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Op-Ed: Trump is playing a dangerous game with these 'alternative facts'

Counselor to U.S. President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway prepares to go on the air in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2017.
Carlos Barria | Reuters
Counselor to U.S. President Donald Trump, Kellyanne Conway prepares to go on the air in front of the White House in Washington, U.S., January 22, 2017.

This article is part of a series on the "Future of politics." The series investigates the "Trump effect" on policy, political parties, future candidates, their campaign style and the overall political environment in 2017 and beyond. See the whole series here.

Those side-by-side inauguration photos you can see with your own eyes? A fiction perpetrated by the liberal media.

The popular vote? One giant fraudulent lie.

As a communications consultant, I'm pretty excited about this brave new world, where facts are fungible and reality is optional. My assumption has always been that when we work with a client, we have to figure out how to create an effective message based on at least a kernel of truth. We can't just say something, assuming people will believe our words over what they can see with their own eyes.

No more.

Now, we can just say stuff, and when questioned, we can offer 'Alternative Facts.' The phrase was coined by Trump Advisor Kellyanne Conway to describe inauguration audience numbers from the Trump administration that contradicted lower head count reported by the media.

Except that's not really a viable long-term communications strategy.

Enron tried it 17 years ago, and it worked for a while—until earnings cratered and the business went from "Most Admired Company" status to being synonymous with corporate fraud in record time.

More recently, Elizabeth Holmes and Theranos, the blood-testing company she founded, tried to survive using Alternative Facts, and now she's managed to do something thought to be impossible: get banned from Walgreens.

Alternative Facts just don't work for very long in the private sector. Samsung can't tell consumers that an exploding phone is a great piece of technology, your realtor can't convince you that a flooded basement is an indoor pool, Enron couldn't fool consumers into thinking higher energy prices are somehow good for their bank account, and Theranos wasn't going to change the world by manufacturing blood tests that don't work.

Unfortunately, though, Alternative Facts can have a much longer shelf life in the public sector.

For two decades multiple presidents from both parties presented a long list of Alternative Facts as justification for the Vietnam War. Kennedy's insistence that troops were merely serving as advisors, Johnson's Gulf of Tonkin incident, and Richard Nixon's claim that he did not sabotage the 1968 peace talks could all be described as Alternative Facts. Years later, the Bush administration presented evidence of weapons of mass destruction in Iraq to justify that war. That "evidence" could also be filed in the category of Alternative Facts.

Or you could also call them something else: lies.

"Has there ever been a phrase more indicative of political doublespeak than 'Alternative Facts'?"

But the cost of Alternative Facts—of lies—in the public sector can be far greater than a depleted 401K, worthless stock options, or time spent collecting unemployment.

In Vietnam, the cost of Alternative Facts included more than 58,000 American lives. More than 4,000 American lives were lost, along with nearly 32,000 wounded, as a result of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

A significant portion of those lives came from the poor and working class—the same demographic that would come to believe, 50 years later, that they finally have a champion in the White House, a champion who, for all his faults, is a straight-shooter, someone who avoids the doublespeak so common to typical politicians.

But has there ever been a phrase more indicative of political doublespeak than "Alternative Facts"?

It's a term that could only be embraced by a politician. While private sector companies might try and get away with shading the truth in a favorable way, it's hard to imagine a company spokesperson telling the media a blatant, observable falsehood was actually an Alternative Fact.

Even a company thought by many to be completely devoid of any sense of moral responsibility won't stoop to using Alternative Facts. After they were recently sanctioned for opening fraudulent accounts, Wells Fargo didn't say, "We would never, ever, under any circumstances open accounts without customers knowing. That's an Alternative Fact."

Instead, the bank offered the following quote:

"We regret and take responsibility for any instances where customers may have received a product that they did not request."

No Alternative Facts. No telling consumers up is down, black is white, cats are dogs, and everything we know to be true—what we see to be true—is actually a lie.

Even bankers don't think we're that easily duped.

There's also a built-in mechanism of detecting Alternative Facts in the private sector: your wallet. You won't buy something that you can see with your own eyes is garbage, no matter what some spokesperson tells you.

The path from your wallet to the federal government and the Presidency is much harder to understand, and doesn't come with the same built-in B.S. detector.

But there is still a cost that comes with Alternative Facts—and at its greatest that cost can be paid in human life. So, before it's too late, Trump and his mouthpieces should ditch the Alternative, and get back to using just the Facts.

Commentary by Dustin McKissen, the founder and CEO of McKissen + Company, a strategy, marketing, and public relations firm based in St. Charles, Missouri. He was named one of LinkedIn's "Top Voices" in 2015 and 2016, and is currently pursuing a PhD in Organizational and Industrial Psychology. Follow him on Twitter @DMcKissen.

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