Never before in the history of the republic have we been faced with the daunting task of keeping our democracy alive and well. We must be able to discern fact from fiction, truth from lies. Our forefathers established walls between our institutions to keep our democracy in balance. As we undertake our mission, we are witness to these walls crumbling before our very eyes. Ours was a carefully crafted system of checks and balances, brilliantly designed to prevent the emergence of tyranny. The survival of this system is in serious jeopardy today.
The architect of this alarming threat is President Donald Trump and those who trumpet his untruths. Trump has been able to successfully sledgehammer our important institutional safeguards by utilizing the immense power of the presidency, as well as flooding the airwaves with a Pravda-like barrage of lies. We are used to hearing lies from politicians. Nixon, Reagan, Bush and Clinton were all caught telling untruths, but something is quite different this time. In his book, “The Art of the Deal,” Trump revels in his ability to flagrantly stretch the truth in order to close the sale. He coined the term “truthful hyperbole” to capture this “technique.” I don’t know how often he “stretched” the truth in the business world, but as a politician, it’s been documented that he outright lies 70 percent of the time. His truth-telling is measured at 4 percent, with everything else (26 percent) somewhere in between.
In addition to the overwhelming percentage of lies, the other issue is their incessancy. He isn’t just lying about one thing; he lies about everything and seems to enjoy it. But, we are a sophisticated people. It is 2018 and we have Google. So why isn’t it easy for us to discern truth from fiction?
Twenty years ago, a Harvard psychiatrist, Daniel Gilbert, wrote a fascinating book titled “Stumbling on Happiness.” (You may have seen him on the Prudential Financial commercials talking about saving enough money for retirement.) In his book, he says that when we are confronted with a lie, our brains go through a two-step process. First, we automatically hold the lie to be true in order to understand it. Second, we go through what he termed “the mental certification process” by which we verify or reject the lie. The verification process often does not take place: “When faced with the shortage of time, energy, or conclusive evidence, we may fail to unaccept the ideas.” Given the massive amount of misinformation coming at us from every angle, we are literally worn down. Who has the time to research the countless claims that the president is making? Isn’t that the press’s job? But, then again, when the press does its job, the president assaults its integrity, calling it “the enemy of the people.”
Even when it’s established that we’ve been fed an untruth, the resulting damage is irrevocable. In her exhaustive 2002 study, University of Michigan psychologist Colleen Seifert demonstrated that retracted statements, even if frequently repeated, do little in our minds to correct the record. The power of false information is enhanced exponentially when we look at its influence in the world of partisan politics. Evolutionary psychologist Dr. Leda Cosmides and her husband, Dr. John Tooby, have done exhaustive research in this area. They concluded that if the false belief comports with our pre-existing beliefs, then there are no arguments that can legitimately dissuade us from the untruth. There is no limit to a partisan’s willingness to accept a lie, regardless of how ridiculous it may appear on its face. During the 2016 campaign, for example, Hillary Clinton was accused of running a child sex slavery ring out of a pizza shop. One of the Trump faithful, armed with this lie (which pervaded right-wing media), actually went to the pizza shop and fired a weapon at the owner. He is now serving time and has since apologized.
Dr. Cosmides put it this way: “The campaign was more about outrage than about policies.” It struck a nerve, and, once emotionally mobilized, the supporter finds a strong sense of identity within the group. Substance, facts and truth mean nothing. All that matters is the group’s struggle against its imagined enemies.
Dartmouth College professor, Dr. Brendan Nyhan, examined this phenomena by analyzing the aftermath of the Iraq war and the false assertion by George W. Bush that the Iraqi government possessed weapons of mass destruction. Even after it was established beyond all doubt that there were no weapons of mass destruction, he found that most Republicans still believed the lie. In fact, their false belief was strengthened as time went on, because the attempt to straighten the record was perceived as an assault on their identity.
The problem is not the existence of a sizable minority that will believe Donald Trump no matter how outlandish his lies. The more worrisome fact is the realization that our ability to discern fact from fiction is more tenuous than we had imagined. False beliefs, once embraced, are almost impossible to correct. A leader like Trump who lies without shame has enormous power to sway millions of our citizens. This talent is not limited to Mr. Trump; if you examine any totalitarian regime, you can trace its success back to the ability to warp the view of its citizenry with a sophisticated propaganda operation. Mao Zedong, for example, was able to convince his people to embrace anything he said without reservation, no matter how farfetched.
Former Director of National Intelligence and decorated veteran James Clapper, who just released an amazing autobiography, “Facts and Fears: Hard Truths From a Life in Intelligence,” recently revealed his concern over the future of our republic: “I was tired because my journey of 76 years had led me to a place that should be home, and I’d found that the foundation of that home was beginning to crumble and the pillars that supported its roof were shaking.”
While the pillars may be shaking, let us do our part so that our great democracy remains forever firm.