On 16 June 2015, the LA Times ran the following headline: “Donald Trump enters race, and GOP wonders: Presidency or reality TV?”. This would be the first of a seemingly endless string of pieces that would tap the language of realism and factualism to draw into question the legitimacy of Trump’s candidacy and his mounting political and symbolic appeal. Yet for much of the coming year the not-so-ironically self-appointed @realDonaldTrump himself would tweet and retweet his way to multi-media notoriety in left and right media circles alike, lambasting his opponents with accusations of #FakeNews and defying the liberal pundits who had questioned the very factual existence of his campaign.
And on 8 November 2016, we would watch in ‘real’ time as Donald J. Trump won his way red from east to west, becoming America’s President Elect. Really.
In the ensuing days and weeks after Election Day, the liberal media would begin to lament its own insular discourses and its transformation “of opinion writing into a vehicle for high moral boasting”. It would bemoan the concomitant rise of political tribalism that had acted as a bulwark against opposing political sentiments and right-wing media outputs. Media exposure would bifurcate along partisan lines, while social media would further fence off conservative and leftist media channels alike.
Yet the language of factualism, and the claim that Trump was buoyed to the Oval Office on sheer populist fervor, would remain the status quo in the liberal media. Trump’s ‘silent majority’ would continue to be caricatured, both linguistically and visually, as almost incapable of rational thought, ensnared in a post-factual world bereft of civilized intellectual consciousness and guided primarily by a primordial, evangelical commitment to political iconography. And within days of the election, several major news sources from New York to Los Angeles would rebrand themselves as purveyors of the facts that matter, pitching “real” journalism to would-be subscribers.
‘Post-factual’—and its even more potent corollary, ‘post-truth’—has become the political word of the day, perhaps the single most-used descriptor of Trump’s campaign trail and subsequent rise to power. And not without justification. (As we have been repeatedly reminded, Politifact rates only approximately 15% of Donald Trump’s statements as “true” or “mostly true”.) But this word, ‘post-factual’, has done very little to elucidate how and why Trump’s ‘silent majority’, a large contingent of which was white working class, would elect a man with a dodgy list of failed business ventures, with a history of radical tax avoidance, and who ascends to his office each day in a golden elevator (which, thanks to C-SPAN, you can now stream in real time), as their president.
For both the left and the right, ‘post-factual’ has become a flattened political euphemism for ‘wrong’. Like Farage’s invocation of the word ‘decent’ to describe the pro-Brexit electorate in the UK, or the Silent Majority Patriots’ usage of ‘wholesome’ in their extremist conservative manifesto, or Hillary Clinton’s reactionary description of half of Trump’s supporters as ‘deplorables’, ‘post-factual’ has a strong but ambiguous moral valence. It is perfectly suited to cater to radically different political connotations in liberal and conservative socio-political spheres of public debate. And regardless of the political persuasion of the pundit, to cry ‘post-factual’ is almost always the end of a critical conversation rather than the beginning.
And most importantly, the frequent implication in the liberal media that the right is particularly post-factual glosses over the premises on which such post-factual language is based in the first place. To use the word ‘post-factual’ is to invoke a vision of reality in which ‘the facts’ don’t add up to the same truth. The trouble starts when ‘the facts’ – and/or the processes of verifying them – aren’t shared. And one could argue that not agreeing on ‘the facts’ is, in essence, what politics is all about.
The political left is no exception to the rule. Incidentally, it does not take a grand leap of faith to imagine how liberalism, and especially consumptive liberal cosmopolitics, might just as easily be caricatured as a post-factual extreme.
* * *
Enter my PhD research. I am currently conducting ethnographic research on urban gentrification, European cosmopolitan development, and hipsters. Specifically, I look at their patterns of middle/upper-class consumption. As part of my fieldwork research, I spend more time than I care to admit drinking 4-euro matcha green tea lattes in minimalist cafés decorated with defunct bicycle parts and broken presses of Velvet Underground albums. I have had countless conversations — many enjoyable, others inane — over artisanal espresso about international politics and urban development. And I have yet to meet a single conservative, let alone a Trump supporter.
To be perfectly honest, this didn’t bother me particularly until 8 November. Because however consumptively capitalistic their politics, however insulated their privilege (especially from immigrant communities and communities of colour), and however dubiously egalitarian their ideology, hipsters and their mainstreamed cosmopolitan development wave have resulted in a proliferation of public spaces that at least proverbially self-advertise as open to non-status quo identities. They are spaces in which there is actually social capital associated with being a non-white, non-heterosexual, and/or non-male person. They are spaces in which you might, at an art show opening, or a concert, or a public lecture, interact with people for whom something like critical intellectualism has purported value.
At a time in which Donald Trump and his supporters have so blithely discredited the very existence and political legitimacy of non-white, non-male, non-heterosexual identities, and in which the very notion of intellectual criticism is under fire, to create and sustain public spaces that expressly support and sustain these communities is by no means insignificant. But there remain plenty of reasons to be cynical about the cosmopolitan hipster. Especially when the hypocrisy of some of the hipster’s attending liberal aspirations are so easily caricatured by the right as representative of the entitlement of the entire political left.
