“The truth still exists,” U.S. District Judge Amy Berman Jackson said on Thursday. “The truth still matters.” She spoke at the sentencing hearing for Roger Stone, career ratfucker and longtime confidante of one Donald Trump. Stone had already been convicted on charges of lying to Congress and witness tampering related to his attempted coverup of his ratfucking activities on Trump’s behalf in 2016. “Roger Stone’s insistence that it doesn’t,” Jackson continued, still referring to the truth, “his belligerence, his pride in his own lies are a threat to our most fundamental institutions, to the foundations of our democracy. If it goes unpunished, it will not be a victory for one party or another. Everyone loses.”
It’s unclear from the court reporting what tone Jackson adopted for that first part. Was she assured? Confident? Defiant? Hopeful, even? Because the argument that the truth still exists and that it still matters in the Year of Our Lord 2020 is no done deal. The jury is very much out. We have strayed very far from our school days, when the world was split into truth and fiction and things like “checks and balances” were almost self-evident. The war on the concept of truth waged for three years now by Donald Trump, American president is beginning to pay real dividends. The president does not subscribe to the concept of objective reality, where there are observable features of the world around us and facts we can consequently all agree on. He believes the truth is whatever you can get enough people to believe, and you’re never guilty if you never admit it. In a polarized political environment and a balkanized media ecosystem, he might just be right.
One thing Jackson gets right is that all this is a threat to democracy. We cannot function as a society—we cannot make rules and policies around how we live, we cannot forge a way forward together—if we cannot agree on basic facts about the world around us. The Enlightenment gave us the tools to discover and verify and spread the truth regardless of what powerful people thought of it, but we have lost our grip on those tools and allowed ourselves to slide back into a tribalist dark age. In this environment, where the powerful say what’s real and their followers believe them, those in power can avoid the kind of accountability for their actions that undergirds a democratic republic. Without checks on their power, they can easily grow it. You need not serve your constituents if they will believe you’re serving them simply because you tell them you are.
And it’s here where Jackson’s statement surely moved towards hope or defiance. If Stone’s villainous lying goes unpunished, she said, “it will not be a victory for one party or another.” Really? Because it seems like one party is winning. The president has declared all negative information about him to be “fake,” and all positive information to be “real.” This is the only basis on which he evaluates information. It’s the attitude of a toddler—perhaps even your three-year-old can more easily process shame and disappointment—but this man has a very good chance of being re-elected to the most powerful office in the world. His Republican Party will very likely retain control of the Senate and all its antidemocratic capabilities. They now believe they have a shot to regain the House of Representatives. Along the way these three years, they’ve stuffed the courts full of judges who will entrench their minority rule for decades.
The president’s attitude towards information—is it good for me, or is it bad for me?—made yet another appearance this week in the matter concerning the United States Director of National Intelligence. We’ve got a new acting director, you see, and it’s a former internet pest whom Trump first saw fit to make ambassador to Germany, and who now will serve as (part-time!) acting head of our intelligence community. Richard Grenell surely got the gig because he will massage the information that comes across his desk until it is sufficiently palatable for The Boss. His predecessor, who also served in an “acting” capacity because the Constitution’s mandate that the Senate advise and consent on major appointments doesn’t matter if you just ignore it, lost the job because he did not adhere to the essential Trumpian mantra: Real News is whatever’s good for Trump.
At least, that’s what The New York Times reported Thursday and what NBC News backed up Friday. Joseph Maguire, the ex-acting chief, made the grave mistake of observing protocol by having his subordinates brief congressional leaders on the evidence that Russia is once again interfering in our elections heading into 2020, and that they once again want Trump to win. This is an exceedingly believable notion, considering Trump has a habit of siding with the Russians on any issue that comes up. He’s fought sanctions against them and slowed their implementation. He opened the door for them to seize control of northern Syria. All this culminated in his extortion of Ukraine, with which Russia is currently at war via proxy forces. Trump has torn up notes of his meetings with Russian President Vladimir Putin and the White House has failed to report their phone calls, leaving the American public to learn of them when the Russians make it public.
But none of this is of interest to the public, in the president’s calculus, including the fact that a geopolitical adversary is set to attack our democracy again this year. The Director of National Intelligence had no business telling the people’s representatives in Congress about it. And why? It “angered Mr. Trump,” the Times reported, “who complained that Democrats would use it against him.” It is entirely irrelevant to him whether the 2020 elections will be free and fair, and whether Americans will be allowed to choose their own leaders without interference. What matters is that he wins, at any cost. This, of course, reflects the larger Republican attitude towards elections, where the ends always justify the means. Voter suppression, voter purges, closing polling stations in Certain Neighborhoods, extreme gerrymandering, foreign interference—anything goes if it keeps you in power. And if you lose, you can just strip the office you lost of it’s powers before a Democrat can get in there and, uh, do the job the public elected them to do.
It’s really no wonder, then, that Trump would rise to control a party that long ago chose to slide towards authoritarianism rather than appeal to any slice of the public outside The Base of white ultraconservative Evangelicals and those who’ve made common cause. But the efficiency with which the president has used weaponized falsehood to erode the pillars of a democratic republic is staggering. The principles of consensus and persuasion that define democratic politics are beginning to falter. The president and his movement do not use words to persuade, but as a rhetorical bludgeon to beat down The Enemies. What they are offering is force.
On The Apprentice, producers would often find themselves scrambling to put an episode together after Trump inexplicably fired someone who’d performed well, because he hadn’t been paying attention before the boardroom. They’d have to reverse-engineer the episode until Trump’s conclusion made sense. Now, one of America’s two major political parties, a large swathe of its media outlets, and increasingly, the actual federal government are all devoted to the same task. Except now, they’re reverse-engineering reality itself to meet the president’s preferences. This will have consequences from a governing standpoint, of course: if you make policy in defiance of the real world, it will eventually catch up to you. But perhaps the more immediate concern is that it may finish off our ability to govern ourselves, to compare our leaders’ words and actions to what we can see and verify around us and hold them to account on that basis. The threat is that we will once again slide into darkness, where all that matters is power and force.