A Weird American in Trump's Post-Truth America
Research-based strategies to deal with negative emotions around politics
Posted April 29, 2017
This article is also available in: Russian
It is an undeniable fact that Donald Trump is the 45th President of the United States. Yet a part of me refuses to accept that reality.
On the one hand, I love this country for its freedom and democracy, and as part of my love greatly respect the office of the Presidency. On the other, it seems to me that Trump is doing great damage to the core values and institutions that make this country great. I thus find myself at odds with myself, and out of step with the major forces in the political arena - a weird American in Trump’s America.
What do I mean by “weird?” I’ve always been uncomfortable seeing politicians make speeches with the message “America, Right or Wrong.” I much prefer the great American statesman Carl Shurz’s take, “My country, right or wrong; if right, to be kept right; and if wrong, to be set right.”
My Country is Wrong
Right now, I see my country being very wrong. Donald Trump is our first post-truth President. He may well be the first of many.
Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as its 2016 Word of the Year, in large part due to Trump’s success in the presidential election. It defined post-truth as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” Trump’s political methods rely on this appeal to emotions such as fear and anxiety and to that he won the popular vote, and polling shows that a majority of his followers believe his false statements.
Other politicians are highly likely to adopt Trump’s successful methods. If enough of them win by doing so, we are headed into a downward spiral of deceit in our political system. Without a serious intervention to clean up the pollution of truth in politics, this spiral will likely lead to the end of our political order, and perhaps even our nation, as we know it.
Is Post-Truth Politics Really So Bad?
It’s no exaggeration to say that relying on emotions and personal opinions over facts will very likely destroy our democracy. Since ancient Greece, truth in politics has been vital for a democracy to function properly. Citizens need to care about and know the reality of political affairs, at least in broad terms, to make wise decisions regarding which politicians and policies to support.
Otherwise, what reason do politicians have to care about serving the true interests of the citizenry? They can simply use emotional manipulation and lies to get and stay in power, paving the way for corruption and authoritarianism.
Without accurate information about the influence of money in politics, citizens cannot evaluate who is corrupt. As Secretary of State John Kerry noted at an Anti-Corruption Summit in May 2016, “corruption tears at the entire fabric of a society.” Indeed, government corruption is one of the top fears of Americans, according to a Chapman University 2016 study. President Barack Obama has taken a series of steps to address government corruption through regulations increasing transparency in business and politics. Trump’s plans to roll back regulations will reverse this transparency.
Rhetoric that appeals to emotions and popular beliefs is a foundational feature of authoritarianism. This is the same kind of rhetoric that helped Vladimir Putin transform Russia’s post-Soviet fledgling democracy into an authoritarian state, and resulted in Putin’s consistently high popularity rating, something that Trump praised in a televised forum with Matt Lauer.
Trump also positively depicted Putin’s “strong control over a country,” and when asked on MSNBC's "Morning Joe" what he thought of Putin killing journalists who do not agree with him, Trump dismissed that question, saying that: “I think that our country does plenty of killing, too, Joe." Given that Putin began his path to authoritarian rule by undermining the Russian media, and that Trump promised to do the same in the US if elected, and is indeed carrying out this promise, the parallel is clear.
While American political institutions are more stable than post-Soviet Russian ones, we should be very worried. Without intervention, our situation will only worsen. Other politicians are already learning from Trump’s post-truth approach to politics. They will try to out-Trump Trump, competing based on who tells the most emotionally provocative and appealing lie, not on who will best serve the interest of voters.
The Tragedy of the Commons
Trump’s America is wrong, and we need to set it right. Otherwise, we are headed into a downward spiral of lies and deceit, in a classic example of a tragedy of the commons.
This term refers to a socioeconomic phenomenon where a commonly-shared resource is destroyed by individuals acting in their own self-interest and against the collective interest. In this case, the commonly shared good isn't a tangible resource like a forest or lake, it's a political environment that is based on appealing to objective facts. This intangible, yet invaluable, resource is being polluted and destroyed by Trump’s post-truth politics that appeals to emotions and personal beliefs, paving the way for corruption and authoritarianism.
Truth in politics is a common good just like clean air and water, and pollution of truth will devastate our political system just as environmental pollution devastates our physical health. Fortunately, we can learn from the successes of the environmental movement. It started with a small group of motivated and informed advocates engaging in continuing and sustained education and advocacy. As a result of these efforts, regular citizens increasingly changed their everyday behavior through recycling, repurposing, and composting, while politicians passed pro-environmental legislation such as pollution regulation.
