The word “truthiness” was given its modern coinage in 2005, a political era that seemed almost innocent in comparison with our current one. Referring to “the quality of seeming to be true according to one’s intuition, opinion, or perception without regard to logic, factual evidence, or the like,” “truthiness” sounds quaint, almost charming now—a folksy, lighthearted way of pointing out the exaggerations and untruths of politicians. But it doesn’t do justice to the reality of 2020.
Since 2005, we’ve been introduced to “alternative facts,” “clickbait,” and new heights of political theater and propaganda. Depending on your preferred cable news stations, the makeup of your Facebook newsfeed, and the political leanings of your friends and family, you’re probably seeing an inordinate focus on the evils of the other party, whichever that may be. All fine, except much of the fodder that feeds the news entertainment machine is drenched in truthiness and alternative facts—the enemy of truth. You can spend most of your day watching, reading, and listening to political “experts” and come away stressed, infuriated, or even panicked but no more informed than when you started.
A good chunk of Americans get their news from blogs and biased news sources that rarely, if ever, issue a correction or an apology. Videos are selectively edited, even altered, to incite outrage of one kind or another. Even with unaltered footage, skillful editing can present something that’s true in a way that isn’t honest. Much of this activity is driven not by political ideals, but by craven greed.
Still, one can easily make the case that exaggeration, lying, prevarication—or whatever synonym you prefer—is an essential part of the political game. Think back to Barack Obama’s “If you like your health-care plan, you can keep it,” or before that, George W. Bush’s obfuscations about weapons of mass destruction in Iraq. Before that came Bill Clinton’s sex scandal, and George Bush’s “Read my lips” speech. The list could go on, back to our original president, of whom the myth of the cherry tree and “I cannot tell a lie” is, itself, a lie.
But presidential lying was never considered acceptable, or part of the job, or a minor quibble, until now. Donald Trump has kept fact-checkers busier than any other president, including the former poster boy for dishonesty, Richard Nixon.
This isn’t surprising, given Trump’s flair for hyperbole, but it is disturbing. Love him or hate him, Donald Trump has always been a showman first, and for him, such misrepresentations are not just harmless, but part of the game.
He seems immune to any serious repercussions from his misstatements, perhaps because they’ve created such a fog around reality that most of us can’t easily see the truth. And though Trump makes for a particularly egregious example of political prevarication, his opponent in the upcoming presidential election, Joe Biden, has his own long history of plagiarism, conflated stories and exaggerations.
America is a democratic republic, a messy but effective proposition that blends the names and the ideas of the two major U.S. political parties. The political gray area between the extremes of the left and right is where most of the real debate and compromise in this country takes place, and it’s where, whether closer to one end or the other, most of its citizens place their own beliefs.
The complexities and subtleties of understanding that gray area, let alone navigating it, are imposing, which makes it even more important to inform oneself with facts, rather than frenzied hyperbole. Honesty should be the first thing we seek in a president, not the last, but we can’t expect that honesty unless we demand it, by engaging in fact checks rather than gut checks.
So whoever wins on Election Day, let’s hope it marks the beginning of a new, more open and honest age of political debate. It would be better for all of us. And that’s the truth.
Peter Dabbene is a Hamilton-based writer. His website is peterdabbene.com.