Last week, Joe Biden became the 46th President of the United States, putting an end to four years of Trump-led turmoil, chaos and mind-boggling incompetence. America and its system of government managed to survive, though Trump left behind a destructive legacy of disunity, polarization, renascent racism, nepotism, corruption, crony politics, and a dangerous turn towards authoritarianism verging on fascism.
Most damaging perhaps, was that through a concerted and consistent effort at sowing doubt, disinformation and outright falsehoods, Trump managed to persuade a significant number of Americans that they should ignore the scientific, academic, professional and journalistic infrastructures in the U.S. and look only to him as their source of what was true and factual. The era of “alternate facts” was born.
Trump became the ultimate source of “expertise” on all issues and matters, regardless of his very limited knowledge in any field, except perhaps how to con people and cheat at business.
Many of those that worked in his revolving door of an administration have testified as to how Trump devoted very little time to reading, research or conferring with experts, yet was perpetually claiming to know and understand issues and topics that were way outside his education, experience or even ability to grasp. He simply made up his own facts and made decisions strictly by gut feel or on the basis of ideological bent. His shunning of expert advice and glaring disrespect for the scientific community was legendary.
Governments, organizations and even societies as a whole, cannot survive and prosper when the most fundamental pillar on which they rest, namely a dedication to truth and honesty, is eroded. Regrettably, a dedication to the truth is not easy. As the French philosopher Diderot once said – “We swallow greedily any lie that flatters us, but we sip only little by little at a truth we find bitter.” Trump was a master at telling his naïve followers what they wanted to hear, rather than what was true. He pandered to their prejudices, biases and desires to see everything in black and white terms. He knew how to harness people’s frustrations, bigotry, ignorance and insecurities. He fomented conspiracies and paranoia in order to achieve his aims, the primary ones being to gain ultimate power and to enrich himself and his family. The alarming thing is that he almost succeeded in permanently entrenching himself as the American “Il Duce”.
When we examine the importance of truth in our western societies, we inevitably realize that the two most important guarantors of truth are first, a nation’s laws and constitution, and secondly, a strong Fourth Estate, namely a free and independent press and news media. A strong legal system ensures that societies ensure justice and equality for all, and that all legal issues and conflicts are resolved on the basis of facts and not determined by political expediency or the whims of those in power. The journalistic establishment provides the necessary oversight to make certain that the government and the judicial system function according to the established law of the land, and for the benefit of the citizenry as a whole and not just for the benefit of the rich and powerful elite.
History has shown us conclusively, that one of the first steps that dictators and authoritarian leaders take when they come into power, is to control the press and the news media in all its forms. When you control the flow of information to the public, you control the truth they are allowed to see. It would have been difficult for Trump to directly gain control of all the mainstream news media in the U.S., so he did the next best thing – he undermined the people’s trust in it. Using the power of his office and with the assistance of compliant far-right news outlets like FOX and Breitbart, he persuaded a significant proportion of the American population to believe that long-established and credible news sources such as the New York Times, the Washington Post, CNN, the major TV networks such as CBS, ABC and NBC, and most media in general were “enemies of the people”. He spun the tale that they were all involved in a big conspiracy by the “deep state” to discredit him as the only true champion of the people. Sadly, and incomprehensibly, far too many Americans bought into this “Big Lie”.
As the noted English writer Aldous Huxley once said – “Facts do not cease to exist because they are ignored.” Now that Trump has lost his power, the facts and the truth about him will come out in the months and years ahead, and it will only be then that people will be forced to realize how badly and maliciously they were fooled, and how close the world’s longest-lived and most powerful democracy came close to collapse.