Trump’s hall of mirrors
President Trump’s fake-news pivot isn’t subtle. First he benefited from fake news stories during the campaign; then as president-elect and now president, he has constantly used the epithet against mainstream media outlets that dare criticize him.
Any negative polls, he has proclaimed, are “fake news.” So are news stories that put him in a bad light — even if they are corroborated by Trump’s own officials, as with reports that Supreme Court nominee Neil Gorsuch termed comments about the judiciary “demoralizing” and “disheartening.”
What’s happening here is more than the simple continuation of Trump’s well-documented tendency as a candidate to lie flagrantly and refuse to back down. It is more than his narcissistic incapacity to receive bad news.
It is more dangerous. Trump is deploying a strategy, used by autocrats, designed to completely disorient public perception. He’s not just trying to spin the bad news of the day; all politicians do that. He seeks nothing less than to undermine the public’s belief that any news can be trusted, that any news is true, that there is any fixed reality.
Trump is attempting to build a hall of mirrors where even our most basic sensory perceptions are shrouded in confusion. He is emulating the successful strategy of Vladimir Putin.
In “Nothing Is True and Everything Is Possible,” Peter Pomerantsev, a British citizen of Russian origin, chronicles his firsthand experience in Russia’s television industry. Pomerantsev sheds light on Russia’s whirling media landscape and propaganda machine to show how Putin’s political puppet masters prey on the modern appetite for drama and entertainment to blur the line between fact and fiction.
He writes: “The Kremlin has finally mastered the art of fusing reality TV and authoritarianism to keep the great, 140-million-strong population entertained, distracted, constantly exposed to geopolitical nightmares, which if repeated enough times can become infectious.”
Following his inauguration, Trump has worked to create an American media landscape with an eerily similar pattern of obfuscation and drama. We now see a toxic overlap between sensationalist politics and media manipulation. Each presidential stroke of bombast plunges the media, the administration and the public into a frenzied scramble for the truth, with the phrase “fake news” nonchalantly thrown around, adding a heaping spoonful of cynicism to the whole mess. These episodes distort our understanding of reality and put us in danger of experiencing an information void like Russia’s.
If Trump succeeds, something fundamental will be lost. Russians hear something on TV and assume it’s a lie. That attitude of reflexive cynicism makes it impossible to know the death toll from an industrial accident or a terrorist incident, or the risk to their kids of drinking the water, or even the results of the last election. It ruins everything.
Our American democracy has been built on a foundation of a press free of government interference and governed by strong professional ethics. Of course, the media occasionally get stuff wrong, and whenever they do they need to put it right, but they are the foundation of an informed democratic dialogue. Our president is throwing mud all over that — deliberately, with malice aforethought. He’s telling us we are being lied to all the time. That has a corrosive effect, deepening public distrust of the media and other institutions at a time when they already enjoy historically low levels of confidence. We cannot let that happen.
In this context, Americans should maintain a heightened vigilance and think more carefully about the veracity of the information they consume. They need to be aware that some of the information pumping through social media is indeed fake and sometimes malicious. Social-media platforms should find ways to guard against hyping discernible lies at the expense of credible sources. But Americans must also be wary of any effort, particularly from the White House, to disorient or discredit reliable information.
And a heavy burden falls on American journalists to fact-check a president and a White House staff that is setting records for peddling false information and not to be afraid to call a lie a lie. The recent ouster of Michael Flynn as national security adviser demonstrates that lying still carries consequences. But journalists must go further and provide context and analysis for what motivates Trump, Stephen K. Bannon, Kellyanne Conway and the others to constantly distort reality. In so doing they have the opportunity to reestablish their own credibility and American democratic norms.
President Trump speaks during a news conference in the White House in Washington on Thursday.