Disconnection from Reality 5

Donald Trump was elected because Americans watch too much television. TV has sapped their imaginations and rotted their minds. They are no longer capable of critical thinking. They cannot tell the difference between what is real and what is illusion. Too many voters honestly believe that this con-man, this failed casino owner, this TV huckster will somehow "Make America Great Again."
- Jack Connolly, Shamokin, PA 9/6/19, Comment on James Poniewozik, The Real Donald Trump Is a Character on TV, NYT, Sept. 6, 2019

Being a reality star, on the other hand, as Donald Trump was on “The Apprentice,” is also a kind of performance, but one that’s antithetical to movie acting. Playing a character on reality TV means being yourself, but bigger and louder. ...
But the first mass-market reality TV star was Richard Hatch, the winner of the first season of “Survivor” — produced by Mark Burnett, the eventual impresario of “The Apprentice”— in the summer of 2000.
Mr. Hatch won that first season in much the way that Mr. Trump would run his 2016 campaign. He realized that the only rules were that there were no rules. He lied and backstabbed and took advantage of loopholes, and he argued — with a telegenic brashness — that this made him smart. This was a crooked game in a crooked world, he argued to a final jury of players he’d betrayed and deceived. But, hey: At least he was open about it! ...
Reality TV instead encourages “getting real.” On MTV’s progressive, diverse “Real World,” the phrase implied that people in the show were more authentic than characters on scripted TV — or even than real people in your own life, who were socially conditioned to “be polite.” But “getting real” would also resonate with a rising conservative notion: that political correctness kept people from saying what was really on their minds.
Being real is not the same thing as being honest. To be real is to be the most entertaining, provocative form of yourself. It is to say what you want, without caring whether your words are kind or responsible — or true — but only whether you want to say them. It is to foreground the parts of your personality (aggression, cockiness, prejudice) that will focus the red light on you, and unleash them like weapons.
- James Poniewozik, The Real Donald Trump Is a Character on TV, NYT, Sept. 6, 2019

Mr. Cummings proved that stories and lies, allied to strategic cunning, conviction, secrecy, ruthlessness and upending convention, could be much more appealing than reason and fact. Years of studying and writing obsessively about the art of strategy, the failings of most institutions and the success of revolutionary thinkers like Otto von Bismarck had paid off.
Now this single-minded insurgent is the most powerful individual in the British government, vaulted into Downing Street as Prime Minister Boris Johnson’s chief strategic adviser. His job is to deliver Brexit and win Mr. Johnson five years more in office, making up for the prime minister’s deficiencies as a lazy, inattentive bumbler. Mr. Cummings is deploying all the techniques that have worked for him before: disruption, deception, intimidation and an implacable willingness to alienate people.
- Jenni Russell, The ‘Political Anarchist’ Behind Britain’s Chaos, NYT, Sept. 7, 2019

James Poniewozik’s analytic description of Donald Trump as a TV character was a gift to me. It relieves me of struggling to think of him as a person. But the article also helped expand my understanding of what I see as the surrender and dissipation of our national character and culture to superficial sensation over more rational and emotionally complex gratification.
- Kate McClintic, Comment on James Poniewozik, The Real Donald Trump Is a Character on TV, NYT, Sept. 6, 2019

Responding to accusations from Mr. Trump and his allies — even to deny them — only gives them oxygen.
- Lisa Lerer and Reid J. Epstein, Biden’s Strategy for Managing the Ukraine Story, NYT, Published Sept. 25, 2019, Updated Sept. 26, 2019

Responding to the trollish world of MAGA memes is a lot like arguing with a child. To engage at all is, in some way, to lose; no matter how righteous and warranted your outrage is, you’re pulled down to their level.
- Charlie Warzel, The Violent Trump Video Is Dumb, and That’s the Point, NYT, Oct. 14, 2019

In both business and politics, Trump has often depended on lies. When reality is inconvenient or threatening, he makes up his own version. It’s worked out quite well for him thus far.
- David Leonhardt, ‘Wow. This Letter Is Bananas.’, NYT, Oct. 9, 2019

