Of all the insane and bizarre things that Americans have endured during the Trump administration, the president’s presentation of a National Weather Service hurricane prediction map that was hand-altered with a Sharpie is, perhaps, the most darkly symbolic. It began with a Trump tweet that mistakenly claimed that Alabama was in the path of Hurricane Dorian. Instead of admitting the error, Trump has continued to claim that his assessment was completely accurate and proceeded to doctor an official weather map to prove it. Then, he went on to force senior administration officials to corroborate his nonsense.
On the surface, it seems petty, juvenile, and banal. However, the incident reflects a profound shift in the landscape of modern American politics. It’s emblematic of a new, disturbing trend to brazenly deny responsibility for mistakes and, in some cases, to go to extraordinary lengths to conceal the truth from the public. Nationally, and in Alabama, conservatives are weaponizing misinformation for their own political agendas and expedience.
The Sharpie Effect
In Alabama, we just saw the Sharpie Effect at work as Gov. Kay Iveyused her proverbial Sharpie to carefully redact her own memory of wearing black-face during a college skit. She had previously denied any association with wearing black-face but was forced to admit it when an old tape surfaced of an interview with her ex-fiancé, who described her actions. Lacking any credible deniability, Gov. Ivey quickly apologized in the interest of damage control. Interestingly, her apology was ham-handedly nuanced by saying that she acknowledged the racism of her actions, but somehow, she just couldn’t recall doing anything racist because it was so long ago.
The Sharpie Effect was on full display as Alabamians watched the slow-motion career meltdowns of former Gov. Robert Bentley, disgraced former Speaker Mike Hubbard, and, most notably, former AL Chief Justice Roy Moore. All three of these Republican politicians attempted to use their Sharpies to draw alternative realities to avoid responsibility for their misdeeds. Sadly, there are still some folks who can’t tell Sharpie scribble from the truth.
To be fair, AL Democratic Party Chair, Nancy Worley’s Sharpie is about to run out of ink. She’s used it to try and claim that her clear violations of DNC rules and by-laws are nothing but a racist attempt to disenfranchise blacks on the state executive committee. She’s even used her Sharpie to draw a picture of Hell, which is where she claims you’ll end up if you don’t support her. She’s used her Sharpie to draw imagined pictures of her amazing competence and leadership, but those claims certainly aren’t supported by evidence or reality.
The Sharpie Effect is pernicious in that it fosters widespread cynicism from the electorate which often leads to low voter turnout. Far worse than the apathy, some people seize the Sharpie as justification for their sycophantic embrace of extremist ideology. They repeat obvious lies and misinformation because it supports their agenda and narrative. For them, truth takes multiple forms and alt-truth is a Machiavellian construct that they gleefully employ. For example, AL Rep. Mo Brooks’recent lie that all Democrats want to repeal the Second Amendment. He knows that claim is demonstrably false, but he’ll repeat it just the same and he’ll keep using his rhetorical Sharpie until it runs dry.
An integral part of effective leadership and sound statesmanship is accepting responsibility for mistakes and errors. It should also go without saying that making things up is unquestionably wrong on every level. Ultimately, the Orwellian ramification of the Sharpie Effect is the disintegration of trust in our elected leaders and the annihilation of integrity in our public institutions.
It’s up to us to tell the Emperor that he wears no clothes, even if he’s trying to convince everyone that his clothes have been drawn with a Sharpie.
Clete Wetli is former Chair of the Madison County Democrats and a liberal political activist.