I’ve been talking about Republicans’ slow slide from reality, and last week I discussed how denying climate change got conservatives used to the idea of denying science and facts. Now I’m going to talk about the consequences of a huge world event: the destruction unleashed on America, on Sept. 11, 2001. I don’t think most people realize just how important that day was and how much our whole world today was shaped by it. I’m going to talk about it in more detail, in a different context, in a later column. For today, I’m going to discuss the political ramifications of it.
Most of us are old enough to remember that day and how we felt. It was terrible. Terrible for the human suffering, yes, but also terrible for each of us on an existential level. With the collapse of the Soviet Union and the end of the Cold War, we were the world’s only superpower, and we felt kind of invulnerable. All of a sudden, we knew how very vulnerable we were. Terrorists could potentially kill any of us at any time. Most of us felt anger, even rage; all of us felt a new kind of fear. Those feelings were expressed in different ways. There was a rash of violent incidents around the country in which people were beating, even killing, fellow Americans who were Muslim. Some weren’t even Muslim; they were just dark-skinned people from a different part of the world. We invaded Afghanistan, even though that region has a long history of being easy to invade but almost impossible to fully defeat. We willingly surrendered many of our liberties to the government in order to feel more secure.
And, in 2003, we invaded Iraq, thus fighting two wars at once. Iraq had nothing to do with 9/11, but a large number of Americans believed they did anyhow, because it just felt like they did. Plus, the Bush administration assured us, they had weapons of mass destruction –there was absolute proof of it. The administration didn’t actually show the proof, but most of us believed them because we were angry, and we wanted to do something, and we wanted to believe it. I say “we,” by the way, but I was opposed to the war at the time because it didn’t seem like they had any proof. Turns out, they didn’t, because there was none. We were led into war by lies disguised as facts. But the fact is, many Americans willingly chose to believe those lies at the time because they wanted to. I think more people than want to admit suspected all along there were no true facts at the heart of those claims but didn’t care. Years later, though, many conservatives started feeling that you just can’t trust the “facts” fed to you by the establishment, even when the establishment is your own party.
In 2005, a Bush aide told a reporter that the press’s criticisms of Bush were not valid, because reporters are “in what we call the reality-based community” and believe you can solve problems and understand the world by looking at facts. “That’s not the way the world really works anymore. We’re an empire now, and when we act, we create our own reality.”
That same year, Stephen Colbert, in the first episode of his show, which was a satire of conservative pundits, coined a new word to describe that attitude: “truthiness.” Truthiness is something that seems like truth because it is what you want to be true. Facts don’t matter, only how you feel about the subject. The word’s not in the dictionary, Colbert said, but you can’t trust dictionaries anyway. Around the same time, people started referring to the phenomenon as “post-truth politics.”
All these factors paved the way for the radical departure from reality that the Republican Party would embark on in the 2010s.
--Troy D. Smith, a White County native, is a novelist and a history professor at Tennessee Tech. His words do not necessarily represent TTU.