The Politics of Authenticity

by |April 1, 2019

We are overwhelmed by image, information, and interests. Each distorts reality, and presents bias as objectivity and lies as truth. We have a president who is supported by 42% of the country and whose base believes he is one of them and is an authentic voice of the people. This man of privilege lies reflexively, but is seen by his followers as genuine and even heroic. American politics has become frightening, as institutions and norms that once seemed strong now seem fragile and incapable of defining and addressing the challenges we face.

In this respect, Donald Trump must be seen as the effect, not the cause. He did not build the mass and social media that now consumes us, but was a genius at exploiting those media. The very fact that he could become president tells us some unpleasant truths about America and Americans. We need to agree on facts to understand and define problems and frame solutions. As the world’s population grows (from 3 to 7.5 billion in the past half century) and technological change increases its pace, the world becomes more complex and difficult to understand. Tax cuts for corporations might once have stimulated the economy, but today simply results in global corporations shifting their profits from one country to another. Corporations and wealthy individuals reinforce their power with unlimited political money in the post-Citizens United world, as money defines political reality. An investigation of Russian interference in the 2016 elections is termed a “witch hunt” by the American president so often that many Americans use the same term to describe the investigation. The investigation resulted in over 30 indictments and the conviction of the president’s campaign manager. It clearly demonstrated that there was foreign interference in our election. But Trump repeated the term “no collusion” so often that people thought the investigation was only about whether or not he was a Russian agent.

This president is about spin and what was once called the “big lie”. It works like this: you repeat the same false theme over and over again, you get the media echo chamber to repeat it all the time, and after a while the people who like you believe it is true. It’s a fact-free world and a fact-challenged politics. In this world, climate change is also a hoax, perpetuated by evil people who want to take away your SUVs. Last week the administration even started to claim that air pollution had no impact on human health. The Trump Administration radically changes the procedure for processing immigrants at the border. The changes cause massive delays in processing and suddenly we have an immigration crisis at the border. Even rational people start to wonder if their image of the world is correct.

What is real? What is fake? How do you understand problems without facts and how does a government make public policy in a fact-free world? To help us deal with a more complex and difficult to define reality, we search for leaders who do not come from the political establishment. Barack Obama was the first internet-era national candidate to capture our imagination and raise massive amounts of small donations and media attention from the web. The outside maverick Barack Obama defeated the more experienced public servant, Hillary Clinton. Then Donald Trump, who didn’t even need money to run because his antics generated billions of dollars of free media also defeated the same “establishment” candidate that Obama beat. Both benefited from our search for more “authentic” leaders representing different experiences than the political norm.

Trump’s problem running as an outsider is that as president, he is the ultimate insider. And yet to hear him at his rallies he is still the victim of the “deep state,” the Dems, and, of course, his old stand-by, the media. As over a dozen Democrats compete for the opportunity to take him on, each is searching for a compelling message that might separate them from the pack. Each seeks to define themselves in a way that might somehow break through the fog. Most are fundraising from the grass roots while quietly hitting up the same old wealthy sources. In a New York Times piece this past Sunday, Shane Goldmacher and Jonathan Martin observed that:

“The race for cash in the 2020 Democratic presidential primary is reaching a frenetic peak this weekend with a dozen fund-raisers on both coasts, as presidential hopefuls rush to vacuum up $2,800 checks — the maximum amount individuals can give for the primary by law — before the first quarterly fund-raising deadline of the campaign at midnight on Sunday. But the candidates don’t want to discuss any of this. They are instead trying to pull off a delicate balancing act. Publicly, the 2020 hopefuls are all about attracting low-dollar donors, trying to prove their grass-roots appeal and populist bona fides by touting large numbers of small donations — an ascendant force in Democratic politics. But privately, most Democrats also badly need the big checks and are still going behind closed doors to woo the wealthy, whose money is critical to pay for campaign staff, travel and advertising.”

These folks are striving for authenticity even if they have to fake it. Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren are avoiding wealthy donors for now, but Warren claims not to “believe in universal disarmament” and if she ends up as the Democratic nominee she plans to fundraise from the wealthy, too. Meanwhile, over on the Republican side, President Trump started campaigning for reelection before he even took office.

Some of the same impulses that drove voters to the Tea Party and Trump are also driving some voters to support Representative Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez. While I tend to agree with many of her views of public policy, what people are responding to is not necessarily her policy perspective, but that she does not sound like a moderate, temporizing politician. She is direct, assertive, and authentic. While I believe Trump’s “authenticity” is fake and hers is real, the appeal of authenticity is what they have in common. Some of the right-wing attacks on Representative Ocasio-Cortez mischaracterize her policy views, but most attack her sincerity and authenticity. It is her character and skill at responding to attacks in the mass and social media that frightens her opponents more than the policies she promotes.

This search for reality is what I think is dominating American politics today. As Midwestern farmers deal with the worst flooding they’ve ever seen, a few seem to be wondering out loud about the impact of climate change on extreme weather. As middle-class folks hear about the fabulous Trump economy while they continue to struggle, they don’t know who to believe when so called experts try to explain what is going on. We are spending more and more of our time receiving and sending messages on smartphones that seem to be glued to our consciousness, but we are learning that the quantity of information is no substitute for quality.

Before the internet, journalists curated our facts and adhered to professional norms and ethics when presenting those facts. That has been replaced by a free market in real and made up information along with endless commentaries by mostly non-expert experts. When the news was first broadcast on TV it was seen as a public service that lost money for the national networks. They did it in exchange for the right to transmit over the public’s airwaves. Today the news is a huge and profitable business. Starting with CNN in 1980, a number of networks now provide televised news 24 hours a day. Corporations advertise on these networks, then pay to influence elections, and then pay to lobby elected officials to do their bidding. It’s a cradle to grave corporate influence machine. When corporate and public interests are in alignment, the political agenda can respond to people’s needs. But when they are not in alignment, the corporate sector increasingly seeks to define reality itself. The public reaction to that has been to seek out and respond to political candidates that offer some degree of independence and authenticity. They are looking for “people who can’t be bought”; from Mike Bloomberg to Barack Obama to Donald Trump and now to Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, we have a craving for something real that we might define as the politics of authenticity.

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