The Vanishing of Reality


Arts & Culture


Do I want to interfere with the reality tape?
And if so, why?
Because, he thought, if I control that, I control reality.

—Philip K. Dick, “The Electric Ant”

Surreal and chaos have become two of those words invoked hourly by journalists trying to describe daily reality in America in the second decade of the new millennium, a time when nineteen kids are shot every day in the United States, when the president of the United States plays a game of nuclear chicken with North Korea’s Kim Jong-un, when artificial-intelligence engines are writing poetry and novellas, when it’s getting more and more difficult to tell the difference between headlines from The Onion and headlines from CNN.

Trump’s unhinged presidency represents some sort of climax in the warping of reality, but the burgeoning disorientation people have been feeling over the disjuncture between what they know to be true and what they are told by politicians, between common sense and the workings of the world, traces back to the sixties, when society began fragmenting and official narratives—purveyed by the government, by the establishment, by elites—started to break down and the news cycle started to speed up. In 1961, Philip Roth writes of American reality: “It stupefies, it sickens, it infuriates.” The daily newspapers, he complains, “fill one with wonder and awe: is it possible? is it happening? And of course with sickness and despair. The fixes, the scandals, the insanities, the treacheries, the idiocies, the lies, the pieties, the noise … ” 

Roth’s sense that actuality was exceeding fiction writers’ imaginations (and throwing up real-life figures like Richard Nixon and Roy Cohn who were the envy of any novelist) would be echoed more than half a century later by writers of satire and spy thrillers in the Trump era. And his observation that novelists were having difficulty dealing imaginatively with a world they felt to be confounding helps explain why journalism—particularly what Tom Wolfe called the New Journalism—began eclipsing fiction in capturing what life was like in the sixties, as the Esquire anthology aptly titled Smiling Through the Apocalypse (featuring classic magazine pieces by such writers as Norman Mailer, Michael Herr, and Gay Talese) attests. 

Politicians had always spun reality, but television—and later the Internet—gave them new platforms on which to prevaricate. When the Republican strategist Lee Atwater observed in the eighties that “perception is reality,” he was bluntly articulating an insight about human psychology that Homer well knew when he immortalized Odysseus as a wily trickster, adept at deception and disguise. But Atwater’s cold-blooded use of that precept in using wedge issues to advance the GOP’s Southern strategy—and to create the infamous Willie Horton ad in the 1988 presidential campaign—injected mainstream American politics with an alarming strain of win-at-all-costs Machiavellianism using mass media as a delivery system.

Nearly three decades later, Trump would cast immigrants in the role of Willie Horton, and turning the clock back further, he would exchange dog-whistle racism for the more overt racism and rhetoric of George Wallace. At the same time, he instinctively grasped that the new Internet-driven landscape and voters’ growing ignorance about issues made it easier than ever to play to voters’ fears and resentments by promoting sticky viral narratives that serve up alternate realities. He also amped up efforts to discredit journalism as “fake news,” attacking reporters as “enemies of the people”—a chilling term once used by Lenin and Stalin.

It wasn’t just that Trump lied reflexively and shamelessly but that those hundreds upon hundreds of lies came together to create equally false story lines that appealed to people’s fears. Depicting America as a country reeling from crime (when in fact the crime rate was experiencing historic lows—less than half what it was at its peak in 1991). A country beset by waves of violent immigrants (when in fact studies show that immigrants are less likely to commit violent crimes than U.S.-born citizens). Immigrants who are a burden to the country and who should be vetted more carefully (when in fact thirty-one of seventy-eight American Nobel Prizes since 2000 were won by immigrants, and immigrants and their kids have helped found an estimated 60 percent of the top U.S. tech companies, worth nearly four trillion dollars). In short, Trump argued, a nation in deep trouble and in need of a savior.

