By Theodore M. Porter
Someday, in the underground files of the Natural History Museum of Personality Anomalies, the curators will push aside the pale, red-edged Narcissus poeticus to clear space for a truculent orange mutant, N. bombastus, type specimen of a form that disables the faculty of reason. Narcissism, as everyone knows, is a not uncommon characteristic of the political class. Trump’s is distinguished by an astonishing level of insecurity and consequent need for affirmation. The rude applause of a boisterous crowd serves this purpose very nicely. The question of why such persons oblige is an unsolved mystery, and those who do not join in noisy admiration may suppose that he has done nothing to earn it. Yet the numbers are never large enough. At the head of this president’s parade of lies is the seemingly pointless one, unquestionably false, that the number of enthusiasts at his inauguration beats out every possible rival.
Journalists, academics, and their ilk, now again much dismissed as chattering classes, have been vexed and perplexed by these cascades of untruth. It is time, perhaps, to send Doonesbury’s reporter Roland Hedley in search of Trump’s brain. Does he, somewhere in the depths of that shallow, mercurial mind, put sincere confidence in the bogus news sources he cites, or is he a clear-eyed deceiver? I don’t think the answer can be at either extreme. I think of him as a salesman at the point of a sale, suspending disbelief without end until every customer has been snared. He appears to be swept along by crowds that cheer most loudly when he utters what is most clearly false and inflammatory. When called on these untruths, he invokes their cheers as a sufficient answer to his yapping critics. He takes his support wherever he can get it.
The waning power of great news organizations is now discussed with great sadness, inverting the promises of the last decade when some foresaw a golden age of democratic activism. Certainly the technologies matter, but they get their meaning from users. The perspective of history undermines any theory of unidirectional change.
Although I have never wanted to discard the notion of human agency, I attribute the meteoric rise of the alternative fact to a political situation, the demagogue resonating with his crowd, rather than to the worked-out plan of a careful, scheming candidate. Trump, it seems, did not know in advance the positions he would take on many political issues, but arrived at them willy-nilly.
We often cannot tell whether the puppet or the puppet master is pulling the strings. There has been a lot of discussion of Trump voters, who seem unlikely to benefit from the policies of their champion. Liberal journalists have wanted to portray them as hapless victims of an economy by which they are ill-served, and to downplay the racist and sexist language that was so conspicuous in the campaign. I do not pretend to any special knowledge of their attitudes. It is, however, readily apparent that cruel policy proposals regarding immigrants, women, minorities, Muslims, and so on did not put them off much. Neither are they much troubled by so many uncomplicated lies. We might expect better since the Christian New Testament, notably in the book of John is uncompromising on the matter of truth. Ignoring “I am the way and the truth and the life” and “the truth shall set you free,” the conservative churches labor to free us from the burden of truth.
Does this represent something new under the sun? The waning power of great news organizations is now discussed with great sadness, inverting the promises of the last decade when some foresaw a golden age of democratic activism. Certainly the technologies matter, but they get their meaning from users. The perspective of history undermines any theory of unidirectional change. The great media organizations, as we all know, included some that were highly successful by virtue of their shameful irresponsibility. The ideal of objectivity in the news is a relatively recent phenomenon, and never dominated the market. The nineteenth-century news in the United States was highly decentralized, and most papers were unabashedly tied to a political interest or party, with very little concern for fairness or balance.
It is impossible to juxtapose those words without ironical intent. The claims that continue to be made for truth and validity do not go far toward relieving concerns that we have entered a “post-fact” age. A practiced marketing specialist does not abandon claims to truth and factual validity, but may simply use them as the exclamation point following a lie. Fact checkers have not succeeded in checking the proliferation of political dishonesty. Although we know a few things about the propagation of ignorance from recent scholarship on tobacco, climate, and pharmaceuticals (for example), I do not have a theory to explain our tsunami of deceit. Yet it is clear honest debate is a necessary property of the public sphere. While there will always be rogues, democracy depends on an active public sphere.
The ideal of an informed citizenry is a noble one, which we should support however we can. The survival of political decency and competence depends also on professional bodies with some capacity to hold back the impulses of a barely-elected government. In public life, that has generally meant lawyers, first of all, with a secondary, less articulated role for certain technical experts such as economists, scientists, and engineers. As I write, Trump’s restrictions on entry to the United States by citizens of seven mostly Muslim countries have been (momentarily?) checked by a Seattle judge, a Republican appointee. Trump reacted, as we would expect, with tweets of fury. The occasion for despair of the last two weeks have also provided a few consoling insights about the obstacles to rule by inarticulate decree. It turns out that the incapacity of the unthinking man of action to develop a rationale for his blind impulses may stand in the way of their instant realization. Once the process is slowed, it may emerge that decrees like these will prove legally as well as morally indefensible.
There is plenty of important material here for STS scholars, who might even hope to take a constructive role, not just as administrative experts, but also as moral advocates. Judicial and administrative expertise have their role, but the courts will not hold out for long if political support is insufficient.
Theodore M. Porter, Distinguished Professor of History and Peter Reill Chair in European History (1450 to Modern) at UCLA.