been criticized for a briefing he provided on Saturday in which he made a number of false claims regarding the attendance at Pres. Trump’s inauguration. On Monday, at a regular press conference, he tried to spin some of these claims – for example, arguing that he was really talking about total viewing audience. But what has ultimately gotten the most attention was not Spicer’s performance, but how it was later defended. On Sunday on Meet the Press, Trump advisor Kellyanne Conway’s argued that Spicer was simply laying “alternative facts” than what were being reported by the press.
Alternative facts. Let me be charitable for just a moment. Sometimes there genuinely is a different set of facts that make better sense of a situation than others. That’s just part of debate. In that context, various facts should be heard.
But that’s not what was going on here. Spicer made some demonstrably false claims (and possibly lied, depending on whether he knew they were false) which were easily disproven by photographic and other evidence, and rather than accept that evidence, there was an attempt instead to create an alternate reality. All of this was done apparently at the direct order of Pres. Trump (perhaps as a test of his loyalty).
For Pres. Trump himself, falsehoods and lies are nothing new. He only gained traction as a politician by pushing birther conspiracies regarding Pres. Obama’s qualifications to be president, even after compelling evidence had been released proving him wrong. Over the course of the campaign, he lied routinely. He continues to push self-serving claims with no evidence. For example, he told congressional leaders that illegal immigrants are the reason he lost the popular vote by nearly three million votes.
But for as bad as Pres. Trump was on the campaign trail, this latest episode is significant because, one, it happened during his actual administration, and two, it’s the latest example of how the Republican Party has come to have a difficult relationship with truth and reality – of Republicans simply believing and saying whatever they want, regardless of the evidence.
Essentially, we’re revisiting through the bad old days of the George W. Bush administration. In 2004, Ron Suskind wrote in the New York Times what was to become a famous article about how the administration led the nation into the Iraq War. One passage stood out:
In the summer of 2002, after I had written an article in Esquire that the White House didn’t like about Bush’s former communications director, Karen Hughes, I had a meeting with a senior adviser to Bush. He expressed the White House’s displeasure, and then he told me something that at the time I didn’t fully comprehend — but which I now believe gets to the very heart of the Bush presidency.
The aide said that guys like me were “in what we call the reality-based community,” which he defined as people who “believe that solutions emerge from your judicious study of discernible reality.” I nodded and murmured something about enlightenment principles and empiricism. He cut me off. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore,” he continued. “We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality. And while you’re studying that reality — judiciously, as you will — we’ll act again, creating other new realities, which you can study too, and that’s how things will sort out. We’re history’s actors . . . and you, all of you, will be left to just study what we do.”
“Reality-based community”. This phrase struck a nerve among many people, some of whom made it a point of pride to call themselves a member. And why not? Seriously, who in their right mind would not want to be reality-based?
Apparently some in the Bush administration did not. Instead, they were obsessed with action, impact, acts of will – even if these had to be realized by ignoring facts, denying reality, and stifling debate. In that sort of world, the Enlightenment is dead; principle is thrown out the window; and only raw power remains.
This sort of mindset still seems to have a home in the Republican Party almost 15 years later.
One obvious example is the continuing denial of the seriousness of climate change, including by the soon to be head of the EPA. Other examples are more subtle. For example, there is Senate Majority Leader Mitch McConnell pressing Democrats to allow the nomination of a Supreme Court justice to go forward after blocking Pres. Obama from doing so many months before the election. Another is expecting respect for Pres. Trump – it can be so demoralizing – even though disrespect for Pres. Obama was fierce during his tenure – even disturbing (to say the least). It can even be absurd, with Pres. Trump even claiming that it wasn’t raining during his speech, which objectively, it was. (Rain truthers?)
Look, all of us are subject to fudging the truth to fit our preconceived ideas. It’s called confirmation bias, and it’s just part of human nature. Partisan politics is especially subject to this. Positions seem to be changing faster than ever, given the needs of the party line. For example, thanks to this election, some Democrats and some on the left now think intelligence agencies are great and to be trusted. But again, I think most of the action is among the Republicans and on the right: Julian Assange and Wikileaks are now great; it appears infrastructure spending – which is a form of stimulus – is great; Russia is just fine, even if there is some evidence of interfering with our election; and bullying private companies to keep jobs in the United States is okay. The Affordable Care Act has been demonized, of course, even though it started life as a conservative idea and was first enacted by a Republican governor. Even fake news producers, who have money on the line, banked more on Republicans than Democrats. Love of party makes everybody stupid. But it makes some stupider than others.
Even though this tradition of reality denial by Republicans has been with us for a while, there is a new twist – and it’s a dangerous one. It could be argued that all of the deeply cynical positions and behaviors I describe above were all for the greater causes Republicans and conservatives say they support, like freedom and markets and so forth. I don’t believe that’s true, but I’ll grant it for a moment. This is not what appears to be happening in the Trump era. Instead, truth will be twisted simply in the service of his unrelenting egomania. In the end, we won’t even have the pretense of reality-denying having some larger national purpose. Instead, it will all be to protect and aggrandize our supreme leader. And that is a very dangerous development for the republic.
On a more hopeful note, there is a way out. It involves getting out of your own head. It requires listening to people who disagree with you. It implies that you cultivate the virtue of compromise. You have to be willing to admit your are wrong and change your mind. But all of this simultaneously implies vulnerability and that you practice the virtue of humility – something that I surely don’t see in Pres. Trump, and see less and less in his party.