Repudiating Reality

Speaking of misinformation…

Can America be “built back better” in the (much-anticipated) wake of the Trump Administration? Or did the disasters of the last four years simply make the fact of the country’s decline over a much longer period impossible to ignore?

I don’t claim to know the answer to that question. (I’m actually not sure I want to know the answer.) But we are absolutely awash in blogs, books and essays on the subject. One of those explorations was in the Guardian, a couple of weeks after the election, in a book review titled “Can American Democracy Survive Donald Trump?” It began by setting out the core problem we face:

I WON THE ELECTION!” Donald Trump tweeted in the early hours of 16 November 2020, 10 days after he lost the election. At the same time, Atlantic magazine announced an interview with Barack Obama, in which he warns that the US is “entering into an epistemological crisis” – a crisis of knowing. “If we do not have the capacity to distinguish what’s true from what’s false,” Obama explains, “by definition our democracy doesn’t work.” I saw the two assertions juxtaposed on Twitter as I was finishing writing this essay, and together they demonstrate its proposition: that American democracy is facing not merely a crisis in trust, but in knowledge itself, largely because language has become increasingly untethered from reality, as we find ourselves in a swirling maelstrom of lies, disinformation, paranoia and conspiracy theories.

The author points out that lying, paranoia and conspiracy have long been seen as the defining features of totalitarian societies, and that the prevalence of those behaviors in contemporary America is increasingly being cited as evidence that we are becoming such a society.

As Federico Finchelstein maintained in his recent A Brief History of Fascist Lies: “As facts are presented as ‘fake news’ and ideas originating among those who deny the facts become government policy, we must remember that current talk about ‘post-truth’ has a political and intellectual lineage: the history of fascist lying.” Both George Orwell and Hannah Arendt, two of history’s most acute observers of totalitarianism, situated lying squarely at the heart of the totalitarian project.

With less than three weeks until President Biden is sworn in,  America’s current president is still refusing to concede, still  insisting that the results of an election that was found by international observers and state election officials alike as “transparently fair” was somehow rigged. Worse still, much of what passes for Republican leadership these days is passively or actively encouraging that belief.

An acknowledgement of the legitimacy of one’s political opponents is absolutely necessary for democracy to function. Increasingly, the GOP is refusing to admit to the legitimacy of either the Democratic Party or electoral outcomes unfavorable to the party.

As the New York Times reported last year: “At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic party and its supporters are routinely described as ‘demonic’ and associated with ‘rulers of the darkness’.” Republicans no longer oppose Democrats politically: they are opposing them existentially.

At the end of the day, American citizens are faced with a different–and far more significant– existential decision: what is true and what is not?

If Trump is symptomatic of America’s diseases of power, then his compulsive dishonesty might be the most revealing pathology of all. The US is a chronically untruthful country, deceit written into its very framework. The constitution contains explicit protections of slavery but never uses the word “slavery”, a deeply mendacious deception that eventually became a collective self-deception. The declaration “we hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal” was written by a man who enslaved men he did not consider his equal, and became the foundation of a country that incessantly declared its belief in truth and justice while enslaving and oppressing much of its population.

Like many Americans, I have spent four years struggling against a pathological liar in the White House, only to realise, belatedly, that American culture fetishises the truth for a reason. “We hold these truths”, “truth, justice, and the American way”, the fable of the boy George Washington insisting he cannot tell a lie, “Honest Abe” Lincoln: this is a society protesting too much. American history is riddled with lies: that we talk about truth so much is just a tell.

In order to tell truth from falsehood, however, citizens need at the very least a baseline of accurate information about their government and the philosophy that animates it–something approximately 70 million of us evidently lack.

Unless we can somehow rescue fact from fiction, American democracy is unlikely to survive.


  1. The challenge facing “building America back better” is moving beyond sarcasm to frame issues in touch with current public sentiment to a guide path resulting in practical solutions. Intellectual self gratification is lame and not helpful to create positive public policy and strategies. There are think tanks who have been working to think through complex issues facing our nation and offering possible well reasoned solutions. For example, the Brookings Institute, a public policy think tank since 1916, released a published summary of one of their latest studies that began before the onset of the current tri-demic (epidemiceconomyequity). Google Brookings “A New Contract with the Middle Class”.

