Jay Bookman

Opinion columnist and blogger with The Atlanta Journal-Constitution, specializing in foreign relations, environmental and technology-related issues

You can't just create a 'fact,' yet some sure do try

A fact is, or ought to be, a pretty solid thing. You can argue its meaning, its importance, its interpretation, but by its nature you can't really argue its existence. A fact isn't what you want it to be; it exists independently of our wants and wishes.

For example, it's a fact that water flows downhill. It's a fact that the speed of light is 186,000 miles per second, that Richard Pryor was a comic genius and that Hillary Clinton won the popular vote in 2016. According to the latest data, she now has a lead of 1.2 million votes nationwide, and with millions of still-uncounted ballots in largely Western states, experts say that she is likely to end up with a final popular-vote margin of more than 2 million.

This is also a fact: In the most important sense, Clinton's popular-vote victory doesn't matter a lick. Under the rules set down in the Constitution that we have all agreed to be governed by, Donald Trump has won the presidency based on his victory in the Electoral College, and he will be inaugurated on the Capitol steps come January. Even if the Clinton margin should somehow rise to 20 million, it's a fact that Trump is still going to be our next president.

But as we know, elections do more than select the person who occupies the White House or who sits in Congress. As an expression of popular will, elections also set the course for the country. So if you want to argue that President-elect Trump has been given a mandate for broad, sweeping change, if you are deeply invested emotionally in the belief that the forces of good have finally "taken our country back" from the forces of evil, then the question of the popular vote suddenly does matter. In that regard, it actually matters quite a bit that Hillary got more votes than Trump did.

So here's when a fact of a different sort, an artificial fact, gets introduced into the debate. If you need to believe in a Trump mandate, and you are confronted with the contradictory fact of Clinton's popular vote margin, what do you do? How can you reconcile your conviction that Trump has a mandate with the fact that, well, he doesn't?

You overcome actual reality by creating a false reality more to your liking. You turn to the conspiracy site Infowars and similar outlets, which give you the comforting information that some three million illegal immigrants somehow voted in the 2016 presidential election.

As Infowars helpfully explains to its readers, "Virtually all of the votes cast by 3 million illegal immigrants are likely to have been for Hillary Clinton, meaning Trump might have won the popular vote when this number is taken into account."

Now, a skeptical mind might wonder at a claim that one in three illegal adult immigrants in this country is not only registered to vote but did vote. You might also question how so many people could vote illegally with no reports of anybody getting caught or charged. On the other hand, if you want badly to believe in a transcendent Trump victory, suddenly, as if by magic, all of your doubts are wiped away. Of course! It was rigged! Armed with the "fact" of that 3 million, you can tell yourself and others that Trump did indeed win the "real" popular vote.

All across the right-wing blogosphere and on debate forums such as Facebook and this blog, that's exactly what many conservatives are doing.

But let's ask a rude question: What's the source of this "fact"? As it turns out, it can all be traced back to this:

If you're going to make a claim of such significance, it doesn't seem a lot to ask to have some evidence to back it up. Yet when asked by reporters how he "verified" such a number, Gregg Phillips has refused to explain. He claimed to have "analyzed" a database of some 180 million voter registrations, yet claimed that said database was not accessible from the web. His analytical methodology, his standards -- he would discuss none of those things because, he said, he and his colleagues would soon be using the data to file a federal class-action suit.

So we're left with quite a dilemma, right? On one hand you've got this entire national vote-counting apparatus, with poll workers and poll watchers and local election offices and state election officers all documenting the fact that in terms of the popular vote, Clinton won. You've also got the numbers above from Gallup, demonstrating that Trump is by far the most unpopular president-elect in recent American history.

On the other hand, you've literally got one guy with a Twitter account making a claim that he refuses to explain or document.

Note also the size of Phillip's number. Three million votes might seem arbitrary, but it's not. It is just large enough to offset the official Clinton margin, with a little left over as a margin of safety. Even better, Phillips' "analysis" not only explains away the natural fact of Clinton's popular vote victory, it does so by tightly interlocking itself with the equally artificial fact of widespread voter fraud.

In fact, it couldn't fit more perfectly into the right-wing perspective if it were designed on a computer and then created on a 3-D printer, which in effect it was. It is an artificial fact, a fact created and designed to perform a specific function and fulfill a specific need without regard to its veracity.

A few other things about artificial facts:

-- An artificial fact can't be killed by exposing it as false, because truth played no role in its formation. It exists on an entirely different plane than truth. It was created out of emotional need, to do a job that actual fact could not accomplish, and as long as that need exists, the artificial fact will exist as well.

-- In a debate or discussion, the willingness to deploy artificial fact often provides a significant if cheap advantage.

You point out that Hillary won the popular vote, he pulls out his artificial fact about the 3 million illegal voters, you then challenge the validity of his artificial fact and all of a sudden you find yourself down a rabbit hole in which you're debating a silly claim made by someone on the Internet instead of the real issue, which is that Trump lost the popular vote and has no claim for a mandate.

-- Generally, an artificial fact is useful only for defensive purposes, to justify and defend what you already believe. It is rarely useful in persuading the unpersuaded. In this case, if you do not have a deep emotional need to believe that Trump won the popular vote, then you will look at this claim of 3 million, look at the complete absence of evidence to support it, then dismiss it as the nonsense that it is. That's why the artificial facts featured on Fox News have no life outside that community.

-- George Orwell, writing about his first-hand experience in the Spanish Civil War, marveled at how much utterly false information was generated about the war, and how quick people were to believe what they wanted to believe. But as he noted, a reliance on artificial rather than natural fact to sustain your world view creates a danger. "How ever much you deny the truth, the truth goes on existing, as it were, behind your back," he wrote.

-- In that same 1943 essay, Orwell also warns that a lack of respect for verifiable truth, a willingness to set aside natural fact in favor of artificial fact, often paves the road to authoritarianism. "If the Leader says of such and such an event, ‘It never happened’ — well, it never happened. If he says that two and two are five — well, two and two are five," he writes. "This prospect frightens me much more than bombs — and after our experiences of the last few years that is not a frivolous statement."


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About the Author

Jay Bookman writes about government and politics, with an occasional foray into other aspects of life as time, space and opportunity allow.