Truth, Relativism, and the News Media: How Donald Trump Was Elected

“How did this happen?” This is the question roughly half of the country is asking in the wake of the 2016 presidential election. How did a candidate, who nearly every analyst deemed unelectable, prove everyone wrong? Some point to the political polarization plaguing the country as the answer. But this is not satisfactory. Trump’s success may be a symptom of this polarization, but to understand the problem, one must understand the primary cause of polarization itself.

Indeed, the polarization that is currently hampering political discourse in the United States existed long before Trump announced he was running for President. In the wake of Trump’s victory, many have pointed to media “echo chambers” as the cause of his success. In fact, these echo chambers are one of the main causes of polarization too. The nature of online media means everything is available on demand, all the time. But this freedom afforded to the consumer in media consumption extends beyond mere innocuous entertainment, however. Consumers now have the ability to be highly selective when it comes to the type of news media they consume. There is virtually an endless number of outlets to choose to get information from, representing views from across the entire political spectrum. These outlets are able to exist because they all tap into their respective niche audiences.

The means by which these outlets are consumed are radically different from traditional media, too. Many people receive their news solely from social media websites, thanks to their friends or other accounts they follow that share news stories. The problem is this: people are only going to follow friends or outlets that share news they want to hear. This creates the “echo chamber”: All news and information one receives is presented with a bias skewed towards one’s political beliefs. This reinforces their beliefs, and alienates people that have differing views, creating the political polarization. Facebook was criticized following the results of the election for being a main culprit in creating such echo chambers. Its founder, Mark Zuckerberg, defended the website and explained, “The problem isn’t that the diverse information isn’t there…but that we haven’t gotten people to engage with it in higher proportions.” But that is the point; people are only engaging with news that agrees with their views. When they stumble upon some content on their News Feed that differs from their views, they simply scroll past. This is a consequence of the freedom granted to the consumer when it comes to the consumption of media in the twenty-first century.

Facebook and other social media websites have also been criticized for propagating news that is simply fake. Facebook’s News Feed often features articles hosted by fake news websites. Such sites often featured scandalous (and untrue) headlines designed to defame one of the candidates during the election. The problem persists in the wake of the election, too. The Comet Ping Pong Pizzeria in Washington, DC was accused of being a front for a child-trafficking ring led by Hillary Clinton, after the false story was reported by fake news sites and shared on social media. In other instances, user-generated false information spreads. A man in Austin, Texas claimed in a tweet that he had captured photos of buses used by the Clinton campaign to transport paid protestors. The buses in the images were really being used for a conference hosted by a software company in the city. The false and obscure tweet was picked up by Reddit, where it spread. After the tweet made its rounds on social media, conservative fake news websites had already reported on the apparent proof of the Clinton campaigns’ shady tactics. The next day, Trump himself authored a tweet denouncing professional protestors. It seems even he was convinced by the fake story (or didn’t care to verify its validity).

But why do people believe the stories in these echo chambers? On any given day, a liberal outlet and a conservative outlet might be running contradictory stories, but surely both cannot be true at the same time. What causes the conviction with which people consume such biased media? In pondering this question, I am reminded of a book by Allan Bloom, The Closing of the American Mind. In the book, Bloom criticizes the emergence of “cultural relativism” among his university students. “Openness,” he explains, “and the relativism that makes it the only plausible stance in the face of various claims to truth and various ways of life and kinds of human beings – is the great insight of our times. The true believer is the real danger” (page 26). Bloom argues that his students’ “openness” towards other cultures requires an abandonment of truth. “Openness used to be the virtue that permitted us to seek the good using reason. It now means accepting everything and denying reason’s power.” If all cultures are equally true, then the truth must be relative. Bloom asserts that such relativism and the abandonment of truth contributed to the “closing” of the American mind.

If Bloom had lived to see the impact that the internet and a relative mindset would have on facts, he would have been appalled. Consumers carry this same mindset of relativism with them when they consume their news media. If everything is equally true, then consumers can choose which information they believe is true and which isn’t. In fact, this is how stories are presented. Take, for example, the reports by the New York Times on the protests at Standing Rock, North Dakota against the Dakota Access Pipeline. The land on which the pipeline was constructed is legally Native American land, by the Treaty of Fort Laramie, signed in 1868. However, when the Times reported on the protests taking place there in a story published on October 28, it presented both sides of the conflict as equally true. “Company officials contend that the pipeline will be a safer way to transfer oil. But Native Americans and environmental activists, many of whom have gathered here, say the $3.7 billion pipeline threatens the region’s water supply and would harm sacred cultural lands and tribal burial grounds.” In the story, both sides of the argument are simply relayed, and the reader is left to decide which side is correct. The Times ignores the fact that the disputed land is actually Native American land. This is an indisputable fact based on the treaty, however, the Times portrays this as a mere claim that the Natives make, in equal standing with the claims of the pipeline company.

Relativism influenced the consumption of news media during the election, too. In January, CNN reported on Trump’s accusation that Clinton and Barack Obama “created ISIS.” CNN reported, “Donald Trump on Saturday said the policies of President Barack Obama and former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton ‘created ISIS,’ the furthest the GOP front-runner has gone in tying the Obama administration’s policies to the rise of the terror group.” Only once does the article mention, “Trump offered no evidence for his claim.” The article never says that Trump’s claims were simply false. Instead, it explains that, “Trump has blamed both Democrats and former President George W. Bush when talking about unrest in the Middle East,” and concludes with the fact that “Two of Trump’s 2016 competitors, Carly Fiorina and Rick Santorum, said in November that Clinton and Obama were to blame for ISIS.”

