We’ve been neck-deep in propaganda season most of the year. Not only is it getting harder to tell fact from fiction from spin from nuanced interpretation — and it was never easy — it’s actually becoming a topic people no longer care about. Fake news is the new normal; as a nation, we’re growing accustomed to believing what we choose to and disregarding anything that doesn’t fit our preconceptions. The alternative would be to do our own fact-checking — and who has time for that?
(Present company excluded, of course.)
It’s less than two months until Election Day. If we’re extremely fortunate, it’ll be easy to tell who wins by the next morning; given COVID and mail-in ballots, that’s not all that likely. If you don’t live in a battleground state, your vote won’t count for much (unless you vote third party as a protest), but if you’re from Pennsylvania, Ohio, Florida, or one of the eight to ten others where the decision isn’t a lock, be ready for a couple of weeks of uncertainty, complete with protests, riots, cities on fire, and all the other lovely joys of living in 2020.
In the face of all this, it’s not even a little surprising that people are checking out, signing off from social media and turning off the news. We’ve got important things to worry about, and besides — this election is a sure thing, right? It has to be. That’s what we’re telling ourselves, so it’s got to be true.
Nevertheless, some few of you may still care about what’s true and what’s not, what’s meaningful or unimportant, what’s trustworthy or purest vile gossip.
So: The Atlantic, a magazine with an incomparable pedigree and sterling reputation, put out a story earlier this month referencing purported Trump statements about American war dead made in 2017 and 2018. The words were unpleasant, the lack of patriotism appalling — and the sources anonymous. In response, and to nobody’s surprise, Trump’s fans say it’s all fake and his foes, in lieu of defending the story, keep shouting it all the louder. And the rest of us — a vanishingly small number indeed — are left wondering: Is it fake news or not?
Amid all the shouting, people have forgotten a key underlying fact: This was never meant to be a news story. The Atlantic doesn’t traffic much in solid news; it’s a vehicle for opinion, analysis, and literature. This story, released under the byline of Editor-in-Chief Jeffrey Goldberg, is not merely opinion, it’s an obvious political hit piece. (The follow-up article, entitled “Everyone Knows It’s True”, is if possible even less balanced.)
Much has been made of The Atlantic‘s ownership; The Emerson Collective is a nonprofit run by Apple heiress and known Trump-loather Laurene Powell Jobs. It would be no disservice to state that this is a progressive activist organization designed to promote a specific political agenda. Since it purchased a majority share of the magazine’s ownership in 2017, the tone of published content has been almost uniformly anti-Trump.
Examining Goldberg’s story shows several attributed quotes in support of the major premise, but the context surrounding the 2018 remarks — allegedly calling fallen soldiers “losers” and “suckers” — is vague and people were only willing to speak on condition of anonymity, so it’s arguable that some might be fired former aides who hold a grudge. All this militates toward the contention that the story is nothing more than a carefully crafted work of vicious gossip designed to indelibly smear a candidate just before the election.
However, it must be considered that about a third of the article is about actual events — attributed quotes and on-the-record statements. One can reasonably draw the conclusion from just these that Mr. Trump is profoundly ignorant about American military history, and tends to be vocal about subjects which he scarcely understands. The accusation is a plausible one, and for many that should be enough.
So, yes, this is quite possibly fake news — but it probably doesn’t matter that it is fake.
And yet, I’m compelled to note again, for probably the hundredth time since Trump took office, that his usual practice is to make outrageous statements in order to generate a reaction. He uses words to manipulate individuals, groups, organizations, and public opinion — and the content of those words is almost never something that can be relied on. It’s less that he’s not truthful and more that he’s theatrical to an extreme, and in a very real sense the actual content of anything he says doesn’t really matter nine times out of ten.
So why would we care what he may or may not have said to parties unknown in an uncertain context? If we customarily discount even his official pronouncements, what possible difference would this make?
Instead, I would examine the number of new conflicts the United States has entered into since Trump took office: Zero. He’s consistently pursued peace treaties in Afghanistan and on the Korean peninsula; he’s pulled American troops back from the front in conflict upon conflict. During his administration, dozens of bases in Iraq have been handed over to Iraqi military units, and American soldiers have been pulled out of Europe, African hot zones, and South and Central America.
It would be disingenuous to suggest that Mr. Trump has the everyday soldier’s welfare at heart; perhaps he does, but even if he told us so every day of the week, how would we know? Instead, it’s far more reasonable to conclude that he opposes war because war costs money. Even his most provocative use of military force, the M.O.A.B. deployment, was done using a weapon just shy of its sell-by date — a cost-saving measure considering the price of disposal.
In a very real sense, it’s absurd for Trump’s opponents to attack him on moral grounds. We’re all pretty well aware that he’s an odious man, venal if not corrupt, an anti-intellectual blowhard whose relationship with the truth is at most tangential. None of this is a mystery; Trump’s supporters don’t vote for him because he’s such a great guy.
And yet, Biden’s advisors and partisan activists alike are understandably leery of missing even the weakest of weapons in this election; they’re firing everything they can get their hands on, and to hell with the truth — or the occasional misfire. After all, Trump won against a sure thing in 2016, and the last thing they want to see is… No, that would be a lie. The last thing they want to see is President Bernie Sanders, or in fact any progressive; even a second Trump term is preferable. But that’s not the focus here anyway; instead, it’s inflating the number of battleground states in order to promote a dozen narrow Senate races and potentially capture both Houses of Congress.
And, so long as Republican candidates support Trump, this Atlantic story and any other verbal langrage they can blast out between now and November can only help the DNC’s cause.
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