On Lying and Truth in a Post-Trump World
There is a certain inevitability to lying in politics not just because as Hannah Arendt said “truthfulness has never been counted among the political virtues, and lies have always been regarded as justifiable tools in political dealings” but also because human beings are inveterate liars who are often prepared to look past the lie if it is more attractive than the truth on the ground. There are lies for profit, lies that harm others, white lies that we tell to avoid hurting someone, stories we tell others and ourselves that are pure fabrications, deliberate lies told by politicians to persuade voters, or obscure controversial decisions or conceal realities. There is also the organized professional lying of political parties, corporate lobbyists and thinktanks, the public relations industry—all enabled by a mainstream media empire entirely servile to elite interests. Lies proliferate not because we abhor the truth but as Arendt says because “things could indeed have been as the liar maintains they were” and because “lies are often much more plausible, more appealing to reason, than reality, since the liar has the great advantage of knowing beforehand what the audience wishes or expects to hear.” We presume that the lies of the politician will, over the long haul, be defeated by reality. But what happens when reality and truth do not matter? Is that not what we are dealing with when we speak of Trump supporters—are they not the sort of individual that Arendt had in mind when she described the ideal subject of totalitarian rule as “…not the convinced Nazi or Communist, but people for whom the distinction between fact and fiction (that is, the reality of experience) and the distinction between true and false (that is, the standards of thought) no longer exist”? If the American people are the ideal subjects of totalitarian rule it is not Trump alone who brought them there. Understanding the ease with which the reality of experience and the standards of thought can be sidestepped is about discovering the long history of lies colonial nations use to hide the truth. America has continuously told itself for 200 years that it, among all nations, is ‘exceptional’, a model of freedom and beacon of democracy; that the wealth of America was amassed by white elites not enslaved black people; that it was ‘discovered’ by Columbus; the lie of a ‘more perfect Union’; the lie that America welcomed the ‘tired, the poor and huddled masses yearning to breathe free’; the lies of the Alamo, of Vietnam, of Afghanistan, of Iraq, of Nicaragua, Haiti, Chile, El Salvador, Cuba, Venezuela. These are lies, assumed or told, by every POTUS, Democrat or Republican. Taken together they create a completely distorted picture of what America has been and still is: a country where persistent ignorance, misinformation, propaganda and outright lies about war, freedom, slavery, democracy, healthcare, climate-change, science, wearing masks, often prevails over fact-based argument and informed opinion. Obama may not have been the shameless liar Trump is. However, the lies of the candidate of ‘hope and change’ were not just lies, but the kind of deep betrayal that leaves in its wake an even deeper cynicism. Richard Nixon had a compulsive need to lie and cover-up his misdeeds. As UCLA historian Fawn Brodie argues telling lies was the key to Nixon's character: he “lied to gain love, to shore up his grandiose fantasies, to bolster his ever-wavering sense of identity.” Sound familiar? George Bush’s infamous lie that rationalized the American invasion of Iraq—that Saddam Hussein was responsible for 9/11 and had a secret cache of WMD’s, may have been defeated by reality but not before it ended in the wholesale destruction of a country, and tens of thousands of suffering and dead. The media, the punditry and many Americans seized on this fabrication because it enabled them to avoid asking probing questions that might reveal the ugly side of an American love for the spectacle of war, its virulent Islamophobia and xenophobia, its embrace of exceptionalism and imperialist foreign policy, its desire to seize through violence a strategically important area and gain control over the most profitable and untapped oilfields on earth. The Bush-Cheney White House bureaucrats and functionaries, the Fox News propaganda machine, Republican senators and representatives, created a culture of carefully prepared lying where lies were coordinated with each other and standardized in a way that resisted critical questions, that intentionally distorted and covered up realities on the ground. Sound familiar? Bush 2.0 established a torture regime and lied about it, illegally imprisoned and indefinitely detained individuals without due process in Guantanamo Bay and Abu Ghraib, far away from public scrutiny, quietly and with bipartisan support passed the Patriot Act that gave the US government unchecked surveillance powers to spy on Americans while justifying warrantless wiretaps. It is true that in terms of actual numbers Trump may indeed have been a greater liar than Nixon, Bush or Obama. The Washington Post's fact-checking team calculates that in 1,316 days, President Trump has made 22,247 false or misleading claims. Very likely a record for any POTUS. So, there is no doubt that lying is the Lingua Franca of a Trumpian world—a world oriented by selling and advertising, by speculative financial con artistry, by tabloid media and reality TV. Take all of the latter and situate it in the Oval Office of the White House, the most powerful room in the world, where lying in politics is already expected—and you have a perfect storm of unmatched lying and deceit. Of course, many of Trump’s lies were the kind of reflexive narcissistic lies of a person with a megalomaniacal desire for attention. In a way he is more like Harry Frankfurt’s description of a bullshitter: “His eye is not on the facts at all, as the eyes of the honest man and of the liar are, except insofar as they may be pertinent to his interest in getting away