Monday, March 27, 2017

Don’t Fight Their Lies With Lies of Your Own

A student asked me the other day whether I approved of exaggerating for a good cause. The topic had apparently been discussed at an environmental forum, and the question was, essentially, “Does saving the climate justify lying?” Wouldn’t it be a good idea to use an impressive, if not necessarily factually correct, message to counteract the mind-numbing cacophony of the Trump administration, which drowns out more reasoned speech?

The student asked me this question because I had been talking about survivors of Stalin’s terror and their widespread tendency to inflate — whether when describing the height of a hill that had to be climbed or how many people had been shot on a single day. I had expressed great sympathy for the underlying cause and the overarching mission of the exaggerations: These people were trying to remember and convey unimaginable tragedy, which had to be described as greater in scope in every retelling — precisely to maintain its unimaginable quality. Every time the mind had adapted to information and images that had once seemed inconceivable, it required more horror to be impressed.

The comparison with America today was not far-fetched. We are not experiencing anything that resembles Stalinist state terror, but we are living through a period of mental hyperinflation: Ideas, prospects and spectacles go from unimaginable to ordinary in weeks or even days. A couple of months ago, the presence of the president’s daughter at top-level meetings was mind-boggling; now it barely scores a mention as Ivanka Trump, security clearance nearly in hand, prepares to settle into an office in the West Wing. The idea of an actual wall on the Mexican border once seemed too bizarre, too expensive, too self-defeating — and now that the government has begun soliciting design proposals, it doesn’t seem surprising.

Wouldn’t you need equal shock value on the other side of the political divide to capture Americans’ attention?

Still, I advised the student to try to stick to verifiable facts and to avoid exaggeration — not so much for the sake of the planet as for the sake of the political environment. The public sphere needs to be protected from President Trump. It also needs to be protected from the equal and opposite reaction to him, which can be nearly as destructive.

The back and forth has been underway for months. Mr. Trump attacked his opponent, Hillary Clinton, for her ostensible “crookedness.” She accused him of being a puppet of President Vladimir V. Putin of Russia. This past Monday, Adam Schiff, the ranking Democrat on the House Intelligence Committee, opened a hearing on Russian interference in the election with a speech that seamlessly mixed verified information with rumor and exaggeration. The verified information was damning enough. Indeed, the spectacle, witnessed by the entire country, of candidate Trump calling for Russia to hack Mrs. Clinton’s email, was unimaginable at the time — but has since grown familiar, apparently creating the need for trafficking in exaggeration and unsubstantiated allegations.

To be sure, the 2016 election was unimaginable, and the particulars of Russian meddling deserve further scrutiny. But we seem to have fallen into a trap: The unimaginable, happening out in the open day after day, not only continues to dull our defenses but also creates a need to see a conspiracy big enough, a secret terrible enough to explain how this can be happening to our country.

Out in the open are the Trump budget and the Trump cabinet, both constituted on the premise that government as we know it must be dismantled, replaced with a military-and-police headquarters. The secret behind this state of affairs is rumored to be the White House chief strategist, Stephen K. Bannon. Mr. Bannon, it is said, has nursed a secret plot to destroy the American state. There is something paradoxically reassuring in this theory, which centers on a sinister intellectual with a well-laid plan. The reality of a flailing, uninformed president who is indeed destroying the federal government before our very eyes with his own incompetence is unimaginable. The existence of Mr. Bannon or speculation about his philosophy are not necessary to explain the spectacle of the administration that is pushing devastating policies with open disregard for all that is supposed to matter in politics: The effects that law will have on voters, and the opinion of experts like the Congressional Budget Office.

Out in the open is a secretary of state who came to his job with no relevant experience and now sits at the helm of a decimated State Department. The secret behind Rex Tillerson, it is often said, is his close relationship with Russia, and in particular with the K.G.B. veteran now Russian government oil tycoon Igor Sechin. The publicly available evidence, however, indicates something more devastating: The United States has a secretary of state who lacks a basic understanding of his duties and who may or may not have bungled his first important trip to Asia.

Out in the open is Mr. Trump’s disregard for the laws and norms governing financial and ethical conflicts. The secret, it is said, hides in his tax returns and his debts to Russia. But one need not speculate about the contents of his tax returns — it’s their secrecy that counts. Mr. Trump’s refusal to release his tax returns, or to divest from his businesses, or to subject his cabinet picks to the normal vetting process requires no further proof or explanation to garner outrage. This is a president who blithely embraces the appearance of corruption — and this is unimaginable.

Out in the open is Mr. Trump’s contempt for the news media. The secret, it is said, is that the president is always hiding something, using Twitter to distract us from whatever the truly important issue is — as though, if we could only regain our focus long enough to locate that important issue, reality would feel solid again. In fact, Mr. Trump is waging an open and public war on journalism. His lies, his insults and his use of Twitter to communicate falsehoods are the truly important issue: They are the force destroying the public sphere.

The bad news is that Mr. Trump is succeeding. Fraudulent news stories, which used to be largely a right-wing phenomenon, are becoming increasingly popular among those who oppose the president. (I prefer not to add to the appeal of such stories by citing them, but an example is the string of widely shared items that purported to link every death of a more-or-less prominent Russian man to Russian interference in the election.) Each story dangles the promise of a secret that can explain the unimaginable. Each story comes with the ready justification that desperate times call for outrageous claims. But each story deals yet another blow to our fact-based reality, destroying the very fabric of politics that Mr. Trump so clearly disdains.

A version of this op-ed appears in print on March 26, 2017, on Page SR4 of the New York edition with the headline: The Truth Is Not a Toy.

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