The US Presidential Election 2020 is the COVID-19 election saturated with post-truth political communication. While the presidential campaign necessarily breathed and belched the air of post-truth politics from its inception, the first week of the campaign’s final month, 27 September-3 October, took post-truth to new levels of intensity and showcased the concept’s multiple forms. They ranged from bullshit to rumor bombs, conspiracy theories, fake news, and lying, which, as I’ve explained, issue from and help reproduce a culture of generalized political distrust, paranoia, and panic, at home in a larger promotional culture of incessantly pervasive artifice.
The first Trump-Biden debate occurred on 30 September 2020. The day after, major American and global news brands (from CNN to the BBC) were awash with striking headlines and subsequent text accusing Trump of lying and of demonstrating a historic level of incivility in the debate. The episode came only three days after the New York Times broke a potentially scandalous (for almost any past presidential election) story that he paid a mere $750 in income taxes in 2016, the year of his election (and in some previous years paid none at all). The debates also came three days before Trump publicly admitted that he and his wife had contracted the coronavirus (and after months of his playing down the gravity of the pandemic). The world repeatedly heard him refusing to unequivocally support medical professionals’ advised mask-wearing and social distancing, while he bandied about half-truths concerning the virus’s origins, character, and preventions. Earlier in the day, before reports that POTUS and FLOTUS tested positive for the coronavirus, news outlets around the world reported a new Cornell University study found Trump was a superspreader: “the single largest driver” of misinformation in the “infodemic” between January and June 2020.
Post-truth in digital era presidential campaigns does not begin with Trump. In the 21st century, it dates at least as far back as the 2004 Bush-Kerry election, in which the infamous Swift Boat Veterans for Truth, insisted Kerry lied about his decorated war record in Vietnam (not without 20th century prototypes). The accusations were discredited but perhaps after it was too late and after they had preoccupied a significant bloc of swing voters. People need not believe such disinformation is true; it is politically efficacious enough to preoccupy and confuse them, make them suspicious of someone or some group, distract and refocus them. What perhaps makes Trump unprecedented in this recent history of post-truth strategies and performances is that the disinformation was formerly coming mostly from surrogates (groups or people not directly working on the candidate’s campaign), even if a heartbeat away from the president, as Bush’s vice president Dick Cheney on several occasions made misleading and false claims that Iraq had direct links with Al Qaeda or that there was proof of Weapons of Mass Destruction.
While each major post-truth spectacle of the week beckons analysis, a reflection on the debate’s post-truth qualities and its mediated afterlife merits special attention. In general, moderator Chris Wallace tried in vain to restore yesteryear debate standards, expectations, and practices (themselves time-worn with staged authenticity, question avoidance, and talking points), while Trump constantly interrupted and talked over his opponent, and each candidate exchanged playground insults—all characteristic of what I’ve called an aggressively masculinist post-truth political style, “emo-truth”, where aggressive traditional masculine communication qualities are confused with honesty and accuracy. While factcheckers also criticized Biden for his errors, strategic (disinformative) or not (misinformative), Trump’s overall performance (his style and claims) was more spectacularly emo-truth than Biden’s. But it was also the mediated afterlife of the debate (attempts to frame what happened and what it meant) that radiated post-truth.
One of post-truth political communication’s most prominent features is the constant accusation of lying and lies, potentially constituting for those listening to such claims a public sphere whose epistemology is emptied by distrust. Consider this experiment. In Paris, changing my VPN (secure IP address) to Washington, D.C. and googling “Trump-Biden debate factcheck,” I get, in order of appearance, stories by the following ten sources: apnews.com; cnn.com ; Washingtonpost.com; bbc.com; factcheck.org; usatoday.com; chicagotribune.com; cbsnews.com; nytimes.com; poynter.org—to report only the top ten hits. First observation (yes, captive to the google algorithm and its implicit ordering of importance): traditional news organizations (print, TV and radio broadcast) compete for trust and attention with highly visible, public service non-profit factchecking sites. (Via VPN, a shift from a Washington D.C. IP address to one in Los Angeles produced nearly the same google results, cache/cookies also cleared). Trust is the autobahn to acceptance of truth claims (the objects of which one often knows very little about—such as, say, energy policy).
Another observation: headlines are part of the ongoing infotainment trend in news values that inevitably makes journalism a casualty of the attention economy. These headlines are an extension of the paradoxically sensationalist ratings of popular US factcheck organizations or sites, such as Washington Post’s “Fact checker,” whose categories of evaluation range from the dullish “True” to the metaphorically provocative “Pinocchio”; and Pulitzer Prize-winner Politifact’s similar scale of sensational verification, “True” to “Pants on Fire.” These rubrics of truth adjudication themselves entail unproven or unprovable, if exciting, accusations of lying—its sensational presentation indicating that truth is also a commodity (thus I speak of “truth markets”); or as the New York Times’ marketing campaign goes: “The Truth is Worth It.” Clearly, such a slogan would be absurd in an economy of seeming truth abundance. Nonetheless, it’s one thing to demonstrate a claim is false; it’s quite another to prove it is intentionally so. If Trump is an inveterate purveyor of falsehoods, it’s not always clear whether he’s a bullshitter, liar, or strategic misleader who is simply more flamboyant and frequent in his statements than the thousands of politicians who hire consultants in order to master the art of deceptive political communication. (Note: “bullshit,” if you’re perplexed, is also an academic concept, meaning someone who is not necessarily intentionally telling falsehoods; they just don’t care whether the statement is true or false).
Witness the telling headlines:
- Washington Post: “Belligerent Trump debate performance stokes fears among Republicans about November.”
- CNN: “Trump unleashes avalanche of repeat lies at first presidential debate.”