It is especially for this reason that the absence of the ‘silent majority’ from cosmopolitan urban spaces has come to feel so unsettling to me. It is testimony to the overt socio-political insularity of the gentrified (mostly white, non-immigrant) cityscape. And it is for this reason that I have felt compelled to explore more fully that socio-political landscape and its patterns of material consumption.
Not surprisingly, what I have found is a marked proliferation of the same extreme moralistic language of truth and realism that has equally suffused alt-right, middle-ground, and leftist multi-media channels in their coverage of the Trump affair.
Let us begin with the advent of the organic cheeseburger. As an American, I can testify, after years of consuming them at miscellaneous backyard national holiday barbecues, that cheeseburgers are not and never will be a sustainable health food. No amount of institutionally vetted organic trade marking will ever change this. Yet, within the last five years, there has been an unconscionable increase in European gourmet cheeseburger joints marketing organic beef to eager hipsters. They serve craft beer and mimetically replicate the American diner aesthetic. They give you a full profile of the cow’s life history prior to its untimely (ethical) demise. And they boast artisanal espresso, local food sourcing, and fair trade desserts.
The organic cheeseburger is not alone. So too has the fair trade chocolate bar, the ethically sourced quinoa biscuit, and the artisanal donut come to occupy the status of cosmopolitan consumptive delicacy. (About a month ago, a matcha green tea donut brazenly professed to offer me ‘antioxidant health benefits’. Really.)
And along with each of these specialty objects of upper class consumption has come an entire language of ethical, factual legitimacy.
As I walked into a local food market in a northern European city two weeks ago, I was greeted with a sign that boasted “real hot chocolate”, situated unironically next to a stall marketing “pure” vegetarian cuisine (for a meager 12 euros). A café down the street promised me “real artisanal” espresso, and an independent bar next to the train station guaranteed me “honest” beer. So potent was the moralized language of cosmopolitan consumption that I found myself momentarily wondering if I had inadvertently spent my past life drinking hyperreal hot chocolate, consuming morally corrupt vegetarian food, and imbibing dishonest alcohol.
But what quickly solidified instead was a mounting disquietude with this material, aesthetic notion of the authentic and the real. And especially with the moral, aesthetic, and political exculpation it implies.
Because there is something deeply unsettling about a cheeseburger that has to tell you it’s real. All the word ‘real’ does in that context is perturb my already taken-for-granted assumption that that cheeseburger existed on all the basic material terms on which one might expect a cheeseburger to exist (i.e. It looked like a cheeseburger. It was there. I ate it.) And the moral language of authenticity — It’s pure! It’s honest! It’s hand-crafted! — even when applied to vegetarian food, makes me feel somehow more suspicious than reassured. It makes me aware of a previously unknown boundary across which ‘unreal’ and ‘impure’ things exist. And it disconcertingly echoes, with all its self-affirming claims to autochthony, the same xenophobic language that the likes of Farage, May, and Trump have used to describe immigrant and refugee populations in Europe and North America. And straight white men. And entire political constituencies.
It is obfuscating language riding on false claims to absolutism. It elucidates nothing about its contingencies and plays to a myth of neutrality. It is a political truth-claim dressed up as an ethical judgment of taste.
* * *
Factualism is grounded in the assumption that there is a fundamentally true – or truer – reality. And that that reality is ascertainable, or verifiable, through the empirical assessment of something like inalienable facts. Or so the story goes.
But it is one of the great awkward ironies of realism that it has to verify itself. That in order to be realist, discourse has to lay claim to a factuality that pretends to be pre-discursive, as if facts can somehow speak for themselves and neutrally generate ideology.
More awkward still is that post-factualism, by its very premises, still lays claim to facts. It demarcates which facts are realer than others. The Huffington Post found this out the hard way when they published a piece in the lead up to the election predicting with 98% mathematical certainty that Hillary Clinton would win the 270 electoral college votes necessary to win the election — a pollster calculation generated, rather non-objectively, from their far-left-leaning user data. All this article managed to do was to artificially appease the anxieties of Huff Post’s liberal readership and spur on a wave of ‘factual’ conservative whistle-blowing.
It is certainly the case that with many political claims — like the claims that evolution and climate change don’t exist — there are contingencies that make verifying such statements difficult to imagine in the context of anything like scientific factualism. But more often than not, the language of realism is invoked to a subtler agenda-motivated ends. And it almost always pits itself against a boundary across which could exist no legitimate reason for supporting an opposing political stance. (‘Trump couldn’t possibly win! Huff Post says so.’ ‘Women deserve equal rights! Anyone with a basic education could see that.’ ‘How could anyone possibly think climate change is a myth! Just look at the facts.’)
