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Boisi Center for Religion and American Public Life

Truth and Lies in a Polarized Time


On April 5, E.J. Dionne spoke to an audience of students and professors about political polarization in the United States under the Trump administration. Dionne is a senior fellow at the Brookings Institution, columnist for the Washington Post, and university professor in the Foundations of Democracy and Culture at Georgetown University. His lecture was both a meditation on what he calls “Trump’s attack on the truth,” as well as an exhortation to scholars, media personnel, and citizens about responsible knowledge-sharing in a time of resurgent ethno-nationalism.

Dionne began by examining the strained relationship between Trump as a politician and fact-driven opinion. He cited some examples of Trump’s intolerance in the early parts of his campaign, especially casting the media as an enemy of the people and Kelly Conway’s statement about “alternative facts.” Such behavior, he contended, necessarily sprouted from developments in American politics since the mid-twentieth century, including shifts in the strategies of the Republican Party and the partisan manipulation of digital technology. The former refers to assaults on the role of accountable media and bipartisan agreement in public governance. The latter entails the burgeoning of right-wing media wings such as Breitbart that subordinate reasoned judgement and sound evidence to unfounded opinion, perception, and emotion.

Dionne then explored the implications of Trumpism for American politics, religion, and journalism. According to Dionne, à la Alexander Hamilton, Trump has chosen not just to “ride the storm” of conservatism, but has importantly begun to “direct the storm.” Trump has particularly rearticulated one example of what Dionne calls “essentially contested topics,” concepts whose very definitions are constantly challenged: populism. Trumpian populism, Dionne argues, posits an exclusionary form of democracy premised on identity politics, reactionary ideology, and anti-pluralism.

Dionne concluded with some admonitions for upholding truth in this polarized time. Citing Peruvian liberation theologian Gustavo Gutiérrez, he called upon people of faith to place a renewed emphasis on human dignity and social suffering. Equally significant, he urged journalists to report on the sources of today’s discontent, or what Jonathan Cobb and Richard Sennett call “the hidden injuries of class.”

In closing, Dionne recalled a story from his son, erstwhile canvasser for a political campaign, who once asked an African American constituent, “Are you going to vote in the upcoming election?” “It’s our job,” he proclaimed, “because we’re Americans.”