Trumpism as alternate reality

Trump can tell the most absurd lies without suffering in the polls. When he declared that “Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it,” it was obvious that he is a totally dishonest person. No one who had followed the news or Trump’s campaign at all could believe it.

Or could they? It depends on what you mean by “believe.” To a rational or mostly rational person, belief means regarding a claim as conforming to reality. If a friend says, “I went shopping yesterday,” I believe her if I think she went shopping yesterday. My only evidence may be that she’s honest and has no motive to lie, but it’s still the reality that counts.

But there’s another kind of belief, where it’s not reality but the authority making the statement that governs. If there’s a disagreement between the authority and reality, it’s reality that’s wrong. This is the belief of the “true believer.”

Demagoguery is the art of inducing this kind of belief. The demagogue constructs an alternate reality, just as a novelist does. When we’re reading a powerful novel, we sympathize with the protagonists and hate the villains, even though they’re just figments of the author’s imagination. We might even sympathize with ideas we’d consider absurd in real life, such as that strange women lying in ponds distributing swords is a good basis for a system of government.

With a novel, this reaction doesn’t extend beyond our enjoyment of the book. We don’t go campaigning for possession of magical artifacts as a replacement for the electoral system (even if we think it couldn’t give worse results). But some people surrender their judgment to another mind and substitute authority for reality.

Regarding an authority as a trustworthy source is a different matter. People who do that treat the authority’s statements as true in reality, and evidence can change their minds. With people who surrender their minds, reality isn’t the issue. If they’re told that we’ve always been at war with Eastasia, it doesn’t matter that Big Brother said the opposite yesterday. It’s not that he’s telling the truth; it’s that what he says is the truth.

Trump is a master at getting people to surrender their judgment. His lies probably help if anything. To be worth believing, a fantasy world has to be fantastic. Anything less is just a disagreement about the facts, and facts can be verified. As the Phantom of the Opera sang:

Close your eyes, for your eyes will only tell the truth,
And the truth isn’t what you want to see.
In the dark it is easy to pretend
That the truth is what it ought to be.

To those of us who aren’t true believers, Trump is simultaneously absurd and very dangerous. To those who do believe, he’s a messiah. Pointing out his many falsehoods doesn’t bother them, because he defines reality.

How has he done it? That’s where I’m puzzled. Tapping into anger is clearly part of it. The anger can be at the Democrats, at immigrants, at protesters, at lack of jobs, at political correctness. Racial anger is a piece, but only a piece. The center is the strong-man leader who will be the hero of his fantasy world against any and all enemies.

Opposing Trumpism requires not just fact checking, but somehow countering his psychological techniques.

2 Responses to “Trumpism as alternate reality”

  1. Eyal Mozes Says:

    I’d say an important part of the answer, to how Trump has done it, is that we’ve had other forces in our culture that are regarded as highly respectable and that have been working to induce exactly the same kind of belief.

    Probably the most prominent is the New York Times; they have expected their readers – increasingly in recent years – to accept whatever they say not just without checking the facts, but in deliberate, contemptuous disregard for any checking of the facts. Paul Krugman is probably the leader among the NYT writers in this regard, but it’s been SOP among NYT writers. Over the past 5 years or so, I’ve been amazed how often I had the same experience: to some progressive; point out some facts that don’t fit their narrative; get a response along the lines of “It’s a lie; if it were true, the NYT would have reported it”; and then have them refuse to look at any evidence I tried to present.

    This substitution of an authority for reality is exactly – as you note in your post – what Trump is promoting now. For the many people whose anger has made them emotionally receptive to Trump’s message, Trump provides an opportunity to have an authority that they can substitute for reality, similar to the NYT but with a message that they like better. And because so many of Trump’s opponents have themselves been pushing the same kind of belief, it makes it much harder to counter.

    • Gary McGath Says:

      The NY Times seriously messed up its reporting of the Yahoo data breach today, so yes, they’re not doing much fact checking. They said that the data thieves got 500 million passwords, when what they got was either encrypted passwords or password hashes, I’m not sure which. (The difference is that hashes aren’t reversible, so it’s impossible to reconstruct the original password. Encrypted data can be decrypted, though it’s difficult when the encryption is strong.) To be fair, the Times wasn’t alone in this.
      On Facebook, a poster to the filk group cited Krugman as “demolishing” the idea that Trump support is based on anything besides racism; all he really did was to repeat his claim several times.

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