Back in 2004, journalist Ron Suskind interviewed a top aide to President George W. Bush, later identified as Karl Rove. As Suskind reported:
"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." ... "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."
The quote was chilling, because it implied that the most powerful government on earth was confident it could be guided, not by empirical evidence, but by its ideological inclinations. Reality, of course, does matter and Rove and his boss learned, both in Iraq and when the economy collapsed in 2008, that there are costs to denying it. Happily, for them, those costs were primarily borne by those who had little choice but to live in the reality-based community: soldiers and civilians in Iraq; US homeowners and workers.
Rove's confidence US Administrations could "create reality" was not entirely naïve, at least in the short-term. For over a century, legitimate analyses of impediments to objectivity (examined in depth by psychology, neuroscience, and post-modernist philosophy, and depicted in the arts) have penetrated our culture, reinforcing the view that "knowledge" is frequently subjective. Ideological appeals often are strengthened by "emotional reasoning," by which our feelings alone validate what constitutes a fact.
Professional journalism, often viewed as a powerful countervailing force to ideology and propaganda, has failed. As practiced on network television, where most people seek news, "objectivity" is not defined by a search for verifiable facts and accurate interpretations, but "even-handedness." News presenters believe they are being "objective" if they allow each side equal time to express themselves. Interviewees are almost never challenged and virtually any reply to a rare follow-up question will be accepted. Journalists have become mere stenographers. (The glaring exception to "even-handedness" is Fox News, which explicitly tailors journalism to be in sync with Republican Party ideology at the expense of accuracy).
The internet (including social media), television news' chief rival, works in the opposite direction. Users reinforce their pre-existing ideology by typically choosing to increase exposure to partisan political news and views. Thus, as with television journalism, the internet does not induce many to challenge their own biases.
Karl Rove was a cynical political visionary, but Donald Trump's surreal road to the White House is that vision's nightmarish embodiment. The term "truth," which once indicated a claim supported by incontestable facts, has, because of Trump, been re-defined. Sometimes it means "truthiness," coined by Stephen Colbert, signifying phenomena which feel true though not supported by fact (e.g., gun ownership saves lives). Oftentimes, however, assertions are almost impossible to believe (e.g., Obama founded ISIS). Almost.
Trump has set a likely unbreakable record for a President-elect by having made hundreds of baseless claims since last year. Yet, polls indicated voters perceived Hillary Clinton, though actually far less prone to tell blatant lies, less honest. For this to be comprehensible, truth has had to be re-defined as communicating whatever one honestly believes, even if it may not, or, almost certainly, could not be true.
Facts are "trumped" by beliefs, when the purveyor of false information is not viewed as disingenuous. Hillary Clinton's far greater factual accuracy, even if accepted, was irrelevant, because she was thought to be consciously lying about her emails, and a willing Wall Street puppet. Oddly, Trump's refusal to release his taxes, or disclose his business with Russian oligarchs tied to Vladimir Putin, was never perceived by his supporters in the same light.
In addition to making truth dependent upon honest conviction, not the weight of objective evidence, we have also witnessed fabricated online stories gone viral. In some instances, this has been done for profit. Macedonian teenage entrepreneurs, for example, created tales accepted by credulous Trump supporters, such as that Pope Francis endorsed Trump. Others, primarily right-wing sites, have had clear-cut political motives: Conservative Daily Post falsely claimed the FBI confirmed evidence of a "huge underground Clinton sex network"; Cathy O'Brien, employing John Birch Society rhetoric about the Illuminati, accused the Clintons along with Ronald Reagan and George H.W. Bush of using mind control to make her, her daughter, and countless others, into sex slaves, to facilitate their diabolical quest for a New World Order. Before the internet, these concoctions would have reached a small audience. Now they can be directly accessed by millions and further amplified via apolitical social media, because fact-checking is difficult, even if one is motivated.
Most ideologues who spread fake news may have had no direct ties to Donald Trump. But, Stephen Bannon, who will be chief strategist in the Trump Administration, does. Breitbart News, which Bannon served as executive chairman of from 2012 until joining the Trump campaign in August, has published both real and fake news.
Laura Ingraham, who has been mentioned as a possible Press Secretary in the coming Administration, is another disturbing figure. She owns an online publishing company which operates LifeZette. a "news" site which has trafficked in conspiracy theories, including one accusing Clinton of being responsible for the death of John F. Kennedy Jr. A video produced by LifeZette, Clinton Body Count, which made this accusation among others, was viewed 14 million times. Perhaps her talents would be wasted in a position that requires only obfuscation, not invention.
When Karl Rove mocked the "reality-based community" he was prophetic. But, he was no George Orwell, whose dystopian 1949 novel Nineteen Eighty-Four coined the term "double-think," the dominant political discourse in Oceania, the super-state he imagined, which foreshadowed the Age of Trump:
"To know and not to know, to be conscious of complete truthfulness while telling carefully constructed lies, to hold simultaneously two opinions which cancelled out, knowing them to be contradictory and believing both of them, to use logic against logic, to repudiate morality while laying claim to it."