What Is the Point of Fact-Checking Trump?Photo by Alex Wong/Getty Politics Features Donald Trump
I realize that this is a title that sort of answers itself. Journalism is about properly contextualizing facts and so at its core, fact-checking is nothing more than the pure essence of journalism. Without knowing facts, we cannot prescribe solutions to the litany of problems that we face in our modern politics. That said, Trump is playing an entirely different game, and given that he won the presidency, we need to consider what made him so effective.
Trump is a lying liar who lies. You don’t need to pay attention to politics to know this. The Washington Post’s end-of-year fact-checker on Trump’s avalanche of lies is helpful from the standpoint that we can specifically point out his falsehoods, but what is the end-result of highlighting them? What are we getting out of this endeavor? That’s what my title is getting at.
Jon Stewart’s The Daily Show helped raise an entire political generation (including myself), and it was a revelation not just because of his skewering of the Bush Administration, but because of how he did it. By simply showing video of contradictory statements by politicians, Stewart filled a vacuum created by a mainstream media who all too often used their platform to give a megaphone to politicians instead of scrutinizing them. Stewart created a model for journalism that you can still see today on shows like Jake Tapper’s on CNN.
While this kind of “by your logic” journalism was useful from the standpoint of bringing attention to the atrocities of the Bush Administration, it’s questionable how much it did to actually sway folks’ opinions. Plenty of studies have shown that logic is simply not how you convince people of an argument. I did sales for nearly a decade before being hired by Paste, and all of my training at each job was centered around making an emotional argument to convince folks to buy our product. Here’s an example.
I worked in merchant services (if you own a business, please read this column I wrote as a mea culpa for all the industry shadiness that I was a party to), and it was my job to sign business owners up for a merchant account so they could accept credit and debit cards. Logically, the only thing that really matters are the rates you’re paying. That’s why people called us and it was always the first question out of their mouths.
We were trained not to give away that information right away, and instead ask them questions about their business. Part of this was practical—there are different rates depending on whether you’re an online or brick-and-mortar business—but the main reason we were trained to ask about their businesses first was to get them talking about something they liked. It was then our job to turn on the sales charm and flatter them about their business, essentially trying to make the sale before we even got into the main reason why they called.
And it worked. There were kids in that office fresh out of college making six figures a year on commission because they knew how to flatter people and make an emotional argument. I was not one of the people making six figures there because my brain is not wired like that. I’m driven by logic and I have paychecks which prove that simply pushing the facts that we had the lowest prices and no contract was not enough. Humans are simply not wired to accept logical arguments. You need to tell a story that resonates emotionally.
Which brings me back to fact-checking Trump. What’s the point? I don’t ask this of the journalists, as the point for them is to practice journalism, but for the consumers of it. Does it matter? A whopping 92% of Republicans believe that the media intentionally prints fake news. Seventy-nine percent of Independents believe this, as well as 53% of Democrats. That seems to suggest that Trump’s emotional attacks on the media are working, and the logical retorts to his falsehoods are failing.
Most liberals are slaves to logic. It’s why The Daily Show was such a revelation. There really was no comprehensive fact-checking done in major media earlier this century, and so Stewart’s simple journalism of “how can you say X about topic Y when you said Z a few years ago?” was a godsend to a political faction demoralized by the constant lies of the Bush Administration. This era primed all of us to think of political arguments in the form of “by your logic,” as it is logically the best way to comprise a retort. Ideological consistency absolutely should be how we judge people’s political competency, but that’s just not how the world works.
Liberals are not immune to this kind of emotional, logic-free thinking either. Just look at how many scorned Hillary supporters from 2016 who ostensibly support most of Bernie Sanders’ platform view him as a nonstarter in 2020. If it were any other politician espousing this widely popular platform—parts of which have been co-opted by centrists like Cory Booker—they would not be viewed as radioactive as Bernie is perceived to be. Like Trump and his supporters, there is no amount of logic that can convince some of these folks that Bernie Sanders is the candidate to implement the policies they support. The 2016 primary was incredibly emotional, and the pain of the general election loss fossilized this emotional anti-Bernie argument into many liberals’ minds, and no amount of logic can overrule that very real emotional anguish.
Humans are emotional creatures who have built a society on the foundation of logic. We are a literal walking contradiction. On one hand, “by your logic” is nothing more than an endorsement of human evolution. On the other, any successful sales person will tell you that logic is a fools errand when it comes to convincing people of your argument. Tossing fact-checks in Trump’s face fundamentally misunderstands the kind of battle that we find ourselves in. Trump and the GOP do not adhere to the rules of logic and they actively spread disinformation that attempts to neuter logical arguments against their policies by making an emotional plea. “By your logic-ing” Republicans is like bringing a piece of string cheese to a knife fight.
This was the 2016 election in a nutshell. Donald Trump made an emotional (racist) argument for his candidacy while Hillary Clinton basically pointed at him and said “you people can’t really vote for this jackass, right?” The fact that a sentient YouTube comment beat a supremely competent woman making a series of logical arguments should be proof that trying to win on facts alone is a guaranteed losing proposition. Whether we like it or not, humans are emotional creatures, and if we are to convince the broader populace of facts and logic, we must wrap it in an emotional cocoon first. If fact-checking doesn’t convince people of the underlying facts of the situation, what’s the point of it?
Jacob Weindling is a staff writer for Paste politics. Follow him on Twitter at @Jakeweindling.