Long before he entered politics, Trump was using lies as a business tool. He claimed that his flagship building, Trump Tower, is sixty-eight floors high, when in fact it’s only fifty-eight floors high. He also pretended to be a PR man named John Barron or John Miller to create a sock puppet who could boast about his—Trump’s—achievements. He lied to puff himself up, to generate business under false pretenses, and to play to people’s expectations. Everything was purely transactional; all that mattered was making the sale. He spent years as a real-estate developer and reality-TV star, promiscuously branding himself (Trump Hotels, Trump Menswear, Trump Natural Spring Water, Trump University, Trump Steaks, Trump Vodka, Trump Home Collection), and like most successful advertisers—and successful propagandists—he understood that the frequent repetition of easy-to-remember and simplistic taglines worked to embed merchandise (and his name) in potential customers’ minds. Decades before handing out MAGA hats at his rallies, he’d become an expert at staging what the historian Daniel Boorstin calls “pseudo-events”—that is, events “planned, planted, or incited” primarily “for the immediate purpose of being reported or reproduced.”

Boorstin’s 1962 book, The Image—which would inform the work of myriad writers, from French theorists like Baudrillard and Guy Debord to social critics like Neil Postman and Douglas Rushkoff—uncannily foresaw reality TV decades before the Kardashians or the Osbournes or any number of desperate housewives actually showed up in our living rooms. For that matter, he anticipated the rise of someone very much like Donald J. Trump: a celebrity known, in Boorstin’s words, for his “well-knownness” (and who would even host a show called The Celebrity Apprentice).

Boorstin’s descriptions of the nineteenth-century impresario and circus showman P. T. Barnum—who ran a New York City museum of curiosities filled with hoaxes like a mermaid (which turned out to be the remains of a monkey stitched together with the tail of a fish)—will sound uncannily familiar to contemporary readers: a self-proclaimed “prince of humbugs” whose “great discovery was not how easy it was to deceive the public but rather how much the public enjoyed being deceived” as long as it was being entertained.

Much the way images were replacing ideals, Boorstin writes in The Image, the idea of “credibility” was replacing the idea of truth. People were less interested in whether something was a fact than in whether it was “convenient that it should be believed.” And as verisimilitude replaced truth as a measurement, “the socially rewarded art” became “that of making things seem true”; no wonder that the new masters of the universe in the early sixties were the Mad Men of Madison Avenue.

Baudrillard would take such observations further, suggesting that in today’s media-centric culture, people have come to prefer the “hyperreal”—that is, simulated or fabricated realities like Disneyland—to the boring everyday “desert of the real.”

Artists like Jorge Luis Borges, William Gibson, Stanisław Lem, Philip K. Dick, and Federico Fellini grappled with similar themes, creating stories in which the borders between the real and the virtual, the actual and the imagined, the human and the posthuman blur, overlap, even collapse. In the story “Tlön, Uqbar, Orbis Tertius,” Borges describes “a secret society of astronomers, biologists, engineers, metaphysicians, poets, chemists, mathematicians, moralists, painters and geometricians” who invent an unknown planet named Tlön: they conjure its geography, its architecture, its systems of thinking. Bits and pieces of Tlön start surfacing in the real world: an artifact here, a description there, and things speed up around 1942; eventually, the narrator notes, the teachings of Tlön have spread so widely that the history he learned as a child has been obliterated and replaced by “a fictitious past.”

Borges draws direct parallels between the power of fictions about Tlön to insinuate themselves into human consciousness and the power of deadly political ideologies based on lies to infect entire nations; both, he suggests, provide internally consistent narratives that appeal to people hungering to make sense of the world. “Reality gave ground on more than one point,” Borges writes. “The truth is that it hankered to give ground. Ten years ago, any symmetrical system whatsoever that gave the appearance of order—dialectical materialism, anti-Semitism, Nazism—was enough to fascinate men. Why not fall under the spell of Tlön and submit to the minute and vast evidence of an ordered planet? Useless to reply that reality, too, is ordered. It may be so, but in accordance with divine laws—I translate: inhuman laws—which we will never completely perceive. Tlön may be a labyrinth, but it is a labyrinth plotted by men, a labyrinth destined to be deciphered by men.”

