Back when America was Great, it loved facts. Minnesota’s Mesabi Range was the biggest thing in iron ore in the 1880s (fact) and contributed to mountains of steel for US industrialization (fact). Warfare took to the air, paving the way for American airlines to bounce among the clouds and continents. America was the first to weaponize the split atom. The petrochemical industry made designer molecules, never seen by nature, that could be whipped into dirt-cheap plastic in any form a consumer could be made to want. The matrix of US roads kept getting bigger and denser, and Detroit-built cars were the vehicles to drive those roads. There was no quarrel with facts then. America was a fact-based nation with a fact-based answer for everything.
In 2016 Americans elected a vulgar POTUS who every day of the long campaign spewed statements that fact-checkers said were doubtful or impossible. Whatever he said spurred that day’s crowd to applaud wildly and bellow “Make America great again!” and “Lock her up!” Facts were now for bending and inventing, for using out of context and for getting rid of the inconvenient. Mr. T could cite something as fact one day and call it bullshit and pseudoscience the next. His followers applauded both.
When T was the president-elect, a woman appeared on American television described as “a Trump surrogate.” This confused me. Did that mean she was “Trump in absence” or that she had borne Trump using donor sperm? After some skirmishing with the host over dubious campaign statements, the woman grew irritated and said, “There are no facts.” And this statement took off. It made the papers everywhere, for the surrogate had put her finger on what had changed, what had made the new America possible.
This is not an entirely new thing to say. In the 1880s Friedrich Nietzsche wrote: “There are no facts, only interpretations.” But Mr. T’s surrogate meant more; she seemed to be saying there was no longer anything but that which Mr T. said, which his followers accepted as true without reservation and which his adversaries saw as false and despicable. After one of the debates with Hillary Clinton, Mr. T was found to have lied 57 times. But if no one cares, why bother to even count the lies? If there are no facts, there can be no lies.
So what happened that made America get rid of facts, after having formerly worshipped them? It doesn’t take McLuhanist-level thought to suggest that facts have turned on America. Instead of translating into world-beating assembly lines and first-rate cars, the facts for a long time have been that even Americans prefer Japanese cars; that the American industrial heartland has turned to rust; that well-paid and secure jobs have been shipped overseas or over the border to the maquiladoras of Juarez. Certain billionaires made more billions but that only gets a country so far. The proud American ethic of hard work grew a belly, sat in a bar watching sports and felt sorry for itself.
Everywhere the white American male looked there were more of these threatening facts: Women have equal ability and should receive equal pay; Black people and Hispanic people have equal intelligence and abilities as white people. The fact of American white privilege was teetering on the edge. If those were the facts, then to hell with the facts. Give me a fantasy that says white men will lead America to greatness again.
When America dispensed with facts and proved that they had done so by electing POTUS Trump, one of the first facts to go was climate change. Another discarded fact was that the damage caused by climate change is reaching a point where it might be irreversible. Mr. T’s statements that the climate crisis is pseudo-science and a Chinese-created hoax were seen by many as exaggeration and gamesmanship, but when his appointee for leader of the Environmental Protection Agency was a white man who denies climate change, it was a ploy no longer. Climate change was dispensed with. Over and out. When he chose the Rex Tillerson, the CEO of ExxonMobil, the biggest oil company in the world, to be his secretary of state for foreign affairs, it meant T wanted to return to the let ’er rip era of jacked-up oil production and combustion. That Mr. Tillerson, as CEO of Exxon, accepted that climate change is real and human-caused makes no difference. Exxon, as a corporation, will continue to make as much product and profit as it is allowed to.
Soon, Canada’s Conservative Party will be choosing a new leader, and, wouldn’t you know it, among the candidates are some who are hoping the “no facts” approach will work for them too. Of course, to follow suit requires that you also exhibit misogyny, racism and xenophobia. No problem. Once you get rid of the facts, that part’s easy. #
Fred Stenson’s most recent novel is Who By Fire (Doubleday).Other books include The Trade, Lightning and The Great Karoo.