Szuhaj: In Pursuit of Truth

Defend the truth however you can in the face of a lying administration.

by Ben Szuhaj | 1/26/17 12:25am

While it is difficult to gauge accurately the size of inauguration crowds — the National Park Service has not conducted a formal head count of crowds gathered at the National Mall since 1995 — the aerial photos published by National Public Radio show a startling difference between the turnout for former President Barack Obama’s 2009 inauguration and President Donald Trump’s inauguration last Friday. For a man who prides himself on drawing large crowds, this comparison probably did not sit well with Trump. In fact, the NPS was ordered by the White House to stop tweeting on Friday after sharing the photos comparing the crowd at Obama’s 2009 inauguration with the obviously smaller one at Trump’s.

The NPS Twitter account was reactivated Saturday. Their first tweet back: “We regret the mistaken RTs from our account yesterday and look forward to continuing to share the beauty and history of our parks with you.”

White House press secretary Sean Spicer went on record Saturday, claiming that the crowd at the 2017 Presidential inauguration “was the largest audience to ever witness an inauguration, period.” When pressed about the obvious lie by NBC’s Chuck Todd, Trump’s counselor Kellyanne Conway argued that Spicer had presented “alternative facts,” and that drawing into question the validity of these “alternative facts” was yet another example of unfair treatment of the president by the mainstream media.

It is not an example of unfair treatment. The journalist’s role is to seek the truth, and by doing so, to question the powers that be. The fact that Trump would so actively and overtly choose to attack journalistic institutions — he claims he is engaged in a “war” with the press — and shamelessly lie to the American public is deeply troubling for a number of reasons.

The terms “gaslighting” has been much-discussed as of late. It is a phenomenon commonly observed in abusive relationships, one in which the abuser attempts to undermine the abused’s belief in the truth. For example, an abusive husband may rearrange the furniture in a house while his wife is at work and then convince her that she rearranged it the night before. The effect of this is to loosen the receiver’s grip on reality. This is exactly what Trump is doing by claiming that obvious, flagrant falsehoods are actually true — that they are “alternative facts” — and that the truth as we might have first seen it is a deception, or “fake news.”

The danger in this pattern of manipulation cannot be overstated: if we cannot trust our own eyes, then we will start to see the world through somebody else’s. In this case, that means through the carefully constructed eyes of the Trump administration, a heady, pompous gaze, which views the world from the balcony of egotism, through the narrowing binoculars of nationalism and fear.

Although Trump supposedly hopes to unify the nation, the unabashed untruths of his administration only further the divides between Americans. For every one person who can listen to his talking heads spewing lies about inaugural attendance and say, “Yes, clearly that is a lie,” there is another person who will believe the lie simply because Trump and his ilk said it.

Trump, a man who has sought his whole life to turn his name into a brand, has succeeded in branding the most valuable and elusive of things: the truth. “Trump Truth,” one could call it, is something which a sizable portion of the population will buy into, no matter how poor the quality. For every one person who remains indefatigable in the face of nonsense, and for every one person who buys into “Trump Truth,” there is a third person, a very regular person, who is simply worn down by this constant battle to discern the truth. These people will recede from the political process, become wary of all news as being “fake,” and, by doing so, aid Trump.

What Trump seeks is power, unquestioned and unable to do wrong, and he is pursing such power using the same playbook used by other authoritarian regimes, including his friends in Moscow. The point of his lying is not to convince the majority of Americans of his “alternative facts.” Rather, it is to wear them out, to cause them to lose contact with the democratic process and by doing so, to consolidate his power.

But hear this: we will not give up. For every bit of self-congratulatory pomp and circumstance in Trump’s inaugural address, I do agree with one idea that he mentioned: we, the people, are the bedrock of American democracy. The media is not without its flaws. I do not seek to defend journalism from the ivory tower of my liberal education, nor do I seek to defend how hyperaware we are of political correctness in our speech. I believe that extremism, in all forms, is bad. I believe that in this extraordinary age of electronic connectivity we are more isolated than ever, that we are isolated by self-selection and that our isolation is fundamentally dangerous.

I also believe in the resilience and curiosity of the human spirit. I believe that history will look back on the opening days of the Trump administration, and it will judge its members with historical bias, yes, but it will judge them with a degree of insight afforded only by the passage of time. The textbooks will read: “The size of the crowd present at the 2017 inauguration was difficult to determine, but historians estimate it was far below that of the 2009 inauguration.” The point was belabored by the Trump Administration, an act which foreshadowed the dissemination of falsehood over the next four years. However, the American people did not allow a distrust in government to fatigue their desire for truth. Leading scholars of the Women’s March on Washington believe that the millions of Americans who came together on the day following the inauguration foreshadowed a trend in their own right: the unequivocally American tradition of peaceful protest in pursuit of equality and truth.