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HyperNormalisation: Is Adam Curtis, Like Trump, Just A Master Manipulator?
Phil Harrison , October 6th, 2016 08:15

As the BBC prepares to release Adam Curtis' latest film, Phil Harrison asks if in a fractured society HyperNormalisation is an empty transmission into an echo chamber

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One of the key scenes in Adam Curtis's monumental new documentary HyperNormalisation shows a woman engaging with ELIZA. ELIZA was a psychotherapy computer programme developed in 1966 that comforted the troubled minds of its users by simply re-phrasing their questions as self-reinforcing answers. Did it work? That depended on what the user was expecting. ELIZA performed a clever confidence trick that, for a limited period of time at least, gave the impression of control being regained and solutions being delivered. "What Eliza showed", suggests Curtis, "was that what made people feel secure was having themselves reflected back to them." 

This piece of archive footage feels like a brilliant metaphor for where we are in 2016. In an atomised world, we all have our own truths and maybe, for now, many of us have become content with that. Is this a sustainable way forward? It's hard to survey the wreckage of this bizarre year without feeling like that's a pretty stupid question. Perhaps a more interesting point to ponder is whether Curtis is part of the problem or part of the solution? Is he, to throw his take on ELIZA back from whence it came, also making his viewers feel secure by reflecting themselves back to them? Is a film like HyperNormalisation merely another safe bunker in our ongoing culture wars? 

In 2016, the year of the EU Referendum, of Syria, of Putin and of Trump, HyperNormalisation feels almost jarringly perfect. In many ways, it's the film that Curtis' whole career has been building towards as many of the cultural, social and political undercurrents he's explored (mass manipulation, the surprisingly compatible goals of Islamic and neoliberal fundamentalism, the unintended consequences of developed world interventionism) seemingly begin to form an unstoppable tsunami. Its timing is uncanny - the film will arrive on the BBC iPlayer on October 16, just 23 days before Americans go to the polls and decide whether or not to submit to the leering rictus of mass insanity represented by Donald J Trump. And it will do its level best to offer an explanation of how America - and the world - came to this pass.  

As Curtis aficionados have come to expect, the route it takes through the last half century is thrillingly tangential. It passes through Patti Smith and Hafez al-Assad. Andrei Tarkovsky and Henry Kissinger. William Gibson and Muammar Gaddafi. The narrative it weaves is at once, hellishly complex and deceptively simple. Authority figures, it posits, have run out of credible stories to tell their sceptical subjects. Fake folk devils and implausible solutions abound but have lost their potency. Every innovation - from pseudo-subversive pop culture to apparently emancipatory technological developments - feeds back to nothing. Worse still, the innovations are co-opted and become part of the problem. The suspicion of sinister hidden hands on the tiller has been replaced by an even more disconcerting sense that no one is steering anymore because no one can now imagine a worthwhile possible destination.      

Institutional failure is a defining trope of our age then. But here's where we encounter one of this film's many ironies. Still at the heart of the UK's broadcasting culture but battered this way and that by mendacious media enemies and philistinic Culture Secretaries is that most stolidly centralising of institutions, the BBC. Adam Curtis could only work for the Beeb. Not just because only the BBC would have given him the time, space and indulgence to assemble his remarkable portfolio of argumentative, tendentious, visionary and defiantly sprawling films (this one weighs in at a whopping two hours and 45 minutes). But in a more practical sense, because his documentaries are patchworks of the past. Broadcasting's past. The world's past. And most pertinently, the BBC's past. It's only the BBC's willingness to step out of its comfort zone, wander into the world's more contested corners, and keep the cameras rolling and the mics on in 80s Russia or 70s Syria that enables Curtis's unmistakable visual grammar. All the familiar Curtis signifiers are here. His eye for non-sequential but telling juxtaposition remains remarkable in its impressionistic, intuitive impact. A fight breaks out in a queue in Russia as the Cold War reaches its bitter end. Casual brutality in the Middle East elides into codified, leisure-time banality in the US. Gaddafi fixes his hair before a press conference and somehow, the ten second clip says more about the bathetic vanity of a dictator than a thousand UN indictments ever could.

So, partly thanks to its continuing patronage of a maverick like Curtis, the BBC maintains its cultural centrality, right? Maybe. But it surely won't be lost on Adam Curtis that a film at least partially about the danger of echo chambers will reside, snugly ghettoised on the BBC iPlayer, to be viewed only by those already familiar with his work. Unlike his earlier, conventionally-broadcast films, it's unlikely to confront an unwitting or indeed hostile audience with its scope and strangeness. As the world become more inexplicable, could we be about to enter an age of algorithmic inbreeding, where the emergent Netflix model throws up more and more variations on familiar minor themes for a captive audience and less and less that might startle or discomfort? 

