Rick Holmes: Scratching our heads, and wondering what happened to America in 2016
The other day, I heard two friends greet each other in the parking lot of a local shopping center. “Merry Christmas,” one said cheerily. “We can say that again, now that our guy has won.”
I don’t begrudge them their good cheer, but really? I bet they greeted their friends with “Merry Christmas” a year ago, and every year before that. And do they really think Donald Trump has the power to change how people express seasonal greetings?
I guess I’m taking things too literally, one of the things we in the media have been criticized for in the weeks since the election. Journalist Salena Zito’s mid-campaign analysis of Trump has been often repeated: “the press takes him literally, but not seriously; his supporters take him seriously, but not literally.”
The formulation is helpful in understanding the Trump phenomenon. When I’ve asked Trump supporters about his actual words, I’ve mostly gotten smiles and shrugs. They don’t really expect him to build a wall and get Mexico to pay for it, some will concede. But they like his attitude, and they dislike the same things Trump rails against: immigrants, Muslims, Obama and the press.
But while Zito’s formulation has been running through my mind like a Zen koan since the Electoral College declared we all have no choice but to take Trump seriously, I’m still confused about its implications. Does it mean that it doesn’t matter what a politician - or our next president - says? Do his word choices, policy positions and campaign promises not count?
For some of Trump’s most ardent fans, I’d say the answer is yes. “I could stand in the middle of 5th Avenue and shoot somebody and I wouldn’t lose voters,” Trump said at the beginning of 2016, which I guess is one of those things we should take seriously, not literally.
That’s the kind of year 2016 has been.
As 2016 drew to a close, “worst.year.ever” has been trending. Comedian John Oliver ended his show’s season with a tribute to the awfulness of the year, featuring dozens of people — celebrities along with ordinary folks — dismissing 2016 with a four-letter word I can’t print here. Then he blew up a giant 2016 in a football stadium.
I can remember worse years — I was very glad to see 1968 and 2001 go, for starters — but 2016 stands out as one of the weirder years we’ve seen. It’s a year that has left a lot of people scratching their heads and wondering what has happened to America.
Who would have predicted that a Republican presidential candidate would openly embrace a Russian dictator, even taking the side of Russian spy agencies over the findings of the CIA and FBI, and get away with it? All my life, Russia has been the enemy, and now it’s the president-elect’s best friend. The cognitive dissonance among traditional Republicans must be excruciating.
Who predicted 2016 would see a revival of the Ku Klux Klan and the emergence of their hip, sarcastic, alt-right fellow travelers?
I’m still scratching my head over the fact that in what was widely viewed as a “change election,” voters left Congress, that most-despised establishment institution, essentially unchanged.
Conspiracy theories are nothing new, and folks have been spreading lies about prominent politicians forever. But the creation of “fake news” - lies made up out of whole cloth by Internet trolls and injected into the American political culture for fun and profit - caught me by surprise.
I can already hear some of you yelling that Hillary Clinton’s “lies” and the “liberal bias” of the “mainstream media” are fake news as well. This refrain, which has become common in the last month or so, is an attempt to blur an important distinction. Anyone can get something wrong, or can interpret real events with an ideological slant you might not share. Fake news is an assertion of a fact that can be proven to be untrue. Pope Francis either endorsed Trump or he didn’t. It’s a question of fact, not interpretation. He didn’t, but the fake news story saying he did was shared on social media more than a million times.
Nor is there any evidence that crimes were committed at the Comet Ping Pong pizza parlor in Washington: no police report, no sign of a victim and no legitimate media have reported the allegations as real. Yet a December poll by Economist/YouGov found that 46 percent of Trump voters believe Hillary Clinton was connected to a child sex ring that operated there.
In naming “post-truth” the word of the year for 2016, Oxford Dictionaries spotted a trend more disturbing than just a flood of misinformation. Facts have lost their currency. It takes no more than a few seconds of research to learn that Trump’s margin of victory in the Electoral College was one of the closest on record, not a “historic landslide.” The truth is right there in the numbers. But Trump keeps calling it a landslide, because truth is irrelevant to our next president — and to millions of other Americans.
My New Year’s resolution is to stop making predictions, so consider this more of an expectation: The head-scratching with which 2016 ended is likely to continue well into 2017.
— Rick Holmes writes for GateHouse Media and the MetroWest Daily News. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org. Like Rick on Facebook at Holmes & Co., and follow him @HolmesAndCo.