Finding and stating facts is an act of resistance in the age of Donald Trump. The Trump campaign already had stirred a strong sense that facts were under threat, besieged by a candidate who told untruths in both significant and casual ways, as Daniel Dale of the Toronto Star and others documented and compiled. Since Election Day, the situation has only worsened, as the president-elect’s tweets and statements make clear. Even more is at stake when this man will become the leader of the United States on Jan. 20. So many of us are being assaulted and buffeted by Trump’s statements and tweets that are just plain false or exaggerations.
Still, facts, they say, are stubborn things. In their stubbornness, they form a part of the resilience and the resistance we as people must embrace and act on, if an enlightened democratic republic is to have hope of solving serious problems and meeting challenges. Facts are meant to be shared, too, in ways that will empower citizens to resist. It’s crucial as well when people share real-life experiences that counteract ignorance. We can take specific actions that will strengthen these efforts and, thus, the democracy.
The conflict that arose this past week between long-time U.S. Rep. John Lewis and President-elect Trump epitomizes why it’s crucial in the Donald Trump era to research, find, and confirm facts and to state them boldly. It’s important because Trump inhabits his own reality, and he will soon be taking actions as a president who is misinformed, deliberately misleading, careless, or uncaringly clueless, and captured by that unreality. In an interview with NBC’s Chuck Todd for Meet the Press, taped for the Jan. 15 show, the Democratic congressman from Georgia stated in a calm manner, responding to an interview question, why he believes that Trump is not a “legitimate president” and why he plans to not attend the Jan. 20 Inauguration Day ceremony.
As he has done before, Trump displayed little concern for the storm he would stir up in the way he responded. Lewis is a man whom many in our society revere, a leader who was one of the keynote speakers with Martin Luther King, Jr., at the 1963 March on Washington, whom troopers beat and bloodied at Selma in the 1965 Voting Rights March, and who persisted in nonviolent resistance in the civil rights movement despite dozens of arrests and various physical attacks, as this PBS biography notes. He has been a champion of human rights, health care, and gun control, leading a sit-in on the floor of the House to call attention to the Congress’ inaction on guns.
The president-elect has every right to disagree with and be offended by Congressman Lewis’ decision to not attend his inauguration. However, it was the message, means, and the startling and off-base insinuations that Trump employed in hoping to cut down Lewis. On Jan. 14, Trump issued a series of tweets castigating Lewis as “all talk” and asserting that the congressman should do more for his district, which Trump said is “in horrible shape,” “falling apart,” and “crime-infested.” His culminating tweet of the anti-Lewis rant was later the same day, Jan. 14, in which he said that Lewis should focus more on the “burning and crime-infested inner cities of the U.S.” (How much more powerful it would have been if President-elect Trump invited Congressman Lewis for a meeting at the White House once he assumes the office.)
A Recurring Trump Theme
“Burning and crime-infested” brought up the same images that Trump had used when he talked of American cities during his campaign, before Election Day. In fact, however, those who live in Lewis’ district didn’t recognize the place as Trump described it. Dozens took to social media, with tweets and posts, that ridiculed Trump’s claim that the area is in horrible shape and falling apart, according to The Atlanta Journal-Constitution. The 5th Congressional District in Georgia is comprised of much of Atlanta and parts of adjacent suburbs in DeKalb and Clayton counties. Various news and other organizations checked out Trump’s pronouncements and found they were false and misleading, citing census and FBI data, such as PolitiFact and New York University’s Brennan Center for Justice. The district is also home to many educational and cultural institutions and corporate offices, as well as both thriving and more on-the-edge urban neighborhoods, so Trump’s tweet terming it “falling apart” was wholly inaccurate.
It was a reminder of experiences involving Trump’s off-base assertions during his presidential campaign, only now he is doubling-down as president-elect. Just where does his mind get its images? From which publications, reports, and networks does he get his “facts”? What has he read? Has he even walked recently on the streets of Atlanta, Boston, Dallas, Los Angeles, Pittsburgh, Milwaukee, or other “inner cities,” as he calls them in one fell swoop?
Yes, crime is a real concern in American cities as well as suburbs, and yet overall many cities, both large and small, have seen lower crime rates since the 1990s, as this report of NYU’s Brennan Center for Justice details. Some cities have seen spikes in the last couple of years after many years of falling numbers. Chicago, particularly, is dealing with a 58% spike in the murder rate, with 762 murders in 2016 compared with 480 during 2015 – the worst level in 19 years. However, Trump’s description of “burning and crime-infested” was a throwback to the days of massive arsons and block after block of crime terror, say, the South Bronx of the 1970s and early 1980s. Had he watched a Blaxploitation film of that era, with its images and stereotypes, recently?
