Entertaining Our Way into Falsehoods
Long after Donald Trump leaves office, analysts will continue to discuss the roots of his presidency’s excesses and outrages. They will offer explanations about larger phenomena in politics and society that go beyond Trump himself and that helped to make possible the damage he has inflicted on the republic. Some of those explanations will focus on subsets of the population, such as his electoral base or the Republican Party. Other explanations, just as appropriately, will point to still larger trends, attitudes, or developments that involve American society as a whole.
Such larger-scale explanations are applicable to one of the biggest of Trump’s excesses, which is his utter disdain for truth. He constantly dispenses fiction as if it were fact. There have been earlier indications that Trump is, in this respect, a culmination of a phenomenon that began before him. There was, for example, the aide (generally thought to be Karl Rove) in President George W. Bush’s administration who brushed aside the “reality-based community” and said “we create our own reality”. There also is the whole phenomenon of fake news (real fake news, that is, not valid reporting that Donald Trump happens to find inconvenient), which began before Trump entered the White House.
The dependence of fake news for its impact on rapid dissemination of falsehoods on the internet demonstrates how technological advances have much to do with the problem. Robert Kaplan writes, “It is impossible to imagine Trump and his repeated big lies that go viral except in the digital-video age.” The technological possibilities for such mischief continue to expand. Kevin Roose reports in The New York Times on a program called FakeApp that generates phony but convincing videos, such as ones that graft the head of a political figure or other celebrity on the body of a pornographic performer.
Technology certainly has enlarged the toolbox for promoting falsehoods, but it is not essential. All that is required for fostering mass misbelief is something that stimulates people’s imagination about what has gone on out of their sight behind closed doors. One of the most pernicious art forms in this regard, even though it enjoys legitimacy and respect among critics and the public, is the motion picture or television drama that tells a fictionalized story involving real people, institutions, and events. This art form is the ultimate blending of fact and fiction, in which scriptwriters can make the blending as seamless as the blending of pixels by a computer program such as FakeApp. Thus the people—maybe even a majority of Americans—come to believe the fiction as if it were fact. The fiction can have political or policy consequences.
In some respects this problem has been around as long as show business has written and staged historical dramas. Some of my first exposure to events of the late Roman Republic was from reading William Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar in high school. It was only later that I read real histories of the subject. But modern film and television can provide a much more realistic-looking portrayal of historical events than could actors on the stage of the Globe Theater. Some of the screens on which viewers watch the dramas are the same screens to which they turn for news and information and what they consider to be objective portrayals of reality. People are less likely to spot a turn in a drama from fact to fiction than to spot the duplicity of a fake video that purports to show a well-known political figure performing an obscene act. Modern film producers and cable channels have more ways to convey an impression of reality than did Shakespeare. But like him, their objective is to entertain audiences, not to inform them or to present to them an accurate portrayal of reality.
A recent example of this phenomenon is a critically praised Hulu television mini-series that bears the same title as, and is supposed to be based on, Lawrence Wright’s book The Looming Tower, which is about the run-up to the 9/11 terrorist attacks. Wright’s book qualified as nonfiction, but the transfer to the screen involves not only the emphasis for dramatic effect of some aspects of the story over others but also a generous insertion of outright fiction. Dialogue is devised that was never spoken, arguments are staged that were never argued, and scenes are constructed that never took place.
But heck, it’s a drama. Washington Post television critic Hank Stuever observes that the show’s “disclaimer about fudging some facts to smooth the story out” makes it difficult for the viewer to determine what is factual and what is not. The great majority of viewers no doubt will follow Stuever’s advice: “Maybe it’s more watchable if you let yourself get lost in it and pay closer attention to its themes rather than its footnotes.” Most viewers will take the series as a whole to be factual, even if it isn't.