Editor’s note: This post is part of a summer-long series, The Sociology of Trump. Every Friday RI Future will feature an essay written by a Brown University sociology student on an aspect of Trumpism. Read the introduction: Culture, power, and social change in the time of Trump.
“The New York Times published this week a ‘definitive list’ of Trump’s lies. Dissecting the causes, conditions and consequences of this Trump culture of ‘alternative facts’ drove much of our introductory sociology class discussion in the spring of 2017. Referencing Russian and Turkish transformations, Mira Ortegon explores how the pervasiveness of the lie in post-truth politics affects our capacities for democratic self-governance and considers ways to move beyond it.” – Michael Kennedy, professor of Sociology and International and Public Affairs, Brown University.
Oxford Dictionaries chose “post-truth” as the 2016 Word of the Year around the time of the November election. “Post-truth” is defined as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” (1)
Reportedly, the word was first used in 1992, but Oxford Dictionaries claims to have seen a 2,000 percent increase in usage from 2015 to 2016, and attributes its rise in popularity to events like the Brexit vote and Trump’s election. (2) While post-truth politics are not an entirely new phenomenon, a leader successfully utilizing post-truth tactics to come into power is a novel occurrence in America. Donald Trump fills the role of a post-truth politician, relying on a community with which his anger and subjective message resonate. In order to understand the times we live in, it is crucial to analyze how Trump fits into a historical context of manipulating truth, the ways in which this gains him power, the sustainability of this power, and the possible implications of a post-truth America.
While the usage of the word “post-truth” has exploded in the last year, the tactics involved in post-truth politics are not necessarily new. Autocrats such as Vladimir Putin in Russia and Recep Tayyip Erdogan in Turkey have taken control of the populus and changed the political landscapes in their countries with the help of post-truth politics. Ece Temelkuran gives a chilling warning to the United States and the United Kingdom of what has transpired in Turkey in the last 15 years with Erdogan’s rise to authoritarian rule. It started with intellectuals and the media wondering if they were out of touch with the common, everyday person. This generated an us vs. them complex that sparked a movement to expel the ‘elites’ from the process of ‘building’ truth. Temelkuran urges Americans and the British to be aware of these repeating patterns before it is too late. (3) While Turkey has transformed into autocracy, it is not too late for us to salvage democracy–as long as we work to disarm post-truth politics.
The roots of post-truth politics extend even further in history to Richard Hofstadter’s 1964 Harper’s Magazine article, “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Hofstadter’s description of the paranoid politician doesn’t directly mirror that of the post-truth politician, but there are common sociological aspects of both of their platforms. The characterization of the paranoid politician’s perspective as “the megalomaniac view of oneself as the Elect, wholly good, abominably persecuted, yet assured of ultimate triumph; the attribution of gigantic and demonic powers to the adversary” comes across as chilling foreshadowing. (4) Noting this and going even further, sociologist Arlie Hochschild believes that Donald Trump’s appeal comes not directly from his paranoid style, but from something deeper. The key element to Trump’s success is his understanding of the far right’s “deep story,” a narrative that is metaphor-based and free of judgements.
Hochschild spent 5 years living in Southern Louisiana, and devised a deep story to see how much it resonated with Tea Party and Republican Louisianans. The deep story of the far right tells of a long line leading up to the American Dream. You are standing in line, a white Christian, native-born, likely male, who has been waiting for a long time. Suddenly, black people, Latinx people, Syrian refugees, and gay people are cutting the line, and the government is helping them do so. The story resonated strongly with the vast majority of people that Hochschild spoke with. What this tells us about Trump’s appeal is that his followers are willing to overlook his blatant lies and outrageous statements simply because he carries their deep story. (5)
Since most people outside of Southern Louisiana don’t recognize the sentiments behind this deep story, those that relate to it feel left behind and unheard. It becomes so imperative to find a candidate that hears and sees them for who they believe they are–taken advantage of, but rational, rather than closed-minded and bigoted–that the candidate’s flaws are easily ignored. Because Trump is willing to carry their message, lies, deceit, and post-truth as a whole become white noise in a loud political discourse.