More to the point, an unwavering commitment to particular versions of factualism and post-factualism diverts attention from the fact (pun intended) that it was never facts that mattered. It is the claim to factualism, rather than facts themselves, that are at issue. And this is the case even when — perhaps especially when — certain facts appear to be, or are, more verifiably real than others. (Again, like the fact that climate change is happening. Which it is. And which we can still claim effectively while critically engaging with the political significance of scientifically verifying truth-claims.) Because the point is that realism is grounded on the assumption that some facts are factier than others, and which facts you believe to be most facty is deeply entangled with the sociopolitical ideologies and ontologies out of which you emerge.
In other words, we cannot assume a common acceptance of how facts are generated and which facts are therefore most ‘real’.
This was perhaps the liberal media’s greatest blunder: to think that conservative post-factualism can be somehow ideologically contained or neutralized by an aggressive campaign of self-advertising liberal factualism. The sheer number of articles, multimedia websites, and photo essays dedicated to Donald Trump’s hair attest to this. As if debating ad nauseam whether Trump’s hair ‘really’ grows out of his head could somehow destabilize his political career, when all the media attention seemed to do was lend momentum to popular belief in the potency of his post-factual persona. Like his surname, whether Donald Trump’s hair was real or fake never mattered. What mattered was that he carried enough post-factual political clout to make people think his real hair was fake. Touché! Or shall we say… toupée!
No amount of enlightened liberal democratic factualism will counter the ‘post-factualism’ on which this cloistered right wing extremism is founded because certain features of liberal democratic ideology, hipster consumerism, and entitled cosmopolitanism are easily caricatured as just another post-factual extreme.
Cosmopolitan liberal consumers have managed to convince themselves that burgers and matcha green tea donuts are health foods. That beer can be honest. That acai berries will make us live longer. That it is logistically possible to sustainably source bulk quantities of quinoa for a European food market. And that organic coffee shops selling flat whites for 4-euro are not situated at the epicenter of the urban gentrification issue.
So I ask rhetorically: who are the denizens of that rarified liberal democratic consciousness to claim purchase on realism when their consumer culture and its attendant gentrified cosmopolitics has marketed morally-exculpated, materialist mysticism as the solution to social inequality? (Don’t worry, your matcha green tea latte is Fairtrade! And also somehow hand-crafted by that grinning art student behind the counter. Yup. The one dressed in distressed Levi’s sporting more facial hair than Karl Marx.) To the not-so-silent majority that voted Trump in as president of the United States, liberal democratic urban consumer culture is just morally exculpated capitalism masquerading as alternative ideology. It is a privileged cosmopolitan farce.
And more crucially, more likely than not, neither the farcical Republican nor the farcical Democratic extreme are particularly archetypal of left- and right-leaning voters. Not all conservatives are members of the KKK, and not all liberals have expensive organic chocolate orgies while listening to Stevie Nicks LPs.
* * *
More than the era of post-factualism, I would argue we have entered the era of the extremely real. Of the collapse of distinctions between ontological and existential claims to realism and factual veracity. And of a reigning obfuscation in the media of the distinctions that exist between the real, the factual, and the true. In the context of the multimedia, this has resulted in a war of flattened factualism, of a public discourse in which gestural caricature has supplanted critical crosstalk. In which an effective satire of politics has been replaced by a politics of satire. Cosmopolitan liberal voters—and perhaps especially cloistered liberal intellectuals—are as guilty of this as alt-right conservatives.
As academics, as writers, as visual communicators, as social commentators, as politically inclined critical practitioners of whatever variety, we need to maneuver laterally away from the realm of facts. Questions about why people voted for Donald Trump are unlikely to be answerable with a T or an F. We need to redirect the conversation toward an examination not of the veracity of facts themselves, but of how facts are generated and why (or why not) some are more convincingly verifiable than others, and to whom. We need to confront and engage with the conflicting premises on which competing realist visions are erected.
In order for the debate to sidestep realism, factualism, and post-factualism, instead of telling a different story about the way things really are (i.e. Science exists therefore facts are real), we need to tell the same stories differently. And we need to engage in brutal dialogue. Especially with the people for whom Reality with a capital R and Truth with a capital T occupy what we perceive as a political extreme. With the political classes for whom our reality is failing. (Indeed, failed long ago as a litmus test for political legitimacy.) And for whom realism doesn’t involve an organic, hand-roasted espresso swilled over enlightened intellectual conversation at your local coffeehouse.
And counterintuitive as it may seem, it is vital that the liberal media and intelligentsia avoid accusing the right of being more post-factual than the left, even if — especially if —in some very crucially scientifically-verifiable way, they often are. Because that is precisely the point. The liberal intellectual notion of analytically verifiable factualism very obviously doesn’t carry the same degree of currency for vast swaths of the voting populace. And the channels of information that are generally tapped to affirm that form of factual truth-making are not shared across sociopolitical classes.
Anti-intellectualism, then, cannot be neutrally rebranded as anti-truth. Such a claim (however ‘factual’) renders insignificant the sociopolitical conditions that give competing languages of realism a context. The post-factual liberal critique must count itself among these competing visions.
Only then will it be positioned to make a convincing case for itself.