Redefining truth in Trump’s America

Teri Carter
Teri Carter

A few months after my son got his driver’s license, he rolled our truck down a bank on a remote back road. The truck landed softly on its hood, and he was able to crawl out the window, uninjured. “Stay put,” I said when he called. “I’ll be there as soon as I call a tow truck.”

But by the time I arrived, there were two cop cars, lights flashing, and my son was giving a police report. I panicked, sure something else must have gone terribly wrong, so I pulled my son aside and asked why the police were there. “I called 911,” he said, matter-of-factly. “You always told me if I had an accident to tell the police exactly what happened, to just tell the truth.”

We’ve been told we are in post-truth America, where what we believe emotionally takes precedence over facts. Where this year the Oxford Dictionary declared “post-truth” the international word of 2016, citing a 2,000-percent increase in use over 2015.

We try to teach our kids the value of telling the truth. In fact, we tell them they will be in more trouble for lying about something they did wrong than for the wrong itself. We casually quote clichés like, “The truth shall set you free.”

So what value, then, is truth in a post-truth world? How do we teach our children to tell the truth when it is barely a month since Donald Trump became president-elect, and his lies are already stacking up?

The election is over. Trump clearly won. Yet he insists, with zero evidence, that he “won the popular vote if you deduct the millions of people who voted illegally.” And to further muddy the waters, our vice-president elect, when asked if it is Trump’s right to make false statements, replied with a shrug, “Well, it’s his right to express his opinion.”

Note: In post-truth America, an opinion with zero evidence to back it up is the truth.

A week ago, Trump stated that the president of Taiwan — an unrecognized leader of an unrecognized country — called him simply to congratulate him on winning the presidency. And yet, we’ve now learned the call was pre-arranged by Trump’s team. We’ve learned his designated chief of staff traveled to Taiwan last fall as part of a delegation. We’ve learned an agent of the Trump organization took a September business trip to Taiwan to, reportedly, discuss a potential real-estate project.

Note: In post-truth America, irrefutable facts (calendars, travel documents, phone records) are irrelevant if you double-down on the original lie.

Trump’s national security adviser has advanced a conspiracy theory — a conspiracy theory being a lie — that Hillary Clinton was linked to sex crimes against children and money laundering. All of these allegations have been debunked, and yet because of their continued spread the owners of a family pizza place in Washington, D.C. are dealing with death threats and harassment. Last weekend, a gunman, acting on these lies, entered the restaurant as parents dined with their children.

Note: In post-truth America, the national security adviser to the president can propagate, without consequence, lies that endanger Americans.

At the scene of my son’s accident, after the police had gone and the tow truck disappeared down the road, I tried to explain the nuances of truth-telling to my teenage son.

“You don’t have to call the police for a minor, one-car accident with no injuries,” I said. “But now the police are required to file their report with the state, resulting in points on your license and an increase in our car insurance.”

My son stared out the window, silent. Maybe he was still shaken by the rollover. Or maybe he was, as we are now, wrestling with the new supposed definitions of truth. The ninth commandment clearly states, “Do not testify false witness against your neighbor,” but if it’s OK for the president-elect and his staff, how do we explain the difference to our kids?

Do we need the Oxford Dictionary to redefine what the truth means, what it means to lie?

Apparently, we do.

But what does it matter, in post-truth America?

Teri Carter is a writer who lives in Lawrenceburg.