Has the Trump Administration Changed the Way My Brain Works?

If I spend enough of my lived experience fighting my way out of lies, I might find myself too exhausted to receive the truth when I'm done.
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President Donald Trump speaks to journalist Jim Acosta from CNN during a post-election press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 7th, 2018.

President Donald Trump speaks to journalist Jim Acosta from CNN during a press conference in the East Room of the White House in Washington, D.C., on November 7th, 2018.

President Donald Trump's longstanding tug-of-war with the media ratcheted up last week, with CNN's White House reporter Jim Acosta as Trump's latest target. During a fiery exchange last Wednesday, Acosta repeatedly tried to ask the president a question while the president continued shouting him down. A White House intern then attempted to remove the microphone from Acosta's hand, grabbing at it repeatedly. During their encounter, while trying to keep the microphone away from her, Acosta's hand lightly came down on the intern's arm.

After the incident, the White House revoked Acosta's White House press pass, and Kellyanne Conway, a presidential adviser, stated flatly that the White House would not allow a man to "put [his] hands on a woman" in that fashion. Conway's statement understandably drew criticism: It seemed like she was trying to frame Acosta as violent or abusive toward women. What came next was an examination of the tape, specifically the moment when Acosta's hand came down on the intern's arm. An altered video, created by InfoWars, sped up certain portions of the tape to make it appear as though Acosta's hand had come down with more force than it did in real time. Press Secretary Sarah Sanders shared the doctored footage on Twitter. On Sunday, in a head-scratching moment, Conway insisted that Sanders wasn't wrong to share the video, and that the video itself wasn't misleading: "It wasn't altered. It was sped up." (On Friday morning, a federal judge ruled that the White House should allow Acosta to return to work.)

The thing that exhausts me most in life is knowing what I know and watching in real time as people try to take a basic truth and bend it into something else. The damage is greater than the lie itself; it's a restructuring of what the eyes see or the ears hear. It is playing with the senses in a way that convinces the owner of those senses that they no longer have a grasp on them. I watched the Acosta video in its altered form and its original form repeatedly. News organizations tweeted out the videos side-by-side so that readers could gauge accuracy. On my sixth or seventh watch, all the movements began to blend together, and I had a hard time telling the altered tape apart from the untouched footage—not because the altered one wasn't an obvious fake (it is), but because my understanding of what I should be looking for and what I should be expecting to see had shifted after a full day of reading the details, truths, and lies around this two- to three-second moment.

And the reality is that none of it matters. Conway and Sanders know that seeing doesn't matter, but what can be sold to the looker matters a great deal. This is how the administration works, and we've largely gotten used to it. This latest instance, though, made me worry about the larger affects that such dishonesty is having on the brains of Americans, and on the way that we react to the world, or to each other. It isn't just the hard altering of visuals. If I spend enough of my lived experience fighting my way out of lies, I might find myself too exhausted to receive the truth when I'm done. It seems now that the end game is exhaustion—to force people to spend so much time angry at the lie they know is being sold, that singing the actual truth can become perfunctory.

Melissa Dahl wrote recently for the Cut about the illusory truth effect, or the idea that any lie, when repeated long enough, can begin to sound like truth. As Dahl explains, the brain, when confronted with a lie, first needs to accept it as truth before taking the next step of accepting or rejecting it. This is the first part of the work we do when confronted with a lie, and the work that feels most natural. By the time the brain arrives at the next step of parsing the lie, it has already begun to imagine it as truth.

There has to be a limit to how many lies a member of the public can consume before the brain alters itself entirely around how it handles lies and truth. Research into cognitive load suggests that, for a liar, telling lies is more mentally taxing than telling the truth—but hearing a constant stream of lies is more mentally taxing for the person hearing the lies than it is for the person telling them. At a certain point, the brain simply exhausts itself, and gives up the fight it takes to get to the second step, of acceptance or dismissal.

I worry about this exhaustion because of how quickly and relentlessly this administration moves to bend the truth. Reporters don't often do a good job of calling out the lies in real time, but even if they wanted to, there are too many to keep up with during a given speech or rally or press conference. I have seen my peers (and found myself) trying to quantify which lies are "small" or less worth attacking, and which lies are too big to let pass. The reality is that all of them, regardless of scope, build a new normal for how people see politics and the world outside of it. I don't know what it's like for everyone else, but I have found myself becoming more skeptical of nearly everything. My standards around trust and honesty have lowered, and they weren't all that high in the first place. My natural tendencies toward cynicism have blended with these other developments, and my approach to doing math around which small lies to dismiss and which big lies to fight against has worked its way into my daily life.

The worst consequence in my own life is that the administration's dishonesty has changed what I expect of people. It's a heavy toll, as the administration preaches to a base of Americans who would believe them no matter what they said. It is the magic trick with the worst payoff. The one where the man doesn't vanish, but stands onstage, telling you that he's invisible.

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