by Emrys Westacott
How does one criticize and resist politicians who have zero concern for truth? This is one of the problems posed by the Trump presidency . Trump, throughout his campaign, and now in office, lies as easily as he breathes. To take just one example, in a meeting with the National Sherriff's Association on Feb. 7th, he said that the murder rate in the US is the highest it's been in 47 years. In fact it is currently lower than in most of those years. Lists of Trump's blatant lies can be readily found on many web sites.
Obviously, Trump is not the first politician to tell whoppers. Politicians who are in the pockets of the banks, the oil companies, tobacco, pharmaceuticals, weapons manufacturers, and so on have long suppressed, denied, or bent the truth for reasons of self-interest. But the brazenness of the lying is unusual. In normal, rational, civilized discourse, there are background conventions understood by all parties. According to philosophers like Paul Grice and Jürgen Habermas, these provide a framework that makes most ordinary communication possible. One of these conventions is that what we say is supposed to be true. Another is that we are supposed to be sincere. There are contexts where these conventions may not hold in the usual way–e.g. when we are haggling at a yard sale–but most of the time they are in place. Imagine how it would be if they weren't? If you were to ask someone for directions or for the time, you couldn't assume they'd try to tell you the truth. So in such a world you would never bother asking. Without assumptions of this sort in place, the most banal conversations would become pointless since we'd have no reason to think that anything being said was tethered to reality.
The gold standard regarding rational discourse is science, which prides itself on its disinterested search for objective truth. But the same conventions operate in many other spheres. Historians, journalists, judges, and sports commentators, all feel the same obligation to respect hard evidence and eschew contradictions.
In normal, rational, civilized discourse, the rules of the game state that if your claims are flatly at odds with clear evidence, or if your claims are contradictory, then you shouldn't just keep asserting them. Ideally, you should concede that you must be mistaken. But if that requires too much loss of face, you should at least accept that your position is problematic and slink away to work on it some more. So if I claim that Brisbane is the capital of Australia, and you produce your smart phone displaying a Wikipedia page identifying Canberra as the capital, I ought to just say, “OK, I was wrong.” If that's too hard to do, I might look around for a face-saving exit: “OK, but I think Canberra used to be the capital.” Or “I thought I read somewhere that they were going to move the capital.” What's not acceptable is for me simply to keep asserting what is patently contrary to the indisputable evidence. If I do that, I throw away the conventions that allow conversations to have a purpose.
Authoritarians are not favorably disposed toward objective truth since its support cannot be relied upon. What matters to them is not being right but being in power. So they typically first suppress the truth, through censorship, intimidation, and violence, and then, if possible, control it in the sense of getting their own propaganda accepted as true. George Orwell's Nineteen Eighty-Four depicts a society where this situation has become established in an extreme and irreversable form. The protagonist, Winston Smith, resists by asserting to himself that two plus two equals four; but the Party have the power to insist–and if they wish, to convince him–that two plus two equals five.
Trump and his gang certainly seem able to get millions to believe utter nonsense. And they are no doubt looking to extend their control over the flow of information, especially from federal agencies, in order to make things harder for their critics. But it is hard to imagine an America where dissent is suppressed and marginalized the way it is in normal dictatorships. Saying this might sound naive to some: but we are talking here about the closing down of the New York Times, and the outlawing of Saturday Night Live. And dire though the current condition of American democracy is, such developments are almost inconceivable.
The Trumpsters have, however, by accident or design, hit upon something else they can do with truth, given the difficulties of suppressing or controlling it: they can devalue it. They do this first, by throwing into the political debates bucketloads of falsehoods; and second, by constantly questioning the integrity and reliability of our usual sources of information, including the mainstream media, scientists, scholars, and government agencies like the Environmental Protection Agency or the Dept. of Health and Human Services. One hoped-for effect of this is to spread a skeptical attitude towards such sources. So those people who are not appalled by Trump but who recognize that much of what he says is probably false, are no longer sure that there is any source of information that can be trusted. That situation, where truths and falsehoods are swirling around the public sphere, and many people don't believe there is any way to decide which is which, obviously represents a victory for those who traffic in lies.
At bottom, though, what is novel about the attitude of Trump and his flunkeys isn't so much their indifference to truth as their complete lack of shame. Again, according to the traditional rules, if an important person makes an important public statement and is then confronted by crystal clear evidence that what they've said is false, they ought to be and–would be–embarrassed. If it was also clear that they that what they were saying was false, they might even blush. In a different time, long ago and far away, the British defense minister John Profumo resigned from parliament as soon as it became clear that he had lied to parliament about his involvement with a 19 year old model.
A total lack of any sense of shame must be a prerequisite for the job of being Donald Trump's press secretary; so Sean Spicer seems admirably suited to the position. He has little trouble repeating palpable falsehoods, such as that Trump's inauguration drew the biggest crowds ever (even though he simultaneously asserted that “no one had numbers”), or that Trump's belief that there were millions of illegal voters in the 2016 election “is based on studies and evidence.” Brazenness of this sort is actually a particular kind of insult. It's akin to a restaurant manager stating baldy that he has no available tables to a would-be customer who can see quite clearly that the restaurant is half empty. Violating the conventions of ordinary discourse in this manner is a way of expressing utter contempt for those being addressed.
But compared to his boss, Spicer is a rank amateur. No matter how clearly Trump is shown to be wrong, he just does not do “Sorry, I was mistaken.” He probably can't help himself in this though; it is exactly what one would expect from someone with a severe narcissistic personality disorder. His attitude is that of God to His plaintiffs and critics in Phillip Appleman poem's “God Grandeur”: “I never apologize, never explain.”
Shame can be a powerful moral force both on individuals and society. In his book The Honor Code, Kwame Anthony Appiah describes how shame played an important part in bringing an end dueling in Britain, foot binding in China, and slavery in America. A pressing question in American politics today is whether there are enough Republicans in Congress who are still capable of being shamed into opposing Trump for the good of the country. At present, they serve as his enablers. Some of them may cringe inwardly, but they choose to ride the tiger, figuring that the death of truth is a price worth paying if it helps them to hold onto their seats or push through their agenda of cutting taxes for the wealthy, shrinking government, deregulating business, and so on.
The times are certainly dark. But if Trump continues on his current trajectory, and if his chief advisor Steve Bannon is able to steer things further toward the destructive chaos he desires as the precondition for a more radical authoritarianism, the vestigial shame of a few Republicans may be one of the few things keeping a deeper darkness at bay. Meanwhile, those in the political arena, in the media, and in academia who daily expose and denounce Trump's lies perform the important function of keeping alive the notion that truth matters. And those who protest in every other way serve the valuable function of making Trump's enablers worry about their prospects for re-election. For there is nothing so effective as self-interest in prodding awake the slumbering conscience.