with what he says. He does not care whether the things he says describe reality correctly. He just picks them out, or makes them up, to suit his purpose.” While lying in politics is expected by most of us, the Trump presidency has brought it to a new pathological level. Trump’s lies intentionally distort reality not to force it to comport with a particular ideological perspective, but in order to make reality conform to his own self-aggrandizing will. Because of this Trump’s lies appear to be the sorts of lies that cannot really be defeated by reality—at least in the minds of his supporters. But can we say in a COVID pandemic situation, when actual lives were needlessly lost, that Trump’s lies about how virulent the contagion was were finally defeated by reality? To some extent that may indeed be true. If so it is the single most important reason that the democrats won the presidency. Perhaps, then, it is not just lying that distinguishes the Trump phenomenon, but the fact that his supporters don’t care that he lies precisely because he represents a truth about who they are—and they are not just angry white men, or uneducated rural hicks, but middle-class voters who for the past 30 years have been propagandized by Fox news into seeing Democrats as socialists who want to destroy America. In this election Trump’s support among white men actually dropped, while his support from black men, women, Latino and even LGBT voters went up. These are all individuals who simply don’t care that Trump is a narcissist, liar, tax cheat, racist, sexist or xenophobe. They support him because they feel he is one of them: someone who hates the pretentious college degree professional and the political intelligentsia lecturing them about inclusivity; someone who openly mocks the cancel culture, identity politics and climate science; someone who is willing to blame China for COVID and the loss of American jobs; someone who likes to eat at McDonalds and wants to ‘save capitalism’ from socialists; someone who watches reality TV and Fox News; someone who engages in wild fact-free conspiracies; someone who loves the idea of doing violence against dissenters and protestors. In temperament Trump is unapologetically crass, vengeful, abusive and boorish—in short, everything an establishment POTUS should not be, and that is precisely why he became so popular with close to half of the American voting public. Through him the middle-class and dispossessed working-class could thumb their nose at sanctimonious democrats like Nancy Pelosi, Diane Feinstein and Chuck Schumer, could vent their hatred of government, of climate warming and pandemic scientists, of abortion activists and gun control advocates who want to ‘take away their freedom’. Through Trump they could express both hatred for the precarity of their everyday life, and a conviction that with Trump America can ‘win again’, so long as the strong are allowed to rule over the weak—or as Plato’s Thrasymachus declared, so long as the conviction holds that justice is justice only when the strong are truly strong. The fact is that 71 million plus Americans would rather have an autocrat like Trump willing to lie if the lies echo and normalize their fears and prejudices, than someone who self-righteously lectures them on how to be ‘better more inclusive citizens. They have, in no way, materially benefited from Trump's time in office, but they have been able, through him, to channel a deep ressentiment against left politicians and the professional classes, legitimate their desire for revenge against all political enemies and indulge in a menacing nationalism that, unchecked, would inevitably give rise to moral nihilism and political fascism. What of Joe Biden? Well, he is also a brazen, but one might say a conventional liar. He has lied about teaching at University of Pennsylvania, that he visited Afghanistan to honor a Naval officer, that he was arrested for trying to visit Nelson Mandela in prison. He has denied his record of support for invading Iraq and supported regressive ‘tough on crime’ policies. Biden’s record is certainly not an enviable or progressive one: he opposed school busing for desegregation in 1970s; he voted to outlaw gay marriage in the 1990s; he repeatedly called for cuts to Social Security, fully supported NAFTA and the bail out of Wall Street criminals, was entirely supportive of the Iraq war. None of these were radical departures from establishment democrat perspectives, but then that is precisely why the last election did not result in a massive win for the Democrats. One might, however, plausibly argue that had Bernie Sanders been able to run against Trump the outcome would have been different. It is quite possible that Sanders emboldened and influenced by the progressive movement he inspired would have been overwhelmingly supported by most Americans because he would have actually offered a real contrast to Donald Trump. Socialism aside, Americans saw Bernie Sanders as an honest and tireless fighter for average Americans. The one thing he shared with Trump was a willingness to advocate opinions and policies outside the establishment norm. So, if Democrats do not want to summon the possibility of a more intelligent, duplicitous and malevolent Trump-clone, then the very last thing they should do is embrace the Pelosi corporate democrats and exclude people like Bernie Sanders and Elizabeth Warren and the younger contingent of left progressives like Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, Ilhan Omar, Ayanna Pressley and Rashida Tlaib. The latter are the future of the Democratic Party: they have youth, they have enthusiasm and they have very realistic and pragmatic solutions. If establishment democrats once again lie to themselves that they won this election because they expressly disavowed universal healthcare and ‘socialism’, and cater to the interests of the donor class rather than to the great number of diverse working class who voted for them, then this will be a lie inevitably defeated by a reality too awful to contemplate.