Hypothetical Potato

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Read the Nunes Memo (New York Times via msn.com)
For all the hype, Nunes memo delivers sad trombone for Trump (The Rachel Maddow Show)
GOP Memo Escalates Clash Over Russia Probe (The Wall Street Journal)
Nunes: Fine, the FBI Didn’t Lie, But Its Font Was Too Small (New York Magazine)

I often wonder just how influential Stephen Colbert giving a name to the concept of “truthiness” on the first episode of The Colbert Report was, both at the time it aired and all these years later. It clearly had some cachet back in the day, given how it was named Word of the Year and all, but the whole concept of truthiness wasn’t that new to me. Even if I hadn’t been following politics so closely at the time, I still remembered reading Al Franken’s discourse on Republicans’ use of apocryphal anecdotes during the Reagan Administration in his book Rush Limbaugh is a Big Fat Idiot and Other Observations. I certainly wasn’t taken aback by the notion that politicians might lie, but that chapter helped me understand the mechanisms by which some conservatives were essentially creating an alternate reality for themselves, a reality where all their suspicions were true, and it was okay to believe apocryphal anecdotes simply because they “felt” like they really happened.

Even though the idea of truthiness had been in my head long before Colbert gave it that name, it was certainly a concept that weighed more heavily on my mind as I watched those early episodes of The Colbert Report and monitored American politics more closely. I’d been worried about the effect of right-wing media (and how their echo chambers were enabling the spread of misinformation), but in the aftermath of the botched federal response to Hurricane Katrina, and growing discontent over the ongoing wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, it felt like the right-wing media bubble might have been about to burst. They went through a years-long period where their messaging just wasn’t clicking with many people outside of their base, and the Republican Party as a whole appeared totally demoralized for both the 2006 and 2008 elections. Conservatism definitely wasn’t about to die, but it hit a low point there that made many of us wonder how the American conservative movement would recover.

The resurgence of far-right conservatism didn’t take long to materialize after Barack Obama was first sworn in as president, in the form of the nascent Tea Party movement. The purported heart of the movement was a very simple, back-to-basics, traditional conservative message about lower taxes and reducing the national debt, and that’s a message that will always resonate with a very large portion of the American population, far beyond the conservative base. As the Tea Party evolved in the months after its formation, though, and as elected Republicans began to identify with the movement, it expanded beyond its lower taxes core message to include cultural conservatism in its platform, until eventually the words “Tea Party” seemed to become synonymous with far-right conservatism of many stripes.

It soon became difficult to keep track of the various fringe elements that proclaimed ties to the Tea Party, and how to ascertain just how legitimate those claims were. If there was one element that stood head-and-shoulders above the others, though, it had to be birtherism, simply because Donald Trump had amassed such a huge platform with which to publicize his claims and various theories about President Obama’s birth. Birtherism never passed the smell test for many people, myself included, and perhaps that made it all too easy to dismiss as the lark of a big-mouthed celebrity that would turn out to be as much of a fad as “Gangnam Style” wound up being.

That was clearly a mistake, and looking back at the dozen years or so between the first episode of The Colbert Report and the 2016 presidential election, the failure of those on the left to effectively combat the dangers of right-wing truthiness (again, I include myself in this group) may have played a significant role in what happened that fateful November night. Instead of forcefully challenging demonstrably untrue claims made by Trump and his surrogates, there seemed to be a sense that it was best to just let those claims pass without much comment. (I realize that there’s an argument to be made that repeating the claims, even if just to refute them, gives them more visibility, but I would argue that the massive platform Trump had built long before his presidential run rendered the “amplification” objection moot.) Even if some of Trump’s claims may have been objectively untrue, they were still very compelling for a large cross-section of the American voting population, including those who don’t identify as part of the traditional Republican or conservative bases, and the lack of a strong, visible challenge of those claims on the part of Hillary Clinton’s campaign probably played a large role in the results that came in on Election Day.

