Anyone who has closely watched a campaign that has captivated and besmirched its followers in equal measure could name several contenders for Most Lastingly Significant Quote. With Americans trooping sullenly off to vote for their least worst option, we won’t know for hours whether “basket of deplorables” has the edge over “grab them by the pussy” and “such a nasty woman”. So, during this unnervingly calm hiatus, I’d like to nominate a more obscure quote which strikes me as hugely instructive.It came not from either candidate, but Alec Baldwin’s astute impression of Donald Trump in his final satirical confrontation with Kate McKinnon’s immaculate Hillary Clinton on the eve-of-election edition of Saturday Night Live.
“Why are you defending her, Erin?” Baldwin’s Donald asks the network interviewer in the sketch. “Are you a lez with her? Because I’ve heard from a lot of people that you’re lezzing her?” “That doesn’t even make sense.” “It doesn’t matter, Erin, because I said it. And now half the country believes it.”
And there, beautifully crystallised, is the most blood-chilling lesson from a campaign hardly short on icy tutorials. The truth has become so devalued that what was once the gold standard of political debate is a worthless currency.
A few days ago, at Barack Obama rally for Hillary, the crowd turned on a Trump fan in their midst. Obama being Obama, he asked them to hush. “You’ve got an older gentleman who is supporting his candidate. He’s not doing nothing,” said the Prez, the only possible criticism of that being the use of a double negative. That apart, he was entirely positive about the man’s perfect right to support Trump. “We live in a country that respects free speech … we got to respect our elders. Don't boo. Vote. Don’t boo. Vote.”
All of this was filmed, of course. The truth of the incident was instantly available for anyone with internet access.
Later that day, however, Trump wove his bespoke take on it into the rich tapestry that was his stump speech. ”You have to go… and see what happened,“ he told a rally in Pennsylvania. ”[Obama] spent so much time screaming at a protester, and frankly it was a disgrace." If not the Baldwin version’s “half of America”, many millions of Americans will have actively decided to believe this idiotic invention. It fits perfectly, after all, into the insane, Obama the Tyrant narrative that is such a central building block of the Breitbart alternative reality.
We see the same phenomenon here. We saw it during the referendum campaign, mostly though far from solely from Brexiteers. And again last week when the High Court judgment that Parliament must be consulted before the activation of Article 50 was wilfully misrepresented by right wing papers as an attempted judicial coup against the popular will.
A few weeks ago, when a friend repeated the old canard about Hillary being terminally ill, I prissily pointed out that this was simply not objectively true. “I don’t give toss about objective truth,” he said with what might serve as the heraldic motto for the age. “Everyone’s free to choose their own truth”.
How did we come to a mass state of altered consciousness, as foreseen by George Orwell in Nineteen Eighty-Four (though it took massive blasts of electricity to persuade Winston Smith he was seeing six fingers on O’Brien’s hand)? And how did we come to it so quickly?
In 2005, Stephen Colbert coined “truthiness” as the noun for lies which feel right in the gut. Just over a decade later, Donald Trump has hothoused the seed, as planted by George W Bush over Iraq, by jettisoning the need for his lies to feel even vaguely credible.
No one sharing the same postal code as their right mind could imagine Obama berating anyone in the way that Trump, that grandmaster of projection, has bullied protesters at his rallies. Yet although the lie was blatant and silly – and instantly exposable as such – there was no risk to him in telling it. Inhabitants of internet-created bubbles, where algorithms feed their prejudices and misconceptions with cosseting confirmations of whatever they have selected fir their besoke truth, are axiomatically beyond the reach of fact. The vertical descent into a fantasy land – a Venn diagram intersect where doublethink and deliberate self-delusion meet – will not be corrected if Trump loses today.
In that event, the relief ought to be as transient as it will be intense. The conditions for a more plausible semi-fascist than him to capitalise on the relegation of objective truth to a quaint but irrelevant electoral artefact will survive him.
If this bullet is dodged, don’t imagine that it is time to take off the bullet-proof vest. The source of this danger was never a tangerine grifter. Trump is not the originator of a frantic desire to flee reality. He is its manifestation.
How this even begins to be reversed, how internet-reared and internet-addled generations can be taught to venerate provable fact over the lies which reinforce whichever truth they have chosen, I have no idea. Perhaps the second President Clinton would care to start working on that if fate smiles on her and the planet today.
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