A Canadian Facebook friend of mine, Vancouver writer and musician Aaron Chapman, pulled off one of the neatest mind-bending stunts I’ve lately seen on social media – one that tells you almost everything you need to know about Donald Trump’s utterances and the post-truth era in which we live.
It was a day or two after Atlantic magazine editor-in-chief Jeffrey Goldberg posted a bombshell (and potentially reelection-damaging) piece on the venerable journal’s website. Goldberg claimed that, according to anonymous well-placed sources, President Trump had repeatedly disparaged U.S. military members, calling them “suckers” and “losers.” It happened most recently during a 2018 visit to France, in which Trump cancelled a ceremonial visit — allegedly because of inclement weather — to a hallowed cemetary where 1800 U.S. marines who had lost their lives in World War One’s Battle of Belleau Wood are buried. (Jeffrey Goldberg, “Trump: Americans Who Died in War Are ‘Losers’ and ‘Suckers,’” The Atlantic, Sept. 3, 2020.) I’ll get back to the controversy over Trump’s alleged remarks about the military in a minute, but first the Facebook caper.
Chapman, the author of several books on Vancouver cultural history, including Vancouver After Dark: The Wild History of a City’s Nightlife (2019), posted what’s known on Facebook as a “status update,” a brief “what’s on your mind?” thought, more or less the equivalent of a “tweet” on Twitter. In it, Chapman said, “I can’t believe that Donald Trump called Terry Fox ‘…lazy’. I mean, ‘I like runners who finish races’. WTF is this guy’s problem? It gets worse and worse every day.” And with that – as people used to say – he set the cat among the pigeons. The response was both massive and explosive.
While the feathers fly, I’d better provide some brief Wikipedia-copied annotation for non-Canadian readers. Terry Fox was an athlete, humanitarian, and cancer research activist. He’s also a genuine Canadian hero. Forty years ago, in 1980, with one leg having been amputated due to cancer, the 21-year-old Fox set out on an east-to- west cross-Canada marathon-a-day run to raise money and consciousness for cancer research. When, after 5 months and over 5,000 kilometres on the road, just outside Thunder Bay, Ontario, Fox announced rather apologetically that he was forced to end his run because the cancer had spread to his lungs, there wasn’t a dry eye in the country. He died nine months later, but his legacy, in addition to raising remarkable sums of money, includes an annual Terry Fox Run, which has grown to involve millions of participants in some 60 countries. Terry Fox Day was marked last month in Canada, and this year’s run, later this month, has been turned into a “virtual run” because of the Covid pandemic. (“Terry Fox,” Wikipedia, https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/ Terry_Fox)
And yet that foul-mouthed sleazebag, a.k.a. Trumpty-Dumpty, called Fox “lazy” and said he likes “runners who finish races”? How dare he?! Is there nothing that so-and-so won’t cover in slime? Why, it’s as bad as when Trump expressed his “contempt for the war record of the late Senator John McCain, who spent more than five years as a prisoner of the North Vietnamese,” as Goldberg wrote in his own piece. “He’s not a war hero,’ Trump said of McCain in 2015, while running for the Republican nomination. “I like people who weren’t captured.” And now this. Geez.
What made Chapman’s gambit memorable was not that he managed to fool a few people (though he did), but that he managed to elicit the gamut of responses from the political spectrum, left to right. So, you had head-scratching scholarly types (including me) whose first reaction was, “What’s this? Let’s see a source for these Trump quotes.” And indeed, several people on Chapman’s thread reported that they had googled up “Trump remarks about Terry Fox,” only to find nothing, since there wasn’t, in fact, anything to find.
Then there were the people outraged by that PoS, er, POTUS, ready to deliver expletive-laced denunciations of Trump’s terminally-insensitive brayings. There was even one benighted commenter critical of Terry Fox for running his courageous race instead of devoting himself to treatment regimes. And naturally, a few people figured out this was just clever satire… but dammit, it sounds like something Trump would say, doesn’t it? And a few people, after doing a double-take, recognized that the know-nothing president had most likely never heard of Terry Fox. In any case, 150 or so people clicked their “likes” and “wows” and “angrys,” 300 had some comment to make about the matter, and several “shared” the post.
Finally, there was a tiny minority of earnest souls who wanted to sincerely debate whether or not Trump had actually said that people who served in the military were “suckers” and that those who had died in battle were “losers.” After all, Trump had vehemently denied saying any of those things. And what did he call Goldberg’s story? A hoax? Fake news?
By the way, what about those “anonymous sources” who had told Goldberg about Trump’s demeaning observations? Suddenly, people who apparently were not the least bit disturbed about Trump’s evidence-free claims of dark-clad gangs of potential street rioters aboard airplanes, or his debunked musings about millions of undocumented immigrants committing voter fraud in the last election (or the next one), or any of the other 20,000 lies tallied by fact-checkers, now insistently wanted to examine in detail the minutiae of journalistic ethics. But the Atlantic magazine’s claims were soon backed up – or as they say in the trade, “confirmed” — by similar findings reported by the Washington Post, AP, CNN, the New York Times and even Fox News.