Matters have only gotten worse since Trump’s inauguration, and Sean Spicer’s sputtering about the crowd size on that day turned out to be a real bellwether for what has come since. Even though the Congressional record shows the months of hearings, and over a hundred Republican-written amendments, that preceded the passage of the Affordable Care Act, the narrative that Democrats rushed and pushed through the ACA as quickly as Republicans tried to gut it last year is still believed by a sizable portion of the American people. Even though Trump repeated on the campaign trail, time and time again, that the reported numbers of American unemployment don’t accurately depict the real state of the job market (and rightfully so), he’s crowed about those same numbers during his presidency as an alleged proof of how well he’s doing. Even though Trump himself finally stated, on camera, that Barack Obama was born in the United States,. birtherism lives on to this day. (Repeat a lie often enough, et cetera, et cetera.)

The release of a Trump-declassified memorandum this past Friday, which occupied the prime spot in the relentless Republican hype machine for days beforehand, may be one of the most shining examples yet of how conservatives are forcing their brand of truthiness on all of us. Despite claims that the memorandum would prove that America’s intelligence community had a vendetta against Trump (in an attempt to use “poisoned fruit” arguments to essentially invalidate all the investigations into the Trump campaign and administration so far), the two central claims advertised before the memo was released were quickly disproven; not only was the judge who signed the FISA warrant aware of the political financing of the Steele Dossier before signing the warrant (a detail apparently lost on some Republicans because they literally didn’t bother to read footnotes), but the memo itself disproved some Republicans’ claims that the dossier triggered the initial FBI investigation. The fact that Republicans themselves wrote the memo suggests that the false claims leading up to its release were, to be generous, the product of severe incompetence, and at worse something far more sinister.

Ultimately, though, what the memorandum actually said, and what the facts of the case actually are, have been shown to be totally irrelevant to Trump and a large part of his base. Trump was quick to claim that the memo totally vindicated him and his campaign, a claim that he’s repeated several times over the past few days, and the fact that Trump has said as much is all that a very large part of conservative America needs to dismiss any and all claims made against Trump so far, and probably any future claims made against him. To them, and possibly to Trump as well, it just feels like everything he does is right, and all these other people are out to get him. The idea that everyone is out to get you can be a delicious one, whether you’re looking at your favourite sports team’s poor performance or your inability to get a promotion at work for several years, but never before has that idea been so rooted in the heart of American governance.

I have a thought experiment for anyone who thinks that things haven’t gotten colossally messed up already: Imagine that, instead of a memorandum, Republicans and/or Trump produced a potato. (Russet? Yam? Go crazy with the picture in your head.) After that, imagine that Trump and his supporters made a claim that the potato proves that Trump is innocent of all the charges that have been levied against him since he started his run for President in 2015, and that the potato furthermore proves that Trump is the greatest president of all time.

Obviously, there would be many people, even in Trump’s base, who would dismiss this as crazy talk. However, think of the steps that some conservatives and Trump loyalists could take to “talk their way” into believing such a claim. Maybe the potato has fingerprints and/or DNA on it that proves Trump couldn’t have been where any bad actions took place? Maybe the potato was used as a battery for a recording device that shows how innocent and magnanimous Trump is? Maybe the potato has a secret recording device inside of it that those nefarious Democrats snuck into the White House to try to catch Trump “in the act” of something, and so you can never believe anything Democrats ever say again for the rest of America’s existence?

To be clear, there wouldn’t be that many people who would make those leaps of judgment to believe that a potato could vindicate Donald Trump, but how many people willing to do that, to bend reality to conform to their predetermined beliefs about Trump and everything he stands for, is too many? A million? A thousand? A dozen? One? (How many votes did Trump carry Pennsylvania, Michigan and Wisconsin by?)

This is why it is vital that no matter how often Trump or his surrogates (in Congress and right-wing media) repeat provably untrue claims, they must be challenged as vocally and visibly as possible. Conservative truthiness is at a zenith right now, and I’m not convinced that it’s going to stop increasing in popularity and influence. Unless something is done to check the spread of right-wing misinformation, and reverse the damage it’s already done to our political discourse, we may be on the way to electing a potato as our next president (which, sadly, may be an improvement over the current state of affairs).

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