"When I use a word," Humpty Dumpty said, in rather a scornful tone, "it means just what I choose it to mean—neither more nor less."
"The question is," said Alice, "whether you can make words mean so many different things."
—Through the Looking Glass
Donald Trump's election sucker-punched me. How could a guy so boorish and so unfit for the job become our 45th president? I don't think the election was rigged, as Trump often asserted, but on the eve of his inauguration, I am trying to reconcile the fact that 62 million people disagreed with me and voted for him.
The election was surreal. Just like Alice in Wonderland, whenever it seemed things couldn't become more surreal, they did. Credit a cast of characters including "Lyin' Ted" Cruz, James Comey, Donna Brazile, Julian Assange, Sean Hannity, Howard Stern, Nate Silver, Vladimir Putin's hackers and a bunch of con artists feeding fake news into the maw of the internet. Alas, poor Merrick: Judge Garland played the part of the fade-away Cheshire Cat willy-nilly.
I wasn't the only one who thought it surreal. So many people looked up "surreal" in its dictionary, Merriam-Webster picked it as the 2016 Word of the Year, explaining: "Beginning with the Brussels terror attacks in March, major spikes included the days following the coup attempt in Turkey and the terrorist attack in Nice, with the largest spike in lookups for 'surreal' following the U.S. election in November."
A bizarre political campaign is one thing—it boosts the ratings of Saturday Night Live if nothing else—but post-truth politics is quite another.
As its 2016 Word of the Year, the Oxford Dictionaries picked "post-truth," an adjective defined as "relating to circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief." The rejection of data is troubling enough, but the ugly truth of "post-truth" is the cynical calculation at its core. The late Lee Atwater, "the Babe Ruth of negative politics," used post-truth advertising as character assassination. Just ask Mike Dukakis.
"Post-truth" brings to mind another Merriam-Webster word of the year—Stephen Colbert's "truthiness" in 2006. I find the prevalence of truthiness, the quality of asserting truth based on intuition instead of factual evidence, deeply troubling. Utah's Republican legislators won't authorize medical marijuana because it just doesn't feel right to do so. Climate scientists are challenged by know-nothings whose post-truth pronouncements get traction on the internet. Trump's dissing of the intelligence community a few weeks ago was truthiness exposed in 140-character spasms.
The surreal election campaign took a toll on capital-T truth. Battered by demagoguery, disinformation, bombast and lies, Truth suffered as never before. Some of my friends wouldn't vote for Hillary Clinton because she was habitually untruthful, they said. That Trump kept fact-checkers working overtime to correct his falsehoods bothered some people more than others. (The fact-checkers were mostly ignored.) What bothered me the most was the credence given to the fake news stories that circulated on social media, most of which skewed in Trump's favor. According to a BuzzFeed analysis of the last three months of the campaign, "the top-performing fake election news stories on Facebook generated more engagement than the top stories from major news outlets such as The New York Times, The Huffington Post, NBC News and others." One phony story, "Pope Francis Endorses Trump," was shared almost a million times on Facebook. A guy armed with an AR-15 showed up at a Washington pizzeria because he had read Hillary Clinton was running a child-sex ring there.
Facebook founder Mark Zuckerberg has said that social media could "bring a more honest and transparent dialogue around government that could lead to more direct empowerment of people, more accountability for officials and better solutions to some of the biggest problems of our time." Wrote The New York Times editorial board: "None of that will happen if [Zuckerberg] continues to let liars and con artists hijack his platform."
He subsequently hired broadcast journalist Campbell Brown to "help news organizations and journalists work more closely and more effectively" with Facebook.
Twitter is another realm—less populous than Facebook—with trolls skulking under every bridge. Humpty Dumpty would be right at home as spinmeister @HumpDump. Trump, too, is as comfortable there as he is at his Mar-a-Lago resort. Through the long campaign, Trump fired off post-truth tweets impulsively. Some had careless errors. On Nov. 8, he tweeted: "Just out according to @CNN: Utah officials reporting voting machine problems across the country." In fact, the problems in Washington County were resolved in short order by reprogramming voting machines. Other Trump tweets were as patently untrue as the one on Nov. 27 in which he wrote: "In addition to winning the Electoral College in a landslide, I won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally."
However you feel about Trump's Twitter habit, you have to grant that his tweets had tactical value in the campaign. But that was then. Now, most Utahns believe it is time to move on. In a survey by utahpolicy.com, 36 percent thought he should tweet less and 35 percent thought he should stop altogether.
As president, Trump's words will carry outsized weight. Each should be carefully chosen; in combination, the words must be factual. The answer to Alice's question of Humpty Dumpty—Can you make words mean so many different things?—must be: "No, you can't and you shouldn't try."