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Fighting for Facts in the Age of Trump

What just happened? What can we do about it?

After the Fact

Well, this is not the end-of-semester column I expected to write.

In September—or even when I published my last column, early Nov. 8—I thought I’d be writing a Trump retrospective. What could we learn about our country and ourselves through Trump’s rise and fall? How could we prevent the rise of a future “clean Trump,” the extremist without such obvious personal flaws—without the Twitter insults, the business scams, the infidelities, the shameless disregard for the importance of the office—who could actually win?

If a few state lines had been drawn a bit differently, I’d be asking those questions.

Like many of my classmates, I wandered campus pretty shell-shocked the day after the election. The country—no, not the country, but 46.1 percent, a large enough minority to carry someone to the White House—had rejected what we had taken for granted in the Obama years: the slow-but-sure march of social progress, the most basic respect for political opponents and the institutions of civic life.

What rocked me to my core, though, and what I think really devastated everyone’s inner student—constantly self-challenging truth-seekers that we ideally are—was that Trump’s win represented a triumph of bullshit. Forty-six percent of Americans bought a compellingly presented narrative that relied almost entirely on utter garbage: America had less growth (true, kinda) and security (completely false) than it used to; this decline was attributable to waves of immigration across our southern border (false in both incidence and causality) and to internationalism (trickier, but the economic benefits to free trade are incredibly well-established); and finally that Trump alone could solve these problems because he, unlike all of his competitors, was not beholden to the elite establishment (to which he, undoubtedly and by his own account, belongs). His case also depended on contradictions, like that Hillary Clinton’s rule-breaking made her irredeemably crooked, but his “made [him] smart.” But 63 million voters, presumably mostly rational, kind people in their private lives, believed it enough to pick him over Clinton.

So now we must grapple with more urgent questions than the above hypotheticals. How can we mitigate the damage to human rights, to the climate, to democracy in the next four years? How can (small-L) liberal (small-D) democrats win elections when authoritarianism clearly appeals to so many? And insofar as doing so protects humanity, how can we fight for facts in our politics?

First, we need to understand how Trump won.

We can't solely attribute his victory to the white supremacists he attracted and failed to condemn, nor the sexists who excused his misogyny. He also won the votes of tens of thousands of people—moderates—in Pennsylvania, Ohio, Michigan, and Wisconsin who voted for Obama twice; many switched allegiances in spite of his antagonizing, not because of it.

Hillary Clinton’s economic plan, with its lower-income tax breaks, job retraining, and public infrastructure investment, addressed their needs far better than Trump’s supply-side cronyism, but should we really expect people to read platforms? Seriously! People have jobs, kids, marriages, millions of things they’d rather do than familiarize themselves with position papers. They watch television. They surf social media. They learn about candidates first through ethos and then through messaging.

Clinton’s messaging, down to her slogan, “Stronger Together,” emphasized diversity, cultural politics, and Trump’s supposedly fundamental un-Americanness. Trump promised to revitalize manufacturing and, as a result, the Rust Belt. Whether or not he can, he recognized their grievances as legitimate. He convinced them, like Obama did in 2012, that he was on their side and his opponent was not.

If you lived in Detroit, or Cleveland, or Youngstown, or Erie, or Flint, how badly would you want to believe that your hometown, decimated by automation and maybe also free trade, could come roaring back? The idea that coastal elites have sold you out might make sense, when their economies have fully recovered and your city’s population has halved. Truly consider: How alluring would Clinton’s narrative have been, that Trump was just exaggerating America’s problems, that we were “already great,” that Trump would have represented a dangerous jolt to the status quo?

This column has previously explored how the ways we process information, in this age of overwhelming data, affect our politics. We think about politically loaded terms like “change,” which is of course neither inherently good or bad, emotionally and sometimes irrationally. We flock more to individuals than to arguments, to narrative more than point-by-point refutation.

How can liberals win? By campaigning to people as they are, not as they “should be.” Look at the last 10 years: They won marriage equality, according to a persuasive article in the Atlantic by Molly Ball, when they shifted their arguments from abstract rights-based arguments to appeals to love and family. They won in 2008 and 2012 not because Obama was more qualified but because he was an agent of change and, then, a middle-class warrior. They won on the strength of narrative.

The battlefield for the next several years is not the ballot box but the legal system, Congress, and public opinion. The president-elect will continue to lie, to make claims like, “I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions who voted illegally.” We must not waste our time furiously debunking every falsehood. We must offer a better vision for the country—one that does not ask people to hate their neighbors, to excuse rape, to follow one clownish man who says he can do it alone.

Hannah Arendt writes in “The Origin of Totalitarianism” that the “chief disability” of political lies is that, well, they aren’t true. They “cannot fulfill this longing of the masses for a completely consistent, comprehensible, and predictable world without seriously conflicting with common sense.” In a world swimming with falsehood—likely soon to include official propaganda—we can still hope that the facts will, in the end, prevail. We just have to tell the right story.


Trevor J. Levin ’19, a Crimson Arts executive, is (officially) a Social Studies concentrator living in Mather House. His column usually appears on alternate Thursdays. He can be reached at trevor.levin@thecrimson.com. Follow him on Twitter @trevorjlevin.

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