The “Post-Truth” Era?

General (Retired) Michael Hayden has some harsh, and concerning, criticisms of the Trump administration.

A couple of weeks ago, Michael Hayden, retired Air Force General and former head of both the CIA and the NSA, gave a talk to the Alabama World Affairs Council, which I attended.  I was struck that one of my take-aways from the talk was a feeling of nostalgia. No, not nostalgia for the Bush administration nor Hayden’s views on fighting the war on terror, with which I have some serious criticisms.  No, I was nostalgic for foreign policy discussions by government officials based in fact and knowledge.  I was reminded of this upon reading Hayden’s essay (adapted from a forthcoming book) is today’s NYT:  The End of Intelligence.

I was specifically struck by the following (emphasis mine):

We have in the past argued over the values to be applied to objective reality, or occasionally over what constituted objective reality, but never the existence or relevance of objective reality itself.

In this post-truth world, intelligence agencies are in the bunker with some unlikely mates: journalism, academia, the courts, law enforcement and science — all of which, like intelligence gathering, are evidence-based. Intelligence shares a broader duty with these other truth-tellers to preserve the commitment and ability of our society to base important decisions on our best judgment of what constitutes objective reality.

The historian Timothy Snyder stresses the importance of reality and truth in his cautionary pamphlet, “On Tyranny.” “To abandon facts,” he writes, “is to abandon freedom. If nothing is true, then no one can criticize power because there is no basis upon which to do so.” He then chillingly observes, “Post-truth is pre-fascism.”

First, I think the nostalgia I noted above is in concert with this observation by Hayden:  academia and the intelligence community might not always agree on interpretation and application of knowledge, but they do share a lot in common insofar as they both assume that there is a truth to pursue.  Hayden further elaborates:

Intelligence work — at least as practiced in the Western liberal tradition — reflects these threatened Enlightenment values: gathering, evaluating and analyzing information, and then disseminating conclusions for use, study or refutation.

Second, the Snyder quote, while dramatic, has the ring of truth.  We all should be concerned about post-truth politics and politicians, especially since one sits in the White House and is shaping one of our two political parties in that direction.

President Trump both reflects and exploits this kind of [post-truth] thinking. It is fair to say that the Trump campaign normalized lying to an unprecedented degree. There was the candidate’s claim that legions of Arabs celebrated wildly in New Jersey as the World Trade Center collapsed. He defended his calls for the intentional killing of the Sept. 11 terrorists’ families because “they knew what was happening” and had “watched their husband on television flying into the World Trade Center,” something for which there is zero evidence. He insinuated that Senator Ted Cruz’s father had a hand in John F. Kennedy’s assassination and that the Supreme Court justice Antonin Scalia had been murdered.

When pressed on specifics, the president has routinely denigrated those who questioned him, whether the “fake” media, “so called” judges, Washington insiders or the “deep state.” He has also condemned Obama-era intelligence officials as “political hacks.”

David Priess, an intelligence officer who once gave presidential daily briefings, asked me whether I thought Mr. Trump could distinguish between truth and untruth. He raised the controversial speech Mr. Trump gave at a Boy Scout Jamboree in West Virginia in July 2017, a speech that was overly political and occasionally tasteless. In the face of sharp criticism, the president said that the Scouts’ leader had called him to say it was “the greatest speech that was ever made to them.”

Of course, no such call ever occurred. But was Mr. Trump actually able to draw a distinction between the past that had really happened and the past that he needed at that moment? Mr. Priess’s point was that you could sometimes convince a liar that he was wrong. What do you do with someone who does not distinguish between truth and untruth?

And it is not just truth, but adequate amounts of basic information that are at stake:

The president by all accounts is not a patient man. According to The Washington Post, one Trump confidant called him “the two-minute man” with “patience for a half page.” He insists on five-page or shorter intelligence briefs, rather than the 60 pages we typically gave previous presidents. There is something inherently disturbing in that. There are some problems that cannot be simplified.

This is a known fact about the current POTUS, but it continues to astound and disgust.

Third, there are real consequences for fact-free decision-making:

The president continues to attack the Iranian nuclear deal and is likely to end it even in the face of intelligence that Iran has not committed a material breach of the compact, that the deal makes it more difficult for Iran to build a weapon and that it gives us visibility into its nuclear program.

I would note that at his talk he went out of his way to underscore that he had plenty of criticisms about the Iran nuclear deal, and he was critical of Secretary Kerry’s negotiations.  Yet, he also stressed that now that the framework is in place it is by far our best tool for keeping Iran from becoming a nuclear power.  He was seriously concerned about the consequences of Trump pulling out of the plan.