Similarly, activists for a movement for truth in politics - the post-lies movement - need to undertake educational and advocacy efforts to motivate regular citizens and politicians alike to address the pollution of truth in the political arena. While some may dismiss the possibility of the electorate growing more oriented toward the truth, research shows that people can train themselves to evaluate reality accurately and, thus, make wise political decisions. Doing so involves adopting new mental habits such as systematically fact-checking political information and welcoming revising one’s beliefs to the most correct ones based on new evidence. Fortunately, once educated about the risks associated with the pollution of truth, most people easily recognize that accurate perception of reality by voters is beneficial to to everyone except a few small interest groups that are devoted to deceiving the public.
Being a Weird American
However, those who care about truth in politics seem to be out-of-step with the large players in the political arena, who currently are not oriented toward addressing this grave danger. Despite the fact that the Democrat's loss was due, in large part, to Trump's success in misleading the public, they have generally ignored Trump’s lies in their post-election evaluation of their defeat.
Moreover, their plans for future campaigning include adopting Trump-like messaging and populist style. By doing so, the Democrats are being short-sighted and failing to orient themselves toward the long-term needs of America and its political system. Likewise, Republicans are making short-term gains at the expense of the long-term future - both in terms of the country and their party.
So those concerned with our post-truth politics don’t have a place in either major political party. Third parties are not focusing on this issue either. By failing to oppose post-truth politics, the major players in the political arena are essentially normalizing this situation. They are enabling Donald Trump’s forceful rupture of our Overton Window, a term referring to the acceptable standards of our political discourse. By accepting his post-truth tactics, they are leaving those who are really concerned about our post-truth political moment behind, cut off from the mainstream American political movements.
How do we reconcile ourselves with this situation? How do we overcome the emotional discomfort of reaching across party lines and set ourselves loose from our political mooring to work together on resolving this tragedy of the commons? How do we combine our identity of “American” and love for our country with our opposition to the normalization of post-truth political approach by the major players in the political arena?
Fortunately, scholarship on emotional intelligence provides a solution. It helped me come up with a method that draws on the strategy of reframing, a research-based approach involving changing our framework of thinking.
Specifically, I put the term “weird” before “American.” The term “weird” had a wonderful impact. It fit my desire to identify overall with the label “American,” but allowed me to separate myself from any aspects of the label I don’t support. This represents a specific instance of the broader research-informed strategy of distancing oneself from an uncomfortable situation to think calmly about it and make good decisions about how to proceed forward.
Once I started thinking about myself as a “weird American,” I freed myself from the anxiety of not fully identifying with that label. I was able to think through calmly which aspects of being American I identified with and which I did not, and set the latter aside from my identity.
I recognized that, while I respect the office of the Presidency, I can differentiate the office from its occupant. I recognized that Trump, through facilitating corruption and authoritarianism, is undermining the very things that cause me to love this country. I recognized that I don’t have to be anxious about being outside of the mainstream, as the Overton Window shifted without me, and I can take active steps to shift it back.
Weird Americans Can Make America Great Again
In order to save our democracy and prevent corruption and authoritarianism, reasonable people all across the political spectrum need to come together as “weird” Americans who oppose the normalization of post-truth politics. We need to fight for a focus on truth in letter and spirit as the most important component of our political system. We need to work tirelessly to educate everyone about the benefits of orienting toward truth. This needs to be done both through using reason-oriented paths and through more emotionally-engaging means, such as by sharing memes like the one below.
We also have to create incentives and consequences for politicians to be truthful, as orienting toward truth is not conducive to winning political battles in the current environment. Such incentives would involve a combination of carrots and sticks. On the one hand, we have to catch lies and punish liars, especially those who share our own ideological perspectives, so as to minimize accusations of political bias in advocacy for truth in politics. On the other, we must praise and reward truth-telling, especially when it harms one’s ideological position.
Such advocacy efforts to bring about a post-lies future are not easy, and go against the grain of short-term political victories. Fighting the normalization of post-truth politics requires us to be comfortable leaving aside easy identifications with major political movements. We need to be “weird” liberals and “weird” conservatives as well as weird Americans. The post-lies movement will require early advocates to act from the same kind of marginalized political position as early environmental activists, fighting both against the political status quo and the tendency of our brains toward lazy thinking. Yet cleaning up the pollution of truth is arguably the most important, and most neglected, area of activities to save our democracy from sliding down into corruption and authoritarianism. The early advocates of the post-lies movement will be the heroes of tomorrow!
P.S. The easiest way to be the hero of tomorrow is for each of us - including you - to take the Pro-Truth Pledge, a research-based strategy to get politicians and other public figures to tell more truth and less lies!