Still, in a sense, it's no surprise that Adam Curtis is now an iPlayer-only concern. Because the BBC doesn't really exist to challenge anymore. What centrality it retains seems to rely on a very conscious drive towards confirmation; reassurance; pacification. One of Auntie's other big historical documentary gambits this year was Dominic Sandbrook's authored history of the 80s. Sandbrook is a well-respected historian but the series felt like an affirmation of our recent past rather than an interrogation of it. Post facto, it rationalised the era - from the Falklands War to the widespread privatisations, it retrospectively valorised the solidification of capitalist realism. It felt as ill-timed as HyperNormalisation is timely - if this year has proved anything, it's that culturally and politically, the long game set in motion by that decade has run out of steam.         

As we react to the increasingly perplexing present by scurrying off down our personalised reality tunnels, what else does the BBC's factual department have to offer? Alongside the stifling, stultifying heritage fetish represented by the seemingly infinite possible adaptations offered by the prefixes 'The Great British…' or 'A Very British…', there are, overwhelmingly, shows about work. The jaw-dropping Britain's Hardest Worker will surely be summoned up by some future Adam Curtis - indeed, it might even find its way onto the radar of some future Dominic Sandbrook - as a definitively shameful exhibit for the prosecutors of our era. It featured, minimum wage workers, doing minimum wage jobs, in an elimination reality show scenario and it felt more like an unimaginative episode of Black Mirror than an actual, real show. But less obviously aberrant programmes are equally telling; the likes of The Bank (three laboured hours spent exploring the workings of a High Street bank) and The Met (London's coppers, placed under a not-particularly powerful microscope) represent one troubled institution reaching out to a couple of others; everyone telling everyone else that it's business as usual. The common thread in recent BBC factual output is a form of paralysis. Whether it's the insecure, low-paid economy or the financial system, viewers are essentially being reminded that there's no alternative. Exploring big ideas or possibilities of change, is pointless. 

Not even Adam Curtis's sternest critics could fairly accuse him of a reluctance to engage with the big ideas. Which is why he often feels like a throwback to a more adventurous TV age. And yet in a wider sense, is he really swimming against the tide? Maybe not. In our post-truth times, it could be argued that Curtis himself is just another master manipulator. His array of jump cuts and abrupt narrative jack-knifes arouse the suspicion that perhaps he's simply the ultimate post-modernist; piecing together a diverting collage out of various picaresque shards of recent history and presenting it as the truth. 

Does Adam Curtis deal in the truth? Maybe, maybe not. Perhaps the whole point is that increasingly, there's no such thing. Instead, he deals in a truth. It's a more reliable but harder to swallow truth than The Bank or The Met or Britain's Hardest Workers or anything else that the BBC is currently offering can bring itself to acknowledge. It's that no one knows anything.   There's a fascinating segment in the middle of HyperNormalisation telling the story of one of Donald Trump's bankruptcies. It's fascinating because it doesn't feel like it belongs. It's a non-sequitur and doesn't appear to connect to anything around it. But eventually, as Trump reappears, in all of his buffoonish, triumphalist glory, at the film's conclusion, all becomes clear. His placement in the middle of the film was a device, pure and simple. Adam Curtis isn't, strictly speaking, a reliable narrator because these days, no one is. And it's hard to think of a more fitting way for a filmmaker to illustrate that point that to either deliberately or inadvertently build it into his own narrative. Trump was introduced at the beginning and reincorporated in the centre of the film because he served Curtis's version of the truth. And now, more than ever before, the truth is subjective and is seen to be so.  

HyperNormalisation, surely the definitive TV documentary of the year, is simply living out the one hard truth that we all seem to agree on. ELIZA has won. We each ask our own questions and the answers we receive reinforce their assumptions. And, as Michael Gove so memorably proclaimed this summer, in a quote that will surely come to define 2016, people have had enough of experts.

Scott
Oct 6, 2016 9:05am

I'm a big fan of Adam Curtis' work, so I will check this out. Strange and slightly disturbing that it's only available on the iPlayer and is not being broadcast.