At any rate, the whole piece is worth a read.

FILED UNDER: US Politics, , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,
Steven L. Taylor
About Steven L. Taylor
Steven L. Taylor is a Professor of Political Science and a College of Arts and Sciences Dean. His main areas of expertise include parties, elections, and the institutional design of democracies. His most recent book is the co-authored A Different Democracy: American Government in a 31-Country Perspective. He earned his Ph.D. from the University of Texas and his BA from the University of California, Irvine. He has been blogging since 2003 (originally at the now defunct Poliblog). Follow Steven on Twitter


  1. OzarkHillbilly says:

    Republicans have willingly submitted to the insanity. WASF.

  2. Charon says:

    There are many choices the GOP made over the past few decades that put the party on the path to becoming what it now is – choices such as the Southern Strategy with its concurrent embrace of fundamentalist Chritianity (e.g., the Bob Jones/IRS dustup).

    My view is that by far the most important and consequential of the choices was the embrace of lying as a useful political tool. Lying by such as Rush Limbaugh, Fox News, Conservative think tanks and on and on.

    Murphy’s Law says that if something can happen, eventually, in enough time, it will happen. By creating a core of voters and politicians separated from objective reality, the ground was prepared for someone like Trump to come along and seize the opportunity. And, just as Murphy observed, what could happen did happen.

    After Trump is gone, the GOP will still continue its separation from objective reality. AGW denialism, voter fraud nonsense, all the rest were here before Trump and will be here after. Trump just dials it up to 11 is all.

  3. gVOR08 says:


    After Trump is gone, the GOP will still continue its separation from objective reality.

    General Hayden, and Dr. Taylor, identify the core issue underlying our current woes. The very concept of objective reality is, indeed, under attack. And once again, as you point out, Trump is not the cause. Trump is the fulfillment of a generation of conservative alternate reality propaganda.

    That’s my ongoing complaint against NYT. It’s not that they aren’t supporting my side, it’s that they’re allowing factual relativism to creep in.

  4. Kathy says:

    In keeping with the theme from the previous post, we have seen this before.

    This is not an analogy to be made lightly, and I don’t make it lightly, but there are too many parallels to Nazi Germany at this point. To wit:

    A leader who thinks he know much more than he really does.
    A commitment to falsehoods, so long as they are believed by the base. here Trump seems more inclined to those that make him look good, rather than those to bash other people with. But he engages int he latter as well.
    Racial animus.
    Longing for a golden past that never really existed.
    Favoring force and threats over diplomacy, even where it’s counterproductive.

    And more.

    Trump’s saving grace, so to speak, is his rank incompetence to get things done.

  5. gVOR08 says:


    Trump’s saving grace, so to speak, is his rank incompetence to get things done.

    But he’s teaching other, perhaps more competent Republicans, how to play the populist demagogue game. Even if the figurehead isn’t that competent, he’d have the Kochs, the Mercers, and the whole Wingnut Welfare establishment behind him. What scares me is contemplating how short a slide it would be from here to autarchy. We already have a party propaganda establishment. The supposedly liberal MSM isn’t exactly a bulwark of objective reality, and can be bought. We’re experts at persuasion with advertising. We invented the internet which can deliver individually targeted propaganda (apparently Cambridge Analytica’s reason for being). We have a sophisticated spy apparatus that can easily be turned to the domestic side, if it isn’t already. We have Google, Facebook, etc. which already know way too much about us.

  6. An Interested Party says:

    If the Democrats are able to take back Congress in the fall their number one priority should be to protect this country and the whole world from this deranged vainglorious charlatan…

  7. michael reynolds says:

    I’m going to run counter to form and offer some optimism. A year ago I was much more worried than I am now. We’ve lost some battles around the edges – various anti-LGBTQ harassments, environmental rollbacks, for example – but I don’t think anyone outside of the far right fever swamps really thinks this is going to stick. This all feels like a phase, a bad flu but not cancer. A broad, loose, culture-based coalition has formed of POC, white suburbanites, kids, young women, the intelligentsia, creatives, businesspeople, techies, and it’s been quite effective at blunting Trumpism.