As disturbing as these specific stories are, what filled me with a creeping sense of dread were the parts of “Antisocial” that incisively describe how a Darwinian information environment has degraded to the point where it now selects for people who can command the most attention with the fewest scruples. ...
Reporting, storytelling, analysis, fact-checking — skills that were previously central to journalism have, for a number of online outlets, taken a back seat to snappy headlines. A jovial and apolitical internet entrepreneur tells Marantz he is “passionate about virality” and seems agnostic about the specific content of any idea, preferring to discuss how best to “ram it into people’s skulls.”
You don’t have to be a lofty establishmentarian to wonder if this approach — a crass reductio ad absurdum of giving people what they want — has already affected our ability to reflect and to deliberate, starving certain cognitive functions while feeding the arousal impulses of our lizard brains.
- Jennifer Szalai, In ‘Antisocial,’ How the Alt-Right Went Viral, NYT, Oct. 7, 2019, updated Oct. 10, 2019

Both the Trump and Duterte campaigns wielded controversy to drive virality. On a platform like Facebook, designed to promote engagement, their behavior creates a vicious cycle: Incendiary content means more reach, which means more effective campaign ads. More effective campaign ads increase the likelihood a campaign will spend more on Facebook ads to fund-raise.
A natural Facebook candidate both dominates the news cycle and stokes emotions — which, in turn, increases that person’s ability to raise money. Once campaigns realize that divisive rhetoric pays, the incentive to up the ante with hyperpartisan ads and misinformation grows. And the campaigns have certainly taken notice. ...
Just as television favored a new brand of well-coiffed, charismatic and dynamic political figures, Facebook offers a disproportionate advantage to those most likely to stoke negative emotions.
- Charlie Warzel, Could Facebook Actually Nuke Elizabeth Warren’s Campaign?, NYT, Oct. 10, 2019

It was a vivid scene worthy of the ending of a Hollywood thriller, the image of a ruthless terrorist mastermind finally brought to justice “whimpering and crying and screaming all the way” to his death. But it may be no more true than a movie script. ...
That Mr. Trump seems to have made up the scene of a whimpering terrorist may be shocking on one level yet not all that surprising from a president who over the years has made a habit of inventing people who do not exist and events that did not happen. ...
In his announcement and subsequent question and answer session, he used the word “whimpering” six times, “crying” five times and “screaming” four times.
Mr. Trump’s account, aspects of which he repeated Friday evening at a rally in Tupelo, Miss., has left four-star generals in the awkward position of not confirming assertions they do not know to be true while trying not to contradict the president too overtly. ...
Mr. Trump has always had an active imagination, on matters large and small. While in business, he called reporters pretending to be a Trump spokesman named John Barron boasting about Mr. Trump in the third person. For years, he peddled the lie that Mr. Obama was born in Kenya instead of Hawaii and he claimed to see “thousands and thousands” of Muslims in New Jersey cheering the fall of the World Trade Center on Sept. 11, 2001, a claim that was thoroughly debunked.

Mr. Trump has long cited a friend named “Jim” who supposedly told him about the decline of Paris, but news organizations have failed to ever establish Jim’s existence. While president, Mr. Trump boasted that the chief of the Boy Scouts called him to praise his speech to its jamboree and asserted that the president of Mexico called to inform him about Mr. Trump’s successful border enforcement. The White House eventually admitted that neither call took place.

Mr. Trump’s misadventures with the truth have been tabulated by The Washington Post, which has counted more than 13,000 false or misleading statements since he took office. The public is no longer surprised. In March, just 19 percent of Americans said Mr. Trump always tells the truth, according to a Reuters poll, while 40 percent said he tells the truth only sometimes and 41 percent said he never tells the truth.
- Peter Baker and Eric Schmitt, The ‘Whimpering’ Terrorist Only Trump Seems to Have Heard, NYT, Published Nov. 1, 2019, Updated Nov. 2, 2019

Moscow has long used its intelligence agencies and propaganda machine to muddy the waters of public debate, casting doubts over established facts. In her testimony, Dr. Hill noted Russia’s pattern of trying to blame other countries for its own actions, like the attempted poisoning last year of a former Russian intelligence officer or the downing of a passenger jet over Ukraine in 2014. Moscow’s goal is to cast doubt on established facts, said current and former officials.

“The strategy is simply to create the impression that it is not really possible to know who was really behind it,” said Laura Rosenberger, the director of the Alliance for Securing Democracy, which tracks Russian disinformation efforts. ...

“These people are pros at this,” said Mr. King, who caucuses with the Democrats. “The Soviet Union used disinformation for 70 years. This is nothing new. Vladimir Putin is a former K.G.B. agent. He is trained in deception. This is his stock and trade and he is doing it well.”