The most desperate moment in the debate came when a lone conservative Facebook acquaintance of mine hauled up a lengthy polemic by the leftwing journalist Glenn Greenwald, founder of The Intercept, arguing that Mainstream Media (MSM) was making a mockery of the very idea and standard of “confirmation.” Greenwald, best known for his reporting on Edward Snowden’s revelations about secret, illegal U.S. surveillance programs, is also a bit of a cranky uncle about the failings of his MSM rivals.
So, Goldberg claims that “four people with firsthand knowledge of the discussion [in France] that day” told him Trump made the comments, Greenwald notes with a curled lip. But Trump and some of his former aides deny the report is accurate. “How can one resolve the factual dispute?” Greenwald asks. “If other media outlets could confirm the original claims from Goldberg, that would obviously be a significant advancement of the story.” (Glenn Greenwald, “Journalism’s New Propaganda Tool: Using ‘Confirmed’ to Means Its Opposite,” The Intercept, Sept. 5, 2020.)
Well, what about the claims by NYT, WaPo, Fox, AP and the rest, of having found various sources (still anonymous) who said the same thing? And what about potential sources — like former Trump Chief of Staff General John Kelly — who have so far declined to issue public denials on the president’s behalf? That doesn’t count, says Greenwald. “All that likely happened is that the same sources who claimed… with no evidence, that Trump said this went to other outlets and repeated the same claims… Or perhaps it was different sources aligned with those original sources and sharing their agenda who repeated the claims.” None of the other outlets, adds Greenwald, obtained anything “resembling ‘confirmation.’ They just heard the same assertions Goldberg had, likely from the same circles… and are now abusing the term ‘confirmation’ to mean ‘unproven assertions’ or ‘unverifiable claims.’”
Naturally, Greenwald has a more than counting-the-number-of-angels-on-the-head-of-a-pin point to make here, although it’s touchingly ironic to hear conservative acquaintances citing the leftist Intercept to defend Trump. Yes, there’s a long, unresolved debate within journalism about “anonymous sources,” and it sheds interesting light on issues of truth and reality, especially after you’ve “put the paper to bed” and had a few beer in the Press Club next door. But Greenwald is sliding over a few things. First, the sources are not anonymous to Goldberg, and so part of the reader’s belief rests on Goldberg’s considerable reputation as a veteran trustworthy journalist, who reliably assesses his sources as they make their claims. As I heard the renowned Watergate journalist Carl Bernstein point out with respect to Goldberg’s sources, he and collleague Bob Woodward published two hundred stories that depended on anonymous sources when they were investigating Nixon and the Watergate scandal a half century ago (cf. Brian Stelter, “Reliable Sources,” CNN, Sept. 6, 2020.)
Nor does mainstream media cease digging. Since the publication of Goldberg’s piece, papers like the Washington Post have raked through the long history of Trump’s remarks over the years to see if there’s a circumstantial pattern. (For example, see Michael Kranish, “Trump, under fire for alleged comments about veterans, has a long history of disparaging military service,” Washington Post, Sept. 7, 2020.) And there’s simply more and more evidence about Trump’s private conversations from tell-all books by former Trump appointees and associates. Within days of Greenwald’s griping about what constitutes “confirmation,” the Washington Post was previewing a new book by former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen, in which Cohen offers some samples of Trumpian trash-talk on subjects involving racial aspersions.
Among other things, “Cohen writes that during the 2016 campaign Trump was dismissive of minorities… ‘I will never get the Hispanic vote,’ Cohen recounts Trump claiming. ‘Like the blacks, they’re too stupid to vote for Trump.’ … He also recounts Trump’s ‘low opinion of all black folks,’ claiming Trump once said while ranting about Obama, ‘Tell me one country run by a black person that isn’t a shithole. They are all complete fucking toilets.’” In a conversation about former South African president Nelson Mandela, “Cohen writes that Trump praised the country’s apartheid-era White rule, saying: ‘Mandela fucked the whole country up. Now it’s a shithole. Fuck Mandela. He was no leader.’” (Ashley Parker and Rosalind Helderman, “In new book, former Trump lawyer Michael Cohen describes alleged episodes of racism…”, Washington Post, Sept. 6, 2020.)
Well, I suppose the above might require some “confirmation,” too. But the point of Aaron Chapman’s satiric “status update” in which Trump denigrates Terry Fox is that after so many lies, blatant falsehoods, and fabricated claims, what Trump says is no longer subject to the standards by which we normally judge the veracity of statements. Trump himself has subverted those norms.
Merely recounting something that “sounds like something Trump would say” becomes almost good enough. Of course, it’s not good enough. The same has become true of the larger discursive context, such as social media sites and news outlets that espouse not merely an editorial perspective, but have been reduced to little more than propaganda channels. That we’re living, at least temporarily, in a period where (small-t) truth is regularly blurred is, in part, one of the results of four years of assaults on the democratic process. The problem is not, however, the failings of liberal Mainstream Media, despite the broad criticism of “the media” by ideologues of all stripes. Rather the problem rests with the current president, his cowardly enablers and a willfully ignorant “base,” and their malign influence on the culture itself. Isn’t there a fairy tale about the boy who cried “wolf” just once too often, until, in the end, no one (or at least, not an electoral majority) believed his warnings, his promises, or his denials?
Berlin, Sept. 7, 2020.