The story goes like this: The White House press secretary, Sean Spicer, said in his first conference that Trump’s inauguration was watched by record numbers of people, in person and on TV. This, despite videos that prove the inauguration actually was one of the poorest attended in recent years. In a follow-up interview, an aide to Trump claimed he didn’t lie, saying: “Sean Spicer, our press secretary — gave alternative facts.”. It has been widely ridiculed since.
Really, you can justify any position you want with that phrase. You don’t need to tie it into reality. The mere fact of arguing becomes the justification. By removing your argument from the realm of facts, you can convince yourself of a position much easier. It’s a terrible logical leap that allows you to believe anything.
Make no mistake however, this is not an act of stupidity. The people using this language are very intelligent and at the top of their game, holding political power. It does not matter if people ridicule or mock their stance. Instead, it is a deliberate tactic to delegitimize other arguments against them, to strengthen their position and distract from what is actually happening.
What is terrifying about the phrase is that it attacks the legitimacy of actual truth. If all truth is alternative, if all facts are malleable, then there is no consistent basis for argument. You can make anything up you like to and it doesn’t need to have any basis in reality. You can say the sky is green and then argue it was just your opinion. The Trump team can say can say the inauguration was highly attended and the popular vote was rigged, despite no evidence whatsoever. It’s why in the UK Theresa May is pushing for hard Brexit and saying that we will have a good chance of new trade deals. There is no basis for this, but we are living in a post-truth world so it doesn’t matter about reality. The real world is over-rated anyway, with its inconvenient rules and restrictions. Much better to escape into a fantasy world, where you can argue and believe whatever you want. All those who disagree with you simply have the wrong set of facts. Everything is true and false until you decide, one way or the other. It weakens the very foundation of rational debate because you attack the core facts and question their legitimacy.
Trump and his team are not looking to see what is right or correct, but instead are appealing to feelings and gut instincts. The only problem is, your gut instinct can often be wrong and feelings are not reliable as a source of political information. But by attacking the concept of truth, they can raise questions in people’s minds as to the reasons why people are criticising them. It is not because they are wrong, it is because the other side has an agenda, or are using reality against them. Any accusations or arguments against them can be dismissed as false because truth is no longer the currency between people. As such, they come out stronger because you have emotion on your side.
It is also very useful as an arguing tactic to distract from everything else that is happening. Trump has started his presidency with the lowest approval rating of any president-elect. He is not a popular president and does not have the support of most of the country for the reforms he wants to introduce. By attacking the legitimacy of facts, the Republicans are able to distract attention away from what they are doing politically. Instead of attacking policy, the media and the public are distracted by arguing about whether the sky is green or what two plus two makes. It was a similar tactic Putin used during the invasion of Ukraine. Lie, lie and lie again, sometimes contradicting yourself until people don’t know what is happening and spend forever trying to unpick the lies and establish some kind of truth. It becomes a smokescreen for the real actions.
The next few years are going to be full of this sort of bullshit. That’s what these tactics are, bullshit. It’s the lies of the con man trying to sell you a genuine ‘Folex’. It’s only going to get worse as the Trump presidency tries to do what it likes, as Putin clings onto power and as here in the UK MP’s try to sell losing trade and falling wages as a positive thing. We have to be vigilant in the coming years and focus on the facts, even if they are inconvenient for us or are against a deeply held belief. We like to think of ourselves as rational people, but we are subject every day to a whole host of biases and logical fallacies. We can’t let leaders hide behind a smokescreen of alternative facts and post truth lies. We need to demand actual facts and figures, so we can focus on what’s actually happening.