    The study represents an evidence based analysis to encourage more responsible public debate to address issues that have contributed to middle class decline in confidence toward the American Dream. Some folk consider Brookings too liberal. About an equal number of folk consider Brookings too conservative. I find their work I have followed for decades to inform responsible debate on complex issues just left of center that brings me to the table of moderate progressive thinking and advocacy for doing.

  2. “We have met the enemy and it is us!”

    We cannot repudiate the reality that our reigning government is against democracy, Rule of Law, the Constitution and appear to believe if they tell the lie that the election was fraudulent often enough, that lie will be believed as all others from this administration has been.

    I have repeatedly commented here that those who speak against the Democratic party and deny the fact that unity within the party matters, are not facing the reality that the Republican total unity of lies and disinformation has given them total power over this nation and against our world allies. We are now seeing a few cracks in that unity but what reality are they supporting; the basic reality of numbers in the outcome of the election or the reality that Trump and his supporters are and will remain a danger to our government?

    Those 70+ million who voted for Trump and his White Nationalist evangelicals will not go away willingly; they remain attached to the racist, “everybody needs a dog to kick” faction. Trump have them permission and encouraged their violent actions as their right as victims. As Hitler provided the Jews to blame; Trump provided the power of the presidency to blame the government for their self-proclaimed victim status, namely the Democrats and the Constitution of the United States. The obvious and legal election of Joe Biden and Kamala Harris is not the end of Trump’s tyranny; at best it might be the beginning of the end.

    “In order to tell truth from falsehood, however, citizens need at the very least a baseline of accurate information about their government and the philosophy that animates it–something approximately 70 million of us evidently lack.”

  3. Since the corrupt Supreme Court gave corporate America the freedom to buy politicians, the slide into seditious stupidity has increased. To whit: The recent news that several Republican Senators will openly (and, presumably happily) defy the Constitution and election norms to object to the election results based on NO EVIDENCE OF FRAUD.

    Jerks like Ron Johnson are merely seditious tools of corporate money – and he comes quite cheaply. Ted Cruz is the nation’s #1 posier who never missed an opportunity to hog the spotlight. He’s probably mad that he didn’t beat the over-educated traitor Hawley to the microphone. The other protesters are simply gutless cowards who are trying to position themselves, somehow, for 2022 or 2024. Add to this the 130, or so seditious Republican idiots in the House led by the monstrous Matt Gaetz, and you have the personification of the slime show that is now the GOP.

    Many of us on this blog have been pointing these facts out for years. I’ve even written op-eds from back in the 2010s warning the country that this day of outright sedition was on the horizon. The thing is, there is no reasoning going on. It’s a mindless lust for power by Republicans that have trashed the Constitution. Even the criminal Richard Nixon had some clue about the rule of law, but today’ Republicans do not.

    Finally, to close this rant, if Democrats don’t start messaging this truth to the American people EVERY DAY, it will not stop until we have either another civil war or another monster worse than Trump touches the nuclear launch buttons; somebody like Ted Cruz who just wants to see what thermonuclear war looks like as the ultimate expression of power.

  4. I hate to rake over the same ground, but I have said many times that the Republicans are great marketers and the Democrats don’t have a clue about how to get a message across. Roger Ailes and Frank Luntz came up with Republispeak years ago and they have put it to great use ever since. No Republican ever refuses to go on a liberal talk show and no Republican ever answers the questions put to him or her on that talk show. They simply repeat the mantra of the day. How many times have we heard, “but what about Hillary?” Even after 2016 was over and done with, that was every Republican’s lead on every talk show.

    Now Ailes has gone to meet his maker and Luntz is wondering aloud how his focus groups can be so far from the truth, when he hasn’t approached it in decades. If it weren’t so dangerous, it would be laughable. To the Democrats: Hire a good ad firm and take their advice.

  5. Mr. Turner – your points are spot on (as always). The only statement I might quibble with is that by the 2010’s the “game” was already over because the Republican rot started the first Tuesday of November, 1980. What we see today is not because of the moron-as-president; he is in office because of a Republican Party that is morally, ethically and intellectually bankrupt and has been for 40 years.

    Ms. Hannon – also heartily agree with you. Imagine what would happen if the roles were reversed and the Dems were pulling these shenanigans? The Speaker of the Republican House would refuse to seat these seditious individuals until they took an oath to the country broadcast live, of course, on Fox News. Instead Nancy thinks she can play nice with Mnuchin while worrying about her garage door. As a good Hoosier friend of mine always says, never bring a Democrat to a knife fight.

  6. Peggy,
    When the continuation of our republic becomes dependent on “advertisement” as opposed to reason we have reached the bottom.