Thomas Pynchon’s novels explore similar themes—more relevant than ever in a world suffering from information overload. Reeling from a kind of spiritual vertigo, his characters wonder whether the paranoiacs have it right—that there are malign conspiracies and hidden agendas connecting all the dots. Or whether the nihilists are onto something—that there is no signal in the noise, only chaos and randomness. “If there is something comforting—religious, if you want—about paranoia,” he writes in Gravity’s Rainbow, “there is still also anti-paranoia, where nothing is connected to anything, a condition not many of us can bear for long.”

In a 2016 documentary titled HyperNormalisation, the British filmmaker Adam Curtis creates an expressionistic, montage-driven meditation on life in the posttruth era; the title (which also seems to allude to Baudrillard) is taken from a term coined by the anthropologist Alexei Yurchak to describe life in the final years of the Soviet Union, when people both understood the absurdity of the propaganda the government had been selling them for decades and had difficulty envisioning any alternative. In HyperNormalisation, which was released shortly before the 2016 U.S. election on the BBC’s iPlayer platform, Curtis says in voice-over narration that people in the West had also stopped believing the stories politicians had been telling them for years, and Trump realized that “in the face of that, you could play with reality” and in the process “further undermine and weaken the old forms of power.”

Some Trump allies on the far right also seek to redefine reality on their own terms. Invoking the iconography of the movie The Matrix—in which the hero is given a choice between two pills, a red one (representing knowledge and the harsh truths of reality) and a blue one (representing soporific illusion and denial)—members of the alt-right and some aggrieved men’s rights groups talk about “red-pilling the normies,” which means converting people to their cause (in other words, selling their inside-out alternative reality, in which white people are suffering from persecution, multiculturalism poses a grave threat, and men have been oppressed by women).

Alice Marwick and Rebecca Lewis, the authors of a study on online disinformation, argue that “once groups have been red-pilled on one issue, they’re likely to be open to other extremist ideas. Online cultures that used to be relatively nonpolitical are beginning to seethe with racially charged anger. Some sci-fi, fandom, and gaming communities—having accepted run-of-the-mill anti-feminism—are beginning to espouse white-nationalist ideas. ‘Ironic’ Nazi iconography and hateful epithets are becoming serious expressions of anti-Semitism.”

One of the tactics used by the alt-right to spread its ideas online, Marwick and Lewis argue, is to initially dilute more extreme views as gateway ideas to court a wider audience; among some groups of young men, they write, “it’s a surprisingly short leap from rejecting political correctness to blaming women, immigrants, or Muslims for their problems.”

Many misogynist and white-supremacist memes, in addition to a lot of fake news like Pizzagate, originate or gain initial momentum on sites like 4chan and Reddit before accumulating enough buzz to make the leap to Facebook and Twitter, where they can attract more mainstream attention. Renee DiResta, who studies conspiracy theories on the Web, argues that Reddit can be a useful testing ground for bad actors—including foreign governments like Russia—to try out memes or fake stories to see how much traction they get.

DiResta warned in the spring of 2016 that the algorithms of social networks—which give people news that’s popular and trending, rather than accurate or important—are helping to promote conspiracy theories. This sort of fringe content can both affect how people think and seep into public policy debates on matters like vaccines, zoning laws, and water fluoridation. Part of the problem is an “asymmetry of passion” on social media: while most people won’t devote hours to writing posts that reinforce the obvious, DiResta says, “passionate truthers and extremists produce copious amounts of content in their commitment to ‘wake up the sheeple.’ ”

Recommendation engines, she adds, help connect conspiracy theorists with one another to the point that “we are long past merely partisan filter bubbles and well into the realm of siloed communities that experience their own reality and operate with their own facts.” At this point, she concludes, “the Internet doesn’t just reflect reality anymore; it shapes it.”


Michiko Kakutani is a Pulitzer Prize–winning literary critic and the former chief book critic of the New York Times.

Excerpted from The Death of Truth. Copyright © 2018 by Michiko Kakutani. Published by Tim Duggan Books, an imprint of Penguin Random House LLC.