Trump victory: The post-truth is out there

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The reaction to Donald Trump’s election has been trenchant and rapid; this is either the end of the great American empire or the renaissance of a lost nation.

It has, unquestionably, delivered a seismic shock to political establishments and to the pundits and pollsters that watch and report on governments of every hue.

On one level the result is being hailed in much the same way as the UK’s verdict on the EU referendum – a collective aberration to thwart theorists and perplex experts.

Somehow, runs this narrative, people chose to defy the established order out of some perverse delight in not doing what was expected of them; rather like Marlon Brando’s character from The Wild One who when asked, “what are you rebelling against?”, sneers “what have you got?”…only on a pan-national scale.

That can be, to the professional political classes, pretty scary but also, in some ways, manageable – the people have been duped this time around but will, in quieter moments, realise that and change their minds.

Since 24 June, the politico-watchers have been confidently predicting that a referendum now would reverse the result and keep Britain in the EU…pretty much with the same confidence, incidentally, that they predicted a hung parliament in 2015 and a Remain vote in June.

Suppose, though, that they are wrong, that people vote against the establishment not in a fit of communal pique but deliberately to tip the established order on its head. What if the US electorate knew that Trump was all bravado, bigotry and bullying, if they accepted every slur that the media and his opponents threw at him and then voted for him not despite those slurs but because of them?

How much scarier is that voters preferred to take a chance on the outsider, the apparently unpopular option, not because they choose to disbelieve the accusations but because they just don’t care if they are true or not?

It is what is being called ‘Post-Truth Politics’, the idea that the old tenets of policy making and policy promotion no longer work and truth is merely one weapon in the political PR armoury.

Back in April, even before the ‘shock’ of the exit vote, the director of communications for the Vote Leave campaign was, according to one national newspaper, unrepentant about the cavalier use of figures and statistics and heard to mutter that “Accuracy is for snake-oil pussies”, when every tyro reporter on every journalism course in the UK (as our neighbours across the Brayford will testify) has the need for accuracy and balance drummed into them in just about every lecture.

BBC Radio’s The Now Show, characterised Post-Truth politics as when “nobody cares – you can tell blatant lies …it’s post-truth politics where everything you want to be true, is true…”

So Trump, like the Brexiteers, may not be a temporary blip on the political pathway but a permanent (or semi-permanent when his four years are up) detour into a new world in which the people prove to be not just unbiddable but to revel in their post-truth rebelliousness.

— Peter Smith is a retired government PR professional, now lecturing in journalism, communications and politics at the University of Lincoln.

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