  7. What’s the difference between advertising and journalism? Nobody has to think of the right answer to that. It’s truth.

    Journalism is to report facts. Advertising is to make more appealing. The whole truth and nothing but is optional.

    Republicans have learned from business that advertising must be employed to make them appealing enough to get elected. Trump, being a product only of advertising over his entire life, with no intrinsic value, epitomizes the political product that is exclusively created by advertising.

    It seems intuitively obvious that democracy will not protect our rights if political decisions are based on advertising rather than journalism.

    Given that businesses will be paralyzed without that tool what can a democracy do to manage the use of it in politics?

    Hint: government can’t and won’t solve that problem. Only voters can by returning to credibility based on transparency and evidence instead of bias confirmation.

    Employ the Scientific Method as a voter. There are many resources, especially these days, out there and available to help. Turn off TV and get on the Internet and work the problem. It’s a small investment for freedom.

  8. Pogo was right, but not entirely. The “enemy” is some of “us.” Even Pogo’s historic observation was made from the perspective of a common fact-based platform, whereas today we are so riven that alternative facts have somehow been shoehorned into reality with the result that we cannot rationally converse with the “enemy.”

    So what to do? Recognize that the “enemy” is not the enemy, but rather a misled fellow citizen. Arguing conclusions from differing fact-based platforms when commonality of terminology is absent is a waste of time. We could better use our time with such “enemies” by first discussing the factual basis for the opinions reached, otherwise such interchanges will wind up in shouting matches where all participants are losers as they loudly assert their Fox or MSNBC conclusions. The byword? Patience.

  9. On second thought government can contribute to the solution of restoring democracy by eliminating all private financing of campaign advertising. It seems that an easy law to put in place would be that all federal office candidates be given identical public funds, depending on the office sought, to be spent exclusively on head to head fact-checked debate.

  10. Pete, I think your campaign advertising idea is great, but try to get it passed into law. Not one republican, most probably, will buy into it. They know that on an even playing field, they loose.

    As the New York Times reported last year: “At Christian nationalist gatherings and strategy meetings, the Democratic party and its supporters are routinely described as ‘demonic’ and associated with ‘rulers of the darkness’.” Republicans no longer oppose Democrats politically: they are opposing them existentially.
    That is very scary. With that in mind, it is very hard to picture a meeting of the minds, as it were, where an agreement on what is “truth” can be hammered out.

  11. Frightening, sobering, dark and excellent insight today, Sheila! The “protests too much” tell is, indeed, an indicator of how far short we have fallen from our big talk about democracy — and all the other values that are worth treasuring about what is supposed to be the American Way. The only hope I can find to work from is that our flawed, prejudiced but still visionary Founding Fathers did set up a political system that did actually create a tent within which a sort of democracy was at work for at least certain people. People originally outside that tent (men without property, women, people of color, etc.) have worked through the years to enlarge that tent with many different strategies improving our nation’s performance on its values in regards to education, suffrage, employment, health care, voting rights, protection by the rule of law, etc. We still do not deliver what we say we do to “all men,” but we have made progress. I, for one, would rather fight tooth and nail to protect that progress and make further progress possible if not likely, rather than allow people bitterly unhappy with “those people” now inside the bigger tent to do anything to make it smaller. And, yes, I do sometimes think about whether I should own a gun and know how to use it. These are dark times, and we need to admit it.

  12. Donald Trump decries, “where is my Roy Cohn!”

    Our society should decry “where is our Thomas Paine!”

    Tom Paine was truly the father of our government! He was the conscience. He fought against theology in government although he was a religious person.

    One of the things that he was truly noted for but seems lost in history was his fight against enslaving “African Negroes” and criticized those holding slaves in bondage! He recognized that all of the talk concerning freedom concerned “White Male Landowning Protestants” and not all inhabitants of this land, including the Native Americans along with those of African dissent.

    He also promoted his concept of a minimum guaranteed income through an inheritance tax on landowners! Of course we know how unpopular this would’ve been to those in power, that happened to be white male Protestant landowners!

    If you have the opportunity to read his pamphlet “Common Sense” he was recognized for that as being the father of the American Revolution! Yes, Thomas Paine is truly the father of the American Revolution. Unfortunately he was slandered by many including George Washington and diminished in stature towards the end of his life. But he was a man who wanted equality for all humans, no matter their race color or creed, truly a man born way before his time! And truly a man who is sorely needed today.

