Listening to former special counsel Robert Mueller’s testimony on July 24, the nation heard a duel over the facts.
Not what the facts imply, not our response to them, but what the facts are.
Founding Father John Adams once said, “Facts are stubborn things, and whatever may be our wishes, our inclinations, or the dictates of our passions, they cannot alter the state of facts and evidence.”
But this is no longer Adams’ America, where facts were unalterable.
As a scholar of philosophy in what I call the post-truth era, I believe Mueller’s testimony shows that at least in the political world, alternative facts have replaced actual facts and feelings have more weight than evidence.
It has been established that the Russians hacked the 2016 presidential election. That is one of the few generally accepted facts to emerge from the Mueller investigation.
But did President Trump invite or otherwise cooperate with this interference? And, once an investigation into these questions was taken up by Mueller’s Office of Special Counsel, did the president attempt to interfere with it?
The dream for Democrats was that, upon hearing the facts directly from Mueller, the American people might finally begin to pay attention and realise that there was incontrovertible evidence that Trump at least obstructed justice in his repeated efforts to derail and discredit the special counsel’s investigation.
Even if Mueller did not introduce any new information beyond the confines of his report – which he did not – the hope was that simply by seeing and hearing his report come to life, Americans could finally agree that even if there was insufficient evidence to conclude that Trump conspired with the Russians, the country could at least understand that he threatened, lied, enticed and otherwise interfered with the investigation. It would be like seeing the movie rather than reading the book.
The dream for Republicans was to introduce a new set of facts, which they offered with largely no evidence, seeking to question the integrity of the investigation from the start. They pursued this line relentlessly.
The problem with facts these days is not that they do not exist. It’s that with a steady stream of propaganda fed to the electorate on a daily basis, the facts are beholden to your political point of view.
At the break in the Mueller hearings, here were the top three headlines from Fox News:
- “Mueller flustered, asking lawmakers to repeat questions at tense hearing”
- “Mueller admits he was friends with Comey during heated House hearing”
- “Here’s how much the Mueller investigation cost taxpayers”
Over at MSNBC, there was an alternate universe:
- “Mueller testifies under oath that his report does not exonerate Trump”
- “Mueller: A president could be criminally charged after leaving office”
- “Mueller confirms Trump asked staff to falsify records to protect himself”
The problem is not that any of these headlines are technically false. It’s that cherry-picking what facts get reported creates a skewed perception of reality.
In May, Representative Justin Amash, a Republican – who became an Independent in July – held a series of town halls on why he favoured Trump’s impeachment. Several media outlets reported one of the attendees didn’t even know what all the fuss was about.
“I was surprised to hear there was anything negative in the Mueller report at all about President Trump,” Cathy Garnaat said. “I hadn’t heard that before. I’ve mainly listened to conservative news and I hadn’t heard anything negative about that report and President Trump has been exonerated.”
With polls showing that fewer than 10% of Americans have read any part of Robert Mueller’s report, it’s possible that many rely on news coverage to tell them what it said. Indeed, when the report was released back in April, a poll showed that only “46% of Americans had heard something about the Mueller Report”.
Democrats appear to be nursing the hope that once something happens, people will wake up and care about the facts again. Once the report is released, once people read the report, once Mueller testifies, facts will matter again.
Death of facts
But to watch the spin by both Republicans and Democrats about the hearing – “Republicans and Democrats filtered Robert Mueller’s Capitol Hill testimony through their own prisms Wednesday,” wrote ABC News – one wonders if this is a false hope.
At this point, does it really matter?
Even if the Mueller report had been definitive, some have speculated that half the country would have rejected it anyway.
Perhaps, in order to promote an agenda, you need not offer alternative facts, but simply discredit the other side’s fact-finders. Or, as Trump once put it – in response to a question about why he attacks the media so much, “I do it to discredit you all and demean you all so that when you write negative stories about me, no one will believe you.”
Shortly after Mueller concluded his testimony, Trump stepped out onto the South Lawn to talk to reporters.
Once again, he called the Russia investigation a “ridiculous hoax” and a “witch hunt” – after Robert Mueller had explicitly told lawmakers that the Russia investigation was neither a witch hunt nor a hoax. In a final tweet, before departing for a fundraiser in West Virginia, Trump tweeted “TRUTH IS A FORCE OF NATURE.”
Lee McIntyre is a research fellow at the Center for Philosophy and History of Science, Boston University.
This article first appeared on The Conversation.