The challenge of truth in America in the era of Trump, and please let's not die because of it
The “stay at home” situation was a good excuse to allow myself to peek in on social media conversations I was usually too busy for. Someone started posting again to a small, non-professional Facebook Messenger social string I had somehow been put on that had seemed to have died months ago. One well-intentioned individual had reposted something they had come across with instructions for how to deal with the Covid-19 virus. It was misinformation. There were some elements that were true. But the story of its source was typical spam themes, and there were blatant contradictions to the most basic commonly known physiology. I thought I would try to be helpful while I was there and redirect people to reality-based sources of information and hopefully they would be less likely to get sick.
In the process I mentioned that it was very problematic that the President himself was a primary source of medical misinformation. It went from there. I avoided listing the very long list of how the current President had downplayed the Covid-19 situation for weeks to months while it built, but did mention a couple specifics. One person launched into a blistering tirade, telling us we should all just stop, get off Facebook, etc, followed in the same paragraph by themselves NOT stopping, but sharing their “opinion” of the global conspiracy to control the masses through forced vaccinations.
It was of no use. Truth didn’t matter. Trust is broken today. People believe what they choose to believe, and largely by choosing the sources of information they tune in to — which is typically chosen because they reinforce their worldview. I bowed out of the conversation after wishing all good health.
One thing was bothering me a bit. I am a stickler for truth and accuracy. Science, medicine, really helping people…requires it. I had stated as an example something to the effect of Trump saying the corona virus was a Democratic hoax. I had been following the news closely — from many sources. I had heard Trump’s words with my own ears. Someone in the Messenger group who is a longtime friend mentioned that they had never heard this. This same someone had previously said something very positive about Trump essentially trying to cheer up the country where I saw him not taking a very serious situation seriously enough. I figured it was likely an effect of only tuning in to particular media. I woke early in the morning cogitating on this and wanting to make sure I had been accurate in what I had written, especially in such a polarized time and context. I would correct myself in this group if I had misspoken or misunderstood something.
The facts about the fact-checkers
As I lay in bed, I googled “fact check trump corona virus hoax”. I quickly realized we had a problem. The fact checking sites and news sites pulling up were very conflicted. It was obvious that multiple of them on the first page were not objective but were “mainstream media bashing” or had right-wing agendas. Snopes, who should be fairly objective, gave it a mixed truth/falsehood assessment. Via a number of these sites I reread the transcript several times of the Trump rally where he made the statements about the corona virus hoax.
The most helpful and insightful was this piece on Yahoo: “Facebook fact-check feud erupts over Trump virus ‘hoax’”. We have a significant problem: some of the official supposed fact-checking entities out there have a political agenda and are bringing their agenda to the fact-checking business with the ability to change what social media does with different stories and headlines. This includes even entities with a “history of publishing widely debunked articles”. This puts conspiracy spammers in charge of shaping what people are told is real or not. This is very bad.
So, did Trump say the corona virus was a hoax?
Yes. And no.
Here is my analysis, and what it takes to parse truth in the era of Trump. They are indeed bizarre times we live in. It feels like many of my fellow Americans are walking around immersed in their VR goggles version of reality, totally out of touch with the reality all around. It is like the struggle of trying to get my kids to look up from their smart phones long enough to have a moment of intelligent interaction.
The message of Trump at his rally was clearly that the corona virus was really not an important thing or not a big deal, and the Democrats were trying to attack the victim Trump again with any petty excuse they could find. Their current petty “nothing” was this virus thing. It was pathetic that the Democrats would stoop to try to hurt him with something so ridiculous.
Technically Trump didn’t string the specific words together as “the corona virus is a Democratic hoax”. But that is the message that most would have reasonably left with. So, no, technically he didn’t say these words.
What did Trump really intend to say or communicate?
