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If we don’t trust in reality, it’s impossible to trust in each other: James E. Miller

Posted 4/10/19

“You can’t trust anybody or anything anymore.”

Johnny Whitmire’s lament, equal parts helpless and hopeless, was shared with The Atlantic back in 2012. During the febrile …

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If we don’t trust in reality, it’s impossible to trust in each other: James E. Miller

Posted

“You can’t trust anybody or anything anymore.”

Johnny Whitmire’s lament, equal parts helpless and hopeless, was shared with The Atlantic back in 2012. During the febrile 2016 presidential race, when a brash real-estate developer rose to the top of a moribund heap of blue-suited, white-shirted, red-tied candidates by declaring the American dream dead, the report was dredged up continuously to show how the antithesis of a politician could best so many polished professionals.

I think about the article ­— which bore the vatic title “How Americans Lost Trust in Our Greatest Institutions” — a lot these days. We’re two years into the Trump presidency and the collective lack of institutional trust hasn’t changed; in some cases, it’s gotten worse. The latest Gallup Poll numbers show a steady eroding of trust in big government cornerstones like Congress and the Supreme Court. The criminal-justice system, public schools, and the church continue to lose their social luster.

The withering of confidence in our institutions comes as no surprise. If Americans trusted the guardians of our august traditions, we wouldn’t have a political dilettante taunting his opponents on Twitter from the Oval Office.

But, even as the 2020 campaign season begins in earnest, a series of events threatens to further decouple whatever shared understanding still exists in our country. And that understanding — a generally agreed-upon reality — is an institution too precious to lose.

The first is the most anticlimactic end to a news story since Saddam Hussein was dug out of dirt fastness, his and his regime’s pockets empty of much-hyped weapons of mass destruction. Robert Mueller’s reported clearing of the Trump campaign of alleged Russian collusion brought a bathetic close to a multi-year investigation many in the media hinted (and hoped) would be more explosive than Watergate.

For a cool $25 million, not to mention billions spent in breathless cable news airtime, we got zilch.

And the worst part is, Mueller’s comprehensively detailed investigation failed to convince anyone. Despite his report’s conclusion, a Reuters/Ipsos poll found nearly half the country still believes Trump is guilty of posting Jesus vs. Satan Hillary memes on Facebook that Vladimir Putin Photoshopped himself.

Now, either the president’s critics never trusted Mueller in the first place, or no amount of evidence will prove to them otherwise that Trump and the Kremlin weren’t in cahoots. The narrative remains unchanged.

Where there is guilt, the opposite effect has occurred. Actor Jussie Smollett was indicted on 16 felonies by a grand jury after fabricating a hate crime against himself. The alleged assault, where Smollett claimed two white Trump supporters accosted him in downtown Chicago in the dead of winter, was orchestrated by the “Empire” actor. He paid two Nigerian sibs to stage the attack. He mailed a threatening letter to himself. Smollett tried to pin the blame on the president’s supporters, telling police his attackers shouted “MAGA country.”

Smollett’s entire story, from the late-night Subway run to the masked Trump fans marauding in downtown Chicago during a polar vortex, was wackadoodle from start to finish. No fair-minded person believed it on its face. Yet Democratic presidential hopefuls and the media blew up the story, putting the onus on Trump to apologize for hate crime committed in his honor.

The predictable, of course, happened: police charged Smollett with making the whole thing up. Then the unpredictable occurred: prosecutors mysteriously dropped the case against Smollett, citing his two days of community service at Jesse Jackson’s nonprofit, which, among other charitable works, advanced the cause of social justice by paying off Jackson’s mistress with whom he fathered an illegitimate child.

A federal investigation into Smollett’s actions remains ongoing, but for now Chicago’s D.A. proved what many have long suspected: American justice isn’t a metaphysical good, but rather a commodity like any other, bought and sold on the marketplace.

Moving south by southeast on our trail of disrepute to Virginia, the Democrat triumvirate remains in power despite violating strict cultural prohibitions. Gov. Ralph Northam and Attorney General Mark Herring, two Southern white men, admitted to donning blackface in college — well past the point where such impolitic insensitivity could be blamed on careless youth. Meanwhile, Lt. Gov. Justin Fairfax twice has been accused of sexually assault. Even after universal condemnation and pressure from leaders in their own party to step down, none of the men resigned.

If the shoe were on the other (the right, not the left) foot, you could count on resignations. A blackface-wearing Republican would be electoral gold to Democrats. And sexual assault allegations normally end political careers, unless your name is Brett Kavanaugh or Bill Clinton.

These instances point to a loss in the ability to accept even simple falsities. Stable societies agree on certain truths. Reality is the most basic human institution. If we don’t have trust in reality, then it’s impossible to have trust in each other.

Some of the blame for this can be placed squarely at the president’s feet. Trump, with his showman-like zeal for exaggeration, can be economical with the actualité, to put it mildly. Much of the blame lies with the postmodernists who, from their university and media posts, have inculcated a generation with the pernicious and relativistic idea that truth is simply what you make of it.

Trump is guilty, Jussie Smollett is innocent, and Ralph Northam deserves to remain in office — these are narratives that a not insignificant portion of the American population believes. We’re the barflies in “The Iceman Cometh,” clinging to dreams that aren’t real, telling ourselves lies that don’t match reality.

They may help us cope with life, and bolster our worldviews, but their incongruence with the truth makes statecraft impossible.

Sooner or later, something has to give. For the country’s long-term prosperity, let’s hope fact wins out over fiction.

James E. Miller, a native of Middletown, lives in northern Virginia with his wife and daughter. He is the author of the novel “To Win And To Lose.”