The following piece was originally published as part of our digital magazine, Banter M, back in June of this year. The phenomenon it dealt with -- our new age of post-reality politics -- feels as if it's since become preeminent and paralyzing. The triumph of Donald Trump's fact-free campaign, where outright lies replaced the tradition of shame in the face of them, has turned the world upside-down.
If facts simply don't matter anymore, the foundation of our discourse and even our society itself comes undone. When the way to dodge unpleasant or inconvenient reality is to simply refuse to accept it -- and everyone goes along with this ruse because, well, what choice do they have -- we're creating a dangerous world of absolute unaccountability. How do you force someone agree to adhere to the rules the rest of us do when they simply will not?
It was impossible to imagine that the truth and the consequences stemming from them were such fragile things. That all it would take to undo them is someone audacious enough to, when confronted with hard facts, look into a camera and say, as Trump surrogate Michael Cohen said in a now infamous interview that we didn't know at the time was actually the defining moment of the Trump campaign, "Says who?"
The other day I was driving fast along the 101 freeway here in Los Angeles when a woman pulled up next to me in a gunmetal gray Jaguar F-Type. The top was down and so taking her in, in all her glory, wasn't just easy, it sort of cried out to be done. She was well past middle-age, with hair an unearthly color and pulled up on top of her head, wearing giant white-rimmed Prada sunglasses and a silk scarf around her neck. She was, to put it mildly, the living embodiment of Beverly Hills. The look. The clothes. And of course that car -- that Jag roadster. Except here's the thing: it wasn't a Jag. Sure, it had the Jaguar badges on the hood, the trunk, and at the center of its tire rims. It even had the chrome "Jaguar" label on its side just behind the front tire. But it wasn't a Jaguar. It was a Pontiac Solstice. Not a modified Pontiac Solstice with a Jaguar F-Type body or anything like that. No, just a plain old Pontiac Solstice, the kind that stopped production in 2010 and which can now be bought for as little as nine grand used -- a very far cry from $64-thousand sticker price of a base model 2017 F-Type.
It was really kind of an astonishing sight. Who the hell slaps Jaguar insignia on a Pontiac and figures no one will know the difference? Who is this bad disguise designed to fool? Did she honestly hope that no one in, of all places, L.A. would know what a Jaguar F-Type actually looks like? Or was she simply, in some breathtaking display of self-delusion, trying to convince her and only her that she wasn't driving the car she so obviously was? Was the status of driving a Jag so important to her that she simply had to feel like she was driving one even though she wasn't? Most importantly, what would she say if someone rightly pointed at her Pontiac and said, "That's not a Jaguar"? Wouldn't she have to insist that, why yes, it is! And how could she say that without seeming like a completely crazy person? How willfully detached from reality do you have to be to deny that your car is what it is and literally pretend it's something completely different? It's not like she picked up a counterfeit Jag on Canal Street like she'd bought a fake Gucci purse. This was a Pontiac.
In November of last year, Donald Trump claimed that on 9/11 there were "thousands and thousands" of Muslims celebrating the destruction of the World Trade Center right across the river from its wreckage, in New Jersey. It was, of course, utter bullshit. A nonsense story pulled directly out of his old, orange ass. In an effort to prove his confirmation bias, Trump retroactively went on a Google rampage but the best he could come up with was a report on MTV that showed Guardian Angels founder and equally ridiculous caricature from New York's 1980s Curtis Sliwa saying there was sporadic cheering in some Muslim communities, but that report was later debunked by MTV's own reporting. To date there's been no legitimate proof whatsoever provided that confirms Trump's claim -- and that's because it just didn't happen. Had there been thousands of Muslims celebrating the demise of 3,000 Americans just a couple of miles from where most of them died, that would've been the biggest sidebar story that day -- mostly because the neighborhoods where it was supposedly happening would've been burned to the ground in response.
What Trump did, of course, was tell a story that simply wasn't true. There are two possibilities for why he would do something like that and neither is very reassuring in terms of what it says about his personality. Either he lied outright, knowing full well what was coming out of his mouth was crap, or he genuinely believed he had seen Muslims cheering in the streets, making his brain basically a piece of syphilitic Swiss cheese. What's most important to keep in mind, though, is that once journalists, fact-checkers, and people with functional temporal lobes corrected his story, he doubled-down. He didn't back off and say, "Well, maybe I was mistaken." He insisted he'd seen it. He insisted it had happened, even though there was no evidence for it and was, in fact, evidence to the contrary. He simply didn't care that he wasn't telling the truth. It was as if the truth wasn't a tangible thing, something inarguable and set in stone. It was as if the truth could be negotiated and were susceptible to opinion, as if it was whatever he said it was at any given moment. Trump creates his own truth, in other words.
