After being hunted to near extinction over the past year, facts are making a modest comeback. There have been confirmed sightings of modest-sized pods of veracity in the nation’s capital, and in resurfacing they’ve been quick to demonstrate why they were once considered the apex predators of politics. This week the fangs of verity sank deep into the posteriors of various members of DC’s piffle and perjury squad. You could hear the squeals all the way out here in flyover country.
The sorest fact-bitten keister clearly belonged to the president. And no wonder. Early in the week the head of the Federal Bureau of Investigation and the head of the National Security Agency toddled up to Capitol Hill and, in so many words, publically announced, “The President of the United States is, (a), a big fat fibber, and (b), if we open up this here bag of facts we’ve been collecting we’re genuinely worried that they will not just jump out and bite him in the ass, but literally masticate his buttocks off.”
While the FBI and NSA poo-bahs were testifying, the Donald was trying to keep it all under the tweets with his patented 140-character diversionary ditties. Look, he said, the head of the FBI and the NSA are telling Congress that Russia did not influence the election. Forced into fact checking the president in real time while still testifying before a Congressional committee, the heads of said agencies replied, um, no, that’s absolutely not what we’re saying. And so was added another a five-Pinocchio, pants-on-fire assessment to a presidential statement. By the chiefs of his own government’s security and intelligence agencies, no less. And thus a newly hatched historical fact jumped out of that bag, gnashed its chompers and headed straight for the front page and Donald’s derriere.
It wasn’t just the president, though, dealing with the unchained hounds of verisimilitude. Fox News was having similar problems. One of its wind generators, Andrew Napolitano, had claimed on air that Barack Obama had sought the help of British intelligence to spy on Trump. There is not a scintilla of evidence to support this explosive assertion, but to no one’s surprise that fact-free moonbeam was soon shining out of the White House portico. Such delusional fudge-o-grams are a staple offerings of the alt-right aluminum-hat conspiracy brigade, and these morsels typically get swallowed by the news cycle without causing heartburn to those who issue or promote them. But not this time.
Agog and in high dudgeon, the Brits demanded an apology. Nuh-uh, won’t do it, said the Trumpsters, and stuck their tongues out. Through gritted teeth and stiff upper lips the nations’ closest ally more or less said, “Christ, have you Yanks have gone completely potty? You realize this sort of stuff can have serious consequences, right?” As it all tipped into international incident territory, Sean Spicer had to tap dance even faster than usual and Fox was compelled to yank Napolitano off the air. They also issued a public statement that said, “Jeez, you don’t actually believe any of the shinola put out by the wingnut tattle trust we employ, do you?”, or at least words to that effect. This was followed by thuds resembling the sound of distant artillery bursts as Shep Smith and Chris Wallace hit the ceiling.
Most people have been chalking all this up as tallies in their political win-loss columns. The Bernie Bros and Never Trumpers are chortling and enjoying a “W.” The Trumpinistas, well, they never admit a loss, but seem to concede this is looking like a tie. There’s a more hopeful lesson here, though, than who won this week’s round of shout and pout. It’s not just the appearance of facts, but their resurgent bite, that seems noteworthy. At least for a news cycle, the facts sent their alternative doppelgangers mewling back to the twaddle vendors and bunkum wholesalers from whence they came. We’re in a political world where that is not a particularly common occurrence.
The demonstrable fact that it can happen, though, gives us some modest leeway to imagine that we’re not yet in the post-truth political and social system that recent experience has suggested. Can you imagine a world where elected leaders and cable news personalities who make a habit of spritzing unsubstantiated and inflammatory cow flop across the civic discourse get held accountable for doing so? Perchance even suffered the odd consequence or two? That sounds pretty good to me.
It would be nice, of course, if this state of affairs didn’t require having the heads of security and intelligence agencies in Congress and under oath, and/or having to impugn the British government and its double-oh machinery. The best path to this happy state is for those who play a prominent role in our national discourse to simply pause and think about consequences before ejecting yet more risible rhubarb out of their pie holes. Could that actually happen?
Possibly. After the embarrassing disaster of the James Bondian whoppers from Napalitano, maybe Fox News windbags will be a little more inclined to sober analysis and a little less to bombast and fishy allegation. Smith and Wallace have been trying to nudge them this way, and once those two get excavated from the ceiling tiles, hopefully they’ll continue doing so. Maybe the president, or at least some grown up in the vicinity of his phone, will cotton to the notion that sophistry rationed out in two-sentence social media dollops is not a rational basis for governance.
I’m not holding out too much hope, mind you. Facts are still pretty much on the political endangered lists. But wouldn’t it be great if we actually could grow and harvest our facts sustainably, and keep the polluting fertilizer that feeds the crops of division and divisiveness to a minimum. There are certainly going to be consequences if we cannot. After all, it’s not like facts actually can go extinct. No one can really kill a fact, recent experience just shows they can be chased out of the political arena for extended periods of time. They can’t be kept out forever though. And the longer people collude to keep them out, the higher the probability that when they do stampede back in they will bite all of us in the butt.