Although the article points out that Trump’s claims lacked evidence, a consumer could still choose to believe them, because the article never outright says they are false. The press should be concerned with the truth behind what people say, but instead they act as spokespeople, repeating what they hear or are told. Trump took advantage of this and used wild rhetoric to generate quotes and sound bites that the media incessantly repeated. The press made the election a “he said/she said” debate. And even when the media condemned what Trump said as wrong, he was still given valuable airtime, propagating his rhetoric. The press unintentionally created the Trump phenomenon.

Relativism does have its benefits. The mutual respect it facilitates among different cultures is invaluable. But when it intrudes on the truthfulness of actual facts in our news media, then the relativism has gone too far. Facts have become mere opinions. Surely absolute truth must still exist.

This relativism also leads to the normalization of radical, even bigoted opinions. CNN ran a story in November that featured interviews with correspondents about the “alt-right” movement. The headline on the screen read, “Alt-Right Founder Questions If Jews Are People.” Merely entertaining these bigoted opinions legitimizes them. A person channel-surfing might catch a glimpse of the headline, and get the wrong impression that such opinions are acceptable.

In other ways Trump’s success has been a response to the “cultural relativism” Bloom describes. The phenomenon has created the culture of “political correctness” that Trump disavows. Liberals avoid saying anything that might be deemed offensive by others, because what is offensive is relative. But conservatives see such relativism as an attack on truth. Gender neutral bathrooms are rejected by conservatives because if gender is relative, what else is left to be true anymore? Further, Trump’s “locker room talk” that many thought would end his campaign probably bolstered his appeal to his supporters, because many deemed this as part of Trump’s retaliation against “political correctness” and its antecedent, “cultural relativism.”

Perhaps now we can attempt to answer the question: how was Trump elected? He was the first candidate to use all of these factors to his advantage. He harnessed the echo chamber, sending out his own tweets and Instagram photos to his online followers, often with a disregard for the truth. He also intruded into the echo chambers of those against him by using wild rhetoric. In conservative echo chambers, such rhetoric was praised. In liberal echo chambers, it was condemned. But in either case, Trump was the subject. His name was constantly on our television screens, and clips of his speeches were played over and over again. He knows how to build a brand.

He was also the first to harness conservative discontent towards political correctness and cultural relativism by actively speaking out against it. During the GOP Presidential debate on Aug. 6, 2015, Fox’s Megyn Kelly asked Trump about his ill temperament and his history of demeaning comments towards women. Trump responded by declaring that “political correctness” was “one of the big problems this country has.” He was met with resounding applause. “I don’t have time for total political correctness,” he said. “It’s fun, it’s kidding, we have a good time. What I say is what I say.” This message was repeated in a YouTube video uploaded by Trump in January 2016. “To be politically correct just takes too much time. It takes too much effort,” he said. Trump successfully tapped into the exasperation with political correctness on the right. Many on the right feel that there are too many sensibilities and “triggers” to be aware of that the effort to avoid them all is just not worth it. Many on the right see the condemnation of certain types of speech as an attack on the First Amendment, too. Trump also claimed in the video that the effort required stifles progress and policy-making. “We have to get things done in this country, and you’re never gonna [sic] get it done if we just stay politically correct,” he said.

Trump used the same arguments in a speech in June 2016 to justify his proposed ban on Muslims from entering the country. “The current politically correct response cripples our ability to talk and to think and act clearly,” he said, “We cannot afford to talk around issues anymore. I called for a ban [on Muslims] after San Bernardino, and was met with great scorn and anger. But now […] many are saying that I was right to do so.” Trump insinuated that the Obama administration’s sympathy towards Syrian refugees was a consequence of efforts to be politically correct, at the cost of national security.

Trump’s claims in the speech echo another one of his arguments against political correctness. He took pride in the fact that he said what was on his mind, or what he believed everyone else was thinking. This is his “silent majority” argument. The Trump campaign believed that their base included supporters that were reluctant to come out and voice their “politically incorrect” opinions. To even publicly support Trump was considered “politically incorrect.” Trump’s campaign manager Kellyanne Conway said in August that “Donald Trump performs consistently better in online polling where a human being is not talking to another human being about what he or she may do in the election.” She insisted on the existence of a “hidden Trump vote.” The results we saw on Election Day speak to the truth in some of these claims.

He also used this relativism and the corruption of truth to his advantage, to deny truthful allegations made against him, like his previous support for the Iraq War. I am reminded of the Vice-Presidential debate when Mike Pence flat out denied allegations made against his running mate by Tim Kaine – allegations that were, more often than not, true. Trump’s supporters didn’t seem to care. The truth is relative.

Trump also used to his advantage the polarization that plagued political discourse before he ran for president. He even increased the gaps in many cases. By labeling his opponent a criminal, and claiming the system was “rigged,” he rendered all those who supported Hillary supporters of a criminal and a corrupt system. This made discourse between the two sides even harder.

So, what can be done? How can these problems be solved, the gaps bridged and truth restored? The responsibility lies on everyone. It lies on consumers, to actively diversify the sources from which they consume news media. It also lies on the press, to dedicate themselves to relaying truth, and not stories twisted by agendas, biases, or efforts to portray the truth as relative. The consumer cannot become complacent. Actively seek the truth, and try to consider the perspectives of those who disagree. Perhaps then actual discussion and arguments can be had between the left and the right. Such discourse is what renders compromise, a cornerstone of our American democracy. Compromises are solutions that can be agreed upon by all; neither side loses. That is what this country needs if it is to endure for ages to come. In our current state of affairs, however, it seems our country, and democracy itself, are at risk.