    The economy is roaring. We are not in any new wars. No major terrorist attacks. Any marginally normal politician in a normal White House would be pushing an approval rating close to 60%. But Trump is stuck at 40%. That’s not an incoming tide, it’s a tide on the turn. 40% and just half of those are enthusiastic, while the other side has 50+% that’s very ready to rumble. Turn on the TV at 9 eastern and switch back and forth from Maddow to Hannity. Look at their faces and the faces of their guests. Not a lot of swagger on the Right, just a lot of fear and denial, while the Left is looking distinctly wolfish.

    I think it’s possible to pretend to deny the truth, but in the end most people will act on reality, not fantasy. Tell a Christian, Good news, you’ll be in heaven soon, you have pancreatic cancer. . See just how much they believe in heaven. They’ll spend their last dime and surrender their dignity to cling to life for an extra five minutes. You can pretend not to believe 2 + 2 = 4, but only until you’re at the check-out counter.

    So, of that 40% still with Trump, I’m sure half are dumb enough to buy into the bullshit all the way, but there’s still a big chunk who won’t. Reality can’t be ignored forever. You either have a job or you don’t. You can either cover your medical bills or you can’t. Your kid’s either going off to war or she’s not. Reality will out.

  8. Kylopod says:

    In 2009, in a prepared speech, Charles Krauthammer declared that Fox News had “created an alternate reality.” The most amazing thing is that if you read his remark in context, it is stated not as a criticism of Fox News, but as high praise, without a trace of irony.

  9. Kylopod says:

    @Kathy: I am currently reading a new book, published in 2017: Thomas Childer’s The Third Reich: A History of Nazi Germany. The author is not exactly subtle about the parallels I think he intends readers to draw. Here is an excerpt:

    At each of his stops Hitler was greeted by boisterous, adoring crowds, and at each he thundered with fury, his rasping voice rising to a piercing crescendo, as he gave vent to all their anger, frustration, and resentment. He spewed venom at the Marxists, the November criminals, the system parties, who were responsible for Germany’s disgrace and his audience’s personal misery. He, and he alone, could make Germany great again by toppling the rule of Weimar’s corrupt and divisive party system and forging a new Germany united in one cohesive people’s community (Volksgemeinschaft) that would transcend class, religion, and region. To his many opponents, these melodramatic tirades were the sheerest demagoguery, a paranoid amalgam of vacuous shibboleths, hate, distortions, and outright lies. To those angry multitudes caught up in the frenzy, it hardly mattered.

  10. Guarneri says:

    Truth. Ah, yes, “truth.” OK I’m laughing now.

    And how’s that Russian collusion thingy going?

  11. Kathy says:


    But he’s teaching other, perhaps more competent Republicans, how to play the populist demagogue game.

    He’s teaching that to everyone, not just Republicans. Just because no Democrats have taken up his style, doesn’t mean they never will.

    That’s why I hope for a sound, terrible electoral loss for the party of Trump. It won’t happen in the mid terms, though the Democrats may take the House. It may happen in 2020. We’ll see.

    Such a loss would make his methods repugnant to other politicians.

  12. An Interested Party says:

    And how’s that Russian collusion thingy going?

    Why don’t you tell us…oh wait, you have no clue what Mueller has found out…it could be about Russia, it could be about obstruction of justice, it could be about money laundering…but do keep whistling past that graveyard…

  13. Kylopod says:

    Is it my imagination, or are the Trumpaloons coming here a lot less often in the past few weeks?

  14. Guarneri says:

    More “truth” exposed.

    Two wild eyed conservative attorneys (Snicker) now pointing out “the end of truth” (double snicker)

    I’ll await blogposts pointing out the end of truth from Clapper, Brennan, Comey, Mueller, Strzok, Lynch etc etc. Actually, no I won’t. It doesn’t appear to be in this blogs nature any longer.

  15. Kylopod says:

    @Guarneri: Let’s take one moment to examine your notion of “truth.” I’d surmise that over the years you’ve posted thousands of comments to OTB, but not once have I seen you address anyone’s arguments in a substantive way. All you ever do is either engage in lame, witless snark, or you do what you’re doing here, linking to opinion pieces that support the views you favor.

    We could do the same thing if we wanted, constantly linking to articles as a substitute for forming arguments of our own. The reason we don’t do that is–and I know you find this concept very alien–we don’t need someone else to do our thinking for us.

  16. mike shupp says:

    @Kylopod: In his defense, I’ve got to point out that Guarneri is a regular commenter at Dave Schuler’s Glittering Eye blog ( and I generally find his remarks interesting, sensible, and grounded in reality. He is not, I concede, especially fond of liberal positions, or inclined to lengthy arguments about politics. But I think you — and others here — seeing him only in one venue, misjudge him.

