Saturday, June 23, 2018

Column: Trump vs. fiction

Welcome to the post-truth world!

As a novelist — someone who makes money writing fiction — let me be the first to greet all of you refugees from the Land of Facts. During his campaign, President Donald Trump spewed out more whoppers than a Burger King during the lunch rush. How can a person completely deny reality and still earn the trust of voters who told exit pollsters they supported him even though they knew he was being dishonest?

Trump will tweet a falsehood, get caught, then double down with a bigger falsehood — and a personal attack against the truth-teller. Those in the Land of Facts cry in agony when he gets away with it. How can he continue to manipulate and deceive in this manner? It's as if he's inventing his own distorted reality and his followers await each new affront with the eager anticipation of a plot twist. Viewed in this fashion, his Twitter feed can be regarded as a work of fiction, thereby rendering Trump not just a dissembling politician but more like an unreliable narrator.

Has Trump unwittingly tapped into a popular genre to advance his factually challenged administration? Books such as Gone Girl or The Girl on the Train sold millions of copies worldwide. Not coincidentally, both novels relied on narrators who were obviously lying about something. We knew they were lying and we remained enthralled in trying to sleuth out the depth of the untruth.

Such works contrast with the usual staple of the mystery, the intrepid investigator who leads us on a righteous quest for the truth. In the classic formulation of the detective story, narrator and reader together sift through lies and evasions to solve the case. Never do we wonder if what Philip Marlowe is telling us could be untrue. Our trust in him is total, even as the world he inhabits is filled with craven opportunists, charming charlatans and murderous sycophants.

The unreliable narrator operates at a completely different level. The reader must at all times be on the lookout for lapses in veracity, even as someone like Amy in Gone Girl convinces us of Nick's guilt by the sheer dint of her will. Masters of the craft like Gillian Flynn make her unreliable narrators sound reasonable, lucid and forthcoming. How can someone so friendly and open be telling a monstrous lie? Moreover, why do readers enjoy this experience?

Here information theory might help us understand why the unreliable narrator resonates and why Trump's falsehoods only embolden him to keep repeating them. A central tenet of information theory posits that the more predictable a message is, the less information it contains.

Claude Shannon worked out the mathematics in his seminal 1948 paper "A Mathematical Theory of Communications," where he importantly distinguished between the semantics or meaning of a message and the information contained in it. Hence, a message like "help the poor" contains much less pure information than the punk-rock recommendation of "kill the poor." The former fits into accepted narrative form and has been expressed countless times, while the latter is "surprising," to say the least, not the usual arrangement of these words.

Messages that contain surprises by definition have more information than those without surprises, though the meaning might elude us.

Did the punk band the Dead Kennedys actually mean that the poor should be killed? Or were they being subversively ironic? A purely random string of words would have lots of pure information and lack meaning altogether. An effective message then contains unpredictability while preserving narrative structure.

Surprises come in many forms — confessions, overheard conversations, found diaries and, critical for our purposes, every lie ever told. Such are the tactical weapons of a novelist, especially those skilled enough to make the search for truth into a morass of beautiful confusion.

But do we want our civic leaders to use these same weapons? According to information theory, false statements contain more information than true ones. Trump probably has never heard of Claude Shannon, but he seems to intuitively understand the dynamics involved, just as Adolf Hitler and Plato ruminated on the merits of the Big Lie, one so vast and unyielding that it literally can't be disproven.

Trump insists he won in a landslide of historic proportions, and data disprove it — yet he won't budge and his supporters can't be swayed. He asserts that President Barack Obama had his "wires tapped," even though no evidence exists. A veritable cottage industry has grown up trying to discern which of Trump's many contradictory opinions and proclamations are the "real" ones, just as readers must decide whether Nick killed Amy in Gone Girl.

Trump supporters cite various reasons why they back him, but without question there is a defiant element underneath this disheartening erosion of civic virtue. Edgar Allan Poe, inventor of the detective story, who gave voice to a number of unsteady, anxious and at times unreliable narrators, reminded us that a fundamental impulse in the human heart is what he called "perverseness," when people act on impulses in which "no reason can be more unreasonable, but, in fact, there is none more strong."

So while Donald Trump might be using the cognitive framework of fiction to sway his base, he is by no means the author of anything. Because novelists aren't liars.

The best of us use made-up stories to reveal a darker truth about existence that rational thought can't articulate. We give our fears dimensional shapes, and our hopes become embodiments of courage.

"Your whales must be seen before they can be killed," Ishmael tells us from the masthead in Moby Dick.

But Donald Trump sees no whales. His Twitter feed has no larger point than the airing of his own grievances. Every unreliable narrator at some point has to drop the pretense and engage in the catharsis of truth-telling.

Yet Trump's followers may never demand this of him. A compulsive liar makes for a great villain but a terrible president. History's endings tend to be messy affairs, especially when someone who is unstable grabs the helm of the ship of state. "Moby Dick seeks thee not," Starbuck cries to Ahab, who ignores him before plunging the Pequod into the vasty deep.

Lee Irby is a professor of history at Eckerd College. His newest novel, "Unreliable," will be published next month by Doubleday.

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