- Julian E. Barnes and Matthew Rosenberg, Charges of Ukrainian Meddling? A Russian Operation, U.S. Intelligence Says, NYT, Nov. 22, 2019

To undermine the well-established fact that Russia corrupted the 2016 vote to help him win, Mr. Trump and his allies have tried to build a fiction that pins those crimes on Ukraine.

In so doing, he has confirmed our darkest fears. The president’s bid to solicit foreign help to impugn a domestic political rival in 2019 should wipe away any doubts about his willingness to do the same with Russian help in 2016. ...
Mr. Giuliani, the president’s personal lawyer and the main stirrer of the conspiracy pot in Ukraine, cooked up a fresh fabrication just this week, telling Glenn Beck on his TV program that he had “very strong evidence that a lot of the Steele dossier was produced in Ukraine” and that “Glenn Simpson spent a fair amount of time there during the time that the dossier was being written.”

By sheer coincidence, one of us — the aforementioned Mr. Simpson — found himself on a plane from New York to Washington with Mr. Giuliani just hours later, and he couldn’t resist confronting the former New York mayor about his claim after they landed.

“I understand you think I spent a lot of time in Ukraine?” Mr. Simpson inquired.

“You did spend some time in Ukraine,” Mr. Giuliani replied.

“Did I?” Mr. Simpson asked as he waved his phone in front of Mr. Giuliani, signaling that he was recording the encounter.

“What if I told you I have never been to Ukraine in my life?”

“Well,” Mr. Giuliani replied with equanimity, “O.K. I will find out if that’s true or not.”
- Glenn R. Simpson and Peter Fritsch, The Double-Barreled Dream World of Trump and His Enablers, NYT, Nov. 22, 2019

In time, he reached a conclusion similar to one reached by the young Macedonians in 2016. They discovered they could make tenfold their country’s average monthly salary using Google AdSense’s pay-per-click ads next to inflammatory stories aimed at pro-Trump American audiences.

In the final weeks of the presidential campaign, Buzzfeed found more than 100 Macedonian pro-Trump websites that pumped out false and inflammatory stories.
- Nicole Perlroth, A Former Fox News Executive Divides Americans Using Russian Tactics, NYT, Nov. 21, 2019

Yesterday, President Trump signed the Women’s Suffrage Centennial Commemorative Coin Act. The effect of this law is self-explanatory — it creates a coin to commemorate the 100th anniversary of the 19th Amendment, ratifying women’s suffrage. Or, at least, it is self-explanatory to everybody except Donald Trump, who was mystified as to why the 100th anniversary was not recognized earlier.

After working his way through the prepared remarks, Trump interjected with his own riff. “They’ve been working on this for years and years,” he said, suddenly wondering, “And I’m curious, why wasn’t it done a long time ago, and also — well, I guess the answer to that is because now I’m president, and we get things done. We get a lot of things done that nobody else got done.”
- Jonathan Chait, Trump: Why Wasn’t 100th Anniversary of Women’s Suffrage Observed ‘Years Ago?’, New York Magazine, 11/26/2019

But while online reviews have become powerful sales tools, the ecosystem is relatively crude. Reviews can be easy to manipulate, and the operators of sites with the most reviews are not always motivated to crack down on fake ones planted to promote products. That leaves many consumers wondering what to believe. ...
The state of the system was highlighted last month in a proposed settlement between Sunday Riley Skincare, a popular seller of items like $55 night oils and $85 brightening serums, and the Federal Trade Commission, which found that the company had posted fake reviews of its products on Sephora’s website for years. Allegations that the brand directed employees to write fake reviews emerged on Reddit last year, but the F.T.C. complaint was far more detailed and said the company’s chief executive, Sunday Riley, had been directly involved in the scheme.

The complaint included a July 2016 email from Ms. Riley that told employees to create three Sephora accounts each with different personas and Gmail addresses. In addition to posting praise, she wrote, employees should “dislike” negative reviews.

“After enough dislikes, it is removed,” she added. “This directly translates to sales!!”

Ms. Riley said she was disappointed that the brand’s Tidal Brightening Enzyme Water Cream and Good Genes All-in-One Lactic Acid Treatment were rated 4.2 out of 5, and wanted at least a 4.8.