  17. Kylopod says:

    @mike shupp:

    I’ve got to point out that Guarneri is a regular commenter at Dave Schuler’s Glittering Eye blog ( and I generally find his remarks interesting, sensible, and grounded in reality.

    That may be. I’ve known plenty of people like that; people who can be smart, interesting, insightful when it comes to some subjects but who totally shut their brain down when it comes to politics.

    He is not, I concede, especially fond of liberal positions

    And I’m not especially fond of conservative positions, but I actually take the time to listen to conservatives lay out their views, and I attempt to respond to them using rational argument. And if I deem an argument not worth my time, believe me, I’m not going to post thousands of comments that are nothing more than snark. What would the point of that possibly be?

    Indeed, I tend to recognize a lot of complexity to issues, I always leave open the possibility that I might be wrong, and there are plenty of issues I wrestle with. Being fallible human beings, there is something fundamentally messed up about anyone who views the world in black and white and claims to have all the answers.

    You are engaging in massive understatement here. Guarneri’s problem isn’t a lack of fondness for liberal positions, it’s that he approaches every discussion with the unshakable conviction that he is self-evidently right and we are self-evidently wrong and anything we say is automatically laughable, ridiculous noise, and he manages to cling to this position while regularly interacting with liberals who write thoughtfully and eloquently. Furthermore, he resorts to snark so vacuous, so uninspired, so lacking in the slightest trace of wit that a third-grader on the schoolyard would find it hopelessly lame, yet he seems to carry the absolute assurance that he’s always blown away the weenie libtards we all self-evidently are.

    This goes way beyond being dogmatic and closeminded. This is a man fully brainwashed, a man who routinely stares straight at evidence refuting his beliefs without a smidgen of doubt ever creeping into his head. He may be perfectly “sensible” when it comes to certain subjects, but he’s fundamentally incapable of even conceptualizing the possibility that the things he’s been told to believe by Fox News, Breitbart, or whatever might be less than accurate. It’s almost a form of psychosis, except it’s one that happens to be shared by millions of people in this country.

  18. steve says:

    “I’ve got to point out that Guarneri is a regular commenter at Dave Schuler’s Glittering Eye blog ( and I generally find his remarks interesting, sensible, and grounded in reality.”

    He mostly comes here to throw bombs. He knows, like everyone knows now, that Dershowitz gets lots of attention as the “liberal” lawyer who criticizes liberals. Dershowitz just wants attention and money. If you actually read the article, no one else should waste their time, he wants Mueller investigated for stuff that happened 30 years ago. All based upon innuendo. That is how desperate the right is in their attempts to discredit Mueller.

    As to the rest on his list, he is firmly in the right wing bubble, so he just knows those people lied all of the time, and they probably did at times, just like the GOP lied its way through the Benghazi investigations (all 8 of them) and all of their other investigations trying to hard to pin a scandal directly on Obama (while studiously avoiding the weekly ones with Trump). What he is doing his to avoid is Trump. What is new is having a POTUS who so blatantly lies. Look at the examples offered and try to dispute them. This is beyond the spinning that we have seen every other president engage in. Besides the big lies he tells, he often lies about trivial, inconsequential stuff. It is just non-stop. And, of course his fans support him. I guess you expect that of the base, but Drew is educated and bright. He knows the consequences of having leadership that does not lead by example and the consequences of leadership that does not tell the truth. Yet he is still covering for Trump. Just a sad example of the chain of effects that Trump’s lying sets off.


  19. Ben Wolf says:

    Intelligence work — at least as practiced in the Western liberal tradition — reflects these threatened Enlightenment values: gathering, evaluating and analyzing information, and then disseminating conclusions for use, study or refutation.

    That’s an outrageous statement given Western intelligence services well-documented record of manufacturing evidence, and ongoing infiltration of American media for the purpose of shaping public opinion. Truth, in the context of Hayden’s remarks, is simply that which has been defined as the acceptable range of opinion; Trump’s sin against sacroscant “enlightenment values” is that he has no concern whatsoever for the authority of the self-appointed Guardians of Reality and dares to manufacture a reality beneficial only to himself.

    So George H.W. Bush’s knowing participation in the lie of incubator baby murders, leading to an attack on Iraq and millions of deaths, becomes an acceptable consensus truth, while Trump’s lie of “I fixed Korea” is not.

