But America has been edging toward post-truth for a long time — even at its founding, skeptics might say. The “City on a Hill,” forged on an image of Christian rectitude, witnessed the genocide of Native Americans (“savages”) and the embrace of slavery based on specious theories of racial inferiority, even as the Bible taught the love of neighbor and the equality of all before God.
More recently, America has witnessed the triumph of post-truth in the aftermath of 9/11. Recall how the attacks on 9/11 were falsely connected to Iraq, which was then connected to false claims of Iraq having active programs of WMD development, including “yellowcake” uranium as well as chemical and biological agents spread by aerial drones. All proven false, but all used to justify the invasion of Iraq in 2003.
Indeed, many Americans continue to believe that Saddam Hussein planned the 9/11 attacks (in league with Osama Bin Laden). Recall here the rare honesty of Britain’s Downing Street Memo of 2002, which asserted that the “facts” being offered by the Bush/Cheney administration were being manufactured (“fixed”) around a pre-determined policy of invasion. The result? Iraq was yet another un-democratic war, based in part on lies. Indeed, it’s no accident that Congress hasn’t issued a formal declaration of war since 1941. (Another war based on lies: the Vietnam War, e.g. recall the false reports of attacks at Tonkin Gulf.)
Another example of post-truth was the Surge of 2007, advertised as a “win” for America even as General David Petraeus warned that progress in Iraq was both “fragile” and “reversible.” So it has proved, for here we are, a decade later, trying to recapture territory (such as Mosul) that had allegedly been pacified under Petraeus.
America’s post-truth crew has now been captured by a shameless con man, the Tweeter-in-chief, Donald Trump. Recall a saying often attributed to P.T. Barnum that “a sucker is born every minute.” Trump knows this — and will exploit it to the hilt, if the American people let him.
As January 20th approaches, Americans need to prepare themselves for a post-truth presidency. As my dad used to say to me: “Don’t believe anything that you read and only half of what you see.” Wise words for the days and years to come, but they come with a major problem. Some sense of truth, of consensus based on acknowledged facts and a rigorous and fair-minded process of reasoning, is needed for a democracy to function.
Without integrity, which is based on facts and honesty and a willingness to reason together in good will and with honorable intentions, democracy simply cannot function. Put simply, a post-truth America is an anti-democratic America. For without truth, without some consensus based on facts, all you have is lies, misinformation, and spin: a foundation of sand upon which nothing of worth can be built.