Donald Trump uses post-truth politics to appeal to this group of people that feel left behind by the social, political, and economic elite–similar to the group in Turkey mentioned by Temelkuran. That is because, when making a post-truth appeal, “feelings, not facts, are what matter… their opponents’ disbelief validates the us-versus-them mindset that outsider candidates thrive on. And if your opponents focus on trying to show your facts are wrong, they have to fight on the ground you have chosen.” (6)
Donald Trump was successful in his Presidential campaign, in spite of–or maybe because of–his appeal to emotion rather than truth. According to Politifact, Trump’s statements were “Mostly False,” “False,” or “Pants on Fire” 69% of the time. (7) Trump and his staff actively acknowledge that not everything they say is completely truthful–as with Kellyanne Conway’s use of the term “alternative facts.” This, in turn, passively acknowledges that to them, truth holds less significance than emotion. As Salena Zito eloquently puts it, “when he makes claims like this, the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.” (8) The press–and those who still believe in its authority (typically intellectuals labeled as “elites”)–distance themselves further and further from Trump’s supporters, fulfilling the essential prophecy of post-truth politics, which seek to divide and dethrone those out-of-touch elites.
While members of Trump’s team often support his half-true and semi-false assertions, this is not always the case. Occasionally, Trump openly contradicts members of his own administration. This is apparent in Trump’s recent assertion that he was wiretapped by President Obama. This claim was completely refuted by Trump’s own FBI Director, James Comey, but Trump seems not to care that he actively makes statements that have little to no basis in fact. As Jamelle Bouie writes, “it’s another sign of Trump’s basic contempt for the idea of an independent, observable reality that stands as a baseline for his actions. That reality is how you hold politicians accountable; it’s why the press is vital to a free and healthy democracy. But Trump sees no advantage in accountability, no reason to honor the truth or even gesture toward its existence.” (9)
Rather than make logical appeals, Trump purposely plays on emotions and fervently strives to provoke people. Trump uses Twitter as an outlet for post-truth statements, which functions as a way to distract. 140 characters of ad hominem argument and outrageous falsehoods draw attention away from opponents, while supporters know to brush these statements aside. This keeps opponents occupied and away from effective arguments pertaining to Trump’s legitimate actions. Donald Trump was right that he didn’t need the truth to get elected. But how long can he ride this wave of blind deference?
Trump’s rise to power is both the result of and the catalyst of legitimation crisis. A legitimation crisis, the work of German sociologist Jurgen Habermas, refers to a situation in which government and political officials are not able to evoke confidence in leadership and institutions. In one way, Trump’s success rises from the ashes of a legitimation crisis, but one pertaining to rational and scientific forms of authority rather than government. Primarily, Trump and his team have worked to assault the traditional sources of legitimacy, such as the press, taking away the opponent’s ability to make any arguments against him. This is so effective because of the self-referential nature of legitimacy.
We trust the legitimacy of something–such as science–because it proves facts, and we trust those facts because they are proven with science. As soon as we decide that we don’t trust facts or science, our trust cannot be regained, because it has no basis. (10) We lose faith in its legitimacy altogether. By breaking down traditional legitimacy, Trump disables any criticism of his claims, because his followers no longer trust the critics. Trump calls nearly any press that contradicts his views “fake news,” urging his supporters to write off the media as dishonest, liberal propaganda in order to dismantle the claims against him. Supporters of Trump no longer trust facts, science, or reason, and instead marvel at Trump’s ability to create his own reality that aligns with their beliefs.
While this legitimation crisis helped get Trump into office, a reactive legitimation crisis is forming that diminishes Trump’s own leadership ability. As Michael Kennedy writes, confidence in Trump’s authority declines because he has tarnished the presidential office “with his own arrogance and refusal to be treated like other presidents (releasing taxes and divesting assets), and with his own incompetence in managing not only world and national affairs but even his own staff.” (11) Part of Trump’s appeal is that he is a businessman, not a politician. He is tough-talking, speaks his mind, and isn’t caught up in a political agenda. This appeal only goes so far, however, and many voters lacked confidence in Trump’s subsequent ability to enforce policy.
