Who was W.C. Fields? An American comedian, actor and expert juggler of the silent film era, talented at physical comedy, and if memory serves, an alcoholic. Some folks say that he originated the quotation, “A sucker is born every minute.” Those folks are wrong. I know because I did a careful search on the Internet. I checked multiple, reputable sources, and was able to come to the conclusion that Fields did not say that. Now, if a website, such as Info Wars, told you that W.C. Fields was actually an alien from an advanced planet, come here to infiltrate our great country, and destroy us from the inside out, and presented a picture of a green reptilian alien, would you believe it? I mean, there’s the picture, right there on your screen, and they have said that they have evidence somewhere to back their claims. They’ll get back to you, later. You’d be at least a little skeptical, right? And so would most of your family and friends, right? Don’t be so sure.
Erroneous claims and fake news stories are tweeted, retweeted and circulated by folks reflexively on social media, with few criteria used to guide their dissemination. When news outlets challenge the presentation of “alternative facts” or flat out bogus claims coming from the White House, Sean Spicer is dismissive and engages in twisting, circular arguments about how it’s all the media’s fault. In this brave new world, surrogates hope to escape any form of accountability, and shift the blame back on those posing important questions that need answers. At a recent Harvard University forum on the campaign and the media, Corey Lewandowski stated, "You guys took everything Donald Trump said so literally. And the problem with that is the American people didn't. They understood that sometimes when you have a conversation with people, you're going to say something, and maybe you don't have all the facts to back that up, but that's how the American people live." Forgive me, but it sounds like Lewandowski just argued that since the average American might not know what he's talking about, why should the President. Corey paints a picture of an America where people "say things without having the facts." This is called ignorance. Also, there is a lowering of expectations around the President’s choice or words, or that they really mean anything at all. Supporters of the President resolve the phenomenon of their cognitive dissonance ("I voted for this guy, but I don't like his tweets, and wish he'd be a little more careful about what he says") by simply saying that what he says shouldn't or cannot be taken literally, or at face value. This is intellectually lazy, extremely problematic, and creates a slippery slope toward an executive branch operating with impunity.
The argument that the 45th U.S. President's ceaseless fabrications and evasions pose an existential threat to democratic institutions, and to American democracy itself, is wholly rejected by GOP strategist Karl Rove. Rove chalked up such talk as mere left-wing hyperventilation. "This is far-fetched, starting with the authoritarianism," Rove told NPR. "Yes, there are Republicans concerned that he rambunctiously doesn't understand the restraints on the executive, that he doesn't understand the prerogatives under Article 1 that Congress enjoys—yeah. But the process is going to teach him those constraints—and reality is going to teach him those constraints." I am concerned that the President, political operatives and pundits have no idea what they are talking about. If a Republican strategist facilely dismisses the notion that the new President is a threat to democratic institutions by saying he just doesn’t understand them, and apparently, does not respect them, how is this reassuring?
And then there are those that would say “Relax. Our institutions will save us.” To these trusting, complacent folks, I would say, “It is up to us to save our institutions.” Ask not what your institutions can do for you, but what you can do for your institutions. Because some day soon, we may find that the antigovernment appointed in the current administration has eroded away our vaunted institutions—hollowed them out from the inside, in terms of funding and personnel, leaving them hobbled and unable to perform their roles and functions. It’s already happening. But don’t take my word for it. Conduct your own research. But avoid sources such as Info Wars, Talk Radio, or White House Press conferences. These are highly unreliable sources, indeed.
Kyle D. Killian, PhD is author of from Columbia University Press.