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Becan
Oct 6, 2016 9:41am

I really admire Curtis' work, but I always emerge with new questions, rather than feeling satisfied with his version of events. As fans, we can sit there watch what is essentially a lecture with fantastic visuals, and feel comforted that at least someone else thinks the world is a hollow, meaningless nightmare, and who makes a very convincing case for it, or we can challenge and critique. Otherwise, Adam Curtis is just our Alex Jones.
It should be broadcast, and on BBC1, in Strictly's slot on a Saturday.

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300hz
Oct 6, 2016 10:46am

Illustrator/ Interpreter not Manipulator

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D
Oct 6, 2016 10:54am

A nice piece but I believe you go too far in presenting Curtis as a manipulator in the political sense of a Trump or of typical left/right media.

A lot of Curtis' films will at one time very pointedly state that he 'wants to tell a story' or 'this is a story about...'. Curtis' repetition of 'story' on screen and in interview is, in my view, very deliberate.

He is not pushing his world view, he is not creating a narrative in the hope that you agree with him (which is very much the purpose of a political narrative). He is trying to explain why the world works the way it does, there is no judgement on whether that is right or wrong.

If anything, Curtis presents the world as a highly complex interconnected place which does not have a singular narrative and certainly does not have a singular truth. I don't see this as manipulation, more of a request that we open our eyes.

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Spaceman
Oct 6, 2016 12:23pm

In reply to D:

Quite, any historian digging in has to have a viewpoint, otherwise the end result would be just a collection of facts like in an encyclopedia. While I find I don't always agree with what Curtis has to say, the end result is always fascinating and contains some interesting insights.

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Gary J. Groin
Oct 6, 2016 12:55pm

What an obnoxious review. He has a lovely sense of humor and at least an ability to edit, qualities this piece lack entirely.

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Doktor Avalanche
Oct 6, 2016 3:04pm

Bit hard on the BBC's output here and also a failure to grasp its inner workings. The amount of cuts made to BBC documentary departments is significant (e.g Arena gets only 5 hours screen time a year). This is partly due to audience research, 'market forces' and the Charter Renewal. But also internal politics (the 'Imagine' brand hangs heavy over everything as a 'flag ship' production). Yet still, despite these pressures, the BBC has delivered a compelling variety of documentary films in 2016, including new work by Jonathan Meades, Jim Al-Khalili, Dr James Fox (and the conceptual art season on BBC4), Julian Temple, John Das ('Laying Down The Law'), Jacques Peretti, Richard Macer, Louis Theroux etc as well as the continuing success of Reggie Yates and Stacey Dooley on BBC3. So to argue that the BBC isn't presenting 'alternatives' patently doesn't hold water. It evidently isn’t just 'reality TV docs' like 'The Met' or 'GBBO', and that's before you consider the extensive radio output of BBC radio (only BBC Radio 3 would give its airwaves over to La Mounte Young for 6 hours). It’d be far better to celebrate this work than to dignify the BBC bashing of the tabloids.
As for Adam Curtis, he relishes the freedom of working on iPlayer (hence that 2hr 45 min running time) and given his full time job at the BBC is directly linked to managing its archive, it presents a fruitful relationship that enables a more organic approach to documentary film-making. As you acknowledge, the BBC's patronage is crucial to this success and it undoubtedly contributes to his films unique, experimental quality.
Finally, regarding Netflix. This may be the consumption model of the future, but majority TV audiences still aren’t using it (nobody has exact Netflix viewing figures, but the TV analytics company Symphony Advanced Media estimated only 3.2 million watched ‘Narcos’) As such, Netflix is simply one more alternative delivery system out there. Its success in the field of documentaries remains hugely debatable (it’s certainly not HBO yet), and given the woeful state of its ‘Amanda Knox’ doc, its commissioning model remains hugely problematic.

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Doktor Avalanche
Oct 6, 2016 3:04pm