This doubt has been exacerbated by Trump’s incapacity to pass the Muslim Ban or repeal Obamacare, two things he fervently supports. Trump’s brazen overconfidence and lack of discretion works to divide conservatives and weaken the party, despite an era of Republican control in the House and Senate. Alienating conservatives and Democrats alike, Trump is unable to back up his claims pertaining to legitimate policy. (12) More and more of his supporters are beginning to lose faith in his power and capacity to carry out their wishes. In fact, Trump’s approval rating hit a new low on Tuesday, April 4th, of just 39.8%, which is about where Obama and Bill Clinton’s ratings were at their lowest points of their presidencies. (13)
While an inability to follow through on overzealous commitments differs from post-truth style statements that are genuinely false, the two go hand in hand. Rashly making promises–often through Twitter–that he cannot keep functions to delegitimize Trump in the eyes of his supporters. While they may be generally willing to overlook his false assertions in preference of an alternate reality, when he fails to follow through on real policy issues, they start to see the gravity of the situation. Disenchantment results from the realization that Trump’s dishonest politics have substantial consequences.
Trump’s rise to power, built on post-truth statements, has political and sociological implications. Trump’s influence has strengthened one community that embraces a post-truth culture. This community opposes one that rejects Trump’s alternate reality. While some of the members of the first camp face disillusionment and trickle into the second group, there is a limit to how many will change their minds. As these groups become increasingly polarized, tensions will eventually mount and result in a final conflict. In the most extreme case, the victory of that first group could result in the replacement of democracy with authoritarian rule. We must hope that our democratic institutions are strong enough to withstand the legitimation crisis presented by Trump. On the other hand, if the second group prevails, this could mean the impeachment of Donald Trump, which could present its own challenges, as he is not the only member of his administration that subscribes to a post-truth mentality.
As Temelkuran urges, it is time to stop asking “how can he say that?” and start asking what we can do to restore objective authority to our institutions. Duncan Watts suggests the formation of a consortium of media that represents a wide spectrum of viewpoints, all guided by a commitment to making honest arguments based on evidence. More than this, though, Watts says that social and behavioral scientists need to move away from theory-based research to solution-oriented research, which looks at available data first and then generates an adequate solution. (14)
On a more personal level, we must try and find the sociological reasons that Trump appeals to his supporters rather than simply denouncing their beliefs. This can help us to take pointed and effective action rather than throwing around hateful terms that only accelerate the division of people. This issue is incredibly complex, and there is no simple fix. It is not obvious how one can reason with a Trump supporter that distrusts nearly all objective forms of authority. With every subsequent misstep, we must hope that Trump’s supporters begin to see that it is not their news sources that are failing them, but rather their President. Only when they realize that Trump doesn’t–or can’t–carry their message will they begin to trust traditional authority again.
- “Word of the Year 2016 Is… | Oxford Dictionaries.” Oxford Dictionaries | English. OxfordDictionaries, n.d. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- “‘Post-truth’ Declared Word of the Year by Oxford Dictionaries.” BBC News. BBC, 16 Nov. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Temelkuran, Ece. “Truth Is a Lost Game in Turkey. Don’t Let the Same Thing Happen to You.” The Guardian. Guardian News and Media, 15 Dec. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Hofstadter, Richard. “The Paranoid Style in American Politics.” Harper’s Magazine Nov. 1964: n. pag.Harper’s Magazine. Harper’s Magazine Foundation, 2015. Web.
- Hochschild, Arlie Russell. “The Ecstatic Edge of Politics: Sociology and Donald Trump.” Contemporary Sociology: A Journal of Reviews 45.6 (2016): 683-89. SAGE Journals. Web.
- “Art of the Lie.” Editorial. Economist 10 Sept. 2016: n. pag. The Economist. The Economist Newspaper, 10 Sept. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- “Donald Trump’s File.” Politifact. N.p., 2017. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Zito, Salena. “Taking Trump Seriously, Not Literally.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 23 Sept. 2016. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Bouie, Jamelle. “This Trump Tweet Was One of His Most Terrifying Yet.” Business Insider. Business Insider, 26 Mar. 2017. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Watts, Duncan, and David Rothschild. “Rebuilding Legitimacy in a Post-truth Age.” Medium. N.p., 17 Jan. 2017. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Kennedy, Michael. “The Looming Legitimation Crisis in Trump’s America.” Rhode Island Future. RI Future, 15 Feb. 2017. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Foran, Clare. “Trump Threatens a ‘Fight’ Against the Freedom Caucus.” The Atlantic. Atlantic Media Company, 30 Mar. 2017. Web. 18 May 2017.
- Prokop, Andrew. “President Trump’s Approval Rating Started off Mediocre and Is Now Downright Awful.”Vox. Vox, 05 Apr. 2017. Web. 08 Apr. 2017.
- Watts. “Rebuilding Legitimacy in a Post-truth Age.”