    Why hasn’t Thomas Paine been recognized more in history than he has been? Because his quest was way before it’s time, and, against the entrenched hierarchy established in the colonies.

    Just as propaganda is used today to manipulate and confuse, propaganda by so-called founders of this government, diminished him at the time of his death, and many of his works have been banished to the confusing and manipulated ethos of history.

  13. Two excellent books on the psychology of lying (different from cash-register honesty):
    People of the Lie by Scott Peck
    The Sociopath Next Door by Martha Stout
    They explain a lot about people who will lie even when the truth would serve them better.

  14. John @ 12:56 pm.

    Several years ago I watched a program that featured Cornell West and two others if I recall right on the “air brushing” out of American History of Thomas Paine. Paine was in good graces with “Common Sense”.

    West and the others pointed out how Paine fell from favor with the book “The Age of Reason” and “Rights of Man”.

    From Wiki: The Age of Reason presents common deistic arguments; for example, it highlights what Paine saw as corruption of the Christian Church and criticizes its efforts to acquire political power.

    Paine advocates reason in the place of revelation, leading him to reject miracles and to view the Bible as an ordinary piece of literature, rather than a divinely-inspired text. It promotes natural religion and argues for the existence of a creator-god.

    The panel concluded that Paine’s more radical and what we would call Progressive ideas were a real threat to the aristocracy of royalty and wealth. As such Paine had to be attacked in his lifetime and later “Air Brushed” out of history.

    If Paine’s ideas had been implemented the great suffering of humanity might have been alleviated.

  15. I remember reading the Mueller report(since I’m retired& have the time & want to know for myself)and hearing Barr’s public summary of it. I was shocked that Barr would obfuscate what was actually found in the report. If Mueller had been allowed to continue his investigation into the White House & Sally Yates had been allowed to do her job,following the truth, this country likely wouldn’t be in this current war against our Democracy.
    Lie upon lie have been flung at the American people causing anxiety, confusion and straining our efforts to find facts on which to base our opinions. It’s gotten so bad that half the population can’t deal effectively with the steps to protect themselves against the pandemic! That kind of interference with the facts is having deadly results.
    The big lie that DJT won a second term, is nothing short of treasonous. When the protection of presidency leaves him on Jan. 20th, and his crimes revealed, his only protection from accountablity will be if enough Americans accept his lies, and follow him over the cliff.
    Maybe on Jan. 6th Mike Pence needs to assert control, validate election of Biden & kick DJT out! I really doubt that he’ll do that,but IMO that’s what a true patriot dealing with our current reality would do!

  16. ML,

    Yes! I agree with your sentiments completely!

    I believe, and hopefully I’m not mistaken here, the Rights of Man pushed the idea of governmental change! Kind of touched on by Lincoln a little bit, that if you’re not satisfied with government and it’s representation of you, you can change it! It was a real damnation of the aristocracy of the time in Europe and to an extent the United states.

    Unfortunately, I think that the aristocracy just festered under the surface for most of our post-revolutionary war existence, and is now really bubbling to the surface! Back to an unfair representation for all citizens, and favoring the few over the many!

    Let them eat cake?!?! It seems to be back in Vogue now.

    Let’s face it, the aristocracies reality is a much different one than the reality of the average citizen!

    And, ML, I really appreciate your due diligence on Thomas Paine. I was hoping someone would pick it up and run with it for a bit. As always, you are right on target!

  17. I am seeing herein an idea that bloomed too late…as well as a few facts late…

    We are all mortally wrong to conclude that we are faced with a MERE conflict and/or befuddled obfuscation over what is Truth. That has passed us by. It’s over. At least, according to some of the “minds” behind Trumpism, such as Steve Bannon. Bannon says that war over Truth is OVER and they — the Trumpists –have won. Paraphrasing Bannon: From now, on Truth is what we say it is, and the only job regarding Truth for the rest of you to do is to react to the Truth which we dictate.

    So, maybe Bannon and the Trumpites overestimated their superiority by a few million votes, but that more clearly explains their hysteria over election results…and their insane determination to overturn the election.

    We are not dangerously in a state of Truth confusion, as all of you conclude; we are dangerously in a state of Falsity Acquiescence, giving into Alternate Facts, acceding to the Trumpite/Bannon dictated Truth.