Since Trump shows little inclination to correct such statements, this incident presages how facts will likely be among the most precious, endangered species of a Trump-led administration. Ask yourself what your inclination is when you read an assertion such as Trump’s original tweets about the Georgia 5th District. My inclination was to say, “Wait a minute. What’s the actual story here? What are the real facts?” Then I briefly completed some follow-up research, among sources that provide solid information, for example, crime and economic data.
Trump doesn’t concern himself with such fact-finding efforts, as the press documented repeatedly throughout his campaign. His keeping-the-facts-at-a-distance ways persisted even after various reporters and correspondents showed that many statements were not just somewhat inaccurate but wildly off-base, or exaggerated. Moreover, Trump has gone beyond this to now label known developments, data, or a whole cable news network as “fake news.”
This isn’t happenstance, but a recognizable strategy that authoritarian leaders use, as New York University professor and author Ruth Ben-Ghiat writes. He consistently denigrates reporting that doesn’t line up with his version of reality and responds defensively to what is simple fact-checking by news outlets, attacking those who are covering him as “the dishonest media.” His utter lack of intellectual curiosity – to find out more about that which he doesn’t know – is highly disturbing, particularly in one who will hold immense responsibility.
In such a milieu, it’s dangerous to ignore Trump and any of his spokespeople who enable the constant spreading of lies, false narratives, and exaggerations. This is no small matter, as we have seen situations in which such falsehoods shape governmental decisions and voters’ choices. In my view, media and information literacy are crucial concerns as Trump assumes the presidency. But we aren’t powerless, and, indeed, in a representative democracy with freedom of the press enshrined in the Bill of Rights, we share a responsibility coupled with that right, to nurture all that will keep it strong.
Here are 10 actions and approaches we can take:
Fact-check. This doesn’t mean citizens should check all information they read and share. (Writers and journalists have a different, and professional, standard.) It means being mindful about stories and data that you share. If something sounds like an exaggeration, it often is. Sites such as Snopes.com provide a reliable place to check claims by politicians on various sides. Excellent sources, reference sites, newspapers and journals, and media outlets abound to check facts.
Distinguish fact from opinion.
Only share and say on social media what you would share and say in person. Remember that many are taking liberties, both with information and in tone, on social media. Don’t join them in that practice and share unverified information or articles from bogus, unknown, or biased sources.
Subscribe to responsible, reliable, and enterprising media outlets. Pay attention to the standards of your media outlets, and reward those that have high standards.
Challenge yourself at times to read other sources and watch other networks that differ from those that simply reinforce already-held opinions. Of course, we have our favorites. However, we learn a lot when we look at how the same issue is covered, analyzed or ignored by other media.
Read the work of scholars and researchers who study and report on important issues. The list is endless. Some examples: climate change, freedom of the press, freedom of religion, human rights, equality, health, immigration, war and peace, agriculture, and the environment.
Watch the CSPAN channels. Turn off rant programs and talk shows more often, and take in CSPAN for a half-hour. One can learn a lot and test assumptions in 10 or 20 minutes of an excellent panel discussion; bill consideration on the floor of the House of Representatives or Senate; public hearing; or author interview.
Teach your children well. Keep talking with and teaching your children and grandchildren on important matters of media literacy. This includes how to know what are reliable media sources, what good reporters do to check on information, what is fact versus opinion, and why “fake news” sites are so damaging.
Tune in to programs that examine press coverage and issues. An excellent one is Brian Stelter’s Reliable Sources on CNN.
Constantly support and speak out for freedom of the press, which is a precious freedom never to be taken for granted. This could merit its own essay. Suffice it to say that whatever your arguments are with media coverage, reporters and correspondents represent citizens in watching and reporting on what government is doing. Many statements and various actions of Donald Trump and some who support him toward press representatives have been chilling and out of bounds, particularly in comparison with the most recent presidents (who had issues of their own but not to the degree of Trump). Professional groups are quite concerned about whether the incoming Trump Administration will seek to enact authoritarian controls on press freedoms, given the signals thus far. Consider supporting a group such as the Committee to Protect Journalists.
In short, become a wise consumer of news and information, and share it thoughtfully. These ideas aren’t just for news junkies but everyone.
To survive, a representative democracy relies on informed citizens. This is a responsibility as well as a source of power. When a leader spouts falsehoods or exaggerations (regardless of the ideology or party), facts and real-life experiences can help fuel resistance and community action. We each have an important role in the endeavor of being informed and fair-minded. Facts support strong reasoning, and are part of the oxygen that sustains human advancement and the progress of ideals such as freedom and justice. Let’s each do our part.