Herein lies the magic of the Trump reality-distortion machine. What he says he meant changes moment to moment — even on fundamental, self-evident “facts”. This last week while listening to a White House briefing on the pandemic I heard him say that China was to blame because it had been hiding what was going on, and this was why he hadn’t done more earlier (shifting blame). But in another part of the rambling quasi-sentence he said he did know about it and that is why he “closed the border” to people coming from China early and that is why he had done such a great job (taking the credit). Complete contradictions back-to-back, essentially in the same sentence, about the most fundamental, demonstrable fact. It is mind-blowing. I can’t believe people listen to this and think highly of him as a person and trust him. It speaks volumes as to the reality that logic and truth aren’t the active ingredients creating the current dynamics.
So, we cannot depend on Trump to tell us what he actually meant at a given point in time in the past. He says he was referring to what the Democrats were doing in criticizing him about his handling of the corona virus problem. I actually think this is probably what he meant. Most normal people having a conversation about the corona virus would be talking about the virus. It would be the subject of the words and sentences used. With Trump the subject is typically himself. It is one of the most consistent things about what he says — it is about him. The corona virus is significantly important or not important as it relates to whether or not it suits him and how it makes him look. It actually seems pretty straightforward and follows a clear pattern.
Parsing Trump’s truth
It is fascinating to study how Trump communicates to try to understand how he can tell such knock-you-down, in-your-face “non-realities” constantly and still have people follow him. Reading through the transcripts of what he said at this rally at issue recalls to mind how he talks.
1. Word volume. I am frequently amazed at how many words can come out and he still not have said anything. Logorrhea. Volume instead of substance.
2. He would make a great hypnotist. He repeats words and phrases over and over…voice trailing off…getting softer and softer…like someone trying to get their 3 year old to go to sleep. But in a rally setting his next phrase often comes with a small burst and quickly trails off again. Can’t you feel it...? Are you mesmerized...?
3. Self aggrandizement. He is the greatest, the smartest, the best. At everything. All the time. He knows more than the scientists about almost everything. He…wow, scary…is sounding a lot like…deity. And not just any deity, but “the best” deity. The polar opposite of any humble deity. There is a reason the label "cult of personality" is used.
4. Victimization. He has this one down pat. Whether it’s “the deep state” or the Democrats or…it doesn’t matter who. They are all out to get him. It is so unfair. Pity me. It ties his supporters to him emotionally and they are far more ready to believe the version of things he tells them.
5. Us-vs-them. Framing almost everything in us-vs-them terms is prominent. It is not “some of our fellow Americans see things differently”, but is more of a whipping one side of the crowd into an antagonistic frenzy like before a bloody UFC fight. It feels more like trying to start a civil war than anything constructive.
6. Distrust all others, depend on only me. You can’t trust anyone but me. I am the only one telling you the truth. It they say anything bad or questioning about me or my current interpretation of reality they are “fake news” or “nasty”. I am the only one who really cares about you.
7. Rambling. This is key. When you talk and talk without really saying much substantive, you can make the substance be whatever you want whenever you want. We are often left scratching out heads, asking “What did he just say?” Communication breaks down substantially when people don’t use necessary basic English grammar. Rambling seems to be his default mode. When he is actually reading something with complete sentences he is so stiff and lifeless it is incredibly painful to watch or listen to.
8. Identity. This is a big one. Probably THE biggest. And why it is so hard to have objective truth prevail. The identity of “American” has been co-opted to mean something very different from what actually made America a great nation. In a time of identity crisis in American culture, Trump has become the focal point for attempting to reclaim an identity that many people can relate to. It taps into a rebellious, anti-establishment attitude and frustration that many in America have (myself included to some degree). The American identity crisis is being ridden hard by Trump. But like the bull after the rodeo, American identity will not be better off for having been spurred into a monster for selfish show.