Bit hard on the BBC's output here and also a failure to grasp its inner workings. The amount of cuts made to BBC documentary departments is significant (e.g Arena gets only 5 hours screen time a year). This is partly due to audience research, 'market forces' and the Charter Renewal. But also internal politics (the 'Imagine' brand hangs heavy over everything as a 'flag ship' production). Yet still, despite these pressures, the BBC has delivered a compelling variety of documentary films in 2016, including new work by Jonathan Meades, Jim Al-Khalili, Dr James Fox (and the conceptual art season on BBC4), Julian Temple, John Das ('Laying Down The Law'), Jacques Peretti, Richard Macer, Louis Theroux etc as well as the continuing success of Reggie Yates and Stacey Dooley on BBC3. So to argue that the BBC isn't presenting 'alternatives' patently doesn't hold water. It evidently isn’t just 'reality TV docs' like 'The Met' or 'GBBO', and that's before you consider the extensive radio output of BBC radio (only BBC Radio 3 would give its airwaves over to La Mounte Young for 6 hours). It’d be far better to celebrate this work than to dignify the BBC bashing of the tabloids.
As for Adam Curtis, he relishes the freedom of working on iPlayer (hence that 2hr 45 min running time) and given his full time job at the BBC is directly linked to managing its archive, it presents a fruitful relationship that enables a more organic approach to documentary film-making. As you acknowledge, the BBC's patronage is crucial to this success and it undoubtedly contributes to his films unique, experimental quality.
Finally, regarding Netflix. This may be the consumption model of the future, but majority TV audiences still aren’t using it (nobody has exact Netflix viewing figures, but the TV analytics company Symphony Advanced Media estimated only 3.2 million watched ‘Narcos’) As such, Netflix is simply one more alternative delivery system out there. Its success in the field of documentaries remains hugely debatable (it’s certainly not HBO yet), and given the woeful state of its ‘Amanda Knox’ doc, its commissioning model remains hugely problematic.

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Bruno
Oct 6, 2016 9:29pm

A well written critique on the state of current human behaviour, with a passing nod to Robert Anton Wilson…..

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dude
Oct 6, 2016 10:11pm

excellent article. eloquently describes the terminus of the short arc that is 'western civilisation'. In spite of the many physical manifestations of disorder (from persistent war to the threat of climate change to the comeback of germs) it is actually the removal of order and certainty in our minds that is most telling and most importantly, irreversible. the genie is out of the bottle. part of the reason that curtis plays to such a small audience is that the larger audience don't want anywhere near the bottle - they have an inkling that that way lies, if not madness then a deeply unsatisfactory state of mind. even for them the genie is clearly visible inside the bottle.

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Johnny Nothing
Oct 6, 2016 11:55pm

The thing with Curtis films is, one allows oneself to be swept along by the stream of consciousness connections and conspiracy theory drama because it is pleasurable to do so, to have it all explained away by the authoritative delivery of someone who seems to know more than you do, but I at least come away from it feeling empty, foolish, fooled by something equivalent to sleight of hand and by information overload. Sorry, Adam.

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Jill Arnold
Oct 7, 2016 7:31am

Timely to be reminded of ELIZA and has set me thinking ...it will inform some ideas I'm teaching at the moment

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Corpse
Oct 7, 2016 12:48pm

Adam Curtis watering-down Situationist ideas and passing them off as his own again? I guess it's that time of the year.

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Andrew
Oct 8, 2016 7:31am

Of course Curtis is a 'manipulator', all filmmakers are. His films aren't documentaries, they're polemics, albeit very articulate and powerful. I've come away from previous films not entirely convinced by his theories of cultural evolution. As has been said before, when are these separate narratives going to link up? 'The Power Of Nightmares' remains his best and most telling work.

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Eddie
Oct 9, 2016 11:40am

In reply to Andrew:

Who else with this depth of vision can you moan about on tv?, answer is no one, the man is a treasure, and only on the BBC.

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Chris
Oct 12, 2016 9:45am

Fukuyama seems to inadvertently got it right, we live in a sort of End of History because we have resigned ourselves to the false determinism given by a specific ideology - exemplified in the negative UK media groupthink around alternatives.

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GEOFF
Oct 13, 2016 9:29am

How are we able to view this from outside the UK?

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Edward
Oct 13, 2016 9:35am

What a shame that discussion of Adam Curtis's film is academic only for many. I know I'm not the only person for whom watching streamed video is virtually impossible - can only hope that the BBC makes it available to all licence-fee payers eventually.

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David Viney
Oct 15, 2016 12:18am

Curtis is a genius. 50 years from now they will use his documentaries in history lessons at school (to help people understand how we came to such a terrible pass in the early 21st Century

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Al
Oct 16, 2016 5:49pm

In reply to Scott:

Adam wanted it to be on iPlayer, he talks about why in this interview

http://www.bbc.co.uk/programmes/b07z7zq8#play

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Stuart W
Oct 17, 2016 12:37am

While Curtis has touched upon the abstraction and confusion of Putin's Russia by Kurkov's multi-directional PR before and also the unintended consequences of US Foreign policy and negotiating strategy in the Middle East before too, I was interested in the willing manipulation of Gaddafi at various significant points in recent history to be the most telling part of HyperNormalisation.
How many other Gaddafis are we currently dealing with?
What motivates our current and potential world leaders and which can truly be said to be in 'their right minds' i.e. acting upon the best grasp of established facts to engender outcomes which address the empirical nature of our global problems?
I don't feel there is any real manipulation within the style and delivery of Curtis' work but ironically that could be because he regularly references books, music, film-makers and 'thinkers' who I already have some (perhaps cosily self-affirming) familiarity with.