- Associated Press: “AP FACT CHECK: False claims swamp first Trump-Biden debate.”
Inference and judgments (“belligerent Trump,” “stokes fears,” “repeat lies,” “false claims”) saturated these provocative headlines. They were accompanied by news organizations with comparatively blander headlines, appealing to more traditional expectations (public and professional) where journalism performed a rhetoric of objectivity. The branding implication: you can trust the palpably bland. Thus, ABC News’ “Fact-checking Trump and Biden during first 2020 presidential debate” was in the same vein as USA Today and Factcheck.org. Interestingly, the Star Tribune’s apparently neutral headline, “AP FACT CHECK: False claims swamp first Trump-Biden debate,” was followed by a provocatively judgmental hook: “President Donald Trump unleashed a torrent of fabrications and fear-mongering in a belligerent debate with Joe Biden.”
The post-truth nature of the debates and their coverage (including social media platforms, and those posing as such while issuing from well-funded disinformation sources) is reinforced by a consistent set of stimulating primary and secondary (mediated) expressions, each one in part becoming cultural context for the next. Thus, responses to news that Trump was corona-positive was met with generalized distrust. “‘I don’t believe it,’ said Anthony Collier, a truck driver from Atlanta,” who was among several such skeptics featured in a New York Times article on the topic. True, that is in response to Trump, who attracts extremes of automatic belief and disbelief, but a difficult question faces those of us brave enough to entertain it: is generalized distrust for the political culture (and transient particular trust in its cast and institutions of truth-tellers) really unreasonable, even if democratically precarious today? “Across social media, in interviews, in conversations, the questions poured in all day from people who have heard so many contradictory things over the last four years—a warp-speed whiplash of conflicting realities—that they no longer know what is true,” the Times reasoned.
The week of post-truth overload went out with a whimper—or was it a bang? These days, one witness’s little whimper is another’s big bang. On Saturday evening (3 October), Trump posted a four-minute rambling video from the hospital, in which he attempted to convince the public that he was improving after a day of “contradictory messages” about it from the White House. “When I came here, wasn’t feeling so well, I feel much better now,” he said. As if always trying to convert a grammatical conditional into a declarative (emo-) truth through the very authority of the performance, he continued: “I’ll be back, I think I’ll be back soon, and I look forward to finishing up the campaign the way it was started and the way we’ve been doing and the kind of numbers that we’ve been doing,” he asserted, then doubted, and then hoped, capped off with a brag. Showing the consistent traditional boldness that his supporters confuse for truthfulness, Trump went even further on Sunday 4 October, organizing a joyride to show he was beating the virus (and anyone or anything else that dared to cross him), which Secret Service agents and Walter Reed Hospital doctors called “careless” and “insane.” But post-truth political communication shares with reality TV this aspect: careless or insane, for a significant portion of citizens, is true. It is also, as I’ve argued elsewhere, where post-truth communication and toxic masculinity intersect. There is something palpably egotistical, traditionally, masculinely boastful about this kind of post-truth communication.
Thus, the new week began much as the previous one (and so many in recent memory). Monday evening (5 October) Trump was back in the White House and back on Twitter, back to bullshitting, back to creating controversy, back to superspreading, perhaps in a double sense. A few hours before he left the hospital, he tweeted that he felt “really good,” and then was back to downplaying the danger of the virus, advising followers, “Don’t be afraid of Covid. Don’t let it dominate your life.” Still fully contagious, upon arrival at the White House, he removed his mask for photos, outraging medical professionals and concerned citizens. Reports continued to question his real health status, despite his words and actions (he had received supplemental oxygen twice over the weekend and was “not out of the woods,” the White House physician admitted).
By 6 October, Tuesday afternoon, where this extended vignette of the campaign ends, in a tweet Trump had once again compared COVID-19 with the flu (the latter of which he claimed was more lethal). Facebook blocked his post immediately, saying it forbids “incorrect information about the severity of COVID-19, and have now removed this post.” Twitter also hid the tweet, announcing that it “violated Twitter rules about spreading misleading and potentially harmful information related to Covid-19”—but only after 59,000 retweets and 186,000 likes. Thus, he could convert attention from inaccurate claims to constructed public issues of “freedom of speech,” an especially common post-truth tactic. Trump further self-promoted that he was looking forward to debating Biden in Miami next week. In a flashback to the 2016 election where Trump dominated news coverage, a convenience sample of news websites (New York Times, The Guardian, The Washington Post) showed Biden getting very little attention on all of these sites, The Guardian US site being the most flagrantly unequal: Trump’s name appeared 52 times on the landing page, Biden’s but thrice. As Trump knows: bad news may be good news.
This has been a vignette of the 2020 campaign: a spectacular example, yet arguably an illustration of its general culture. Indeed, the argument that I’ve made, which is glossed in my Oxford Research Encyclopedia article, is that this is about an overall culture. Whether or not Trump wins (or survives the coronavirus), judging by his consistent support in polls with nearly 30% of the voting public having long supported him no matter what he does or says, the emo-truth sub-category of post-truth political performance may influence politics for the foreseeable future. As we’ve seen with variations on Trump’s aggressively masculinist post-truth communication with Brazil’s Jair Bolsonaro and the UK’s Boris Johnson, and even with his opponent Biden to some degree (which is probably why he’s the last tough old white “emo-dude” standing), the trend is not limited to the US nor to the far right. Only a more multi-causal, culturally and historically sensitive analysis of post-truth politics will help us demand a different culture of truth production, recognition, and trust—and campaigns that rely on them. Meanwhile, post-truth is the context for post-liberal democracy.
Featured image by Element5 Digital