The Perfect Post-truth President

Among the many unsettling developments of the incipient Trump era, Oxford Dictionaries this week declared “post-truth” its international word of the year. The term is defined by the dictionary as an adjective “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.”

As with the real news that fake news disseminated on Facebook may have tilted the US presidential election, the real news — at least it seems real, it’s hard to tell in a post-truth world — that post-truth is now a thing, elicits the immediate reaction of “How did this happen?” and the subsequent reaction, “What can we do about it?”

How did this happen is fairly easily explained by nearly two decades of Balloon Boys, tanning moms, reality shows and creepy clown epidemics — a post-internet, social media-fuelled extravaganza of content, overwhelmingly contrived, in which objective facts have been less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.

Donald Trump has been both a purveyor of this content — in both the entertainment and political realms— and beneficiary of the phenomenon that has elevated it to the status of fact.

The political exploitation of post-truth may be new to America in its most recent, emotionally charged incarnation as opposed to its less sophisticated, pre-post-truth manifestations, which included lying, prevaricating, non-denial denials and pathological parsing, all of which were considered politically undesirable, possibly disqualifying and, occasionally, impeachable.

But it is not new to other, less democratic jurisdictions. Post-truth has been the status quo in countries where unimaginable effort and expense are expended annually to perpetuate narratives in which objective facts have been less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief for a few years now.

The value in this practice is that it enables, justifies and rationalizes the production of certain outcomes — political, social, economic and more and more frequently involving the suspension of civil liberties, including the incarceration of the purveyors of real as opposed to fake news, the surveillance of citizens who’ve committed no crime, the wider erosion of privacy laws and the redefinition of dissent to include a breathtakingly vast array of opinion.

Given that, in the nearly three decades since America won the Cold War, the world has gradually shifted away from bottom-line democratic norms and toward practices that echo those of less democratic nations, what are the outcomes that await us as a result of the orgy of post-truth that has been unfolding on the political stage of the only democratic superpower for the past 18 months?

It has been widely observed that Donald Trump is not an ideologue and that seems to be true. Mr. Trump, for all his contradictions, seems to be relatively uncomplicated in that he has spent the past half-century satisfying the overriding goal of making money — not an ignoble mission but one that, in most previous presidents, has been either not applicable or dwarfed biographically by more altruistic pursuits.

People were angry before Donald Trump channelled that anger into a previously unthinkable election outcome. They were not particularly angry at each other. They were angry because their lives have changed radically in the past two decades and when the present is this unfamiliar, the future becomes unfathomable. Giving them someone to blame is an alluring diversion from that unfathomability.

As has also been said about Mr. Trump, he may surprise us. It may transpire that the outcomes he envisions benefit not just him and the interests invested in his election victory, but the majority of Americans and people in the rest of the world whose fates are tied to America’s continued ability to effect positive outcomes elsewhere.

Whatever else Donald Trump does, the one thing he has been from the moment he first rolled down that escalator and delivered the launch speech that recalibrated our credulity on what was possible in American political life to the moment he entrenched that recalibration by winning the election, he has been an hourly post-truth content provider and credulity recalibrator.

Meanwhile, what can we do about a culture in which truth has become a casualty of manipulation, manufactured narratives and fiction-based tactical warfare? Practice hypervigilance, informed discernment and unwavering common sense.

Nearly 20 years ago, when I was first based in Washington, I wrote a column about the difference between the job of president and the role of president. Mr. Trump does not, technically, have the job yet. But his role already seems to be to fill our inboxes with the historically unprecedented.