Donald Trump, the Daily Mail and post-truth politics
They call it post-truth politics. Donald Trump is its most grotesque embodiment. But it is gaining a foothold here, as we saw from the hysterical reaction of pro-Brexit politicians to the High Court ruling that Parliament must be consulted as Britain leaves the European Union.
Politicians have always lied. But “post-truth politics” is something new. It was first defined in the late 1990s when US conservatives became alarmed that laws to reduce carbon emissions would hit them in the pocket. The way to fight back was to question the underlying science. The strategy was laid bare by a leaked memo to President George W Bush which suggested that public opinion would harden once people came to believe the science was settled.
Throughout the presidential campaign Donald Trump told lie after lie, beginning with the claim that he started his business empire with a “small loan” from his father, when in fact he inherited $40m. His falsehoods were too many to catalogue here. When the professional fact checkers PolitiFact scrutinised his speeches they found 70% of his factual statements were ‘mostly false’, ‘false’ or ‘pants-on-fire’ untruths. Washington Post checkers agreed, and found much of the remaining 30% also untrue.
But there is more to post-truth than a lack of factual accuracy. It also involves insult and innuendo, scares and smears, paranoia and the psychology of conspiracy. The response of our populist press to the High Court ruling on the process of Brexit reveals that post-truth politics have taken root here too.
The Daily Mail was particularly egregious with a front page which set out – with the headline “Enemies of the People” – mugshots of the three judges who had ruled that Parliament must have a say on the mechanism of Brexit. You might have thought the system of checks and balances between the executive, the legislature and judiciary embodied in the British constitution was a key part of the national sovereignty which Brexiteers voted to restore. The Mail, however, preferred a diatribe about “the will of the people” having been flouted by judges who, it informed its readers in a classic dog-whistle smear – included a gay Jew, a committed Europhile and a “pal” of Tony Blair’s.
Donald Trump has for months been up to similar tricks in the United States with slurs on Mexicans, Muslims and menstruating women. Often he acknowledged he was merely insinuating with the preparatory phrase: “A lot of people are saying…” (He aired no fewer than 58 conspiracy theories in his campaign.) But many times he told barefaced lies with brass-necked audacity. Then, when his accuracy was questioned, he riposted: “Well, they would say that, wouldn’t they?” Mostly his audience roared with approving laughter.
What was at work here was an advertising industry model of communication in which the important thing is not what you say but how you make people feel. So long as something feels true, that is enough. The American comedian Steven Colbert even coined a phrase, “truthiness”, to describe ideas which “feel right” or “should be true”. British politicians should be wary of following our sillier newspapers onto this dangerously debased territory.
This first appeared in the Church Times