(This essay was originally published as “We’re losing track of what is real and fake in Trump’s America” by thehill.com on January 15, 2018.)
President Trump and the Democrats are negotiating over the fate of the dreamers and of the border wall with Mexico, the latter of which is clearly an imperative for the president. However, his calling Michael Wolff’s book, Fire and Fury, a “fake book” demonstrates that the more important wall for the American citizen is not the border wall, but rather “Plato’s wall,” what constitutes truth and what constitutes fabrication in the American mind.
Twenty-four hundred years ago the ancient Greek philosopher Plato, in his most famous political study, The Republic, wrestled with the questions of what is the best state and how to produce the best statesmen. A slim chapter deals with his “Allegory of the Cave,” a fanciful story in which Plato deals with knowing reality, among other things. Plato portrays several “prisoners” who have been chained from birth to a wall deep in a cave in such fashion that they can look in one direction only, toward a cave wall.
On this wall shadows are cast from objects passing behind them. The objects casting the shadows are held just over a berm behind which real humans walk with the objects elevated over their heads so that only these objects and not their bodies cast the images. Still farther behind is an eternal fire emitting the light which casts the images on the wall in front of the prisoners. Because of their chains the prisoners cannot turn their heads to see each other or to distinguish the real objects from the images on the wall. Consequently, the only “truth that such men would conceive would be the shadows of those manufactured articles.”
Grasping reality and truth has been an eternal challenge which has occupied philosophers since Plato. With her speech at the Golden Globe Awards on January 8, Oprah Winfrey underlined the importance of truth today in this special women’s moment of American history. “I want to say that I value the press more than ever before as we try to navigate these complicated times, which brings me to this: what I know for sure is that speaking your truth is the most powerful tool we all have.”
In recent decades knowing what is real and truthful has become ever more challenging. In the last forty years we have seen the tremendous expansion of media sources through which we may obtain information. Regarding TV, the three major broadcast channels no longer command the attention of the citizen they once did. The result is that we Americans no longer share a common narrative and analysis of news events, broadcast by media organizations which seek to uphold high journalistic standards. This has led to a multiplication of realities—of what is real and what is not.
The internet has enormously expanded Plato’s wall. Anyone—motivated simply by profit—can easily establish a website which purports to provide “news.” For example, in November 2016, the New York Times reported on such sites established by Beqa Latsabidze, a 22-year old college student in the country of Georgia. In establishing the sites, he indicated that his only motive was to make money from Google ads.
In the lead-up to the November presidential election, his sites initially focused on Hillary Clinton. However, the website drew little attention. He then switched his focus to Trump and his readership soared. He found success in stories praising Trump that mixed real information with fake, material which lauded Trump and criticized Clinton. Some were totally false, such as the one which reported in the summer 2016, that “the Mexican government announced they will close their borders to Americans in the event that Donald Trump is elected President ….”
Latzabidze stated he was amazed that anyone would mistake some of his fake posts for real news. They are simply “infotainment.” He argued that he was simply providing people what they wanted, in this case, stories praising Trump to Trump supporters.
A second example of a starkly untrue news story which echoed throughout the pro-Trump media outlets was the tweet which Jack Posobiec sent on May 17, 2017, regarding fired FBI director James Comey. It said: Comey said under oath that Trump did not ask him to halt any investigation, dated May 8, 2017. The New York Times reported that this was simply untrue. Nonetheless, the tweet was picked up quickly by pro-Trump channels and used. It made its way to the prime time Fox News channel and also the broadcasts of conservative Rush Limbaugh.
And now we have President Trump branding not only selected words by reputable sources as fake news but an entire book as “fake.” Plato might suggest that Trump would in effect transport us to his own cave where he alone controls the images on the cave wall. It would appear that the single criterion he would use to decide which images to show us is: Are the images favorable, or perhaps using his word “loyal,” to him or not?
Today then, the American citizen is confronted by genuinely fabricated news not only from individuals for personal economic gain and by foreign governments for their own interests and for the subversion of our democracy, but also by its own duly-elected government complicating matters. The veracity of Wolff’s book aside, when President Trump calls a book “fake,” that should be a clear signal for the American citizen to sit up in Plato’s cave and look very discerningly at the images on the wall.
Fred Zilian (Twitter: @FredZilian) teaches history and politics at Salve Regina University, RI.