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Opinion: On either side of the Atlantic, a disregard for verifiable facts has increasingly become the norm

Simon Foy examines politics in the era of Donald Trump, taking in fake news, allegations about Jeremy Corbyn, and the behaviour of Boris Johnson.

Simon Foy

SINCE DONALD TRUMP’S election in 2016, a disregard for verifiable facts has increasingly become the norm.

False narratives gain traction where they would have once been easily dismissed, even ridiculed. And while traditional newsrooms attempt to combat ‘fake news’ smears, a by-product to this post-truth age has emerged that is less obvious but equally as troubling: a disregard for political scandals.

In James Balls’s book Post-Truth: How Bullshit Conquered the World, the author observes that “fake news is more a symptom of this vacuum of trust than a cause: bullshit is indeed the enemy of truth, and without a sense of truth we have no way to debate across the political fence – we can only shout our conflicting narratives”.

In previous eras, revelations of an extramarital affair could consign a political career to the grave. Now, men who cheat – certainly maritally and potentially electorally as well – lie, or gravely offend hold some of the most powerful positions on either side of the Atlantic, or are on the cusp of doing so.

The standards by which we hold our leaders have fallen significantly. Politics is now based less on principles and respectability than it is on emotion and tribal loyalties. This gives cultish supporters an excuse to play down or even indulge the worst excesses of their preferred candidate which, in turn, allows populists to thrive.

Trump is clearly the zenith of this post-scandal age. During the 2016 campaign, not even a recording of the then-candidate declaring that it is acceptable to grab a woman “by the pussy” hurt his electoral chances. That was only the beginning.

With Trump’s former lawyer Michael Cohen implicating the president, under oath, in a federal crime, the response of the sycophants who follow the President was to cry ‘Witch Hunt!’ to delegitimise Robert Mueller’s investigation – as Trump himself has done repeatedly.

His less fervent supporters attempted to shrug off the allegations, with some arguing that ‘lots of people commit crimes’.

When the average voter starts to believe that it is acceptable for a sitting president to be involved in criminal activity, democracy, as the basis for structuring a successful political system, is in trouble.

Boris and Jeremy 

Examples in the UK have shown that a disregard for scandal encompasses both extremes of the political spectrum.

Boris Johnson recently attempted to remain relevant for an impending leadership challenge by employing a calculated form of dog-whistle racism.

The former foreign secretary suggested that Muslim women wearing burkhas look like ‘letterboxes’ and ‘bank robbers’ which, according to a watchdog, led to an increase in hate crimes against Muslim women wearing similar garments.

There is little doubt that the stoking of racial prejudices played a role in the UK’s vote to leave the European Union two years ago.

Similarly, Jeremy Corbyn has spent much of his summer struggling to defuse claims that his party has a fundamental issue with antisemitism. Corbyn’s history of courting figures with highly questionable links has not served him well. Neither have a number of speeches he gave prior to becoming Labour leader.

Last month it emerged that in 2013 Corbyn argued that ‘Zionists’ have “no sense of English irony despite having lived here all their lives”. A declaration that, in any normal era, would force a leader of a major political party to resign or to be kicked out if they refused. These, however, are not normal times.

Neither Johnson nor Corbyn are to blame for these mishaps, according to their followers. Rather, it is the mainstream media (‘MSM’), the liberal elite, political correctness, the right-wing of the Labour Party, the Tory Remainers, the centrists, or a combination of any number of conspiracies that are responsible for plotting against them.

In an interview on Sky News, a woman defending Corbyn even claimed that Labour could not have an anti-semitism problem because “Jeremy won the Nobel Peace Prize last year” – a depressing example of the mistruths people will believe to confirm their own biases.

Ireland 

While our own democracy has yet to be exposed to a comparable level of toxic discourse, it is certainly not immune to it occurring in the near future. Two UCD academics have even called for a citizens’ assembly to be set up to deal with the potential threat of right-wing anti-immigrant sentiment and to establish how Ireland can become a ‘Diverse Republic’. A constructive proposal if done properly.

It is not uncommon to overhear people say that they admire Trump for his entertainment factor. Politics, though, is not show-business and we should rightly hold our leaders to a higher standard than we hold other public figures. They are, after all, elected to represent us. And in doing so they should represent the best of our traits and values rather than those we wish to conceal.

When electorates fail to think objectively and instead choose to rally behind a scandal-ridden partisan leader, democracy becomes less about compromise and winning arguments than it does about slinging grenades over the trenches.

With a sitting US president trying to rubbish criminal allegations made against him and the prospect of Brexit Britain being run by Jeremy Corbyn or Boris Johnson, some might conclude that the colourful term James Balls uses as a synonym for “fake news” in the title of his aforementioned book is rather applicable to the current state of western democracy: bullshit.

Simon Foy is a freelance journalist and is studying for a master’s degree in Financial Journalism at City, University of London. 

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