The 2016 election and the success of fact free politics


Dr Peter Van Aelst

Associate Professor of political science at the University of Antwerp (Belgium). He also has a research position as senior lecturer at the Institute of Political Science, Leiden University, funded by the Dutch research council NOW


US2016 - Section 1

Section 1: Media

The US 2016 elections campaign will be remembered for many reasons, not the least for its surprising outcome. One of the most striking features of this campaign is the large amount of factually incorrect statements of President-elect Donald Trump. According to fact checkers about 7 out of 10 statements turned out to be (partly) false. Trump made false statements about his own past, things he said before, but also about major trends in society. Journalists have pointed this out numerous times, and after every debate the large number of incorrect statements highlighted by fact-checkers. How come this coverage had no effect on his electoral popularity? I see at least three reasons. 

Emo trumps ratio

The growing relativity of opinions and emotions at the expense of facts and knowledge is hardly new. For over a decade the origins and consequences of ‘fact free politics’ are studied. It was comedian Stephen Colbert who introduced the term ‘truthiness’ to refer to things that are true according one’s own conviction or view, but that are not necessarily supported by factual proof. The term became quite popular in the US as it nicely reflected the anti-intellectual climate that was on the rise. Policy makers and journalists that rely too much on figures and knowledge are getting out of touch with the concerns of ordinary people. 

It is no surprise that in this climate there is ample room for false rumors and conspiracy theories rooted in strong political and religious views. Two of the most famous ones are related to Barack Obama’s election in 2008. The wrong conviction that Obama is a Muslim is particularly strong among traditional Christians, while the myth that Obama is not born in the US seems mainly popular among outspoken conservative voters. Both fake stories are related to the fact that Obama is seen as different. The idea that a black man is running their country is for many hard to accept. They have a nostalgia for a familiar white, Christian country. That feeling is so strong that they are willing to believe a man that promises ‘to bring back their country’.

The press is lying

During the primaries the US press had no idea how to deal with the phenomena of Trump and were fascinated by this unconventional, entertaining figure. Gradually, journalists started to reveal the factual mistakes and blunt lies of Trump. However, this coverage had probably little-to-no effect since the trust of US citizens in traditional media is extremely low. For instance, research shows that many attempts of journalists to debunk the myths about Obama had no effect and potentially even backfired. Where there’s smoke there’s fire. During this campaign the distrust in the media even turned into hatred. When Trump talked at his rallies about journalists as “the most dishonest people I know”, his supporters booed fiercely and turned their anger to the cameras. Meanwhile more and more people rely on an information diet of conservative talk show radio, and internet stories that provide ‘the real truth’.

Trump 4 truth 

The book ‘Trump revealed’, written by two Washington Post journalists, describes well how for Donald Trump the truth has always been subservient to his goals and ambitions. Trump believes what he says is true, or almost true, or ought to be true. According to Trump the people want someone who sees it big, and who plays to their wildest dreams and expectations. They know that he exaggerates, but believe, or want to believe, that he is right. Tony Schwartz, the ghostwriter of Trumps’ book The Art of the Deal came up with the term ‘truthful hyperbole’. It is a contradiction, but Trump loved it. 

Trump used several truthful hyperboles to promote his core messages, and even adjusted the facts to fit his story. For instance, he claimed unemployment is eight times higher than official figures indicate, and the number of Syrian refugees that Obama plans to permit into the US is multiplied by 25. It makes his claim stronger, and the attention he gets larger. 

While these exaggerations and deliberate factual mistakes lead to consternation among his opponents, his followers don’t mind. On the contrary, they see in Trump someone that finally tells the truth. Trump tells it like it is and calls problems by their name. He is not afraid to tell the public that the US has become a loser and their President is the founder of ISIS. According to his own words, he has to, because he is a ‘truth teller’. Telling the truth is stronger than himself. His spontaneous outbursts and insults seem to strengthen that reputation. And in case there is any doubt, Trump uses the phrase ‘believe me’, to stress that he knows well what he is talking about. 

You don’t need to believe me, but I doubt the latter is true.