It was the trial that captivated the country: the famous black football star, the racist Los Angeles Police Department, the all-star defense team, and the small mountain of incriminating evidence.
It was the election that captivated the country: the billionaire reality TV star, an emboldened racist American electorate, the ever-shifting spin team, and, again, a small mountain of incriminating evidence.
Our 45th President’s casual relationship with the truth is deeply disturbing. But there’s another place where truth has been overshadowed by fantastical narratives, and it precedes the Trump era by a few centuries: the criminal justice system. The 2016 election proved to be a battle of story-telling. Binary, oppositional presentation of “facts” led to increasingly polarized debate, which in turn further distorted the truth, to which both sides felt they had the more legitimate claim. Sound familiar?
The OJ Simpson trial didn’t demarcate the start of the post-fact era. What it did was televise it — bringing to light that truth doesn’t matter as long as the blame stays aimed at the right side. OJ’s attorneys were keenly aware that the road to freedom for their client would necessitate casting doubt – however ludicrous – on each item of seemingly indisputable evidence of guilt, and weaving an alternative narrative that the hand-picked jury would be more inclined to believe. They were, in short, excellent lawyers.
Both Simpson and Trump strategically hitched their wagons to communities who felt oppressed: Simpson to black Angelinos living in the epicenter of racial tension in America post-Rodney King, and Trump as the great apologist to conservative working class whites who felt left behind in the new economy.
Both Simpson and Trump faced uphill battles. A heap of biological evidence, eyewitnesses, and past domestic violence charges stood between OJ and freedom. Bankruptcies, lawsuits, and a murky connection to Vladimir Putin stood between Donald and the White House. But here’s what they both learned: when you don’t have much to lose, you can break free of the shackles of objective truth, reality, and your own past. And then you’ll win.
If the modern criminal trial has taught us anything, it is that truth is dangerously pliable in the hands of a gifted story-teller appealing to emotion. It goes without saying that there are usually more than just two sides to any given story. The adversarial nature of our legal system — he said vs. she said — often thwarts the essential goal of any justice system: finding the truth.
Today, the closest you can get to an objective truth in the criminal justice system are exonerations brought about by DNA evidence. But even those are subject to a prosecutor’s fantastical yarn-spinning: in Florida, after DNA testing revealed that the pubic hairs found at the scene of a rape did not belong to the man who had been convicted, the prosecution argued that the pubic hairs – found on the victim’s bed – had been mysteriously shed by movers who brought furniture to the bedroom a week earlier.
The adversarial system we employ in our courts assumes that the truth will be uncovered by granting the competing parties an opportunity to fight as hard as humanly possible for their version of events to triumph. What this means in practice is that even objective facts can be — and often are — overshadowed by a flashier, more compelling narrative with little foothold in reality. If we don’t value truth as much as story-telling in our courts, how long did we expect the highest office in the land to avoid the same taint?