    This prediction of lost Truth is by all explanations existential. It cannot and will not be turned right by closer examination of the various contentions of Truth. It can only be corrected by closer attention to dry powder, the population of weaponry in the armory and the mettle in the gut. Make no mistake: it is war, a war that already rages to the very tipping point, very likely to be determined within the next 17 days, perhaps by the mere introduction of a few thousand guns and crazies into the streets. This too is the Trumpist hallucinatory prayer: that hysteria among Trumpist leaders played to the Shakespearean hilt will bring those game-turner guns into the street in a last second cavalry charge; it’s the strategy of madmen, but it’s a more formidable strategy than our liberal strategy of soft, never-calloused hand-wringing hope in Truth that has lost its leverage.

    Last hope…There is one Truth we must transact into the Trumpist’s understanding, and that is: THOSE WHO MESS WITH TRUTH SHALL LEARN HARD THE MEANING OF EXISTENTIAL FINALITY.

  18. ML,

    One more thing, since Jefferson and Thomas Paine were friends and Jefferson convinced Thomas Paine to immigrate to the United States, there probably was more to their viewpoints that they embraced rather than differed.

    I think you touched on one, which was the bible! Thomas Jefferson basically had a similar viewpoint of the Bible. He actually took the Bible and dissected it and removed sections that he didn’t approve of or parts that didn’t pass his self-perceived smell test.

    Hence, the Jeffersonian Bible! One that certain presidents have sworn the oath of office on!

    If you’ve never perused a copy of the Jeffersonian bible, you have to do so, it’s quite fascinating!

  19. So many good thoughts –
    Let’s start with this – America Lies – we airbrushed history – both true — to an extent.

    I don’t know belief, intent, nor when “strategic” compromise was involved, but the “founding documents” were aspirational, not statements of fact on the ground. If they said “all men are created equal”, at some point, some people asked “why only property owners?”; “why only white Christians?”; “Why not women?” — and we have progressed. We still have work to do, and we are starting to uncover the real history of our past.

    I have mentioned before – Obamacare was designed using the premise that healthcare is a commodity — and now, more than ever, people are looking at it as a right — and that is because of Obamacare, not in spite of it.

    The decline of the US has been accelerated by the Republican liars, but we have declined for many combined reasons. We deified the “entrepreneur” and made “intellectual property” into a holy relic. When the “entrepreneurs” outsourced, downsized, chased Maximal profits (rather than reasonable profits), we reacted with the Reagan revolution – “it’s not our job to help – government is the problem”. We glorified “chainsaw” Jack Welch and the people left in the wake were ignored, making the very susceptible to charlatans, like Trump. The Dems didn’t help either.

    I just came across some old “Candorville” comic strips that I had saved – a man woke up from a coma after 26 years, beginning in 1979. Happy that the Republicans were in charge, he was shocked to learn that the Patriot Act meant more government intrusion into our lives and that free competition led to fewer companies in control.

    Then he happily talked about this President named Clinton who balanced the budget, turned the deficit into a surplus, ended welfare as we knew it, and promoted free trade. He thought that this President Clinton was the best Republican President since TR and Lincoln.

    Some comic strips age well — sadly.

    One thing is for sure – we won’t stop the decline by wishing that we can talk sense into the current Republicans, nor by proposing slow “moderate” changes. If we don’t promote bold ideas that lead to tangible change in the lives of everyone (Black Lives Matter activists and Trumpsters alike), I don’t see a change in direction.

    Once the economics changes, the extreme right will crawl back under their rocks and the “right wing fellow travelers” will be more open to listen to reason, but the government and the “traditional” institutions have to WORK for people. They need to see results.

    Now we can hope for miracles, like two wins in GA and adding two states. Then we can make the changes that are needed.

  20. Len,

    Absolutely Washington DC, Puerto Rico, and maybe even Guam and American Samoa!

    But, if, if there are no changes, even the addition of those extra States won’t last very long! There has to be immediate drastic and sweeping change! Something that drops the jaw to the floor!

    Immediate public works projects, multi-trillion-dollar infrastructure projects that would put everyone who needs a job to work!

    Then, the government should seed some of these new Green technology corporations and have them build manufacturing plants in large swaths of the inner city areas and extreme rural regions where the jobs are closer to the people. Training programs would be a necessity and make the local population workplace savants for these particular manufacturing zones.

    The single-payer healthcare for all, Junior and City college available for all at no cost. Interest-free student loans for Masters and doctorate classes. This would be drastic and immediate change which would grab people’s attention and solidify fair and equitable treatment for everyone!

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