A few words one ought never begin any speech or piece of writing with are “Oxford Dictionaries defines [thing] as [definition],” so I am definitely not going to do that.
Oxford Dictionaries defines its official Word of the Year, post-truth, as “relating to or denoting circumstances in which objective facts are less influential in shaping public opinion than appeals to emotion and personal belief.” See what I just did? How I said I wasn’t going to do something but did it anyway? That about sums up this year. At home and abroad, 2016 was the year facts truly did not matter. It was a year in which anyone with a loud enough megaphone could spread an aggressively false message and, through sheer amplification, watch that message reverberate to unprecedented reach. Matters of fraudulence, hypocrisy, and easily disprovable lies became, if not something to believe, then something to not dispute and probably repeat. (“Hey, people are saying it’s true.”)
We all lie sometimes. We lie to our coworkers about “how it’s going,” so as not to freak them out. We lie to our parents about specific things we may or may not have done in college. And we lie to ourselves about past instances of behaving like a jerk, so that they seem neither unwarranted nor all that jerk-like. Little lies make life bearable. But they can also be exposed, both little ones and the biggest, most world-changing deceptions. If you confront someone with their lie, and bring the receipts, that person is supposed to be humbled, shamed, and silenced by it. Not anymore, though. For any number of reasons, denial of reality became a point of view this year, and proof of lying is now just another detail, instead of the final word.
Although Oxford made its selection based on both the Brexit vote and the U.S. presidential election, the hazy cloud of post-truth enveloped many other fields this year, including entertainment, advertising, and technology. Between today and Christmas, we will briefly highlight each day a major moment from 2016 that most exemplifies the concept of post-truth. Many of these moments will, inevitably, pertain to our president-elect. Some you will remember like they happened yesterday (because they might have) and others will have receded into the mists, their red flags dulled by the appearance of so many newer red flags. Perhaps seeing so many falsehoods stretched out in a row, though, will serve as a reminder that a reality we can agree on is something worth fighting for.
The Moment: Hillary Clinton started the birther movement.
“No puppet. No puppet. You’re the puppet.” Those were the words Donald Trump blurted out at the third presidential debate back in October, when his opponent suggested that he would be a puppet for Vladimir Putin. It was a typically juvenile moment that encapsulated Trump’s entire schoolyard bully approach to politics: I’m rubber and you’re glue. The previous month, however, Trump went with an even more childish approach: She started it.
Trump had used this line to defend his reprehensible behavior before, most memorably in reference to retweeting crude remarks about Ted Cruz’s wife–for which Anderson Cooper handed him his ass. In a more recent instance, though, the behavior was far more reprehensible and the lie about it more odious. Since 2011, Donald Trump has been claiming that President Obama was born not in Hawaii, but rather Kenya. Furthermore, he has claimed repeatedly that Obama is secretly Muslim. Trump kept stoking online speculation in what appeared to be an obvious effort to delegitimize the nation’s first black president, culminating in the day when Obama actually produced his longform birth certificate.
That anticlimactic outcome wasn’t enough to satisfy Donald Trump, though. The then-reality game show host continued suggesting that the president had faked his birth certificate for years to come–all the way to at least 2014. This long campaign marks some of the most disrespectful treatment of a sitting president by a prominent public figure in the modern political stage. And it worked! In an NBC News/Survey Monkey poll from summer 2016, nearly three-quarters of Republicans had questions about whether Obama was born in the United States, with 41 percent saying he was not and another 31 percent saying they were unsure. The birther movement seemed like the kind of thing that would doom Trump’s campaign. After all, if this behavior wasn’t outright racist, it was at the very least unbecoming of a future president. Although the media pressed Trump occasionally during the first two-thirds of his campaign about where he stood on the birther issue, they finally began to hold his feet to the fire in September. He responded by setting his pants alight.
“Hillary Clinton and her campaign of 2008 started the birther controversy. I finished it,” Trump said at an event billed as a press conference, but which was also a stealth ad for his newly opened Washington hotel. “President Barack Obama was born in the United States. Period.”
And with that monstrous masterstroke of mendacity, Donald Trump pivoted away from the birther movement. He did not explain why he ever believed President Obama was not born in America. He did not explain what changed his mind on the matter. He did not clarify whether he meant that he’d “finished it” when he forced the president to reveal his birth certificate, or when he had just now, just that moment, declared that he no longer believed it was forged. He did not apologize, or provide any path for those still aggrieved by the doubt he’d doggedly sown to one day forgive him. Furthermore, he replaced the lie that the president was a secret foreign-born muslim with another lie–that his opponent Hillary Clinton was responsible for the lie. He lied about the lie he was lying about.
Needless to say, Hillary Clinton did not start the birther movement, and Donald Trump did not finish it. This was just another example of a person putting forth his version of events, despite those stated events contradicting recorded history. His lie worked, too. Somehow, when the birther issue came up during the first presidential debate, its sheer loathsomeness was not discussed, drowned out by a lie about its provenance. When the person who told the lie went on to win the election, though, it turned out that some people may not have forgotten what really happened after all.