There is a phrase that has become nearly ubiquitous, a sort of bitterly ironic catchphrase for journalists covering the 2016 presidential election in general – and Donald Trump in particular – and it is this: “lol nothing matters”.
Its glib boys-on-the-bus nihilism conceals a deeper truth. This campaign has degraded to the point at which truth and lies have become largely interchangeable. What is real matters less now than what people feel.
Hillary Clinton won most of the exchanges in the first presidential debate Monday night. The clash was at times oddly stilted, even boring; early skirmishers, the two opponents spent much of the first half of the debate warily circling, rather than engaging. The next debate will almost certainly make much better television.
But once she hit her stride the former secretary of state landed some solid blows on Trump over his preposterous pursuit of the “birther” conspiracy theory, and pressed him hard over his refusal to release his tax returns – something every presidential candidate for half a century has done – and his lie about not being able to do so while under an “audit”. (No such prevention exists, of course, but: lol nothing matters.)
In the key part of that exchange, Clinton said: “So you’ve got to ask yourself, why won’t he release his tax returns? And I think there may be a couple of reasons. First, maybe he’s not as rich as he says he is. Second, maybe he’s not as charitable as he claims to be. Third, we don’t know all of his business dealings, but we have been told through investigative reporting that he owes about $650 million to Wall Street and foreign banks,” she said, in probably her best moment of the night.
“Or maybe he doesn’t want the American people, all of you watching tonight, to know that he’s paid nothing in federal taxes,” she continued, pressing home her advantage.
At which point, Trump leaned into the microphone, not to object, but simply to petulantly interject: “That makes me smart.” Clinton had clearly got under his skin.
Not every Clinton line landed, mind. A particularly painful example: early in the debate, and then again later, she tried to coin the agonizingly cringeworthy phrase “Trumped-up trickle-down,” causing a collective wince from the Twitterati.
But many of the things Trump said were obvious, even lazy, lies. When Clinton took him to task for saying that climate change was “a hoax perpetrated by the Chinese”, Trump responded “I did not, I did not, I do not say that,” despite the fact that he hadn’t even bothered to delete a tweet by him from 2012 saying literally just that. When Clinton said that Trump had at first supported the invasion of Iraq – which he did – he flatly denied it.
At other times, he was simply incoherent or so infuriatingly vague as to be completely adrift from meaning.
It was telling, though, that Clinton called several times for “fact-checkers” to get on top of Trump’s delusional ramblings and hold him accountable. CNN’s post-debate poll gave the victory to Clinton, 62 percent to 27 percent – a rout. But CNN’s audience skews Democratic by ten points. Clinton can call for fact-checkers as much as she likes, but only a fraction of a percentage of viewers, and only a minescule fraction of a fraction of Trump-leaning viewers, will probably ever seek out or even recognise that kind of fact-checking as legitimate.
So what happens next? The truth is we don’t know at all. None of us know. It has become bleakly popular to say that we now live in a “post-truth” era, but in reality it is more that truth has become balkanized. Social media has made it possible for people to live in their own silo of separate truth.
Towards the end, Clinton channelled Fox News’s Megyn Kelly, pressing Trump on his opinions towards women – quoting that he had called them “slobs” and “fat pigs”. To anyone for whom Trump’s campaign is transparently ludicrous and misogynistic to the core – which is to say, pretty much my social and social media circle, and, let’s face it, if you’re reading this article, most likely yours as well – this was a win.
But that echo will only ring true to the political operatives, journalists, or people in our silo, who share a certain set of values.
This election is teaching us that we are no longer a representative sample. Trump – Donald Trump – after a two-year tidal wave of appalling bigotry, despite being a joke to you and to everyone you break bread with, went into Monday’s debate with Hillary Clinton on Monday afternoon in a virtual tie. A virtual tie! Donald Trump and Hillary Clinton! Think, for a second, how off-piste that means we now are.
Where are most people now getting their information from? A bunch of places, all of them totally diffuse, much of it from what their friends, sociopolitical and geographic peer group share with them on social media. It’s this catastrophic diffusion of truth which has brought us here. Some of the collapse of authoritative media was absolutely the media’s fault. Some of it was due to technological and social changes that were out of anyone’s control.
But it has led us to this place: where lol nothing matters.