  20. michael reynolds says:

    What Guarneri thinks he’s doing is laying down a marker he can collect on later. His fantasy is that the whole Russia thing will go away, and he, without having expended any effort, will come waltzing over to OTB and collect his, ‘you were right’ kudos. There’ll be a parade.

    He seems more intelligent at Dave Schuler’s blog because Schuler is carefully ignoring the Russia matter aside from occasional statements about ‘waiting for the investigation.’ So Guarneri is never challenged at Schuler’s place, it’s a much more comfortable environment. Guarneri is comfortable talking economics and business, but he’s too ill-informed to have anything useful to say on other topics, and because he’s too lazy to stay informed, he’s not capable of dealing with challenges.

    So he pops into a place where he knows he’s intellectually overmatched, lays down his marker in anticipation of later triumph, and runs away. Best to ignore him.

  21. MarkedMan says:

    @Charon: Charon eloquently points out that the death of the truth in the Republican Party and in People who Call themselves Conservatives (PCCs) is a decades long phenomenon. As PCCs implemented their theories into practice, results revealed severe problems or outright failures (Militarily: Viet Nam, Iraq, Afghanistan; Economics: California, Kansas and over the long term, the former slave holding states). They had a choice: they could either learn from these failures, adjust the policies and try again or they could simply pretend that everything had worked out as they said, in direct contraindication of reality, and divert their power base’s attention. For a number of reasons, they chose the latter, and our country has been severely damaged by having so many powerful and influential people unmoored from reality and substituting anger and resentment for results.

    At the turn of the twentieth century there was a group of French researchers lead by Prospere-Rene
    Blondot who “discovered” N Rays and received accolades from around the world. But then a skeptic visited their lab and

    In the darkened room during Blondlot’s demonstration, Wood surreptitiously removed an essential prism from the experimental apparatus, yet the experimenters still said that they observed N rays. Wood also stealthily swapped a large file that was supposed to be giving off N rays with an inert piece of wood, yet the N rays were still “observed”.

    Blondot and many of his crew insisted this was all fake news, and 25 years later if the N Ray crew were mentioned at all it was as a cocktail party joke amongst physicists. But Blondlot still believed and was able to convince enough rich patrons to continue funding his “research”.

    The modern Republican Party and the PCCs have turned themselves into N Ray believers. Their “great minds” who turned the entire ship of American might to enact their policies are people like Gingrich and Cheney and on a smaller scale Pete Wilson and Sam Brownback, people who watched their policies fail and instead of adjusting simply doubled down and attacked their “enemies”, i.e. the people that believe in objective reality.

  22. Charon says:


    “Normal” Republicans like the ones you name lie about important stuff, stuff that matters. They don’t discredit themselves by lying about readily debunked trivia such as crowd size counts.

    That is what is different about Trump, he lies about everything because he doesn’t care. The Conservative Media is taking their lead from Trump now, they lie about so much now that Trump has shown that people in the bubble will believe anything that comes from the sources they have been taught to trust.

    This is why we are seeing things like the purges at Red State, Trumpism is going to leave a permanent impact on its party.

  23. Neil Hudelson says:

    @michael reynolds: @Kylopod:

    Guarneri used to post more substantive comments (if one could call them that), just after the Great Recession. Most of them claimed some sort of variation that this black liberal wheenie in the white house doesn’t know sh*t about the economy or business, and that Guarneri’s predictions about a looming crash in the recovery was just around the corner. Any day now. Just wait, it’s coming. He should know, as he knows business.

    And then…nothing. No second crash. No great business revolt against Obama’s policies. No collapse of the healthcare market. Nothing. The only thing that happened is a buncha racists in tri-corner hats LARPed for a few years.

    Ever since then, Guarneri just can’t seem to muster up the energy to write anything of substance here.

  24. gVOR08 says:

    NYT had a piece a couple days ago by one Daniel Effron, a professor of organizational behavior. H e cites research making the point that people don’t rate a lie as ethically objectionable if it “could have been true”. So when Reagan made up a story about a Cadillac driving welfare queen, his supporters, who think welfare cheating is a major problem, saw it as OK because it could have been true.

    when judging a falsehood that makes a favored politician look good, we are willing to ask, “Could it have been true?” and then weaken our condemnation if we can imagine the answer is yes. By using a lower ethical standard for lies we like, we leave ourselves vulnerable to influence by pundits and spin doctors.

    I think this goes some way to explain why fact checking Trump seems to do no good with his supporters. Along with motivated reasoning.