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Polly Todger
Oct 17, 2016 12:50pm

In reply to Edward:

Why don't you just torrent it? BBC is an outdated dinosaur that needs to die anyway. calling something "centralist" which has so consistently been proven to have a left wing biased is absurd

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Julian Bond
Oct 17, 2016 4:22pm

It appears to be brilliant as usual. But be careful you don't just sit there nodding your head as you congratulate yourself on being able to see through the facade. Of course you can see though the lies because they're not meant for you. Except they are.

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Sylvain Breton
Oct 17, 2016 4:35pm

I don't like your writing. I believe you comfort yourself in it too much by addressing not so much the fact but the aestheticism, the technics, the whole film as it would be illegitimate by your senses of taste. But you should know that it is only idiosyncratic. It is a collage, but not from abstraction as would a Pollock or a Borduas, a Riopelle modern painting where paint only matters. His collage is from reality captured by lens on what was shown as real.

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Bertrand
Oct 17, 2016 6:42pm

Brilliant article.

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Keumars Afifi-Sabet
Oct 18, 2016 12:31am

"There's a fascinating segment in the middle of HyperNormalisation telling the story of one of Donald Trump's bankruptcies. It's fascinating because it doesn't feel like it belongs. It's a non-sequitur and doesn't appear to connect to anything around it."

Actually, Trump's appearance in the middle of the film makes perfect sense. The story is about how Trump aimed to devise a system, or a model, to trip up a Japanese gambler on a hot streak before he left with all of Trump's casino's money. The model, what Curtis equates to an algorithm, worked perfectly, except for one thing. The model was not able to take into account the unpredictability of reality - in this case, the fact the gambler was killed before he had a chance to pay it back, meaning Trump got nothing and the casino bankrupt - thus exposing the flaws of using such a technique to manage risk.

This short story was a microcosm for Curtis' assertion that managers, using their various systems and algorithms to run the world, were doing so without taking into account the unpredictability and complexity of reality.

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monique
Oct 19, 2016 6:57pm

Brilliant article. Similarly, Charlie Brooker's Black Mirror has been ditched by Channel 4 and will now be shown on Netflix.

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Mike
Oct 22, 2016 7:42pm

You seem like quite a manipulator as well. Do you feel the need to shoot the messenger because Adam's new documentary hit a bit too close to home?

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Will
Oct 23, 2016 7:55pm

Sorry, but in my opinion you don't know what you're talking about. I'm not sure of your background but I doubt it's in critical theory. This is a better review and a much sharper critique: http://www.theatreofnoise.com/2016/10/bbc-as-echo-chamber-review-of.html?showComment=1476990284270

I've seen most if not all of Curtis's work. I feel like his latest is the point where it's all fallen down and I just don't believe a thing he's saying. I don't have the mind to critique it properly but I feel Parmar does well in the review above.

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Michael
Oct 24, 2016 12:02pm

I've been disappointed by everything Curtis has done since "Century of the Self". He creates a mystifying atmosphere by ignoring important background information, such as the corporate and deep-state interests lurking behind the US's war rhetoric. A key weakness is the premise that US military strategy is idealistically motivated, but its idealism is impractical: he takes the rhetoric at face value. A more straightforward and detailed approach to history, such as Peter Dale Scott's, would show the primarily economic and secondarily strategic reasons for the relentless destruction of one nation-state after another since WW2.

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Lewis Dexter Litanzios
Nov 17, 2016 5:57pm

In reply to GEOFF :

Hey,

Try bittorrent - be your own network

Hope this is useful

Regards

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Nick G.
Nov 26, 2016 4:29pm

"(the year of) Putin"

What does that actually mean?

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Dec 16, 2016 4:38pm

Just another piece of probably Russian-sponsored propaganda: confusing the viewers as if facts don't matter anymore

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Matthew
17 hours ago

HyperNormalisation got a lot more interesting in retrospect, in my opinion. I hadn't watched it until a few days ago, but I'm living in United States when Trump has been president for a few months. Currently, he's lied just about every single day he's been president, according to the Washington Post's count. His very first press conference was almost entirely factually incorrect, at best. We're so far post truth now.

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