It's actually kind of quaint to look back on that bald-faced Trump lie when you consider how many have come out of his mouth since. Trump told so many lies in 2015 that Politifact bundled them all together and tagged the whole thing with its "Biggest Lie of the Year" dishonor. Just the other day he said that crime was on the rise (it isn't). CNN had to correct him last week when he claimed he had never said Japan should have nuclear weapons (he had). He said his arch-nemesis in the Trump University case, Judge Gonzalo Curiel, was "a member of a club or society, very strongly pro-Mexican" (he's not). He says he's broken "by millions" the all-time record for votes in a GOP primary (he hadn't). The list goes on and on. Trump lies about the littlest things and the biggest things -- and what's more, he lies about things that can be easily checked, including his own statements, which are of course all on-record. He just does not care that he's not telling the truth and that it can be proven. Because when he's caught, he doesn't fess up to the reality being held in front of his face -- he simply goes right on denying it.
And that's the problem. Because when you consider his alliances with Alex Jones, a man who traffics in nothing but conspiracy theories and offensive bullshit -- and a man whose influence is obscenely far-reaching -- Trump's unwillingness to bend to the tenets of reality makes perfect sense. We now live in an era where the the truth doesn't matter the way it used to, where facts can be shrugged off without an ounce of shame, and where nothing can be done to really fact-check or correct false statements because it's so easy to simply refuse to acknowledge reality. That's what Trump does. When facts are presented to him that he's already denied, he just keeps on denying them. What do you do in a situation like that? What happens when someone just does not accept reality? Anyone who's argued with a conspiracy theorist on the internet understands this dilemma because no matter the facts you show them, they simply come back with "facts" of their own -- curated from their own social media bubble of misinformation where they can live without the inconvenience of contrary information -- or they deny empirical evidence that runs against their beliefs and statements.
But Trump and the right's online ilk aren't the only ones guilty of believing only what they want to believe and refusing all the rest. On Tuesday, after being clobbered in New Jersey and California and being beaten to the Democratic nomination finish line by a wide margin by Hillary Clinton, Bernie Sanders appeared onstage in Santa Monica, California and -- denied he'd been beaten. In spite of Clinton's earning enough pledged delegates and superdelegates to be the presumptive nominee -- and despite the fact that in 2008 he'd accepted that President Obama had won the nomination by the exact same metric -- Sanders simply vowed to press forward with his campaign. He couldn't win. It was impossible. There was no path to legitimately earn enough votes to win the nomination, but it didn't matter. Reality just didn't matter, not when he wanted something bad enough. And his rabid disciples, of course, followed along and continued to twist logic and reason into pretzels in an effort to somehow make the decision not to concede make perfect sense. (There's even a lengthy article being passed around now claiming that Sanders, in fact, won California in a landslide but since the election is rigged the votes weren't counted.)
Because this is where we are now: in a place where reality doesn't matter anymore. Reality is what anyone believes it is. It is, as Stephen Colbert once brilliantly said, up for a vote. He coined the term "Wikiality" to describe the idea that facts can be affirmed or denied based on a Democratic process, with individual people editing the truth as they see fit. Don't like something? Just don't accept it. It's what Donald Trump does. It's what Bernie Sanders did the other night. (Although today Sanders seemed to take a step back and promise to work with Hillary Clinton to defeat Donald Trump, which would represent a concession to reality.) The truth should matter. Facts should matter. Because facts are the yardstick by which we measure reality, and if everyone can't agree that some things are true and some things aren't, we descend into chaos. Or at the very least perpetual frustration as fact-checkers try to call out the reality-averse and get nothing more than a shameless shrug.
Three decades ago, Washington Post columnist Joel Achenbach -- who at the time was writing for The Miami Herald -- posted a column I've referenced several times throughout the years because it changed the way I looked at the world. Achenbach made note of a growing trend that he referred to as "Creeping Surrealism," the idea that Americans were able to tell the real from the artificial, they just didn't think the distinction mattered anymore. His examples included Pepperidge Farms cookies that were specifically made to look like they were baked at home, one by one, by a loving grandmother -- even though the company clearly used a mold designed to create the illusion of imperfections -- and the fact that people at funerals, more and more, seemed to mimic the behavior they'd seen at funerals on TV or in movies. In Achenbach's view, we'd just given up worrying about what was authentic because nothing was authentic anymore. So what if the truth isn't really the truth? So what if everything is more "truthiness," again as Colbert used to say, than the truth?
But facts should matter. The truth should matter. Reality should matter. Because these things are important. Because a lie repeated often enough or with enough conviction doesn't actually become the truth. Because a Pontiac covered in Jaguar insignia is still just a Pontiac.