This article first appeared in the Toronto Star on 20170205.
In this era of shrill, untested and unverified political extremes, we need to amplify voices in the middle and to represent clearly and fairly what is balanced and reasonable and true.
U.S. President Donald Trump’s political career started with a lie. He emerged on the political scene by repeatedly questioning whether then-President Barack Obama had been born in the United States. The highest-profile ‘birther’ is now the leader of the free world.
Consider how far he has departed from reality. His spewing of ‘alternative facts’ or more appropriately termed ‘bald face lies’ include saying Obama founded Daesh, also know as ISIS or ISIL, calling the Clintons literal murderers, and declaring false numbers for the size of the crowd at his inauguration.
In Trump’s mind, if he believes it, it must be true.
Politifact.com, the Pulitzer Prize-winning fact-checking initiative, currently lists as entirely true only four per cent of the statements Trump has made since the election. Fully 17 per cent are listed as ‘pants on fire,’ Politifact.com’s most egregious grade. For comparison, on his last day in the Oval Office, PolitiFact graded 21 per cent of Obama’s comments as ‘true,’ and only two per cent as ‘pants on fire.’
Otto von Bismarck, the 19th century German chancellor, famously said: ‘People never lie so much as after a hunt, during a war or before an election.’ This is now truer than ever.
In what is being called ‘post-truth politics,’ politicians frame the debate largely by appealing to listeners’ emotions and without addressing the factual underpinning of a policy. Then, when confronted with factual rebuttals from credible sources, these politicians simply repeat their talking points and ignore the facts.
The digital world makes it easier for politicians to get away with this behaviour. Social media outlets allow people to get news from sources that echo their own opinion; to surround themselves on social media with commentary that affirms their biases. The result? The traditional value attributed to evidence, consistency and scholarship is both weakened and diminished.
In fact, citizens have now told politicians that they have had enough of experts.
But in throwing out the experts, we have thrown out the fact checkers. The holders-of-feet-to-the-fire. And in doing so have, perhaps, made the rise of a politician like Donald Trump inevitable.
The Trump administration’s corrosive, deliberate lying is very different from the usual broken promises we have experienced from politicians, of all stripes, in the past.
A broken promise impacts the future. A political lie impacts our perceptions of the past.
In Canada, countless prime ministers have been elected and have then broken promises. Take, for example, Jean Chr’tien’s promise to do away with the GST, Pierre Trudeau campaigning against imposing wage and price controls and Stephen Harper running a deficit.
On the other hand, Trump dismisses facts. He alters his positions on a whim, and depending on the audience, declares that which will guarantee him the most attention and the loudest applause.
The consequences of this practice will be far-reaching. His administration has already begun destroying American credibility internationally.
When Trump is, inevitably, forced to respond to an international confrontation, America’s ability to rally support will be diminished. Its allies will doubt America’s intentions and facts on which those intentions are based.
Sadly, post-truth politics is not confined to the United States. Other international leaders are trying to make gains by lying to their electorates.
Britons voted to leave the EU in June on a campaign largely based on false information. Among the lies is that EU membership cost the UK 350 million pounds a week; money that would be better spent on such things as the National Health Service. It was also falsely propagated that Turkey was guaranteed membership in the EU by 2020.
The era of post-truth and alternative facts is not going away anytime soon. The refrain ‘just because you can, doesn’t mean you should’ has been lost on political leaders and campaign managers everywhere.
In consequence, in this era of shrill, untested and unverified political extremes, we need to amplify voices in the middle and to represent clearly and fairly what is balanced and reasonable and true.
Jaime Watt is the executive chairman of Navigator Ltd. and a Conservative strategist.