Trump’s acquittal reminds us that we are still very much living in the post-truth age

In Trump’s second impeachment trial, ‘truth’ never really mattered, writes Ruairidh Brown. Regardless of the facts or evidence presented, the endurance of a post-truth climate guaranteed he would be acquitted regardless

In Donald Trump’s second impeachment trial, the prosecution put great value on ‘truth’. The prosecutors wished to reveal the truth of the severity of the 6 January attack, and the truth of Trump’s role in inciting it.

'The truth is this attack never would have happened but for Donald Trump'

The defence had somewhat less concern for ‘truth’. Multiple claims were made that were misleading or simply false.

Video montages showing Democrats using the word ‘fight’, were ridiculously misleading and widely mocked. As one Twitter user put it: ‘Trump's defense's argument is that when the Beastie Boys sang you need to "fight" for your right to party, either it meant "kill your parents", or Trump is innocent’.

In the impeachment defence brief, Trump's lawyers even managed to misspell ‘United States’.

Trump's acquittal forces us to recognise that, despite claims of Biden’s election heralding a return to ‘normal’, we are still very much in the post-truth age.

‘Bullshit’ narratives

A key characteristic of the post-truth age is the prevalence of political ‘bullshit’.

Bullshit, as philosopher Harry Frankfurt explains, is communication intended to persuade without regard for truth. A liar is concerned with the truth but tries to conceal it. A bullshitter is characteristically indifferent to truth. They are not concerned with the accuracy of the individual claims they make, nor indeed if these are individually believed. Rather, they are concerned with the overall impression their stories convey.

Someone who bullshits about their wealth on a first date, for example, is not concerned with the accuracy of the individual anecdotes they tell. They just want to give the impression of being rich, which they believe their date will find attractive.

Trump has been labelled the Bullshitter-in-Chief. Bullshitting is regarded as central to his political success.

What Trump seeks to achieve from his rhetoric is the attention and allegiance of certain aspects of the US electorate. If individual statements are not entirely – or at all – accurate, it does not matter, so long as the overarching sentiment has won over the audience.

Trump’s supporters are not concerned whether he really intended, or even could, build a wall across the Mexican border. They were won over by the anti-immigration sentiment he conveyed.

Persuasion without truth

Trump’s defence must be seen in light of such bullshit. What is important to Trump's team is not the accuracy of individual claims – whether, for example, Democrats also use the word fight in an incendiary manner or if antifa were involved on 6 January – but the overall sentiment these statements impress.

To Trump's team, the impeachment trial was a farcical partisan attack by hypocritical Democrats aimed at silencing the Trump movement. It was ‘constitutional cancel culture’, an attempt ‘to smear, censor and cancel, not just President Trump, but the 75 million Americans who voted for him’.

Importantly, such sentiment overrides facts and evidence that may be revealed in court. If you believe the trial is a farcical bipartisan plot to silence you, any evidence presented is, in your eyes, already tainted and suspect.

Such ‘bullshit’ aims to preempt ‘truth’ and render facts powerless.

Media bullshit

Right-wing media also used this technique. Newsmax labelled the trial a ‘bipartisan attack on the American people’ and a dagger plunging ‘even further into the backs of we the people and this country’.

One America News, meanwhile, reminded viewers during pauses in trial proceedings that Trump had continually fought for America ‘despite endless lies and attacks from Democrats and the mainstream media’.

On Fox News, Tucker Carlson informed his audience that, if someone tells you the details of the trial are important, they are ‘probably trying to distract you from something that is important’.

Urging its viewers not to watch the trial, Fox News even prevented certain evidence being broadcast. At one point, it cut away from live coverage just as unseen security footage was presented to the senate. The video showed Mike Pence and Mitt Romney fleeing from rioters, some of whom were wearing tactical body armour and chanting ‘hang Mike Pence’.

Juan Williams, a panellist on the talk show Fox broadcasted in place of trial evidence, protested the move. But when he called on Republicans to ‘face the truth’, he was shouted down by his co-hosts, and told his behaviour was ‘not cool’.

The failure of truth

An ABC News/Ipsos poll was carried out immediately after the trial’s conclusion. It found that three-quarters of Americans believed the Senate voted on the basis of partisan politics, not fact. Only 15% of Republicans believed Trump was guilty, compared with 88% of Democrats and 64% of independents. No change in views was recorded when compared to polls before the trial.

A Rasmussen Report poll on 12 February found 61% of Republicans still believed Biden was elected unfairly. Trump’s defence continued to fuel the ‘stolen election’ narrative. During the trial, it repeated claims of voter fraud and defended the ex-president’s right to question the election results.

If the prosecution aspired to bring ‘truth’ to the American people, it failed. Instead, it provided a lesson in how effectively bullshit can neutralise fact and evidence.

Obscured and compromised

Many of the truths laid before the Senate failed to reach or resonate with large sections of Republican supporters. It was, therefore, political suicide for Republican senators to vote for impeachment. This was demonstrated by the immediate censorship by the party of those who did.

Trump's impeachment trial reminds us that what we ‘know’ may not be universally known. Indeed, it shows that what is ‘known’, may not be regarded as ‘true’ by all. Facts and evidence can be hindered and concealed by a partisan media, the truth obscured and compromised by bullshit.

The trial has taught us that facts, ultimately, cannot speak for themselves.

This article presents the views of the author(s) and not necessarily those of the ECPR or the Editors of The Loop.

Author

photograph of Ruairidh Brown
Ruairidh Brown
International Studies Tutor, Centre for English Language Education, University of Nottingham in Ningbo

Ruairidh gained his PhD from the University of St Andrews in 2017. Since then, he has taught at the University of Nottingham's campus in mainland China.

Ruairidh teaches undergraduate and postgraduate students on subjects concerning Political and International Relations Theory. His chief responsibility, however, lies in teaching and coordinating the Year One modules in International Studies, where he assists predominantly Chinese students in laying the academic foundations for their 'British degree style' education in the discipline.

In 2019, the University of Nottingham honoured him with the Lord Dearing Award in recognition of his outstanding contributions to the learning environment at their China campus.

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