“Make sure to NOT compare the product to other products, to not use foul language, and to be very enthusiastic without looking like a plant,” she wrote. “Leave a review for a different product every day so you build up history.”
- Sapna Maheshwari, When Is a Star Not Always a Star? When It’s an Online Review, NYT, Nov. 28, 2019

Pity British voters because they are being subjected to a barrage of distortion, dissembling and disinformation without precedent in the country’s history. Long sentimentalized as the home of “fair play,” Britain is now host to the virus of lies, deception and digital skulduggery that afflicts many other countries across the world.

In this as in other respects, Prime Minister Boris Johnson — a serial liar who lost his first job as a journalist for inventing quotes — resembles President Trump. And Britain, whose election is breaking down under the pressure of manipulation, increasingly looks like the United States. ...
As a result, the British electorate is dazed and weary. Arguably the most significant election in a generation — to Brexit or not to Brexit? — has been reduced to social media sound bites designed by well-paid political consultants. It doesn’t matter whether the message is false; all that matters is that it is repeated often enough.
- Peter Geoghegan and Mary Fitzgerald, Britain’s Dirty Election, NYT, Nov. 29, 2019

Jones, the Trump-endorsed proprietor of the conspiracy-mongering Infowars media empire, is being sued for defamation by 10 families of children who were murdered at Sandy Hook Elementary School in 2012. That mass shooting, Jones maintained until recently, was a hoax, perpetrated with the connivance of the victims’ parents — many of whom have found themselves harassed, threatened and in some cases hounded from their homes by believers in this conspiracy theory.
- Charles Homans, Alex Jones Under Oath Is an Antidote to a ‘Post-Truth’ Age, NYT, April 17, 2019

Speaking the truth, or accepting it when they hear it, is a skill that has become increasingly foreign to Republicans.
- Jesse Wegman, With Trump, All Roads Lead to Moscow, NYT, Dec. 9, 2019

“The story of the past half-century is the steady degradation of trust in the institutions and gatekeepers of American life,” said Ben Domenech, the founder of The Federalist, a conservative news site. “Everything from politics to faith to sports has been revealed as corrupted or corruptible. And every mismanaged war, failed hurricane response, botched investigation and doping scandal furthers this view.”
- Peter Baker, Lies, Damned Lies and Washington, NYT, Dec. 9, 2019

“Volcker’s mantra, one he told me again and again through 2008-9, was that in a crisis the only asset you have is your credibility,” Austan Goolsbee, an economist at the University of Chicago’s Booth School and a former chairman of the Council of Economic Advisers, tweeted. ...
“We’re in a hell of a mess in every direction,” he said. “Respect for government, respect for the Supreme Court, respect for the president, it’s all gone.” ...
...other surveys showed a crisis among everyday people distinguishing fact from fiction in public life. Nearly two-thirds of Americans in a poll released last month by The Associated Press, the NORC Center for Public Affairs Research and USAFacts said they often came across one-sided information, and 47 percent said they had difficulty knowing if the information were true. ...
As Lt. Gen. Douglas E. Lute, who was an adviser on Afghanistan to Mr. Bush and President Barack Obama, admitted in a secret interview included in the documents, “We were devoid of a fundamental understanding of Afghanistan — we didn’t know what we were doing.” But neither administration admitted that to the public. John F. Sopko, the head of the federal agency that conducted the interviews, told The Post that the documents showed “the American people have constantly been lied to.” ...
Mr. Trump is hardly the first dissembler in the White House. Lyndon B. Johnson and Richard M. Nixon were famously talented liars, and Bill Clinton was the first president ever found by a court to have testified falsely under oath. But what Mr. Trump lacks in finesse, he makes up in volume. The Post’s fact-checking unit counted more than 13,000 false or misleading statements by Mr. Trump as of October.

The trials of truth have been a consistent theme of his presidency since its first day when he overstated his inaugural crowd size and within days falsely claimed that at least three million immigrants voted illegally against him, costing him the popular vote.

The culture of dishonesty has resulted in multiple people once in his inner circle pleading guilty or being convicted of lying to the authorities, including his onetime national security adviser, Michael T. Flynn; his former personal lawyer, Michael D. Cohen; several campaign aides; and most recently, his longtime associate and sometime adviser Roger J. Stone Jr., who was found guilty last month in a courthouse just across from the Capitol.
- The Legacy of Paul Volcker, Dealbook, NYT, Dec. 10, 2019

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