The daily psychodrama of the presidential race is mostly a blur now, but there was one moment that stands out in stark relief. Just before Election Day, a student in my journalism class posed an earnest question that stopped me dead in my tracks: “What do you do,” she asked, “if, no matter what you write, the reader won’t believe you?”
The question has haunted me ever since. Not just because I couldn’t answer it at the time, but because the nation, as a whole, seems to have no answer for it now.
What my student was referencing, unwittingly, was a concept known as epistemic closure, which is what happens when folks lock themselves inside an ideological echo chamber and refuse to accept facts that contradict their beliefs.
Several years ago, the libertarian blogger Julian Sanchez used this term — borrowed from the world of philosophy — to describe conservatives who cling to the alternate reality peddled in much of the conservative media. Sanchez and others were troubled by this pattern because they felt it led conservatives to accept and promote false beliefs: the idea that climate change is a hoax, for instance, or that Mitt Romney was destined to defeat Barack Obama for president.
I doubt Donald Trump has ever heard of epistemic closure, but he’s instinctively built his political brand upon it — and is our president because of it.
We all know the narrative. Trump initially raised his profile in GOP circles by recycling the racist smear that Obama wasn’t born in the United States. Uttering falsehoods like that or claims of mass voter fraud or skyrocketing crime — articles of faith within the conservative media — didn’t disqualify him as a candidate. They made him more and more popular. When journalists debunked his claims, supporters saw this not as evidence of his dishonesty but of a liberal media plot against him. Negative coverage deepened the bonds of grievance between Trump and his legions.
This is why they have chosen to dismiss Trump’s mounting scandals — the probe into his campaign’s alleged collusion with Russia, his leaking of classified material to Russian officials, his apparent obstruction of justice — as witch hunts.
To be clear: The majority of those who voted for Trump did so not because they believed his whoppers, but because they wanted more conservatives on the Supreme Court, or felt a tribal loyalty to the GOP, or held an ingrained hatred of Hillary Clinton, or simply wanted someone to shake up Washington.
What they got is a president for whom lying is not a last resort but a vital political tool. Take, for example, his recent interview with CBS reporter John Dickerson. Dickerson asked Trump if Obama had given him any advice. “Well, he was very nice to me. But after that, we’ve had some difficulties,” Trump said. “You know, words are less important to me than deeds. And you saw what happened with surveillance.”
Trump was alluding to his charge that Obama had wiretapped him.
“You stand by that claim about him?” Dickerson said.
“I don’t stand by anything,” Trump replied. “You can take it the way you want. I think our side has been proven very strongly. And everybody has been talking about it.”
But Trump wasn’t actually addressing Dickerson. He was speaking directly to his fans, reassuring them, as he often does in his interviews, that they should place their faith not in some allegedly corrupt journalist but in him. And they do — a late April poll found that 52 percent of Republicans actually believed this canard.
The essential crisis here isn’t that Trump lies. It’s that his lies work because journalists continually debate and debunk them. This only amplifies their efficacy within the Trumpian echo chamber, by affirming the alleged conspiracy against him and by shifting the public’s attention away from matters of policy, where the president’s deficits — his galling ignorance of why the Civil War was fought, for instance, or his refusal to place his assets in a blind trust, or his venal proposal to cut his own taxes — are harder to spin.
Focusing on Trump’s parade of lies will only feed this nihilistic loop. The press must help shift attention to the undeniable impact of his deeds, to report precisely how lives will be affected if he and his congressional minions repeal and “replace” Obamacare with an alternative that causes millions to lose their insurance, or pass a massive tax cut for the wealthy, or misuse our military, or continue to roll back environmental protections.
As citizens, we need to remember that the media respond to our decisions. If we consume stories about policy impact rather than recriminations and spin, the press will give us more of them. We need to turn our attention toward those who stand to lose medical insurance or clean drinking water or even the sustenance supplied by a program like Meals on Wheels. All of us must summon the courage to seek out news sources that challenge our beliefs using empiricism, not innuendo.
To my journalism student who worried that some readers are beyond the reach of facts, I would exhort her to stick to pieces about the consequences of Trump’s executive orders and proposals. These are the human stories with the potential to transcend our gaping political divide, the ones we need — now, more than ever — to heed.