Options of what Trump actually said (meant) about the corona virus and the Democratic hoax:
1. “The virus just doesn’t exist at all and the Democrats have just imagined it.” This is the default interpretation for many if you just listen to Trump without trying to figure out what he may have really meant. This absolutist impression was reflected in some news headlines about it. Right wing news sources and “fact checkers” use this absolutist interpretation juxtaposed with the fact that he didn’t string the exact words together, to say the media got it completely wrong and are obviously just out to get Trump.
2. “The Democrats are so out to get me that they are even trying to use this nothing virus as a hoax excuse, like they did with the nothing Russia situation.” This is the most probable intended meaning (isn’t it crazy that we have to be having this discussion and use the word “probable” for what the President of the United States was meaning about an early global pandemic!?). Again, it is not primarily about the virus or the pandemic. It is about him. This is what makes sense of the nonsense.
3. “My use of the word ‘hoax’ didn’t really have anything to do with the virus and I was only talking about those bad Democrats that hate me.” This seems to be the interpretation that Trump and supporting media sources are trying to project now. The record, both video and transcript – before, during, and after this particular rally – clearly shows otherwise.
No matter the interpretation one arrives at from the exact ‘hoax’ words used, the inescapable, overwhelming reality is that Trump was blowing off the virus and criticizing the Democrats for criticizing him for not taking it much more seriously.
And here we are. In the midst of the reality and truth of a global pandemic.
And most of what we are, and will be, experiencing as a country could have been avoided. Many more thousands of Americans will die unnecessarily because of the focus being on Trump and his ‘hoax’ of politics instead of the reality of the actual problem.
This analysis of what Trump said makes some things about truth strikingly clear:
1. truth is being trumped in many people’s minds; they are deceived into believing things that are not true
2. reality trumps our perceptions or beliefs about reality
3. life depends largely on our perceptions and beliefs matching reality
The real hoax
A ‘hoax’ is “something intended to deceive or defraud”. We do not know what Trump believed when about this virus. The evidence is that he didn’t choose to accept that it was the significant problem the evidence indicated it was until very late in the game. Thus, he likely did not intentionally deceive America in this sense over the last couple months. But his portrayal now of having taken it seriously and been on top of it all along, having done a 10/10 job, that our current problems were unavoidable, etc, is definitely deceitful. The real ‘hoax’ is the continual deceiving of good Americans to get them to buy into a version of reality that revolves around Trump. I am not willing to stand by and be quiet and continue to watch family and friends and fellow Americans be deceived, and many die because of it.
Hope and positive steps to truly make America great
The cure is…as I started to write this out I realized it is essentially just the opposite of the things outlined above.
1. Identity. We must own our identity as good, decent, truthful, free Americans. We are of those who wrote the Declaration of Independence. We are of those whose bright light for the planet has been real empathy for those struggling against persecution and hardship just like our ancestors did: “Not like the brazen giant of Greek fame, With conquering limbs astride from land to land;…Give me your tired, your poor, Your huddled masses yearning to breathe free, The wretched refuse of your teeming shore. Send these, the homeless, tempest-tost to me, I lift my lamp beside the golden door!” (Statue of Liberty) (not a statement on immigration other than the principle of America)
2. There is only “us”. There is no “us-vs-them”. We are Americans first and foremost. Political party is relatively unimportant. We work through our differences. We work for the common good.
3. We trust each other. Our intentions are good toward each other. We don’t let anyone tell us our neighbor is out to hurt us and create made-up ill will.
4. We actually communicate. Respectfully. With those who see things differently. We listen. We don’t judge and assume. We don’t assume motives.
5. We seek truth together. Why do you believe that? Did you know about this? How can we verify or disprove this? Truth is what matters, not trumping someone for being right or wrong.
6. We are not the smartest or best or greatest unless and until we are united. It is only together that we are great. It is "the United States of America." Not the Republicans or Democrats or any other category. Narcissism is the antithesis of America. Togetherness is America.
My fellow Americans, let us own our real American identity. And may we be in sync with reality and get through this pandemic together. It is the only way many of us will.
To your health and happiness!