I’ve been eligible to vote in five presidential elections. In four of them, the Democratic candidate earned the most votes. In three of them, the Republican won anyway.
Both Republican presidents of my adulthood, in fact, were elected by minorities. They benefited from a constitutional anachronism and went on to inflict grievous harm to our country. The first lied us into war, allowed his goons to operate a torture regime, let a major American city drown through incompetence and neglect, allowed lobbyists to plunder the federal bureaucracy, then crashed the global economy on a scale not seen since the Great Depression.
The second has been so crass and narcissistic that we’ve retconned the first into a decent human being. (He gave Michelle Obama candy one time. Wasn’t that sweet?)
Since taking office nearly three years ago, Donald Trump has systematically rolled back environmental regulations even as the effects of climate change become undeniable. He’s eviscerated protections for LGBTQ citizens. He’s ripped immigrant children from their mothers and thrown families in cages. He’s put a white supremacist in charge of immigration policy and catered to white nationalists. He’s nurtured petty grievances and publicly attacked teenagers. He’s lied more than fifteen thousand times so far in office, according to The Washington Post. He also became the only president to be impeached during his first term.
And he’s appointed a third of the federal judiciary—a feat made possible by Mitch McConnell’s unprecedented blockade of judicial seats while Barack Obama was president—a legacy that will far outlive any other “accomplishment.” The American Bar Association has rated five of these appointments (and two others whose nominations were withdrawn) “not qualified”—including one who, in October, it deemed “arrogant, lazy, an ideologue, and lacking in knowledge.”
Senate Republicans confirmed him anyway. The Trump administration had already ended the ABA’s formal role in vetting judges. The ABA, the leader of a group that supports Trump’s judges complained, was a “liberal dark-money group.” Its advice—which administrations have sought since Eisenhower—should simply be ignored, a Republican senator said.
And so they did. Reality was inconvenient, so they shrugged it aside and invented their own.
That feels like the story of 2019—the story of Robert Mueller, of Ukraine, of impeachment, of Brexit, of the fake border-wall “emergency,” of the resurgence of white nationalism: It was the year truth lost and bullshit prevailed.
By year’s end, the bullshit didn’t even need a foot grounded in the real world. After the editor of the magazine Christianity Today—a publication founded by the late Billy Graham that writes about things like “end times ecology”—called for Trump’s removal from office on the grounds that he is “grossly immoral,” the president went on a funny-if-it-weren’t-insane Twitter tirade, calling Christianity Today a “far left magazine” that “has been doing poorly” and “knows nothing about reading a perfect transcript of a routine phone call.” He then said he “won’t be reading ET [sic] again!” as if the latest issue had a regular home on his nightstand.
On cue, nearly two hundred prominent evangelicals reflexively rallied to Trump’s banner, chastising the magazine for calling out a mendacious, thrice-married, philandering libertine who has been accused of sexual assault by two-dozen women. Questioning Trump, they argued, meant questioning the spiritual integrity of his devotees. (Perhaps that’s why they found the look in the mirror so uncomfortable.)
No one blinked at Trump’s assertion that Christianity Today—a magazine rooted in biblical literalism—is some sort of Marxist publication or that his attempted extortion of Ukraine’s president was “routine.”
Of course, throughout the entire Ukrainian affair, and through the entire saga over the Russia investigation, this has also been the Republican Party line—an almost admirably stubborn see-no-evil, hear-no-evil commitment to the president’s innocence and good intentions that has invented strawmen and conspiracy theories and off-the-rails counter-narratives only to see them debunked time and time again, all the while muddying reality’s waters.
Then again, that was the point all along.
Over Christmas, I got into a conversation with a boomer relative about Ukraine. This isn’t someone who reads random things on the Internet or even has a Facebook account, nor is this an uncurious or unintelligent person. And yet, the disinformation—thanks to Fox News and its even more propagandistic cousin, OANN—had permeated.
The conversation went something like this:
What’s the difference between Joe Biden threatening to withhold money from Ukraine to fire the prosecutor who was investigating his son and what Trump did?
The prosecutor wasn’t investigating his son, I replied. And we forced the prosecutor out because he was corrupt. This was done in the interests of American foreign policy. What Trump did helped Trump.
That’s not what the transcript says.
Have you read the transcript?
But Trump just wanted to investigate the election hacking.
Ukraine had nothing to do with that. If Trump really believes that, he’s a moron. It’s Russian propaganda.
Everyone. The FBI. The CIA. The Mueller report. Also, let me explain how servers—
They’re the ones who spied on Trump’s campaign. It’s in that report.
The inspector general’s report? Did you read it?
That’s not what it said.
In the real world, the evidence of Trump’s malignancy—his unfitness for office, his immoral character, his corruption, his lust for power and erosion of democratic norms—is undeniable. But when bullshit wins—when the torrent of nonsense makes it hard for normal people who don’t obsess over government reports to separate the real from the crazy, when a major political party goes all-in on any invented reality and the mainstream media treats this invented reality like a legitimate alternative to the truth—and we no longer operate from an agreed-upon set of facts, the core of our democracy is in peril.
As an observer and student of American politics, 2019 was a long, hard, nerve-racking slog. I fear 2020 is only going to be worse.
Contact editor in chief Jeffrey C. Billman at email@example.com.
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