JUNE 3, 2017
ON THE MORNING of November 9, 2016, the day after Donald Trump’s victory, hosts Brooke Gladstone and Bob Garfield and executive producer Katya Rogers talked about the future of their radio program, On the Media. “This is about the American experiment and whether it fails,” Gladstone said.
Her new book, The Trouble with Reality, can be seen as a means of preventing that failure from happening, through a look backward at how Trump’s rise was partly due to the press coverage that helped him even as it criticized him.
Gladstone stays away from the debates that have filled column inches since November, like what role sexism, racism, and economic anxiety played, and instead digs for something more fundamental and inextricable from our society: the nature of our reality. Or, more accurately: Realities. In the book, Gladstone writes,
Part of the problem stems from the fact that facts, even a lot of facts, do not constitute reality. Reality is what forms after we filter, arrange, and prioritize those facts and marinate them in our values and traditions. Reality is personal.
Filtered reality is troubling for a democracy, particularly when coupled with arrogance and an unwillingness to listen. As philosopher Arthur Schopenhauer said, “Every man takes the limits of his own field of vision for the limits of the world.” Even if citizens are willing to admit large gaps in their knowledge, it doesn’t get them far. They’ll still only know what they know. So, as Gladstone says, “we have to live somewhere. So we construct cozier, more comprehensible versions [of the world], move in and hunker down.”
This is compounded because, according to research, voters who supported the losing candidate are vulnerable to believing in conspiracy theories. This helps to explain the rampant and racist birtherism that plagued President Barack Obama’s two terms. It also explains, now, the way that many liberals have latched on to conspiracy theories stemming from the Trump team’s documented — though still hazy — involvement with Russia. “It aligns with the liberal code: It is impossible that one such as Trump could arise spontaneously in our exemplary democracy. His victory required Vladimir Putin,” Gladstone writes.
This is demonstrated day in and out on Twitter, where many liberal figures have embraced Eric Garland, a “strategic intelligence analyst,” according to his Twitter bio, who gained prominence with an unreadable 120-tweet thread using “game theory” to prove conspiracy theories about Russia. It was nonsense, but somehow garnered praise from Mother Jones Editor-in-Chief Clara Jeffery, who said: “single greatest thread I have ever read on Twitter. And in its way a Federalist Paper for 2016.”
There are counterforces. In many ways, the Trump administration has helped to relieve the press of what Gladstone sees as their most pernicious and harmful bias: access bias. In the book, Gladstone explains,
Traditionally, reporters cultivate powerful White House sources whom they can call when they need a quote. But if those sources are upset by something the reporters write, they won’t pick up the phone. The reporters must have those quotes, no matter how bland and predictable, to finish their stories; so to keep the quotes coming, they may leave out some juicy facts. For the public, this is a terrible deal.
Now, Gladstone argues, because so many of the official statements from the administration are false or contradictory, they’ve lost much of their meaning, which means reporters will want them less, which means losing access is not something they need to fear. This has already been demonstrated in a handful of isolated incidents, like the shunning of Kellyanne Conway by CNN’s State of the Union and other similar programs because of her consistent unreliability.
That is good, for now. There is no reason to think that this will continue into another administration, presuming we do not end up with one that lies as boldly as this. In the meantime and in the future, we will have to confront other problems more intrinsic to human nature. One example: In a 2006 study, Emory University professor Drew Westen found that people had no problem accepting that the candidate they opposed was hypocritical but had significant problems accepting that the candidate they supported was also hypocritical. Brain scans showed that participants reacted as though they were facing a threat and looked for a way out. When they found one, their brain reacted in the same way addicts’ brains do when they get their fix.
The question then becomes: How do we do the opposite of what we are hardwired to do? Gladstone suggests having the “patience to defer judgment” in myriad contexts. Remaining open to new information requires not investing too much in one candidate. But in a two-party system such as ours, this seems to have more of a theoretical value than a practical one.
Gladstone’s ending advice — outside of protesting and organizing and calling representatives — is nearly the same as where she began, and nearly the same as most mainstream pundits. It is important to get out of cozy, convenient worlds. Still, it is only nearly the same, as Gladstone makes room for what others don’t: somebody has to be right. She writes,
If [there were] two rational people, after pooling and verifying each other’s evidence, [they] would come to the same conclusions, right? They would revise their views to fit the facts. But there are never two rational people. There is only one. And it is me. My facts are correct.
If you think I am cracking wise to make a point, you are mistaken. I am sincere. My facts reflect the world as it is. Donald Trump’s facts, as a rule, do not. I do not know the facts of his supporters, not really. I only know they voted for Trump, which is inconceivable to me. Which is to say, I can not conceive of it. And maybe this is a place to begin the reckoning.
The distances between the realities of people living in the United States of America have been widening for a long time, perhaps since Fox News launched in 1996, or since President Bill Clinton signed welfare reforms into law, or since candidate Ronald Reagan’s southern strategy, or since CNN’s launch in 1980, or since candidate Richard Nixon’s southern strategy, or perhaps always.
Gladstone’s confidence that the facts will eventually assert themselves is galvanizing, but the book can’t tell us when, or how, or why. Still, her case that our realities need to be closer together is unassailable, and making the invisible visible is a good place to start.